April 04, 2008

Hegghammer on Jihadi Studies

As some of you might have noticed, we here at Abu Muqawama put a lot of time and effort into our Counterinsurgency Reading List, which you can all access to the right. One of our sections is on Political Islam and Islamist Violence, which of course has nothing to do with counterinsurgency in general but much to do with the conflicts in which the U.S. and its allies find themselves today.

Why, after 11 September 2001, do we still know so little about Islamists? Thomas Hegghammer, in this must-read review essay, has a tough answer.

More than six years after 9/11, the study of jihadism is still in its infancy. Why has it taken so long to develop? One reason, of course, is that we started almost from scratch. Another factor is that it takes time for primary sources to emerge. But the most important reason is no doubt that the emotional outrage at al-Qaeda’s violence has prevented us from seeing clearly. Societies touched by terrorism are always the least well placed to understand their enemies. It is only when we see the jihadists not as agents of evil or as religious fanatics, but as humans, that we stand a chance of understanding them.

Hegghammer surveys the literature published thus far, much of which has been written by investigative journalists like Peter Bergen and Jason Burke. Why not by academics, you ask?

Middle East scholars on both sides of the Atlantic had long shunned the study of Islamist militancy for fear of promoting Islamophobia and of being associated with a pro-Israeli political agenda.

Yeah, Abu Muqawama could see that being the case. He also thinks Michael Young is correct when he writes that when academics do focus on Islamist groups, they tend to "project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves." It's a good thing we have the journalists, then. Hegghammer reserves especial praise for Bergen:

The investigative journalist Peter L. Bergen met Bin Laden in 1997 and has been following him ever since; few outside al-Qaeda know more about the man than him. His 2006 book, The Osama bin Laden I Know, contained personal testimonies from over fifty people who knew Bin Laden, and Bergen let the sources speak for themselves. This was a bold choice by the editor and the author, who could have gone for the safer – and probably more financially rewarding – option of a straight biography. Rich in detail and anecdotes, Bergen’s book presented the most nuanced portrait of Bin Laden available. More importantly, it shed new light on the history of al-Qaeda and militant Islamism.

Bergen debunks the widespread conspiracy theory that Bin Laden collaborated with the CIA in the 1980s. He quotes al-Qaeda insiders who ridicule the suggestion, and Western aid workers who came into contact with Arabs in 1980s Afghanistan and say they were met with extreme hostility. He also settles the debate over al-Qaeda’s pre-1996 existence. Jason Burke and others (including myself) had questioned the view of al-Qaeda as a coherent and self-aware organization founded in the late 1980s, pointing to the near-absence of pre-9/11 textual sources containing the name “al-Qaeda”. Bergen, however, unearthed recently declassified minutes from the founding meetings of al-Qaeda in 1988, as well as testimonies from the early 1990s, confirming the organization’s existence. Particularly valuable is his collection of testimonies from recruits who attended al-Qaeda training camps in the late 1990s. These document the evolution of the camp infrastructure from a very slow start in 1996 to a streamlined training and indoctrination centre for anti-Western jihadists. Bergen has also shed light on the thinking behind the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden’s intention was to provoke a US invasion of Afghanistan, whereupon the US would get stuck, like the Soviet Union had done in the 1980s, and eventually collapse from the economic burden of the war. It is ironic that the US would later choose to place itself in the situation envisaged by Bin Laden, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq.

For the record, Bin Laden was never a playboy in Beirut; he was a shy and pious young man. He attended no Arsenal matches or sex orgies, although he did accompany his brother Salem on a business trip to Sweden in 1970.

Damn! Abu Muqawama was really hoping Bin Laden was a Gooner. (He probably is anyway.) A collection of Bin Laden's speeches (of which Hegghammer speaks highly) breaks down other myths:

Bin Laden’s proclamations are, of course, hate speech, calling for the mass murder of civilians; but those who expect religious ranting will be surprised. There are no complex theological arguments, for the simple reason that Bin Laden’s intended audience, the Muslim masses, are not versed in the technicalities of Islamic jurisprudence. Bin Laden’s discourse is profoundly political and elegant in its simplicity. It is populism at its most effective and most frightening. ...

Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era.

Read the full essay. And then read Adam Shatz's review of the new biography of Abu Musab al-Suri, sent along by a reader.