The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks

globalization_of_martyrdomThe Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks, by Assaf Moghadam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 343p.

Reviewed by Benjamin T. Acosta, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University

By far the most comprehensive work on suicide attacks to date, Assaf Moghadam’sThe Globalization of Martyrdom provides a superb overview of the modus operandi and the causes behind suicide terrorism’s rapid increase in recent years. Incorporating over a decade’s worth of research, Moghadam tackles the difficult task of presenting a new and compelling angle on suicide terrorism. The chief distinguishing ingredient in Moghadam’s book rests with his explanation of how suicide-terror attacks have mutated from sets of localized phenomena to a “globalized” pattern of violence.

Moghadam credits the drastic increase in suicide terrorism to two factors: the rise in adherence to Jihadi-Salafi Islam and al-Qaeda’s ascent as an international actor. This thesis stands in sharp contrast to other previous major works on the subject. Effectively, Moghadam debunks Robert Pape’s assertion that suicide terrorism is merely a response to foreign occupation, and Mia Bloom’s contention that the tactic simply marks another arena for competing organizations to outbid each other in a claim to represent a specific constituency.

For many area experts, Pape and Bloom’s respective theories do not place enough emphasis on cultural, ideological, and identity-related components of suicide terrorism. Moghadam’s book takes these factors into account, and accordingly lines up closer with the work of Mohammad M. Hafez. The two scholars commonly recognize the key role that concepts of martyrdom play in perpetuating suicide-terror attacks. And like Hafez, Moghadam acknowledges the necessity to utilize the environmental, organizational, and individual levels of analysis to explain the suicide-terror phenomenon, as each level of social interaction contributes to the tactic’s spread and perpetuation.

Though Moghadam places less emphasis on methodology, a highlight of his work in previous publications, he focuses roundly on providing historical evidence for his thesis. He surveys “suicide missions” from the biblical Samson to al-Qaeda in Iraq and explains shifts in the suicide-homicide method caused by technological changes or ideological preference. In addition, The Globalization of Martyrdom provides a wealth of information on the variety of political organizations that have launched suicide attacks and contains thorough definitions and descriptions, data, insightful multi-level explanations, and thoughtful prescriptions for a way forward in combating suicide terrorism.  Moghadam presents a compelling set of chapters that collectively speak to the rise of suicide terrorism at the hands of al-Qaeda operatives and their complementary Jihadi-Salafi ideology.

The Globalization of Martyrdom, however, fails to fully address the reasons that have propelled the allure of the jihadi cause and the function that the “martyrdom operation” fulfills within the international Jihadi-Salafi movement. Moghadam’s thesis stands firm: al-Qaeda and its Jihadi-Salafi ideology directly caused the spike in suicide-terror attacks that occurred between 2004 and 2007. Yet, Moghadam allots little analysis to the precedents that made this reality possible. He neglects to account for the standard that Palestinian suicide bombers set for the Sunni world, particularly regarding their advancements of the Sunni narrative and religio-cultural process of one becoming a shahid (martyr). In this sense, Palestinian suicide bombers own more of the responsibility for setting the Sunni world’s contemporary zeitgeist of martyrdom than al-Qaeda ever could have. Moghadam overlooks the process that Palestinian organizations spearheaded, which led to the legitimization of “martyrdom operations” for the greater Sunni world.

Prior to the full-scale launch of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) suicide bombers in 1993, the practice of istishhad (deliberate martyrdom) had remained solely a Shi’a phenomenon in the Islamic world. Without the Palestinian incorporation of istishhad, one can never know whether suicide terrorism would have ever integrated into Jihadi-Salafiyya. The Mujahedin did not use suicide attacks during the Afghan-Soviet war, and al-Qaeda did not start employing the modus operandi until its attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Nor, is it knowable whether al-Qaeda in Iraq would have ever gained the ability to recruit high numbers of suicide bombers from all across the Sunni world had Palestinians not popularized the shahid and culture of martyrdom during and before al-Aqsa intifada (2000-2004). Inclusion of this vital information would have benefited the analysis of suicide bombing in the Sunni martyrdom narrative laid out by Moghadam in this work.

This criticism notwithstanding, The Globalization of Martyrdom is, far and away, one of the most authoritative books on the subject. Moghadam offers a unique contribution not only to terrorism studies but Middle East and Islamic studies as well. Throughout its entirety, the book carries an interdisciplinary timbre, maintains the highest level of analytical integrity, and keeps the reader interested, if not intrigued. With The Globalization of Martyrdom, Moghadam has announced the arrival of the newest generation of scholarship on terrorism.

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