By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The story of global jihadism has many characters. Some of these characters are quite well-known and receive significant scholarly attention.
One such character is Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and the orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks. Another is Sayyid Qutb, the radical Egyptian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who laid the groundwork for the use of violence by Islamists.
Those two individuals were instrumental in forming al-Qaeda and ISIS. But some key figures are left in relative obscurity, and Abdallah Azzam is one of them.
Azzam (1941-1989) was a Palestinian cleric who led the mobilization of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of the war waged against the Soviets and their local collaborators. Azzam was an important partner of bin Laden – turning him from a rich Saudi heir to the financial backer of fighting units in the Afghan war against the Soviets.
Azzam’s relative obscurity has been lifted with the publication last year of a book, the first in-depth biography of Azzam. The author, Thomas Hegghammer, spent a decade writing “The Caravan – Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad.” The book, published by Cambridge University Press, meticulously analyzes various sources – providing the first academic biography of a man who played a central role in the rise of jihadism – and it also attempts to explain why jihadism became global.
Azzam and the International Development of Jihadism
According to Hegghammer, Azzam was a great example of the political and ideological changes Arab society saw in the second part of the 20th century. Azzam, a Palestinian, was born when the British ruled the region that would later wage jihad against Israel as part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
He went through a process that culminated in his celebration of jihad as the pinnacle of religious experience – and would later claim that jihadism is a religious duty that befalls each Muslim if a Muslim land is taken by non-believers. Azzam, who was the only cleric in the jihadi space, gave legitimacy to Muslims all over the world and encouraged them to join holy wars. He became the facilitator for Muslims traveling halfway around the world to join jihadists in Afghanistan and later in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Syria.
Hegghammer’s book shows how Azzam became enchanted with the Muslim Brotherhood and illustrates his commitment to religious study. Hegghammer also describes how Azzam became a cleric and how the credentials he attained from respected institutions (The University of Damascus and later Al-Azhar University, the prominent religious seminary in the Sunni world) gave him the tools to articulate his belief that jihadism is the only way to solve the problems of the Muslim world.
Azzam blazed a trail for others after being chased from Jordan due to his radicalist views. Azzam later went to Saudi Arabia – and ultimately to Afghanistan and Pakistan – where he established a base to assist volunteers from all over the Arab world who wanted to join the mujahideen.
The Services Bureau and Assisting Foreign Fighters
The second half of “The Caravan – Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad” focuses on the time Azzam spent in Pakistan and the relationship he formed there with bin Laden. Azzam played a crucial role in the internationalization of the jihadi movement.
Until his death in a mysterious assassination in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan, Azzam played a central role in the pipeline that brought fighters from all over the world to join the war and laid the foundation for al-Qaeda. To this day, Azzam remains one of the most influential jihadi ideologues.
For many people, Azzam was the right person in the right place at the right time. He created the Services Bureau in Pakistan, an office that facilitated the arrival of foreign fighters.
Azzam also developed a system of publications that were sold all over the world to glorify jihadism and published his own religious texts that gave religious justification for joining the holy war. He caused people from Europe, the U.S., the Far East and the Middle East to join the ranks of the fighters.
Azzam also assisted in jihadist recruitment by creating guesthouses in Pakistan for arrivals who wanted to join the war and helped to facilitate their military training. He was instrumental in fundraising and had a role in the disbursement of funds to different factions in Afghanistan. Some of those funds went to bin Laden who Azzam introduced to jihadism – ultimately giving him the ideological backing that later evolved into al-Qaeda.
Hegghammer’s book tells the story of a man who knew all the leading Islamists of his time and met presidents, CIA agents, and even the pop star Cat Stevens. It is a portrait of a man who was able to create a simple, unsophisticated message that jihadism needed to go global, a message that proved successful in that specific historical context.
“The Caravan – Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad” is an important addition to the scholarship of jihadism and political Islam. It is not a dry academic text; it’s simply a good read for anyone interested in some of the most significant developments in modern history. Hegghammer’s panoramic view of jihadism makes this book a vital resource for anyone seeking to further understand the development of jihadism.