https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/ ... its-finestThe Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad review – recent history at its finest
Abdallah Azzam is not exactly a household name – at least when compared with the far more notorious Osama bin Laden. But the militant Palestinian cleric who inspired and mobilised Arabs to come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s is the most important jihadist figure before the birth of al-Qaida and the continuing consequences of the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Azzam is still revered by many who believe that the Islamic ummah (community/nation) matters more and has greater legitimacy than individual authoritarian Arab and Muslim states. Mosques, fighting units, training camps and websites have been named after him since he was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989. Fans maintain Twitter and Telegram accounts. Uncritical and heroic accounts of his achievements abound – in Arabic and English.
Thomas Hegghammer’s meticulously researched story of the life, times and significance of Azzam is the opposite of a hagiography, as is to be expected from a renowned scholar. His main argument is that Azzam was responsible for internationalising jihad by interpreting it theologically as a duty. That was at odds with Muslim Brotherhood ideologues who preached domestic opposition to autocratic secular regimes like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya. But it was the repressive character of those regimes, he also argues, that made jihad “go global”.
Azzam was seen, in Hegghammer’s spot-on if unacademic phrases, as a 'jihadi with balls' and an 'Islamist rock star'
Azzam was born in Palestine in 1941 and was a child when Israel was created and Palestinians experienced their nakba (catastrophe). Growing up in the Jordanian West Bank, he joined the Brotherhood and studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo (where he was appalled by the secularism of Nasser’s Egypt), and qualified as a cleric. In the wake of the 1967 war, which further delegitimised the Arab republics, he joined the fedayeen – Palestinian guerrillas fighting Israel – but watched helplessly as they were driven from Jordan in “Black September”, 1970. He moved to Saudi Arabia, lectured in sharia law and made valuable connections as the concept of Pan-Islamism became increasingly popular.
Hegghammer identifies Azzam’s early combat experience as the key to his influence, though he later spent far more time making speeches and writing books and articles than fighting the Soviets. He ran the Peshawar-based Services Bureau, which provided logistical support and training for around 7,000 “Arab Afghans” who arrived from across the Middle East and north Africa to challenge the “infidels” who had invaded in 1979, “their … minds full of Sylvester Stallone and visions of paradise”.
Widely referred to as “Sheikh Abdallah,” Azzam was seen, in Hegghammer’s spot-on if strikingly unacademic phrases, as a “jihadi with balls” and an “Islamist rock star”. He met Bin Laden, the scion of a super-wealthy Saudi family, in the late 1970s, but contrary to previous studies, was never actually involved with al-Qaida, though he did not oppose it, “and stayed on decent terms with Bin Laden till the end”. On the basis of the story so far, the author speculates – in a section clearly labelled “counterfactuals” – that had he lived, Azzam might well have come to support the war against the US.
Palestine mattered hugely to Azzam, and his undying hostility to Israel extended to unquestionably antisemitic attitudes. He also loathed the PLO and other “godless leftist traitors”. Supporters of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which controls the blockaded Gaza Strip, often invoke his name. “The sheikh’s body was in Afghanistan, but his spirit was suspended over Nablus and Jerusalem,” one Arabic biographer wrote. Yet it was better to wage jihad in Afghanistan than not to wage jihad at all.
Hegghammer convincingly debunks the myth – favoured on the left – that 9/11 represented a “blowback” against the US, which had promoted the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan for its own cold war interests. He shows that the CIA (with Britain’s MI6) was largely indifferent to the Arab mujahideen, who were militarily insignificant, concentrating instead on supporting Afghans – though he notes that Azzam enjoyed unimpeded access to the US to fundraise and recruit.
“In the Islamist victim narrative that developed from the late 1980s onward, western countries are cast as vicious Islamophobes bent on killing and humiliating Muslims,” he writes. “Gone is any trace of recognition for the support the west lent to the Afghan resistance. This goes to show that historical realities can be twisted to the unrecognisable in ideologically motivated narratives.”
Still, Azzam enjoyed a formidable reputation as a charismatic preacher who brought stories of heroism (a favourite theme was the blood of martyrs smelling of musk) from the battlefield and inspired mujahideen with inimitable sermons. He was a consummate networker. This jihadi equivalent of Che Guevara attracted admiration from Muslims around the world, including the pop star Cat Stevens, AKA Yusuf Islam.
Azzam’s own death (“the biggest murder mystery in the history of jihadism”) in a bombing in Peshawar, Hegghammer attributes to Pakistani or Afghan intelligence – rather than to al-Qaida, the CIA, the KGB or Israel’s Mossad – the list of possible suspects proving the extent of Sheikh Abdallah’s influence. The Caravan deals with a highly sensitive and controversial subject, but it is evidence-based, meticulous and full of carefully judged distinctions – recent history at its finest.
The Caravan by Thomas Hegghammer is published by Cambridge University Press (£24.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15