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Abdallah Azzam: the first modern ideologue of transnational jihad

Abdallah Azzam (1945-1987) is known to have been the mentor of Usama Ben Laden (1957-2011) and the father of the so-called “Arab Afghans”, a small number of Arab Islamists, who left their home countries to join the nascent transnational jihad incubating in Afghanistan in the early eighties. Apart from this, little is known about the man and the jihadi doctrine he launched to encourage Muslims around the world to get involved in the Anti-Soviet crusade that took place from 1979 to 1989. This doctrine however is of capital importance to understand jihadism as it has evolved today.

Member of the Muslim Brotherhood for most of his life, this Palestinian born Islamist studied in different Arab countries (West-Bank, Syria, Egypt). In 1973, he obtained a PhD in Islamic Law from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Although briefly involved earlier into an armed resistance (Fedayeen) against the Israeli force of occupation, he remained nevertheless committed to teaching throughout his life. After six years of inflammatory lectures on Jordanian campuses, he moved to Saudi Arabia where, during the 1980 annual pilgrimage, he met a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who would forever change his destiny: Kamal al-Sananiri. The latter introduced him to the Afghan jihad, which, in the Cold-War context, was in line with the American foreign policy in South West Asia supported by the Saudi government.

As the mobilization against the “red threat” was organized under the banner of Islam, Azzam saw an opportunity to accomplish in Afghanistan what he could not accomplish in Palestine anymore: i.e. to free a Muslim majority country from a non-Muslim invader. In 1981, for advancing that objective, he moved from King Abdul Ibn Saud University in Jeddah to the newly founded International Islamic University in Islamabad. Finally, it was from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that he began preaching and recruiting potential candidates to support the Afghan jihad. On the ground, he met Ben Laden with whom, in 1984, he founded the Service Bureau (Maktab-al-khadamat) in Peshawar to facilitate the volunteers’ arrivals and coordinate their dispatching in different camps or activities related to jihad.

The same year, as his appeal was not successful enough, he wrote The Defence of the Muslims Lands to provide Muslims further reasons to move to Afghanistan. In 1987, Join the Caravan served the same purpose. Through these writings, Azzam elaborated a new doctrine of jihad. In Contrast with the Islamic orthodoxy, which distinguished two types of jihad, the “great” as a struggle against the inner evil and the “little” as a military battle, Azzam recognized exclusively the second. Defying the sharia, he further claimed that jihad was not a collective (fard kefayah) but an individual duty (fard ayn) upon every Muslim for the accomplishment of which no permission was required either from parents, creditors or political authorities.

Nevertheless, the idea of jihad as an individual duty was not new. In Neglected Duty, Muhammad Faraj (1954-1982), an Egyptian jihadi involved in the assassination of the president Anwar Sadat (1918-1981), had already urged Muslims to focus individually on this matter. Azzam, however, popularized the concept among Muslim youth, especially by redirecting it against non-Muslims. Unlike Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who prescribed to concentrate on “bad or deviant Muslims”, the near enemies, Azzam suggested to fight the far enemies, the unbelievers. Another of his key doctrinal contribution was the promotion of the cult of martyrs, a theme generally absent from previous Sunni Islamist literature. By erecting death as the ultimate form of devotion to God, he indirectly, though inevitably, encouraged the suicide culture that hit the jihadi milieu from the nineties.

By the time of his murder in 1989, the doctrine of the now “Imam of the jihad” had produced mixed results. If it inspired many national liberation movements involving Muslim population (Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo, Palestine…), it failed to gain the support of Muslim states and religious establishment which, unwilling to endanger their legitimacy, preferred to rely on the sharia, which severely restricts private participation in armed struggles. His legacy nevertheless remains strong. By redefining jihad as an instrument of defence against unbelievers’ aggressions, he rehabilitated the importance of the land whose recapture became once again the prime motive of the jihad. In this framework, the political system was secondary.

Even though, Azzam was not opposed to the establishment of an Islamic state by force, reclaiming Muslim lands fallen into the hands of the far enemies was prioritized:  an approach more military than revolutionary. Unlike Qutb, he did not believe that a handful of pious men could seize power and impose an Islamic system from above. He rather advocated the consolidation of a base (al-qaida al sulba), an idea which most probably inspired Ben Laden who named his organization after this concept (Al-Qaida). To work toward the emergence of this base, taking part in transnational jihad was crucial. This participation however should not be confused with terrorist attacks against civilians, which he would not have approved. Azzam was, in fact, less radicalized than Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Ben Laden. A timeless cosmic war between Islam and its enemies anywhere, for example, was stranger to his thought. Nevertheless, his praise of martyrdom played a central role in generating vocations among jihadi apprentices seeking celestial reward or redemption through suicide missions that, over time, have become the trademark of worldwide Islamist terrorism.

Tasnim Altaf (Université libre de Bruxelles).

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