The book’s major achievement is to show how Azzam’s actions laid the groundwork for everything that was to come, including al-Qaeda, whatever his intentions may have been, or whichever Islamist factions he may have ended up supporting. Perhaps his most enduring judgement was his fatwa of 1984 on foreign fighters, “the first elaborate Islamic legal argument for foreign fighting in the modern era”, which included not only justifications for joining military conflicts in the defence of Muslim lands (which was hardly new), but also the more innovative and far-reaching idea that it is permissible to defy any authority that tries to prevent waging jihad. According to Hegghammer, Azzam never stopped to consider the full consequences of this ruling: “He helped [to] open a Pandora’s box of militancy that could not be controlled, precisely because it was reared on rejection of authority”. When young recruits were prevented from fighting, they simply went their own way – hence the fragmentation of the Islamist movement. This would have been of deep concern to Azzam, who advocated Muslim unity above all.
Thomas Hegghammer’s meticulously researched story of the life, times and significance of Azzam is the opposite of a hagiography, as is to be expected from a renowned scholar. His main argument is that Azzam was responsible for internationalising jihad by interpreting it theologically as a duty. That was at odds with Muslim Brotherhood ideologues who preached domestic opposition to autocratic secular regimes like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya. But it was the repressive character of those regimes, he also argues, that made jihad “go global”.
The Caravan makes a number of very useful historical arguments with powerful resonance today. The most important perhaps is Hegghammer’s rigorous and impartial deconstruction of the myth that the US trained, or even created, the international legion of Islamic militants who fought in Afghanistan (among them Osama bin Laden) and then, once Moscow had withdrawn its troops, turned on their supposed erstwhile sponsors. This “blowback” theory has been so often cited that it is often accepted without interrogation. Hegghammer shows it to be – largely – bogus.