Glenn E. Robinson’s Global Jihad: A Brief History is an accessible and exhaustive work. It is an interpretive study of the global jihad phenomenon, designed to provide an understanding of the global jihad movement in recent decades. As the author reminds us, global jihad has captured headlines, impelled vast national policies, and seized the imagination of people around the world in recent years. To produce this history, Professor Robinson drawn from both primary documents in their original Arabic and the best secondary works of scholarship.
On December 1, the book was presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where the author—Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California—explained that the main reason to write this book now, twenty years after 9/11, was because this was a good time to look at the puzzle of global jihad and understand it in a coherent way.
The main research questions Robinson answers in his book concern the different historical phases of global jihad and their distinct characteristics, and the place of global jihad within the framework of political violence. In this respect, the book provides two main theses. Regarding the historical phases, according to Robinson, the phenomenon of global jihad is best understood as having four distinct waves since the 1980s, each with its own bases and ideological formulation. All of them, however, stemmed from a systemic crisis, and not from a merely local problem.
Chapter one, “The Jihadi International (1979-1990)”, addresses the first phase of global jihad, with the specific grievance being Soviet Union’s conquest of Afghanistan and the broader issue this raised of infidel occupation of Muslim lands. The main ideologue was Abdullah Azzam, and the author—in this chapter, as in those that follow—provides a detailed account of both the historical and the ideological developments occurred during this phase.
Chapter two, “America first (1996-2011)”, delves into the second phase, which stemmed from the defeats of jihadi movements in Algeria and Egypt, and the growing U.S. military footprint in the region in the 1990s. The jihadists came to believe the enemy was the “apostate” regimes, upheld by the U.S., and the main ideologue here was Osama bin Laden.
Chapter three, “‘Caliphate Now’, (2003-2017)”, focuses on the consequences in the jihadi field of the destruction of Iraqi State, the Syrian civil war, and the Sunni-Shia rift. Notoriously, the most influential figures of this phase were the founder of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and, for different reasons analyzed in the book, one of his successors as leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Robinson convincingly argues that one of the major developments in this third phase was what he calls “Jihadi Cool,” which can be seen as a new, increasingly strong propaganda trend based that renders theory and doctrine secondary, whereas action, going out and doing stuff, take priority. Why would tens of thousands of local Sunnis willingly, even enthusiastically, join ISIS’s cause, at least until its fortunes began to fail? The secret to ISIS’s success lay in its unique merging of the traditional with the hip, of orthodox Sunni Islam with memes of jihadi cool.
ISIS’s construction of a unique blend of ancient and modern set it apart from Al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups. ISIS did not concern itself with convincing theological arguments that would persuade ranking clerics of the rightness of its actions. In the author’s words, the caliphate became a dark Disneyland for Jihadis, a place where they could fulfill all of their most ghoulish dreams.
Chapter four, “Personal Jihad (2001-2020 and Beyond)”, addresses the fourth wave, the jihad fardi, “individual jihad,” fostered by events such as the destruction of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Islamic State, and the looming defeat of global jihad movement. The main ideologue here is Abu Musab al-Suri, with his Call for Global Islamic Resistance (2005). Robinson analyzes the entire set of peculiarities of this wave and talks about the so-called “Wiki Narrative”: a jihadi narrative that is communal and sometimes confused, and that does not rely on strong doctrinal knowledge. It produces stochastic violence, with lone wolf attacks similar to those taking place in the field of white nationalism.
As mentioned above, the second thesis revolves around the relations between global jihad and the broader notion of political violence. In this respect, the author suggests the usefulness of the analytical category of Movements of Rage. A primary comparative advantage for using a movement-of-rage approach is that it can insightfully link together both religious and secular groups that are ideologically and sociologically very similar in a way that a religious terrorism or “cosmic war”-type approach cannot. Thus, it can help us see patterns of shared ideology, sociology, and politics that foundationally inform what at first glance seem quite different groups—Maoists in Cambodia, Brownshirts in Nazi Germany, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and even elements of white nationalism in Trump’s America, to name only a few.
Global jihad fits well into the comparative patterns found in movements of rage around the world over the past century, and highlights the role that extreme violence against noncombatants plays in the ideology of global jihad, how those civilian targets are not viewed as mere tactical enemies to be overcome, but as symbols of cultural corruption and moral depravity. Movements of rage are characterized by nihilistic violence and apocalyptic ideologies. Therefore, according to the author, this phenomenon is not sui generis, but comparable to other, religious and non-religious forms of extreme political violence.
This work by Professor Robinson is a much needed account and an excellent resource, packed with information, an up-to-the-minute account of the historical and ideological development in the global jihad movement.