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‘Global Jihad: A Brief History’: A Good Overview of Jihadism

Featured Image – The audiobook cover of Global Jihad: A Brief History

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Since 9/11, there has been a growing volume of books dedicated to political Islam, including textbooks, anthologies of primary sources and scholarly treatises. All of this literature has attempted to explain the rise of Islamism and its violent offshoots, the jihadi groups.

Because jihadism is a complex phenomenon, there is plenty of room to discuss it and offer new points of view. A recent addition to this growing library of jihadism literature is a short book by Glenn E. Robinson, “Global Jihad: A Brief History.”

Published by Stanford University Press in 2020, this book focuses on the global jihadi movement. Robinson distinguishes between political Islam and jihadism since the first has the potential to remain non-violent.

His book discusses four distinct jihadi waves. The first wave began in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of what Robinson calls “Jihadi International,” a multi-national jihadi conglomerate that wanted to liberate Muslim lands from foreign occupation. The second wave involves al-Qaeda and its call to drive the United States out of the Muslim world, and the third wave is the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) that Robinson states made jihadi “cool” to its followers.

The fourth wave is the leaderless phase. For this wave, Robinson says that the jihadi narrative promotes stochastic terrorism, also known as “lone wolf attacks.” These attacks are committed by people who are influenced by jihadism teachings and the internet, but the attacks are not coordinated with a specific terrorist organization.

Robinson’s Book Provides a Good Overview of Jihadism’s Ideologues

Robinson’s book is focused on jihadism, so it does not discuss in depth the intellectual origins of political Islam. A reader interested in the finer points of the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb, a leading theorist of violent jihad, will not find much in the book.

However, the book does give a good overview of the ideologues of jihadism, beginning with militant leader Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. The one credentialed cleric in the global jihad movement, Azzam’s work has gotten global attention. Some of it was translated to English and received scholarly attention in a 2020 Thomas Hegghammer book published by Cambridge University Press: “The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad.”

Azzam, a Palestinian trained in Jordan, was a leading figure in the Jordanian Moslem Brotherhood. Azzam later became an important figure alongside Osama bin Laden in the international jihadi conglomerate created during the war between the Soviets and the mujahideen.

Azzam’s literature interpreted jihad as an eternal duty for all Muslims, requiring every individual to help in the war effort and liberate Muslim lands that local inhabitants and their neighbors had previously failed to free. Azzam also laid the foundation for the legitimization of suicide attacks that before him would have been understood as forbidden.

After Azzam, the ideologues that came after him were not credentialed Islamic scholars. Bin Laden, for instance, lacked any formal training in the study of Islam, so his attempt to issue a fatwa (a religious edict) was criticized by many people as lacking authority. Bin Laden heralded the second wave of jihad when he focused on the U.S., claiming the West and the U.S. specifically were corrupting the Islamic world.

When ISIS came to be, Robinson notes that its ideologues were no intellectual giants. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who received all his religious education in prison, focused on the nearby enemies of Islam first and foremost: the Shia. Al-Zarqawi considered all of the Shia as heretics and legitimized the attacks on Shia civilians, even if they were noncombatants.

Alongside Al-Zarqawi was Abu Bakr Naji, whose book, “The Management of Savagery,” has influenced ISIS in multiple ways. Naji’s book supported the use of indiscriminate violence to instill fear and prevent any opposition to jihadi groups.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), declared he had a doctorate in Islamic studies. However, that claim could not be verified, and al-Baghdadi left no real texts for scholars to study.

Al-Baghdadi’s most significant contribution to ISIS was the declaration of a caliphate. It proved to be an efficient way to attract followers and energize potential newcomers to the movement. Robinson dubbed this third wave “Jihadi Cool.”

Jihadism Idealogues and Lone Wolf Attacks

The fourth wave is that of personal jihadism. After the destruction of al-Qaeda and ISIS, many terrorist attacks were committed by lone wolves. Robinson finds the ideological foundation to this wave in the work of Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian jihadist and considered “the foremost theoretician in the global jihadist movement.”

Al-Suri fled Syria, lived in Spain and London for many years, joined al-Qaeda and disappeared after being captured by the U.S. in 2005. Al-Suri promoted the idea that jihadism should focus on a system, not an organization.

According to al-Suri, jihad is a personal duty and should be fostered via personal narratives as opposed to a centralized organization. He also celebrated extreme violence that targets civilians without any sense of proportionality.

Robinson also describes the global jihad movement as “movements of rage,” a term coined by American political scientist Ken Jowitt. Robinson defines these movements as a “neo-millenarian amalgam of charismatic leadership and apocalyptic ideology, combined with a strategy of nihilistic violence.”

By “nihilistic violence,” Robinson refers to violent acts committed by groups who lack any sense of proportion and target large groups of people that are classified as enemy without real context using terms like Crusaders, Jews, or heretics. Robinson puts these groups in the same category as the Nazi Party’s Brownshirts, white supremacists, Boko Haram and the Khmer Rouge.

Robinson States That Global Jihadism Poses a Low-Level Threat

Robinson concludes his book by stating that global jihadism poses a low-level threat to the world and that the U.S. government’s reaction since 9/11 has been out of proportion in comparison to the threat. However, Robinson’s assertion that jihadism poses a low strategic threat is offered without substantiation.

In addition, like many other terms from political science and international relations, the definition of “movements of rage” is based on some level of generalization. However, Robinson’s argument that the violence from global jihadists is stochastic while the violence used by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other similar groups is more targeted is debatable.

However, these points do not override the great benefits of this book, which gives English-speaking readers a great survey into the world of global jihadism. The book can be used by students of all levels.

Robinson’s narrative is clear and concise, and it is not overburdened by unnecessary bibliography. His book is a real contribution to scholarship and public discourse; ideally, it should be read both inside and outside of academia.

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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