The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad traces the man who led the mobilization of Arab fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s and is credited with jumpstarting the internationalization of the jihadi movement.
For lay people or those in the counter-terrorism field, The Caravan is one of the most highly anticipated books to be released on jihadism in 2020. For those interested in understanding the origins and history of our modern-day jihadi mobilization, it is crucial to look at its key player, Abdallah Azzam.
“Sheikh Abdallah,” as he was commonly known, was a militant Palestinian cleric. He moved to Afghanistan in the 1980s where he became instrumental in recruiting Arabs from across the Middle East to join in jihad.
Azzam’s status as a Palestinian served him well, affording him, according to the author “certain advantages in the transnational arena.” These advantages ranged from acquiring logistical support to gaining funds from wealthy Arab donors.
Due to the continuing Arab conflict with Israel, “Azzam was able to exploit his identity to promote his strategy of a pan-Islamic effort to wage jihad,” the author notes.
This is a particularly important point when it comes to jihad. While there is a general consensus that, within “war,” jihad is to literally fight the enemy wherever you find him, it was not always deemed necessary — especially since everyone was not able to fight.
Azzam was able to resolve these internal conflicts in individuals who were not able to participate in combat by providing them with other opportunities to help — particularly through raising funds, providing logistical support and recruiting others.
As the author observes, Abdallah Azzam found a “gap in the market” and capitalized on it with great success.
Quite tellingly, Azzam got crucial support — both emotionally and practically — from those closest to him. His mainstay of support came from his wife Samira. Extracting from her own account, the author brings the reader’s attention to the role women play in supporting and enabling their husbands or male members of their families to abandon their somewhat comfortable lives in the pursuit of jihad.
Writing of how she had to leave everything behind to move while eight months pregnant and live with Azzam’s cousin and his wife, Samira shows the extent to which she was needed:
“In this room I washed clothes and dishes, I cooked, I slept, I received guests. But by God I felt happiness engulf my heart and soul … The sheikh always looked at me affectionately, feeling that he had made things difficult for me by making me live in his room.”
This is just a small piece of historical evidence which shows how women are not passive actors within jihadism, but rather are very much active players. Considering there were about 550 women who abandoned their lives in the West to join ISIS, one can see how they were made to feel needed, wanted and necessary agents of war.
The rise of global jihad also has its roots in the disgust Islamists had of the West. For example, in tracking Azzam’s political inspirations, we are introduced to Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Egyptian Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qutb’s disgust of anything Western and in particular America, was so extreme that he even took issue with people’s haircuts. In his book The America I Have Seen, Qutb (who lived in the U.S. between 1948-50) wrote:
“Its materialism, sexual promiscuity, and racism to its shallow cinema, disrespectful funeral practices, and bad haircuts.”
This was also true of Abdallah Azzam. He too was so disgusted by anything Western that he even took issue with cushions on his bed;
“One day, I came home to find new sponge cushions with matching sheets. When I saw them, I lost my mind. I said, ‘By God, women have no religion. This must go’ . . . I said, ‘It must leave the house. It cannot remain in the house.'”
This anti-Western sentiment is perhaps nothing new, but it certainly gives the reader a glimpse into how Islamists view the West and its populations.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Azzam’s life was his mysterious assassination. Famously positioned as the “JFK of jihadism,” his murder is still unresolved. However, the author provides the reader with a list of the most probable candidates responsible for his death.
Some of these are Osama bin Laden, international intelligence agencies and even Ayman al-Zawahiri (who succeeded bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed in 2011). We may never know who killed Azzam, but the author certainly provides a compelling case of who he thinks did it.
The book was written by Thomas Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) who spent over a decade researching Azzam. The book is a thoroughly informative read, as Hegghammer tracks Azzam’s life from his early childhood up until his assassination in Peshawar.
He also provides good analysis and evidence-based conclusions which leave readers with a good sense of who this elusive figure was and the impact he had on the global jihadist networks.
Sheikh Abdallah was more than just a militant Palestinian cleric that hated anything Western. He is revered in Islamist circles to this day as a scholar, fighter and ideologue. The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad impresses the very real impact Azzam had on the global jihadist movement before the rise of al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in America.
This review was written by Wasiq Wasiq, an academic specializing in law and terrorism.