European Eye on Radicalization
Three years after its publication, The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad by Thomas Hegghammer is still the most detailed and comprehensive work about Abullah Azzam and his role in the development of global jihad.
Azzam, Afghanistan, and the Jihadist Movement
Thomas Hegghammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo. Trained in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford and the Sciences Po, Paris, he is the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia (2010) and the editor of Jihadi Culture (2017). He has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Middle East, including interviews with former militants, and he has testified on jihadism in front of the US Congress and the British Parliament.
This background led Hegghammer to Abdallah Azzam, one of the most influential jihadi ideologues of all time. Azzam was the Palestinian cleric who led the mobilization of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s and played a crucial role in the internationalization of the jihadi movement, before he was killed in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Azzam’s death is a saga of its own, a murder-mystery that remains unresolved to this day. At one level, Hegghammer has written a biography of Azzam, tracing his journey from a West Bank village to Afghanistan, but the story of how Azzam came to play this role makes the book simultaneously a history of jihadism, explaining why it went global at this particular time.
According to the author, the Afghan jihad is widely recognized as “the Big Bang” in the globalization of jihadism, but we have not really understood why the Arabs joined it. The deep answer lies neither in Islamic theology nor in international politics, but in the domestic politics of the postwar Arab world. This is one of the major insights contained in the book: jihad went global for local and national reasons.
Hegghammer’s concluding thesis is that the exclusion of Islamists from the national and local political contexts pushed them towards the 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. 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.
What happened in the 1980s is still relevant because the Soviet-Afghan war is the cradle of today’s jihadi movement. That was where Al-Qaeda was born, and that was where famous leaders such as Usama bin Ladin started their militant careers. The networks forged in Afghanistan became the backbone of the jihadi movement in the 1990s and 2000s, with former “Arab-Afghans” filling key roles in most jihadi groups. Intellectually, too, the Afghan jihad played a vital role, both as an incubator for key ideas and as the source environment for the jihadi subculture we know today.
Even from a comparative perspective, the Afghan experience is fascinating and unique, because it produced what may be the most transnational rebel movement in modern history and no other ideological orientation has fostered a set of militant groups as large, as mobile, and as resilient as the jihadi movement.
When addressing the transnationalization of jihadism, Hegghammer is crystal clear: it was not caused by Abdallah Azzam, but few individuals played a more important role in pushing jihad to go global.
Azzam’s clerical training and background in the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist movement, gave him a religious authority and contact network that no other Arab in 1980s Peshawar possessed. The Afghan Arab phenomenon would have emerged without him, but he made it substantially larger than it would have been.
Azzam’s key message in the 1980s was that Muslims should go and fight in Afghanistan even if their governments or parents objected and his theorization of jihad as a priority over dawla (state) authorities was extremely powerful. This helped produce a movement that could not be controlled by the regional states of origin of the jihadists and set in place an ideological ratchet mechanism that meant the movement would radicalize further and further. As such, the story of the globalization of jihad is a lesson in unintended consequences for both governments and radical Islamists.
Hegghammer lists three major reasons why Abdallah Azzam should be considered one of the fathers of global jihad.
First, the chronological correlation between his personal recruitment efforts and the influx of Arab fighters to Afghanistan. Azzam stepped up his efforts around 1984 by publishing his foreign-fighter fatwa and founding the Services Bureau (al-Maktab al-Khidamat). The next two years saw a sharp increase in the flow of war volunteers. Moreover, if we look at how and through whom the volunteers of 1985-1986 were recruited, we see that a substantial number were recruited by Services Bureau-affiliated individuals or people said they were inspired by Azzam’s ideas.
Second, even if we look closely for other early movers, we do not find anyone whose contribution comes close to that of Azzam.
Third, in a counterfactual scenario without Azzam, it is difficult to see how the Arab mobilization might have taken the proportions it did. In the words of Hegghammer:
“For most of the war Azzam was the only Arab religious scholar to be based in Peshawar, so if we take him out of the equation we are left with a purely lay Afghan Arab community which would likely have struggled to mount a comparable recruitment operation. Had a lay person come up with the same ideas as Azzam, they would have been taken less seriously. Similarly, lay activists such as Usama Bin Ladin would not have had access to the same types of high-level platforms as a senior religious scholar like Azzam. Besides, the Afghan Arabs would have lacked a natural intermediary between the Arab volunteers and the Afghan Mujahidin, which in turn would have limited their ability to establish reception and training infrastructure for Arab fighters.”
Azzam: Life and Legacy
Dr. Hegghammer’s book is structured into sixteen chapters, which are ordered chronologically and form two distinct parts. Chapters one through six cover Azzam’s pre-Afghanistan period, while Chapters seven through fifteen deal with his time in Afghanistan.
In the first part—which deals with Azzam’s life before the Afghan experience—each chapter covers an aspect of his background that helps understand his subsequent influence: his background as a Palestinian, Muslim Brother, Fedayeen fighter, Islamic scholar, itinerant dissident, and author.
In the second part, each chapter deals with a role that he played in the Afghan jihad and that helps us assess his contribution to the mobilization. He was—partly in this order—an early mover, diplomat, manager, recruiter, ideologue, military man, resident, object of controversy, and assassination target.
