In The Caravan, Thomas Hegghammer follows the evolution of Abdallah Azzam’s life to describe the trajectory of jihad as a contemporary transnational movement

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:02:04

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Thomas Hegghammer, The CaravanAbdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2020


Abdallah Azzam, one of the main theorists of contemporary jihad, was many things: a fighter, a scholar, a manager, a vagabond, and a “martyr.” Thomas Hegghammer consecrates each chapter of The Caravan to a different aspect of this multifaceted figure. Almost like a character in a novel, we come to know Azzam as a Palestinian and a fidā’iyyīn, as a Muslim Brother, as a teacher and a writer, as an ideologue, as a mujahid and an enemy to some, and finally as a “martyr” and an icon of global jihad.


The title recalls one of Azzam’s main texts, Join the Caravan (Ilhaq bi-l-qāfila in Arabic), in which the Islamist ideologue encouraged young Muslims to take part in the Afghan jihad.


A meticulous work, full of details that help to explain the context of the 1970s and 1980s in the Arab world, this book brings together a considerable amount of information obtained from direct consultation of original sources in Arabic—some of which are unpublished—as well as from  interviews with friends and relatives of Azzam himself. But the result of more than ten years of research is not just a biography. Hegghammer shows us how the life of Abdallah Azzam is the cornerstone around which the global jihad “building” is erected.


The narrative begins in Palestine, where Azzam was born in 1941. He grew up in the village of al-Sila al-Harithiyya before migrating to Jordan with his family. After the Six-Day War, he joined a group of fidā’iyyīn to fight against Israel, gaining his first experience of armed struggle and beginning to feel contempt for the Palestinian left and communism in general, which was the underlying ideology of other Palestinian militant groups.


He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, and became a disciple of Sayyid Qutb. He obtained a PhD at al-Azhar University in 1973 and then pursued an academic career. Over the course of his career he would move from Jordan to Saudi Arabia and finally to Pakistan, with frequent trips to the United States, developing a dense network of contacts ranging from future terrorists like Osama bin Laden to celebrities like Cat Stevens (by then known as Yusuf Islam).


The apex of this trajectory is the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, on which the book sheds new light. If indeed it is known that the Afghan context of the 1980s was the cradle of al-Qaeda, little is known about how the cradle was constructed, to use the author’s words.


Azzam was central to recruiting and supporting the first Afghan Arab mujāhidīn through the creation of the Services Bureau, which operated between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Azzam’s true vocation was that of an ideologue and a scholar rather than a manager or a fighter. Before going to Afghanistan, his thought was well-rooted in the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood: he considered Islam superior to other belief systems, he despised nationalism, which he saw as an ideology imported from the Western world, and he rejected communism and supported declaring jihad against it to regain possession of Muslim territories.


He became the father of global jihad when he declared the latter a fard ‘ayn, a moral obligation for the individual Muslim, regardless of official political or religious authorities’ pronouncements. According to Azzam, nothing could stop a foreign fighter from taking part in a legitimate jihad. At the same time, however, Azzam’s writings do not offer long-term indications for the military and transnational organization that emerged to wage the jihad, thus contributing to an ungovernable and unguided movement.


The killing of Azzam in Peshawar in 1989, an event that is still covered with an aura of mystery, opened the Pandora’s box of jihadism. Although Hegghammer reviews the various hypotheses, the identity of Azzam’s killers remains unknown. The author believes, however, that either the Afghan or Pakistani security services were responsible for his death.


From the moment of his death, various terrorist organizations, at times even in conflict with each other, began to adopt Azzam’s ideas. Thus, he became one of the most influential theorists of contemporary jihadism.


Although Azzam never promoted direct attacks against the West, his vision of an endangered Umma and the creation of a culture of martyrdom paved the way for the international strategy of al-Qaeda, whose creation Hegghammer thoroughly describes. Azzam is considered to be one of the spiritual fathers of the organization and he was indeed aware of its founding, but he was not directly involved with it. It was Osama bin Laden who wanted to create a group of high-level fighters, while Azzam was more oriented towards the theoretical and spiritual aspects of jihad. For instance, he opposed the decision to set up special camps to improve some fighters’ military training. However, not only were the two not in conflict, but “Azzam was so keen to maintain cooperation with Usama bin Ladin and his men that in late 1988 he proposed having bin Ladin appointed leader of all the Arabs” (p. 362). For reasons that are still unclear, however, this suggestion was not pursued, and al-Qaeda and the Services Bureau remained two separate entities.


In the book’s “jihadi archeology” we discover that, contrary to conventional opinion, American involvement in arming Islamist fighters was practically nil. Moreover, despite the creation of a subsequent myth about the Afghan Arab mujāhidīn in Afghanistan, the author estimates that they never had considerable numbers, and their contribution during the US War in Afghanistan was almost irrelevant.


The CIA saw these militants as insignificant, despite the fact that many of them came to Afghanistan from the United States, where the only branch of the Services Bureau was created.


Foreign fighters had an ambivalent status at the time: on the one hand, the Afghan Arab fighters were generally ignored by governments (whether Western or Arab) and many countries did not oppose their recruitment, for which the Services Bureau advocated; on the other hand, a country like Saudi Arabia became a safe haven for pan-Islamist militants who were persecuted in the rest of the Arab world, giving them space and support.


This is how the policies of single Arab countries contributed to the creation of a modern jihadi movement: by opposing Islamists’ activism, these governments forced militants to shift their focus from domestic national struggles to the international arena.


Hegghammer’s concluding thesis is that the exclusion of Islamists from the national and local political contexts pushed them towards an international space. This is well-demonstrated by Azzam’s own trajectory and itinerant life, which is a result of the opposition he faced in the countries where he resided. Using the author’s words “Jihadism went global because of local repression. [...] The inability of Arab countries to include Islamists in national politics produced a class of activists who in the 1970s began looking at the international stage for operating space. In the 1980s some of these pan-Islamists gave the notion of Islamic solidarity a military interpretation and started calling for Muslims to fight in each other’s wars” (p. 493).


In the final part of the book, Hegghammer hypothesizes how Azzam’s thinking could have further evolved if he had not been killed in 1989. Would he have approved or condemned the attacks on the Twin Towers? Would he have supported the creation of an Islamic State in the Levant, but disapproved of ISIS’s systematic use of violence? We will never know. Instead, we can say that if his killing in 1989 marked the end of the season of Afghan jihad, it opened the door to global jihad, the foundation of which had already been laid by his life and thought.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation