October 15, 2010 | Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa

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

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.

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