Global Jihad: A Brief History with Dr. Glenn E. Robinson

On Wednesday, November 10th, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) at Georgetown University hosted Dr. Glenn E. Robinson to discuss his new book, Global Jihad: A Brief History. Robinson is a Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he has taught classes on the history of political violence in the Middle East, theories of social revolution, and the rise and fall of nation-states. Each of these themes permeated his descriptions of the book, which analyzes the evolution of global jihad by identifying four waves in which the movement developed, and by comparing global jihad movements to other well-known violent political movements.

Central to Robinson’s analysis of global jihad is his identification of the four waves through which the movement developed. Robinson’s first wave, “Liberate Occupied Lands” (1979–1990), centers around the ideas of Dr. Abdullah Azzam, the “godfather of global jihad.” During this wave, Robinson says, Azzam’s influence shifted focus from solely liberating Afghanistan from foreign occupation to the liberation of all Muslim lands. In the books Defense of Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan, Azzam successfully brought jihad onto the global scale we experience today.

The second wave, “America First” (1996–2011), is the wave most thought of when referencing global jihad. This period was led by the ideas of Usama bin Laden, who saw the American support of “apostate regimes” as the greatest barrier to the achievement of Islamic states in the Middle East. Dr. Robinson used the analogy of a Bobo doll in that bin Laden believed al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates could assassinate leaders and attempt to overthrow local governments but, so long as the United States backed them, they would always bounce back. Bin Laden said, “after faith, there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land” and used that motif to shape strategy throughout the fifteen-year wave.

The third wave, “The Caliphate” (2003–2017), focused on the nation-building envisioned by global jihad and ushered in the development of particularly “gory and performative violence as a political strategy.” Perhaps most telling was the publication of Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, detailing methods in which to employ violence and how to use that violence to leverage political gain. Dr. Robinson introduced the term “jihadi cool” to describe the publication of sensational actions meant to entice and recruit young Muslim men who craved excitement and adventure to join the global jihad.

Wave four, “Jihad Fardi” (2001–present), describes a whole new approach to global jihad movements. Abu Musab al-Suri was a pessimist of the future of jihad’s ability to maintain its current structure and approach, leading him to write Call to Global Islamic Resistance, in which he introduced a decentralized approach to the incitement of terrorism. Using this approach, violent political groups could create networks of like-minded people operating toward the same goal, but who did not know each other, increasing operational security and decreasing the risk of interrogations leading to further arrests and removals from the battlefield. Essentially, al-Suri had created the “lone wolf” approach to global jihad. Robinson describes that, as we have seen with attribution following a “lone wolf” attack, the key to this tactic is stitching together seemingly independent acts of violence and assigning attribution to one operating group. Robinson says it is this attribution that allows an organization to remain resilient against counterterrorist operations and appear much more abundant and threatening than they may actually be. Robinson also stressed the need for a more realistic appraisal of the threat global jihad poses.

After describing the four waves that have shaped the global jihad movement, Robinson analyzed global jihad against other “movements of rage” including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Red Guards in China, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Brownshirts in Germany, and elements of white nationalism today. Robinson argued that global jihad represents a variant of these other movements of rage in that they all share characteristics of nihilistic violence and apocalyptic ideology, however global jihad sets goals at an international level while the other movements of rage focus on national-level political change. Understanding how global jihad fits in with other well-known movements of rage affords us with a ledger with which to measure trends other movements display and better understand a current and evolving threat.

This structuring and analysis of global jihad allow researchers, students, and the curious-minded alike to better understand the evolution of political movements that too often are lumped together under the monolith of “terrorism.” Robinson mentioned the need for policymakers, academics, and practitioners in the field to be wary of widespread Islamophobia and to instead understand the movements in their detail to more effectively address any threats that may be posed while maintaining the diversity and acceptance we need.

Dr. Robinson ended by welcoming thoughts on the arguments presented in the book, and by providing his email address for any further questions readers had. Global Jihad: A Brief History is available for purchase through Stanford University Press. |

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