After September 11, 2001, readers around the world quickly learned about the basic tenets of jihad and its distortion by al-Qaeda. Now the shelves of Western bookshops are again filled with books on the subject, which gives no sign of going away. Jihad, which means struggle, is “recommended” rather than obligatory for all Muslims, but its interpretation is literally an open book—the lesser jihad to purify one’s soul and perform good deeds for the community, the greater jihad to defend Islam when it is under attack. Each major collection of Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that were compiled by several Muslim scholars well after the Prophet’s death, contains its own descriptions of jihad, with the result that the discussion of jihad has always been a matter of differing interpretations rather than literal observance.
The jihad of the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s was supported by the US and the West. Some 40,000 non-Afghans made it to that jihad, many of them receiving an Islamic education and military training with funds from the CIA and support and sanctuary from Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some fought and died, others went home to spread the message, taking with them long lists of contacts they had made in the university of jihad that they had established in Pakistani cities such as Peshawar. In the 1990s jihad became a much-maligned word as the Afghans butchered each other in a bloody civil war, which both sides claimed was a jihad. Muslims in other parts of the world did the same. They claimed to be carrying out jihad as they were killing their Muslim brothers.
When Osama bin Laden decided to launch a jihad against the US and the West from his new base in Afghanistan in 1996, few took him seriously. Several developments at that time got little attention from Western governments as Afghanistan became the incubator of a new, Arab-led “global jihad” against the West. The fifteen-year-long insurrection against the Indian government of Kashmir introduced the skills of suicide bombing to South Asia. The endless civil war in Somalia eliminated any clear center of power there and freewheeling jihadist groups emerged in the chaos. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict was seen as becoming increasingly insoluble. President Clinton’s failed attempt to foster peace at the end of his administration came just as many Palestinians were beginning to embrace more extremist Islamic ideas.
Two of the books under review are so illuminating about this twilight period in the 1990s that I even wonder if September 11 could have been averted if they had been published a decade earlier. One is Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad, a first-person account by a Moroccan-born spy who infiltrated Islamist groups on behalf of European intelligence organizations in the 1990s; the other is Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, a Norwegian scholar’s account of a top al-Qaeda strategist named Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.