“We are all in this together”. Even the global jihadists. Though I doubt they are social distancing and self-isolating. Londoners prone to anxiety on the Tube have different worries these days. Risk levels no longer refer to Daesh or Al-Qaeda activities.
If global jihadists now have extra problems travelling and murdering people, their ideas are far from locked down. Thinking jihadism has been defeated, because Bin-Laden is dead, because the brutal travesty of the territorial Daesh ‘Caliphate’ is no more and many of its leaders dispersed or killed, is a mistake. The spread of the doctrine of global jihad is not out of control, but it would be rash to say it is contained, even if no-one can give a figure for the R rate of transmission.
So where did the idea of global jihad come from? There are few significant references made to it before the 1980s. A sense that all Muslims formed one global community, umma, comparable to a Christian understanding of the Church, was present within Pan-Islamism arising in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Muslim internationalists created organisations such as the Muslim World League and the World Association of Muslim Youth. Universities in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, with their international student bodies and global links fostered by the annual pilgrimage and trade were natural soil for Pan-Islamism. Later, teachers from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, opposed to Nasser’s secular nationalism, imprisoned and then released by President Sadat, along with militants from other Arab secular republics, found a home in the historic Hijaz, the Saudi western coastal province, and employment as lecturers.
Despite military themes seeping into lectures and sermons by late 1970s, Pan-Islamism was essentially a peaceful quest for transnational Muslim solidarity, for observance of Shari’a Law and for promotion of Muslim scholarship and way of life. Around the world, Saudi oil money poured into the promotion of Islamic networks and societies. And in the other direction came jihadists who had opposed their own governments fleeing to Saudi sanctuary. Their political horizon was national, overthrowing governments deemed un-Islamic and corrupt – provided they weren’t Saudi Arabia. Only the liberation of Palestine had transnational appeal.
Enter a much revered pious, personable, Palestinian Sheikh, Dr. Abdallah Azzam from the ultra-conservative wing of Islamism, nurtured within the Muslim Brotherhood where his support lay. Thomas Hegghammer’s meticulously researched biography The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the rise of Global Jihad demonstrates how Azzam’s writings and peripatetic teaching helped turn Pan-Islamism into the threat that is global jihad. The groups of jihadists, inspired by Azzam, who crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet invader are the caravans of the book’s title and the original global jihadists.
The Egyptian ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, chastiser of ‘Western decadence’, imprisoned and executed by Nasser, was the jihadists’ widely proclaimed hero. Azzam himself had fled from Palestine to Jordan, and thence to Saudi Arabia from where he began seeking a training ground for the jihad against Israel. He found it in Afghanistan. There he developed the Services Bureau, a recruitment organisation for Arab foreign-fighters, which was located across the Pakistan border in Peshawar. Its widely distributed house magazine, al-Jihad championed the Afghan resistance and attracted foreign fighters. And though Azzam’s primary goal remained training troops for Palestine (Hamas was founded in 1987), soon caravans of Arab fighters were crossing into Afghanistan for jihad against the atheistic Communist invaders. These were global jihad’s small beginnings.
Hegghammer’s research destroys three myths about the origins of global jihad. The first is that the USA sponsored the Arab precursors to Al-Qaida and Da’esh as useful agents against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In reality the CIA focussed on arming and supporting the Afghan (future Taliban) national resistance, working with the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Arab foreign fighters were too few in number and too inexperienced to command much attention. The second myth is that Abdullah Azzam, whom Usama Bin Laden revered, was the originator of Al-Qaeda. The truth is that Bin Laden deserted Azzam’s disorganised Services Bureau and training efforts to form his own base (literally al-Qaeda). He viewed Azzam as a religious teacher rather than jihadi warrior. Thirdly there is no evidence that Azzam would have supported 9/11, sexual slavery or routine killing of women and children, which later became features of global jihad after his death.
In 1984, Azzam pronounced a fatwa which declared that all Muslims around the world had an individual responsibility to support jihad in Afghanistan. It was a turning point. Because of the Sheikh’s legal expertise and the widespread respect for him – he put his preaching into practice - this fatwa intensified the internationalisation of the Afghan War. Azzam, a great believer in miracles and martyrdom, sanctified the foreign fighter. Given the background of Pan-Islamism, it was a relatively small step from propounding this well-defined religious duty to an apocalyptic vision of global war against the foreign policy, culture and politics of the West. Gone was the traditional Caliph’s call to the Muslim community to defend Islam which traditionally legitimated jihad. Soon gone were the constraints of just war theory – a theory shared with the West that regulated the conduct of combatants.
Azzam himself was assassinated. Global jihad lost its moral compass. He and his two sons were killed by a car bomb while approaching the Peshawar Sab’al-Layal mosque at 12.20pm on Friday 24th November 1989. It was a highly professional operation. Hegghammer rehearses the likely perpetrators settling tentatively on the Pakistan ISI whom he suspects wanted to push Arab fighters out the region once the Soviets had been defeated. Abdallah Azzam instantly became the revered martyr of global jihadism, his many books and speeches standard recruitment texts.
The Caravan is a long book, worth the time and effort, which gives a fascinating insight into the Promethean role of religious ideas. As Hegghammer writes in his last line: “There is no saying where the Caravan is heading next, but it is a fair bet that it will keep moving well into the twenty first century”.
Let’s hope he is proved wrong.