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

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America (Oct. 1, 2010)

One clear blind spot in the contemporary study of terrorism is the role religious ideology plays as a motivating force and driver of strategy. In the scholarship on suicide missions in particular, Jessica Stern is correct to regard occupation theory as “the received wisdom” among certain segments of academia. The Globalization of Martyrdom makes an important contribution by demonstrating that occupation theory fails to explain a significant portion of contemporary suicide attacks—specifically, those executed by cells affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaeda—and providing an exhaustively researched alternative explanation.

Occupation theory, generally associated with Robert Pape’s Dying to Win, contends that the “bottom line is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation.” As proof for this claim, Pape contends that the primary objective of every suicide campaign from 1980 to 2003 was coercing a foreign power to remove forces seen as occupying a homeland. Scholars who accept this explanation frequently downplay religious or ideological motives for suicide attacks.

Moghadam provides three reasons that occupation theory fails to explain a large portion of contemporary suicide attacks. First, he notes that “these attacks increasingly occur in countries where there is no discernible occupation.” (p. 34) While suicide attacks employed in nationalistic struggles (such as those of Palestinian groups or the LTTE) occur in the context of occupation, Moghadam lists a number of countries that cannot be considered occupied that have seen significant suicide attacks: these include Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. Second, even where suicide attacks are carried out in response to occupations, they often do not target the occupier: witness how suicide attacks in Iraq “aimed instead at Shias, Kurds, and Sufis, in an apparent effort to stir ethnic tensions in the country and delegitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes of Iraqis.” Third, Moghadam contends that “even if they do target the occupation forces, many SMs [suicide missions] are not carried out by those individuals who, theoretically, should be most affected by the occupation.” Again turning to Iraq, most suicide attacks against occupation forces were carried out by foreign jihadis (such as Saudis, Syrians, and Kuwaitis) rather than Iraqis.

In contrast to Pape’s analysis, which relegates religion to virtual irrelevance—Pape remarkably, and in defiance of all available evidence, contends that though religion matters to al-Qaeda, it matters “mainly in the context of national resistance to foreign occupation”—Moghadam’s major thesis is that the rise of al-Qaeda, and the growing appeal of salafi jihadi ideology, is producing a “globalization of suicide missions.” (p. 2) Based on such factors as conflict type, ideology, geographic scope of actors, targets, and goals, Moghadam distinguishes localized suicide attacks from globalized suicide attacks—which often occur in areas “not identified by all parties as zones of conflict,” (p. 57) are overwhelmingly associated with salafi jihadi groups, and are often connected to transnational militancy.

These globalized suicide attacks cannot be analytically ignored for the simple fact that since 9/11, suicide operations “by Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups have risen exponentially, far outnumbering the attacks conducted by the previously dominant groups.” (p. 251) Moghadam provides a meticulous account of salafi jihadi ideology, including the distinctions between salafi jihadism and contemporary mainstream salafism, as well as important case studies for suicide missions in countries that range from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. Most instructive is his extended analysis of the 7/7 bombings in Britain, and the use of suicide attacks in Iraq.

Moghadam finds that ideology has an impact on suicide attacks on the individual and organizational level. He does not argue that ideology is the cause of these attacks, since the causes “are complex and must be found in the interplay of personal motivations, strategic and tactical objectives of the sponsoring groups, and the larger societal and structural factors affecting the bomber and the group.” (p. 254) But on the individual level, ideology “helps reduce the suicide attacker’s reservations about perpetrating the act of killing and dying. Specifically, ideology fills two roles: it helps the suicide bomber justify the act, and it helps the suicide attacker to morally disengage himself from his act and from the victim.” (p. 255)

And on the organizational level, most contemporary suicide campaigns “are designed to undermine the stability of a regime that the perpetrating groups deem illegitimate,” (p. 259) in particular when such governments are seen as un-Islamic, and these campaigns have a broad conception of the enemy. “Salafi-Jihadists make few distinctions between their targets, be they the UN, tourists, government officials, or Jews,” Moghadam writes. “All of these targets are perceived as bastions of the infidel, and attacks against any of them serve the cause of the grand struggle against the enemies of Islam.” (p. 260) This contrasts with the more limited understanding of the enemy in traditional suicide campaigns. Thus, though occupation does play a role in globalized suicide attacks, the concept must be understood in a new way.

Salafi-Jihadists have a far more abstract conception of occupation. It is no longer necessary for foreign troops to be present in a country in order for that country to be perceived as occupied, though such a foreign presence certainly helps. More important is the perception that a given regime is complicit in the attempted subjugation and humiliation of Muslims, which renders the country occupied in a more indirect way. (p. 260)

Moghadam has made a vital contribution to the literature, one that separates the new “globalized” suicide attacks from localized attacks—for which the traditional understanding of occupation theory does provide a strong explanation. Moghadam’s subject matter expertise, rigorous research, and lucid writing should make The Globalization of Martyrdom a vital study, one that will help transform the way scholars understand the factors that drive suicide operations.


Reviewed by Benjamin T. Acosta, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University (Sept. 10, 2009)

By far the most comprehensive work on suicide attacks to date, Assaf Moghadam’s The 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.