The Arab Spring did not make Salafi jihadism superfluous in the Arab world; rather, the failure of the former became the savior of the latter. This was the case both in practical terms, as power vacuums evolved, and in ideology, the notion of democracy as an ineffective tool for change fit Salafi-jihadist narratives. With the leading jihadi group al-Qaeda suffering from a loss of effectiveness as well as legitimacy, due to the death of Osama Bin Laden, the world witnessed the replacement of al-Qaeda as the world’s dominant jihadi group by the Islamic State. The latter presents powerful narratives challenging al-Qaeda’s authority.
Within this context, Jihadism Transformed: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State’s Global Battle of Ideas is an effort to dissect these rival narratives and their histories. The book is a collection of 10 essays by distinguished authors in their respective fields and covers a wide swath of geography and subject matter. One of its strengths as an edited volume is the opportunity to shift focus between movements and ideas, move across borders, and zoom in on individuals and local communities, rather than simply discussing the usual grand narratives. The stated aim of the book is to take a "long view of the trajectories in jihadist narratives globally" (preface, p. xv), beginning with a panel of experts convened by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in late 2014.
Rather than discussing the development of jihadist ideology on an abstract level, the book describes this battle of ideas through different methods and case studies. It succeeds in being nonrepetitive, as the approaches of the different authors vary to a satisfying degree. The chapters provide the reader with general outlines of relationships between various jihadi groups and more detailed analyses of selected primary sources. An example of the latter can be found in chapter three, where Donald Holbrook presents an in-depth dissection of the communications of al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, and how he framed and viewed the Arab Spring, with the death of Bin Laden fresh in mind. Holbrook guides the reader through the areas where the al-Qaeda narrative evolves as a result of the uprisings, and where it contradicts itself. As al-Qaeda’s raison d’être seemingly started to crumble with the fall of the dictators in the Arab World (the "near enemy" of al-Qaeda), Holbrook shows how Al-Zawahiri eagerly wished to reframe the uprisings, ambivalently supporting the removal of the dictators, while detesting the democracy the uprisings called for.
The comparative study of jihadist groups is far from an established field, and the need for collections such as this one is imminent. Obviously, it is easy to comment on consistency and continuity in any edited volume, yet given the subheading, each chapter would be a well-suited contribution by itself. Again, one of the strengths of the book is its relative diversity in perspective; some of the topics of discussion turn up as pleasant surprises. Among these is the tracing of Tunisia’s employment of Islam as a vehicle for expressing discontent since the 1930s, written by Jonathan Githens-Mazer. Against this somewhat unfamiliar backdrop, the author deals with the paradox of the Tunisian "success story" during the Arab Spring — the large number of jihadists Tunisia contributed to the struggle, and how the slow and complicated development of democracy presented a great disappointment to Tunisian youth.
Another article that brings up uncommon angles is found in chapter 10, by Christopher Anzalone, in which al-Qaeda’s "diversity" in utilizing sectarianism based on very local circumstances is illustrated in detailed examples focusing on inter-Shia dynamics. Anzalone discusses the complicated role of identity in violent conflicts, and manages to show a comprehensive picture of the jihadi employment (and construction) of narratives based on historical Shia characters and events. The author shows how these narratives resonate within Shia contexts, avoiding the trap of defining people’s motivations solely based on their religion, but rather how the narratives resonate within current practical circumstances.
The mandatory discussions of the origins of IS in relation to al-Qaeda that one expects from the title of the book, are thankfully free of the clichés that usually stem from a neglect of primary sources. The introduction, written by the editors, among other things traces the origins of IS tactics and reads like a reaction to tabloid depictions. The section convincingly challenges two main notions usually offered in mainstream media: that the violent IS tactics consist of mindless brutality, and that the propaganda output is only concerned with destruction. One of the highlights of the book, this section offers detailed examples of the origins of the most infamous IS actions, not only back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but to earlier al-Qaeda publications on deliberate savagery, as well as Iraqi sectarian violence a decade ago. This analysis puts the idea of the random, nihilistic nature of IS violence to shame. The analysis serves as a model for an idea within the new jihadi narrative: that ISIS/IS is purportedly putting into practice what al-Qaeda has been talking about theoretically.
