Why did jihadism go global? To answer this question, researcher Thomas Hegghammer has carried out a remarkable, decade-long, terrific effort, collecting sources and interviews while discovering new data. Such research began when most researchers were interested in analysing the latest jihadist group, and it led him to the historic and ideological paradigms of “the most transnational rebel movement in modern history”. It also prompted him to write the first in-depth biography about Abdallah Azzam, the Plaestinian cleric who led the mobilization of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s, “played a crucial role in the internationalization of the jihadi movement” and was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1989 in Peshwarar, Pakistan. We interviewed the author of The Caravan. Abdallah Azzam anf the Rise of Global Jihad (Cambridge University Press).
Abdallah Azzam is a “towering figure in the history of Islamism, one of the most influential jihadi ideologues of all time”. His intellectual formation is peculiar: he was a lifelong members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the same time he was influenced by Salafism. How important is this hybrid ideological outlook to understand his relevance within the jihadi movement?
This hybrid ideological makeup reflects Azzam’s intellectual independence. From the late 1970s, he began to criticize the Islamist movement’s propensity for divisions, encouraging critical thinking. His was a hybrid stance, borrowing from traditions ranging from Salafism to the Muslim Brotherhood. He was a transitional figure and, today, is a prism for understanding the entire jihadist movement’s transformation. It was precisely during the 1970s and 1980s that the radical faction of the Islamist movement began to lean heavily towards Salafism, while it had been closer to the Muslim Brotherhood in previous decades. This tendency occurred in Saudi Arabia as well as other countries, such as Egypt. Another crucial element to bear in mind is his origin: from Palestine’s history and decolonization, Azzam drew an extremely skeptical attitude towards the Nation-State, the global world order, and even the Islamic world. However, it is precisely from this legacy that his peculiar transnationalism emerged. Being exiled – being a refugee – uprooted him. It is unsurprising, then, that he became the spokesman of pan-Islamism once he arrived to Afghanistan.
When in late 1980 Azzam reached Saudi Arabia, a new Islamist current known as pan-Islamism aimed at promoting Muslim solidarity had begun to gather momentum in the Middle East. It was particularly debated in the Hijazi city triangle of Mecca, Medina, Jeddah. How did it affect Azzam’s trajectory?
Pan-Islamism – the idea that all Muslims are one people and ought to help each other – is born out of the same foundation as Islam. A peculiar branch emerged in the 1970s in the Saudi region of Hijazi by a community of people who didn’t want to politically unify the Islamic world nor to establish a Caliphate. They weren’t aiming at state-building per se, but at solidarity-building instead. Their main activity was to provide help to Muslims suffering worldwide, establishing cultural cooperation among Islamic countries. The ONGs based in the Hijaz region were their institutional platforms. As a sort of incident of Saudi politics, between the late 1960s and early 1970s, Saudi Arabia leaned on a more assertive kind of Islamic foreign policy to show it was a defender of Islam, founding and financing international organisations such as the World Muslim League. However, independent people who would eventually establish their own movement worked there. The message was that there was indeed a de facto global Muslim community, and that it was under attack. During the 1980s, Azzam was in Mecca at the centre of this pan-Islamist movement that contributed to shifting his interests from Islamic Law in Muslim countries to geopolitics. This would eventually help him move to Pakistan, at Islamabad’s university, where he contributed to the anti-Soviet jihad.
The main point is that pan-Islamism and the victimhood narrative were already well underway before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan struggle didn’t make the jihadist movement international: pan-Islamism did. The main argument of my book is that internal oppression is the foundation of pan-Islamism and of the internationalization of the jihad, too. Middle Eastern governments have oppressed domestic discontent so harshly that they have prompted Islamists to become international activists, much like the ones in Saudi Arabia, including Muslim Brothers from Syria and Egypt.
