What exactly is a "martyrdom video"?

haramain 1On the terrorism beat, the big news of the day is that the phrase "martyrdom videos" is showing up in almost all of the leads written about the developments in London. Click here for the New York Times take on this and here for the Los Angeles Times' story, written by Kim Murphy. That story begins this way:

LONDON -- In the first unveiling of evidence in the alleged plot to down U.S.-bound airliners, British authorities said Monday that their searches had turned up "martyrdom videos," suicide notes, bomb-making equipment and maps.

The evidence, offered to bolster charges filed Monday against 11 suspects, hinted at a trove of material and leads yet to be examined. ... But less than two weeks after arresting two dozen suspects, British authorities have faced increased skepticism from the public. In particular, many of Britain's estimated 1.5 million Muslims have been angered by previous roundups, including two in which suspects were shot, that failed to uncover adequate evidence of terrorism.

I've been working my way through some of the coverage and I have a rather basic question. I get the idea that "martyrdom videos" are multimedia suicide notes, meant to played on television after a bombing so that the bombers can explain why they did what they did.

That's well and good. But what is in these videos? What are some of the doctrinal points made by the bombers, in order to justify their actions? Do they quote the Koran? What passages?

I ask this for a simple reason. The concept of "martyrdom" seems to be a point of debate among Muslims -- with serious questions being asked about the moral status of those who kill the innocent. In Christian tradition, a martyr is someone who dies rather than deny their faith. I am not aware of any cases in which a Christian was declared a martyr for an act in which he or she died and, in that death, killed other people. In other words, one does not become a martyr by setting out to kill other people.

But if you do a basic search online, you'll find all kinds of conflicting materials about this basic question in Islam. This makes me think that this would be a valid issue to explore in a news story or two, especially if newspapers around the world are going to toss this term around in their leads.

By the way, Muslim leaders in Britain are raising questions about these videos and some of the "bomb-making materials." Note this section of the Murphy report, quoting Mohammed Khaliel, identified as "a spokesman for a mosque in the town of High Wycombe, which several of the suspects attended."

"Hydrogen peroxide you can easily buy anywhere; you can buy it across the counter without any documentation," he said. "And if you were going to actually make something that could damage things, you would need a huge quantity," he added. "It would be unlikely someone would be carrying a drum of it onto a plane."

He also said he believed some of the evidence attributed to the alleged bomb plot may have included material that suspects allegedly downloaded from the Internet. "These young people may very well have downloaded videos off the Internet. That's not necessarily what it's portrayed to be," he said.

Once again, this is interesting. So the people who are part of this alleged plot were downloading "martyrdom videos" for some inspirational purpose? Was that part of an educational effort linked to a mosque? Martyrdom 101?

Lots of questions. I hope we get to read some fair-minded and accurate debates that point us toward some answers.

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