Afghanistan as a Jihadi Turning Point

Afghanistan as a Jihadi Turning Point April 2, 2020


Minutes after the second WTC attack
The North Tower of the World Trade Center was already fatally damaged when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, resulting in the fireball shown here.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph)


It’s time for me to begin extracting notes from certain Islam-related books in order to move forward with a substantial and much-delayed writing project of mine.  I begin with Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, translated by Anthony F. Roberts (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2002).  At the time of writing, Gilles Kepel was Professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris.


I start with an insightful passage about the late leader of al-Qa‘ida:


As icon or symbol, bin Laden and his companions have been at pains to construct an image of themselves modeled on the Prophet Mohammed and his followers.  Mohammed was forced to flee idolatrous Mecca in 622 and settle in Medina, where for eight years he carried out daring raids on his enemies before returning in triumph to Mecca in 630.  Like the Prophet, bin Laden fled “hypocritical” Saudi Arabia in a kind of latter-day Hegira, coming eventually to the arid mountains of Afghanistan, from which he carried on his holy war under the guidance of Allah.  (In his October [2001] message, instead of taking credit for the attack, bin Laden presented it as a miracle, the will of God: “America has been struck in one of its vital organs by Allah the All-Powerful.”)

The desire to identify his group of comrades with the earliest Muslims, with the companions of the Prophet and their successors — whose example is very much alive in the heart of anyone brought up in an Islamic culture — was further strengthened by the disproportionate, “heroic” dimension of the war, waged by a small group of fighters against the two greatest empires in the world.  Just as the early Muslim horsemen annihilated the Sassanid [Persian] empire, so the jihadists, as they saw it, had brought down the Soviet empire by defeating the Red Army in Afghanistan.  Likewise, just as the first caliphs hurled back the Byzantine [or eastern Roman] empire, conquering all its southern and eastern provinces from Syria to North Africa, so today’s activists have set off an earthquake that they expect will rock the foundations of the empire of America.  (16-17)


This is also, I think, an insightful observation:


The Afghan jihad against the Soviets became the great cause with which Islamists worldwide identified, moderates and radicals alike.  In the minds of many Arabs, jihad supplanted the Palestinian cause and symbolized the shift from nationalism to Islamism. (8)



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