Let’s move from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and Afghanistan and to the role Azzam played for the Afghan jihad. You state that Azzam interpreted the notion of Muslim solidarity militarily. He was in some sense "an Islamic culture warrior", articulating "a new conpection of the ideal Muslim, a kind of homo jihadicus”. Would you explain what you mean?
Azzam introduced a crucial change in 20th century Islamist thought. He was the first to explicitly embrace militarism: none of the radical Islamist though-leaders before him had rejected the legitimacy of a militarised jihad, but they were hesitant and posed conditions. Azzam, instead, refused the idea of Islam as a peaceful religion and that the jihad is a personal battle fought within oneself. He thought it was propaganda aimed at weakening and pacifying Islam. He declared that the jihad is part of Islam and that it is war, conflict, violence, and blood. He also stated that everyone should be involved, though not necessarily from the trenches. This marked the beginning of the militarisation process of the Islamist movement. From then on, it became the most extremist kind, as epitomised by the IS (Islamic State).
During the 1980s, Azzam’s main message - “and one with the largest historical repercussions" – was that all Muslims worldwide need to go and fight for Afghanistan. His 1984 fatwa abut jihads as an individual obligation was the first elaborated Islamic legal argument for foreign fithters in modern era. What sort of effects did it produce? The argument that the jihad is a moral obligation when a Muslim territory is under attack roots back to a long time ago. Azzam adopted it, rejecting the idea that it’s up to religious authorities to decide when, where, and how to fight. He dismissed the notion that it’s up to national authorities to decide if a citizen ought to conduct the jihad. His stance resonated tremendously and was embraced by many Islamists from different backgrounds such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq. In the 1980s this was not a mainstream idea, so much so that only a few thousand foreign fighters went to Afghanistan. To be fair, it isn’t particularly mainstream today either, but it is enough to make the jihadist movement a significant phenomenon unto itself.
His fatwa had several unintended consequences. Declaring “never ask for anyones’s permission to do jihad” helped “open a Pandora’s box of militancy that could not be controlled”. How is this fundamental authority problem related to the most recent developments of the jihadi movement?
Azzam believed in the need for coordinated mobilization and for hierarchical and authoritative structures. However, his arguments contributed to weakening traditional religious leaders’ authority, with unintended consequences. The history of the jihad as a historic movement is somehow a byproduct of this very questioning of religious authorities. The erosion had long been underway since the 19th century, but Azzam’s fatwa was an important part in its history and it led to an incontrollable, anarchic, leaderless movement.
In the summer of 1984, Azzam decided to set up the Services Bureau (Maktab al-Khidamat), an organization devoted to hosting Arab voluenteers for the Afghan jihad. This lad us to Azzam’s relationship with Osama bin Laden. Some argue that Azzam was a founder of al-Qaeda, through the al-Masada training camp, while you provide a different side of the story. Which is it? And how important was the Service Bureau?
The Services Bureau changed the ennoblement for the jihad in Afghanistan because it simplified the logistical issue of how many wanted to fight. It helped solve practical issues: where to go, what to do, whom to contact. It allowed to combine militants’ intentions with violence. As for the oft-misunderstood relationship between Azzam and Osama bin Laden, it should be noted that the foreign fighters community in Peshawar quickly split. On one side, there were the pragmatists like Azzam, who wanted to contribute to the Afghan jihad but not necessarily through combat: there were other important realms including education, logistics, health, and organization. On the other side, there were the militarists like Osama bin Laden: younger, ready and hungry for war. From 1986, their dissatisfaction grew within the Bureau. Osama bin Laden founded the al-Masada training camp for the more impatient militants. The camp became a bona fide organization, then known as al-Qaeda. In the beginning, there was no clear political agenda, only the notion of creating “special combat forces”. Azzam saw things differently. He knew Bin Laden’s plans, but he wasn’t – like many wrongfully hold – one of the co-founders of al-Qaeda. To be sure, though, he wasn’t even a real opposer to it. He leaned towards keeping the community united, wishing to avoid conflicts. His mysterious death accelerated the radicalization and division into factions of the jihadist movement.