2 Apr 2020
1989, a middle-aged Palestinian Islamist ideologue, scholar and organiser
called Abdallah Azzam was killed when a bomb exploded under his car in
Peshawar, northwest Pakistan. The news made no headlines in western papers.
Azzam was almost unknown outside the chaotic, dynamic and diverse world of
extremist Islamism. In the west at least, he remains so.
Azzam … extremist training camps have been named after him in Syria, and
mosques in Yemen, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Gaza and Sudan.
This is a
shame. For contemporary Sunni Muslim extremists, Azzam is an icon. His many
works are read and cited and his life held up as exemplary. His radical and
controversial demand that participation in the global battle against unbelief
is a personal obligation for all Muslims has been hugely influential. He
crucially argued that they should disregard traditional authorities –
governments, religious scholars, tribal leaders, parents – in matters of jihad.
There have been extremist training camps named after him in Syria, mosques in
Yemen, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Gaza and Sudan. If you want to
understand contemporary Islamic extremism, you need to understand Azzam and his
Caravan, a biography of Azzam, is the result of a decade or more of work by
Thomas Hegghammer, one of the most perceptive and informed scholars of radical
Islamic activism working today. It is based on interviews, and a wealth of
primary sources, mostly in Arabic. Though necessarily historical in its focus,
Hegghammer never loses sight of Azzam’s impact on the present day.
explores Azzam’s early years in a village on the West Bank, annexed by Jordan
when he was 10, and his deepening involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, the
biggest Islamist organisation in the Middle East. In 1967, when the six-day war
ended in a crushing Israeli victory, Azzam fled to join the mujahideen, as they
called themselves, in the hills of northern Jordan, from where they launched
raids on Israeli defence forces.
been very little written about these groups before. Not only were their
training regimes and tactics almost identical to those of their leftist,
nationalist counterparts, but their strategic thinking and rhetoric was clearly
influenced by the revolutionaries around them. One veteran Egyptian Islamist
told his young fighters in their camp in Jordan that the Muslim brotherhood
should establish a “fighting ‘jihadi’ force, no less important than that of the
Viet Cong”, while Azzam remembered how he was woken “by a group of Palestinian
leftists chanting a nationalist [song] about ‘my country, my country, my
country’”. It was this experience that convinced him “to join the jihad”. When
they undertook outreach efforts among villagers however, it was with the Qur’an
in their pockets not Mao’s little red book.
An Israeli soldier with a Jordanian found
without identification papers in Bethlehem during the six-day war. Photograph:
Azzam was an intellectual rather than a warrior. Devout, determined and
focused, he earned a series of prestigious qualifications as a scholar of
Islam. But he abandoned his successful academic career to support the Afghans
in their fight against Soviet troops who invaded to bolster Kabul’s Marxist
government in 1979. Over the next decade, Azzam, based in Pakistan, would
organise and inspire a growing number of volunteers from all over the Islamic
world, some of whom would fight alongside the Afghans and go on to furnish the
core of the modern jihadi movement. He was neither a gifted logistician or
manager but the appeal of this fiery warrior-scholar was potent when in front
of the right audience, or disseminated via audio cassettes or video.
makes a number of very useful historical arguments with powerful resonance
today. The most important perhaps is Hegghammer’s rigorous and impartial
deconstruction of the myth that the US trained, or even created, the
international legion of Islamic militants who fought in Afghanistan (among them
Osama bin Laden) and then, once Moscow had withdrawn its troops, turned on
their supposed erstwhile sponsors. This “blowback” theory has been so often
cited that it is often accepted without interrogation. Hegghammer shows it to
be – largely – bogus.
no reason for the CIA to support the Arab fighters in 1980s Afghanistan because
they were militarily insignificant, he writes, never making up more than 1% of
the force fighting the Soviets (and never among the most effective troops
either). The CIA did not have the resources locally: only 10 people in
Islamabad, of whom only three covered Afghanistan. No evidence has ever been
discovered proving any collaboration between the CIA and the “Afghan Arabs”.
Testimonies by Arab and Pakistani intelligence officials who dealt with the
Arab fighters in Afghanistan suggest that they actively distanced the
Americans. The Arab Afghans did not need CIA or other western training, having
plenty of former military or police officers among them. Finally, the Arab
fighters themselves – Bin Laden, included – have dismissed the idea that they
received any support whatsoever from the US. As for other western intelligence
services, the British and the French had a relationship with some Afghan
commanders, but not the Arbs.
This is not
to say US policy was unproblematic, Hegghammer drily comments. The vast
proportion of US support for the Afghan mujahideen went to the most extreme
Islamist factions, who were very clearly profoundly anti-American. The CIA was
criticised at the time for this but argued that these were the strongest groups
militarily. The US also did little to limit the recruitment of foreign
fighters. Azzam and other fundraisers went to the US many times and operated
without hindrance: for more than a decade, America was among the most
hospitable jihadist-recruitment grounds in the world.
argument has raged over the responsibility of Saudi Arabia for the growth over
recent decades of violent extremism among Sunni Muslims. Here Hegghammer also
has important things to say, describing a cluster of institutions that promoted
a resurgent Islamist internationalism from the late 60s. These were funded and
founded by the Saudi Arabian state. They emphasised the unity of the ummah, the
world community of Muslims, and highlighted outside threats. The discourse was
alarmist, self-victimising, conspiratorial and chauvinistic, and crucial in
preparing the ground for the more extremist and violent ideologies that swiftly
followed, propagated by Azzam among others.
As for who
ended Azzam’s life, Hegghammer admits it is impossible to know. There are about
a dozen candidates – spooks and jihadi rivals, for the most part. The most
likely suspects are the Pakistani or Afghan security services, he says, but
there is no proof. This is one mystery that has yet to be resolved.
Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad is published by Cambridge
Headline: The Caravan by Thomas
Hegghammer review – Abdallah Azzam and the rise of global jihad
Source: The Guardian, UK