Finally, chapter sixteen is an epilogue about Azzam’s contested legacy. From the moment of his death, various terrorist organizations began adopting Azzam’s ideas—and competing with one another. In life, Azzam’s notion of rejecting authorities that stood in the way of jihad could be mitigated by him becoming such an authority. Once Azzam was dead, the contest for authority in the jihadi world of Afghanistan and Pakistan became a war of all against all, interrupted for a time by Al-Qaeda’s dominance and now once again uncertain with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This dynamic is in itself evidence that Azzam remains one of the most influential theorists of contemporary jihadism.
The title of Hegghammer’s book comes a tract Azzam wrote in 1987, two years before his death, entitled, Join the Caravan, which called on all able-bodied Muslims to fight in Afghanistan. The book became an instant classic of jihadi literature and is still widely read today. The expression “joining the caravan” (ilhaq bi-l-qāfila in Arabic) has since entered the jihadi lexicon as a synonym for joining the jihadi movement. (It was, for example, the title of the first public speech by ISIS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in January 2004, calling on Muslims to join the jihad against constitutional government in Iraq.)
The author of The Caravan is by far one of the most perspicacious and knowledgeable contemporary scholars of radical Islamic thought and jihadism and this book confirms it. It is based on plenty of primary sources and interviews, and constantly manages to strike a balance between the biographical focus on Azzam and an accurate analysis of the bigger picture of how jihad was internationalized and how Azzam’s legacy has an impact on international jihadism to the present day. Readers will find crucial insights on multiple aspects of the events and trends analyzed in the book.
Myths and Mysteries
One of the most interesting insights is Hegghammer’s examination the United States’ involvement with the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan.
Hegghammer provides a rigorous and unbiased deconstruction of the idea that the U.S. trained, or even created, the international legion of Arab jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and, after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, became Al-Qaeda and turned on their erstwhile sponsors. This “blowback” theory has been repeated so often that it is now something like conventional wisdom, even among those who work on counter-terrorism professionally. Hegghammer shows it is misleading.
The first problem with the theory is that it is illogical: there was no reason for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to support the Arab fighters in 1980s Afghanistan because they were militarily insignificant. The Arabs never made up more than 1% of the insurgent forces fighting the Soviet occupation, and the Arabs were, to put it mildly, hardly among the most effective troops. A telling example is the events at Jaji in 1987, a storied battle in jihadist historiography that at the time was used as a mobilizer by the Arab jihadists, which is shown by Hegghammer to have been little more than a skirmish and hardly the success the sixty or so Arabs involved presented it as. “The operation lasted only one evening, and did not achieve much”, Hegghammer writes, with the Arabs forced to “retreat when they came under heavy artillery fire”.
Another factor is that the “Arab-Afghans” did not need to be trained by the U.S. because among their ranks were dozens of former military and police officers from virtually every country in the Greater Middle East.
The simple fact is that no evidence has ever been discovered showing any collaboration between the CIA and the “Arab-Afghans”.
This is not to say that the U.S. policy in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan was entirely unproblematic. As Hegghammer illustrates in the book, the CIA did not have the resources locally to effectively survey the landscape or control even the support it gave to the Mujahideen. There were only ten CIA people in Islamabad, and only three covered Afghanistan.
The testimony of Arab and Pakistani intelligence officials, who did deal with the Arab fighters in Afghanistan, reinforces the evidence that the CIA did not deal with the Arab volunteers, showing how deeply uncomfortable the Arab jihadists were with the American involvement and how they actively distanced themselves from American channels. The CIA’s indifference and unawareness about the Arabs, however, meant that no effort was made to interdict the flow of foreign fighters. Azzam personally was able to travel to the United States multiple times to recruit and fundraise without any impediment.
The Pakistani intelligence dimension was where things were most troubling. Without its own infrastructure on the ground, much of the CIA’s largesse was distributed through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which had created and begun the Mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan years before the Soviet invasion. The ISI’s favorite assets were reliably the most extreme and profoundly anti-American elements, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and they received a lot of the U.S. support. The U.S.’s only defense when criticized has been to argue that these groups were strongest from a militarily perspective, but this was dangerously short-sighted.
Similarly informative is the section dedicated to the killing of Abdallah Azzam, struck down in a broad daylight bombing outside his mosque in Peshawar at 12:20 p.m. on Friday, 24 November 1989. There has been much speculation about who killed Azzam. Hegghammer identifies at least nine suspects, including Bin Ladin, his successor as leader of Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hekmatyar, U.S. intelligence, the Soviets, Pakistan, and Israel. (The theories of Azzam’s demise are more than nine, since the options are not mutually exclusive.)
Hegghammer does not claim to have resolved the whodunnit, but, without any spoiler, it can be said he does argue for a most likely candidate based on the manner of the assassination, the likely motivations of the message it was intended to convey, and the capacity to mount such a complex attack against such a prominent target.
Alongside Hegghammer’s analysis, the book offers an overview of Abdallah Azzam’s works so readers can examine the material for themselves. Azzam’s ideological corpus is spread over different formats and has been subject to extensive posthumous editing and unregulated distribution, but the author provides an exhaustive bibliography based on his research in libraries, bookshops, and on the internet over many years.
Hegghammer’s portrait of Azzam is multi-faceted and precise. The account of Azzam’s life and career shows the combination of personal traits, social forces, and coincidences that shaped his identity and role. The Caravan is a meticulous and detailed work that synthesizes history and political science in a highly readable format. It is to be recommended to any scholar of Islamism, jihadism, or Middle East history.