Print this page
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 11:43

Thomas Hegghammer, The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad, Cambridge University Press, 2020

Written by

Drawing from a thorough research of Azzam’s writings and interviews with his family and friends, Hegghammer chronicles, in 17 chapters, Azzam’s life until his murder in Pakistan in 1989. More importantly, the 700-pages book analyses Azzam’s ideological contribution to jihadism both as an academic, on a theoretical level and as a fighter, on a practical level.

Hegghammer highlights the versatile personality of Abdallah Azzam. The author presents the various identities of Azzam as an academic, writer, Muslim Brother, teacher, ideologist and Palestinian. A part of the book focuses on Azzam’s activism relating to Islam and in other chapters he describes his ideology and how Azzam affected the spiritual part of salafism-jihadism. The book begins with the birth of Azzam in a village of al-Sila-Harithiyya in Palestine. An event that deeply affected his childhood was the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. This historical event had a crucial impact on Azzam’s future perspective. In his early adult life, Azzam focused on his studies on Islamic law and on making a family as per the Islamic law. Then, in the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Azzam went to Jordan and participated in paramilitary operations against Israel. Later on, from 1970, Azzam focused on his academic future and studies. In the late 1970s, he visited several countries, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the USA. Azzam, like many other Islamists, was at first excited with the Iranian revolution, but its Shia-centric turn made him more skeptical.

Although close to the Muslim Brotherhood during his youth, in the 80s Azzam gradually shifted away from it. Azzam’s view of Islam was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood but as an adult he was also inspired by salafism, a more sectarian movement that was formed in the 19th century as a response to Western imperialism in the Middle East. In the 80s, Azzam decided to move to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Communists of the Soviet Union. There, he also followed Kamal-Al-Sananiri, in his eyes, a respectful idealist with whom he shared common beliefs and objectives. During his stay in Afghanistan, he adopted a more warlike approach and started engaging in activism. Azzam had also an active role in military training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although his main legacy wasn’t his activism but his contribution to the Islamic thought.

Furthermore, in 1983-1984 he set up the services Bureau, an organization for the recruitment of Arab volunteers for the Afghan jihad. The bureau played a significant role in turning Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan into a global issue. Azzam was the undoubtful leader of the organization until his death in November 1989. As the writer explained, the Bureau offered crucial help to the fighters. It was a fundamental source of funds for the jihadi movement. It also supported orphans and widows in Afghanistan and took over hospital constructions. Al-Jihad magazine was the biggest success of the Bureau thanks to its great distribution in fifty countries and its influence on Muslims all over the world.

Azzam‘s two main contributions to the jihadi thought were the foreign fighter doctrine and the importance of martyrdom. He was self-defined as a Muslim Brother and as a Salafi and his work also included some Sufi influences. In his perspective, the different Islamist groups had different positive aspects to contribute to Islam. Azzam’s worldview was based on pan-Islamism approach and his ideological outlook was also inspired by Sayyid Qutb. One of the ideological outputs of Qutb’s writings was the revolutionary call to all Muslims and his radicalism. The unity of umma (the community of believers) had to be developed among the Muslim nation despite their internal divisions. A way of achieving this was on the one hand religious education for Muslims and on the other hand Islamic practice and activism. For Azzam, jihad was the ultimate action of performing Islam in the real world.

In addition to this, to this day, martyrdom is a fundamental characteristic for the Sunni jihadism that Azzam propagated. A book of Abdallah Azzam, the “Signs of the Merciful” inspired Muslims to go to Afghanistan and became one of the most important classics of jihadi literature. He hoped that Afghanistan would be the place where an Islamic State would be created. Azzam wrote about the Islamic State of true Sunni Muslims before the rise of the Islamic State organization in the 2010s. He wanted the liberation of Muslim territories and at the same time their lslamization. Furthermore, in addition to their ideological motivation, all these reports of Azzam were also a tool of recruitment for young Islamists and a tool of fundraising. Many Afghan Arabs were motivated by Azzam’s stories and went to Afghanistan in order to become martyrs and fulfill their obligation as Muslims. Consequently, a new doctrine was formed based on the main idea that the duty of Muslims all over the world was to protect their lands from the invaders through jihad. His ideas were quite controversial and were opposed by some religious scholars and members of the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia. Azzam was treated by Saudi Arab Salafi circles and most of the Muslim Brothers with skepticism, as being too critical of regimes and too liberal on ritual issues. They argued that the Afghan jihad served US interests and that Islam in Afghanistan had Sufi influences. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood, for practical and safety reasons, viewed Azzam’s perspective on gathering all Muslims in one place with hesitation.

Up to the late 80s, Azzam had managed to become an influential figure for Mujahidin politics and a spiritual leader for Afghan Arabs. It is characteristic that the approach of Azzam on Islam transformed throughout the years from a more philosophical rationalization of global jihad to an actual militant movement. He believed in the formation of a “Caravan” of all Muslims for the expansion of jihadism wherever it was needed. In Peshawar however, Azzam was accused for being too tolerant to Hanafi religion practices and for having a very close relationship with the Afghans. Before his assassination in 1989, which is a mystery as of yet, leaflets picturing him as a bad Muslim were circulating across Peshawar. By the end of his life, he had turned into a controversial personality with many enemies, while many suspect that Pakistani or Afghan security services were responsible for his death.

Elena Ntarvis Tampar