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The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad

The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks by Assaf Moghadam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 360 pp.

In what is sure to be a ground-breaking study, Assaf Moghadam examines the expansion of suicide attacks in The Globalization of Martyrdom. The author, an assistant professor and senior associate at the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, uses empirical evidence to show that suicide attacks are on the rise and provides reasons for the phenomenon. His conclusions stand in contrast to the position put forth by international security expert Robert Pape in Dying to Win—that suicide attacks are primarily a response to foreign occupation. Moghadam’s book is also at odds with terror expert Mia Bloom’s assertion that groups favor suicide attacks as part of a competition with other groups for public support. Although The Globalization of Martyrdom emphasizes suicide attacks, it also examines the history of Salafi Jihad and al-Qaeda.

The first chapter, “The Global Proliferation of Suicide Missions,” addresses the number of organizations involved and the increased lethality of attacks. Several other scholars in the field have noted the rise of suicide attacks worldwide, but few have offered a persuasive argument for why and how the phenomenon has occurred. Moghadam’s research allows him to do precisely that, indicating that the popularity of Salafi Jihad as an ideology and the rise of al-Qaeda account for this escalation. The author believes that al-Qaeda favors suicide attacks because they create powerful symbols of tenaciousness, inspire others, and generate more fear and dread than any other tactic. He implies that the terror organization is simply attempting to optimize benefits without incurring significant costs.

Moghadam goes on to argue that Salafi Jihad as an ideology also contributes to the rise and spread of suicide attacks because they represent the “ultimate form of devotion to God and the best way to wage jihad” (p. 45). The author makes a profound contribution to the field by assailing the supposed existence of a dichotomy between religious and political ideology. Instead of looking at Salafi Jihad as an “either or” proposition, the author welds the two ideas into a multifaceted “religious ideology,” thus characterizing it as a movement to raise awareness, assign blame to others, and create a group identity through the use of religious words and symbols that strengthen and bind individual believers. Religion, then, is a tool that creates and instills a political ideology.

Another significant contribution involves the book’s differentiation between traditional and contemporary patterns of suicide attacks. The author points to a new paradigm of suicide operations that differs from the traditional pattern advanced by a number of prominent scholars. Unlike the latter, largely nationalistic in nature, the new version is characterized by missions planned and executed by groups with religious ideologies, outside the “zones of conflict” agreed upon by all parties. Also, whereas traditional suicide attacks have targeted soldiers and symbols of an occupier, the author contends that modern operations target a wide-ranging array of targets globally.

Chapters 2 and 3 address “Al Qaeda and the Primacy of Suicide Attacks” and “Salafi Jihad and the Veneration of Martyrdom,” respectively. In chapter 2, the author examines al-Qaeda as a global organization from 1988, the year of its creation, until 2002, when US forces descended on its sanctuary in Afghanistan. Included is a discussion of the organization’s strategy and goals, the role of suicide attacks in its worldview, and a case-by-case analysis of the major suicide attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. Chapter 3 surveys the history and beliefs of the Salafi stream of Islam and analyzes how Salafism has evolved into the modern Salafi Jihad movement. Of critical importance is the discussion of ideological and religious justifications that form the basis of modern Salafi Jihad and martyrdom attacks. Moghadam does a masterful job of weaving together the beliefs, words, and actions of prominent Salafists to illustrate how suicide operations as a tactic are tied to Salafi ideology. Finally, he identifies factors that contribute to the rise of al-Qaeda and Salafi Jihad on the global stage.

In chapter 4, “From Al Qaeda to Global Jihad,” the author analyzes the means by which al-Qaeda and Salafi Jihad have shifted to a global movement after the “fall” of the former in Afghanistan, detailing how individuals and groups adapted to the changing environment and identifying the major players. “Suicide Missions from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan,” the topic of chapter 5, examines cases of attacks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Chapter 6 discusses “The United Kingdom and the 7/7 Bombings,” and chapter 7 addresses “The Rise of Suicide Attacks in Iraq.”

One must note that the author does not adequately draw a clear distinction between insurgent and Salafi Jihad groups in Iraq, leaving unanswered the question of whether the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq subscribe to global jihad. Would the same individuals who conduct suicide bombings there be involved if not for the presence of outside troops? Rather, Moghadam limits himself to discussions of Salafi Jihad suicide operations. Overall, The Globalization of Martyrdom’s wide-ranging scope, empirical data, and clear, concise writing make for easy, informative reading. This valuable piece of scholarship is a must-read for students of terrorism and policy makers alike.

Joseph Boyd, graduate student

University of Cincinnati

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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