Abdallah Azzam is one of the most important people we don't know much about. Thomas Hegghamer has filled that gap by writing a very interesting, comprehensive book. His sources are numerous and include everyone from Azzam's own writings and family to jihadists and Pakistani military agents. We see exactly how Azzam went from a pious Islamic lecturer to the leader of the 'Afghan Arabs'. His story spans the history of the modern Muslim world, from the Nasserite years to the Islamic renaissance of the 1980s.
Azzam's life was shaped by three key events: the Palestinian 'Nakba', Israel's seizure of the West Bank, and Jordan's sudden suspension of his teaching position in Amman. If not for each of these events, this intelligent Palestinian could've lived out his days as a successful but largely unknown sharia lecturer. Instead he personally took up arms against the perceived enemies of Islam: firstly for a brief time against Israel in the late 1960s, and then the Soviets in Afghanistan . However, Hegghamer is not a hagiographer. He gives Azzam full agency for his actions, noting that Azzam had always been a devout Islamist who detested secularism, Western influences, and non-militarist interpretations of jihad. Azzam had even denounced Arab nationalist rulers as 'taghut' during his time as a non-violent Muslim Brotherhood leader, coming dangerously close to takfirism.
In any event, it was Azzam's years in Afghanistan that decided his legacy. As a well-read scholar of Islam, his most important contribution was using his credentials to rally Arabs. For the first time, Muslims were told that it was *their religious duty* as individuals to fight jihad against infidels. The rulings of states, clerical bodies, and even parents were declared irrelevant on this matter. Foreign volunteers, who were minuscule in the first half of the 1980s, came in their thousands. Most were Arab, but Azzam's writings spread much further. Hegghammer notes that America was in fact his easiest recruiting ground, with US intelligence agencies playing down the threat of jihadi proliferation. Azzam visited most American states and was warmly received by local Islamic centres. His open propagandising was welcomed in the Gulf and mostly overlooked elsewhere, with governments thinking it best to export problematic Islamists.
Due to his extraordinary charisma and success, Azzam opened a Pandora's Box. Islamist extremists of every stripe got their start on the porous Af-Pak border where Azzam operated. The most famous was Osama Bin Laden. Hegghammer notes that Azzam did not create Al Qaida, but that he remained on good terms with Osama until his mysterious assassination in 1989. After 9/11, Pan-Islamists, Hamas, and various other admirers have argued that Azzam could've prevented the further radicalisation of jihad if he'd lived. But as Hegghamer himself argues, this is not certain. Azzam had eviscerated control structures on jihad by stating that all Muslims first-most had a duty to fight for the Ummah. He also promoted a theocratic Islamic state, justified the killing of communists, sanctioned the hypothetical murder of Israel supporters on US soil, and never ceased his vitriolic writings against Jews or secular Arab regimes. Azzam never endorsed sectarian anti-Shiism or the mass civilian attacks that dominate jihadism today. But neither did Bin Laden at the time!
Hegghamer concludes that Azzam would've supported the jihads in Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and Palestine. He might've supported target attacks against Muslim governments that worked with the US, as Osama did. And even if he would balk at 9/11 or ISIS' genocidal campaigns, he has nevertheless been hailed as an inspiration by thousands of terrorists the world over. He was the most successful jihadi entrepreneur of his time who was acclaimed as a hero for supporting the Afghan mujahideen, but his charisma shouldn't obscure his role in the jihad onslaught we have today.
- Hardcover: 722 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (5 March 2020)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521765951
- ISBN-13: 978-0521765954
- Product Dimensions: 16 x 3.9 x 23.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 1.3 Kg
- Customer Reviews: 4 customer ratings
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 11,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)