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The Martyr’s Oath: The Apprenticeship of an Al Qaeda Terrorist

by Stewart Bell

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about suicide in the Pacific islands of Micronesia as a kind of phenomenon that “tipped” and became an epidemic. A few kids killed themselves. Then a few more. And then suicide became socially acceptable, among youth at least, and kids started doing it all the time, killing themselves because a parent scolded them or a love interest wasn’t interested.

Reading journalist Stewart Bell’s The Martyr’s Oath, which examines the growing allure of terrorism, brought that sad blip in Micronesian history to mind. To his credit, Bell doesn’t have Gladwell’s knack for populism or his fetish for big ideas. Instead, The Martyr’s Oath is careful, investigative, and entrenched in fact, clearly showing Bell’s roots as a journalist. Bell struggles with that single, all-important question: Why do so many young men and women give up their lives and become terrorists?

The book focuses on Al Qaeda member Mohammed Jabarah, his childhood in Kuwait and Canada, his recruitment into Al Qaeda, his apprenticeship as a terrorist, and finally his capture by a coterie of policing agencies around the world. Bell traveled to the same places as Jabarah and took good notes while he was there. He mines such primary sources as transcriptions of recruiting videos, interviews with Jabarah’s father, Mansour, and translations of Jabarah’s letters from prison. Some of the best parts of the book are glimpses into the most foreign and strange aspects of the extremist life cycle: terrorist training camps, the working networks of terrorist cells, CSIS investigations, and FBI interrogators.

Most importantly, Bell is able to look at terrorism’s allure from different sides. Sometimes terrorism breeds in isolation or loneliness. Other times the recruitment messages are just irresistible, offering simple, all-encompassing (and often populist) answers to life’s big question. Such answers appeal to society’s most vulnerable citizens – the misfits, the poor, the disillusioned – who need only a small nudge in the wrong ideological direction. Bell’s investigative temperament leads the book beyond simple answers, or even an overarching thesis.

Terrorism is, literally or figuratively, a form of suicide. It is, at worst, the physical taking of life; at best, just another form for the extinction of the self, a surrendering to fear, hate, terror, despair. Mohammed Jabarah was not killed and did not become a martyr, yet he still lost his life to terrorism. The Martyr’s Oath takes us through that so-human impulse to search for some sort of meaning in terrorism’s waste.


Reviewer: Andrew Kett

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Canada


Price: $36

Page Count: 240 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-470-83683-0

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2005-9

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs