Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know®

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By: Daniel Byman

New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015. 304p. $16.95 PB. ISBN: 978-0190217266

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

McGill University

Montréal, QC, CA

The book under review is a timely addition to Oxford University Press’ “What Everyone Needs to Know” series of primers on key issues and topics in the humanities, social sciences, law, and natural and health sciences. The author, Daniel Byman, a former staff member on the 9/11 Commission and a professor of security studies and foreign affairs at Georgetown University, has written extensively on international politics, jihadi groups, and government counter-terrorism policy. In his newest book, Byman provides a highly-readable and comprehensive overview of the contours of the transnational jihadi current, which is helmed currently by Al-Qaida Central and its regional affiliates including Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQS), and Al-Shabab in Somalia and the Islamic State and its regional affiliates, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Boko Haram, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt. Though rich in historical and organizational detail, the book is accessible to interested but non-specialist and non-academic readers as well as academics and specialized analysts. It is particularly suited to undergraduate classroom teaching due to its succinct chapters and easy-to-follow organization and topical divisions. Each chapter is broken down into clearly-labeled subsections headed by a question, which makes it easy for the reader to follow.

In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to the history of the transnational/global jihadi current, which arose in the late 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the transnational foreign fighter mobilizations around the Muslim-majority world and particularly the Arab world to fight the Afghan Communist regime in Kabul and its Soviet backers. Helmed by the charismatic religious scholar and preacher Abdullah Azzam, the “Afghan Arabs” — as the Arab foreign fighters streaming into Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions and Afghanistan were known — many of these fighters later went on to form the base on which the original Al-Qaida organization was built in the late 1980s. The chapter details Al-Qaida’s early history and initial motives and goals, and also highlights the organization’s relations with the Afghan Taliban government and the important role of Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Egyptians in steering the group toward “global jihad.” Byman dispels the often-repeated claims that the United States funded the nascent proto-Al-Qaida group of fighters surrounding Osama bin Laden, correctly noting that while the U.S. and Pakistani governments provided extensive financial and military support for certain Afghan mujahidin factions, they did not fund bin Laden. They did, however, fund regional groups, such as the Haqqani movement and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami, which would later militarily oppose the U.S. and post-Taliban Afghan government.

Chapter 2 highlights major operations and plots by Al-Qaida, its regional affiliates, and other jihadi groups beginning with the 1990s attacks by the Egyptian Gama’at al-Islamiyya and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which set the stage for a wave of major Al-Qaida attacks and attempted attacks that reached their pinnacle with the September 11, 2001 hijackings. The organization’s justifications for the 9/11 attacks is discussed, as well as the international political and strategic fallout that followed for the organization. Al-Qaida’s post-9/11 trajectory, operational capabilities, and ideological influences and narrative production are analyzed in the next two chapters, which highlights important ideological tracts such as al-Zawahiri’s vitriolic 2001 book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, which has since been reissued and expanded in a second edition by Al-Qaida Central’s Al-Sahab Media Foundation, the tactic of suicide bombing, and the “lone wolf” attacker phenomenon, which Al-Qaida and its affiliates — and later the Islamic State — have endorsed and promoted.

Chapter 4, which focuses on the “ideas and influences” on transnational jihadism, while generally good, is where the book is the weakest, due mostly to the succinct format of the book series, which prevents a fuller, more historically nuanced discussion of the various trends and currents highlighted including Salafism, “Wahhabism” or Najdi Salafism, Deobandism, and the Ahl al-Hadith current. Despite this, Byman generally provides a relatively comprehensive and nuanced discussion of these ideational currents, providing a needed tonic to more hysterical and ahistorical claims often made about them, particularly in the current political climate.

Bin Laden’s unique characteristics as Al-Qaida’s founding leader, jihadi recruitment and media operations, and organizational structures are explained in Chapter 5. Changes in organizational structure following the 9/11 attacks, which resulted in significant territorial, economic, and manpower losses to Al-Qaida Central and subsequently to increased decentralization, are also discussed. The next chapter identifies the group’s allies and enemies, highlighting the impact of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the U.S., Britain, and allied states, which enabled bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to revive the organization after it was hammered in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001. The rise to power of a Shi‘a Islamist-dominated government in Baghdad was also a boon to the transnational jihadi current, which used it to fuel recruitment and fundraising, leading to the rise of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his organization, which later evolved into the Islamic State.

Al-Qaida’s regional affiliates are often conflated and can prove confusing to non-specialist readers. However, in Chapter 7, Byman has provided a clear breakdown and explanation of the major regional groups that make up the Al-Qaida “family,” those being Al-Shabab, Jabhat al-Nusra, AQAP, AQIM, and AQS. He provides a succinct overview of their histories, evolutions, areas of operation, and strategic goals. Unaffiliated jihadi groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Caucasus jihadi-rebel groups, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are also briefly highlighted. Al-Qaida Central’s chief rival for control of the transnational jihadi current, the Islamic State, is discussed in depth in the next chapter, which details the organization’s rise, goals, the role of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its ongoing bitter conflict and competition with the Al-Qaida groups, al-Zawahiri, and the Afghan Taliban headed by Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. The ninth and final chapter provides an insider’s discussion and overview of the debates about counter-terrorism strategies and jihadis’ counter-measures and reactions to them.

As an introductory primer, the book is mostly based on key secondary studies rather than extensive readings of primary sources, though Byman does draw upon his experience as a member of the 9/11 Commission and academic and professional experience. He provides a few pages highlighting key recommended works as well as extensive notes, enabling the reader to continue his or her reading. The book would, however, have benefited from a comprehensive bibliography as well as end notes.

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