Chapter two by Nelly Lahoud follows the thread offered by the editors in the Introduction, tracing and the history of the individuals who formed IS, as well as the al-Qaeda/IS divide and the first ominous signs of the idea of a state in the making. All this while constantly stressing, through her own example, the importance of consciousness when employing concepts such as group, state or caliphate in studying people who are very concerned with these definitions.
Not only are the different contributions strong articles by themselves; certain chapters complement others very well and add to the comprehensiveness of the volume. Examples of chapters that supplement each other nicely are chapter two, and the Introduction, described above, as well as the concluding chapter 11, by Akil. N. Awan, and Daniel Holbrook’s chapter, also described above. Holbrook, in treating the almost desperate efforts of al-Qaeda’s "old guard" senior leadership to keep their narratives relevant during the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS, creates a compelling idea. This shapes the reader’s impression of Awan’s article. Concerning the impact of these narratives on radicalization in the West, the latter segment gathers some themes present throughout the book and shows why this global battle of ideas is not only timely, but also locally relevant, even in the Western world.
Being a collection of essays, the book presents several arguments simultaneously. Some elements early in the book are applicable even where they are not mentioned. Among these is the concept of IS as a usurper of the jihadist narrative, the success of which stems from its tactical successes. When IS provides demonstrable facts of its relevance such as the conquering of land (p. 17), readers may ask themselves why this fact is relevant in this specific setting? Why would a deep political-religious discourse resonate more? The editors’ success in bringing questions such as these to mind stems from the well-conceived order of the chapters, defining the ground most often discussed in international discourse on jihadism before moving into other topics and landscapes. The reader may also follow with ease another important aspect of the transformation of the jihadi scene, namely the continuity in the narratives — where it is strengthened by circumstances, and where the it is compromised. A case in point is the framing of the wars in Syria and Iraq through the premise of a historical war against Islam. Common within both al-Qaeda communiqués as well as IS propaganda, the existence of those specific wars underscores the legitimacy of the "War on Islam," strengthening the old al-Qaeda narrative. Yet the Iraq and Syria wars also prompt the question of what group has the power to fight back, again, potentially strengthening the IS narrative.
Yet, in spite of being a collection of innovative and well-selected topics, there are some significant blind spots that such collections inevitably contain. Some important related topics are omitted from the analysis, and specific subjects are in need of further research. I sorely missed a discussion of the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, an important but understudied example of continuity in evaluating the relevance of al-Qaeda narratives. The group is far from ideologically isolated, as the few references in the book indicate. Furthermore, Asian groups are somewhat neglected (with the exception of Afghan and, to a certain degree, Pakistani groups), together with potential "ticking bombs" such as Turkey, relevant with regard to the resonance of jihadi narratives as well as its position as a gateway for foreign fighters into the Iraq/Syria theater, mentioned only briefly. Also, the fact that the book treats parallel subjects might obscure important points, as there is not much room for disagreement or discussion of the reasoning in each chapter.
This book does not purport to treat every active jihadi group in the world, nor is it a polemic. As such, Jihadism Transformed fulfills its task of describing the transformation of jihadism narratives internationally through accessible, fact-based and well-chosen specific case studies. A question that always arises is whether it is relevant beyond the current situation. Given that the book’s emphasis is not only on the status quo, but also on the trajectories in which jihadist narratives have traveled, I believe it will have the potential to inform both scholarly work and political decisions beyond the near future. The case studies of communities, nations and individuals are all interlinked through their involvement with either al-Qaeda, IS or both. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the current jihadi scene; even the expert will benefit from the clustering of perspectives it provides.