Amid the many, many books published in recent months on Islamic militancy, the Muslim faith and Islamic history, two stand out. United States of Jihad is a rigorous, balanced, clear-eyed and perceptive overview of violent Islamic extremism in the USA. Its author, Peter Bergen, is an excellent Washington-based analyst and journalist who has been investigating and documenting the current wave of violence since it began in the mid-1990s. The Caliphate, by Hugh Kennedy, professor of Arabic at SOAS, traces the history of this important, much-misunderstood concept from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632 to the present. The two works are very different, but for any reader seeking to understand the phenomenon of Islamic militancy today they will complement each other nicely.
Bergen’s book is significantly more analytical than many journalistic works, while Kennedy’s wears its profound erudition lightly. Bergen’s survey is enriched not just by his excellent contacts within the US security establishment but also by his wide reading on the subject of radicalisation. Kennedy, meanwhile, exploits the colour of contemporary accounts to humanise what might have been a dry and sometimes difficult narrative. If his interest in the intellectual debates surrounding the concept of the caliphate sometimes risks leaving the reader gasping in a rarefied scholarly atmosphere, his account is firmly tethered to the ground by the practical relevance of his arguments.
Both books are of course timely. For Islamic State (IS), Kennedy writes, ‘the history of the caliphate is a fundamental legitimizing tool, alive and, in its hands, deeply dangerous’. IS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared the restoration of the caliphate under his leadership, shortly after his group seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014. There have been many different claims to the caliphal title over the centuries and there is no generally agreed legal position on what constitutes a legitimate caliphate. Given earlier precedents, Kennedy drily comments, there does not seem to be anything ipso facto illegitimate in al-Baghdadi’s claim, even if it has been rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.
It has not, however, been rejected by some of the people in whom Bergen is interested. Jihadists are a tiny minority of the American Muslim population, Bergen says, but have played a central role in Islamic militant groups since the late 1980s. This may be to overplay their early involvement a little. A handful fought with mujaheddin factions against the Soviets, while one is alleged to have been present at the first meeting of al-Qaeda in Pakistan in late August 1988. However, two decades later, Anwar al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico, became one of the most prominent and effective online propagandists of Islamic militancy, as well as the first US citizen to be knowingly assassinated in a drone strike ordered by the president. Another American, Adam Gadahn, al-Qaeda’s spokesman and media adviser, died in a CIA drone strike in 2015. Others have joined groups as diverse as Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia, as well as, more recently, the al-Nusra front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and IS.
Then there are those US citizens who try, occasionally successfully, to attack the homeland itself. Some of these people have travelled to join Islamic militant groups overseas and then returned; others are closer to the proverbial ‘lone wolf’. Even these latter, it is important to point out, rarely act entirely alone. The recent pledges of allegiance to al-Baghdadi and IS by attackers in California and Florida have underlined the role social media plays in linking militants in small US towns with a group based thousands of miles away. But academic research, police investigations and solid, old-fashioned reporting have also repeatedly shown that those thought to be lone actors had the active or tacit support of others, or at the very least were heavily influenced by a social or even family environment contaminated by extremist views.
Bergen nails claims by politicians and security services that increased powers of surveillance will keep us safer. The number of plots in the US exposed through eavesdropping or data-gathering is extremely limited, he says. Human contacts – informers, concerned community members – have been much more effective. The main factor that will increase success is better sharing and understanding of existing intelligence, not the scooping up of huge amounts of unfiltered information.
One reason for this is the mundanity of what terrorists do and who they are. Bergen cites his research into the backgrounds of 330 militants in the USA. Assumptions that individuals turn to terrorism due to some traumatic life experience, or are ‘hotheads without family obligations’, pathologically disturbed, career criminals or, at the very least, ‘not very bright’, are unfounded, he says. Their average age is twenty-nine; more than a third are married and a similar proportion have children; 12 per cent have served time in prison, compared to 9 per cent of the US male population; around 10 per cent have had mental health issues, less than the general population. They are, Bergen stresses, ‘ordinary Americans’.
But they are of course all nominally Muslim, at least in terms of self-identification. And this raises some hugely important issues. Barack Obama, among others, has insisted that Islamic militancy has nothing to do with Islam. It is certainly true that the principles of the faith itself encourage violence no more and no less than those of pretty much any other religion. It is the historical memory and experience of the Islamic world that may be more important.
This is where Kennedy’s book comes in. The bulk of its four hundred pages are devoted to events that took place between 1,300 and 1,000 years ago. If there is ample decline and fall, there is much more rise and magnificence, particularly compared to the squabbling, wet, cold, impoverished, petty kingdoms of northwest Europe. If there was always disunity and constant internecine violence, there was also great wealth, state-of-the-art scientific research, military power, bureaucratic cohesion and economic vitality. These were the centuries of the Islamic superpowers – the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties – who were a match for anything in Christendom.
IS has self-consciously styled itself after these empires. There are the black flags, for example – though the black uniforms may owe more to modern special forces than to the court dress of the Abbasids, as Kennedy suggests. There is also the desire to create a coinage – one of the markers of caliphal authority – and to prosecute jihad, a crucial component in caliphal prestige. IS propaganda repeatedly mentions battles that many in the Middle East today have long forgotten, but which men like Muhammad al-Adnani (who was the group’s chief spokesman and head of external operations until he was killed in an airstrike in August) work seamlessly into a narrative of a series of clashes stretching from the Prophet Muhammad’s earliest battles to the Second Gulf War of 2003 and the current conflict in Syria against unbelievers, backsliders and heretics, all of whom are described in terms borrowed from texts of earlier periods.
This narrative emphasises the urgency of the restoration of the lost power of the world’s Muslims. It is not hard to see how this project could appeal to a small minority of the very many young men of immigrant origin who have trouble balancing the conflicting elements of a hyphenated identity, in the USA or elsewhere. Add peer pressure, intergenerational tensions and the desire for adventure or risk, and the attraction of IS’s ideas becomes marginally easier to explain.