Stieb on Robinson, 'Global Jihad: A Brief History'

Glenn E. Robinson
Joseph Stieb

Glenn E. Robinson. Global Jihad: A Brief History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020. xi + 246 pp. $25.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5036-1410-9; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-6047-8; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-6046-1.

Reviewed by Joseph Stieb (Naval War College) Published on H-War (July, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

In a model of concise and compelling scholarship, Glenn E. Robinson’s Global Jihad: A Brief History categorizes modern global jihadist violence into four waves. Robinson, a terrorism expert and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, provides a useful text for students and scholars alike while puncturing many misconceptions about modern terrorism.

Robinson presents global jihadism as a radical response to the failures of both Arab nationalism and political Islamism, the latter being “a sociopolitical movement seeking to create a modern version of an Islamic state, typically through political (nonviolent) means.” These movements failed to address core problems of the modern Middle East: oppression by secular autocrats, the presence of the state of Israel, and cultural contamination from the West. Global jihadists believed that these failures occurred because Islamist movements, even violent ones, failed to see the “global, systemic causes” of these problems (p. 5).

Global jihadists differentiated themselves by arguing that Muslims had to be rallied regardless of nationality to the cause of fighting the “far enemy” of the United States. Without expelling US influence from the region, a pure Islamic society could not be achieved, secular autocrats could not be toppled, and Israel could not be destroyed. Moreover, global jihadists believed violence was essential and even redeeming and that no progress can be made by working through normal political processes. Robinson sees global jihadism as the fringe of a fringe, more radical and vastly smaller than the larger Islamist movement and locally or nationally focused jihadist movements like Hamas or Hezbollah. Nonetheless, this small school of thought has disproportionately shaped Western views of Islam through its extreme violence and transnational impact, making this book particularly important.

Robinson’s first wave of global jihadism emerged in the 1980s following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Arab participants in this conflict like Abdullah Azzam envisioned replicating the Afghan model of a transnational insurgency against foreign occupiers and apostate regimes across the Islamic world, an idea that Robinson calls the “Jihadist International.” Azzam believed that a “solid base,” or an al-qa’ida al-sulba, of Muslim fighters from all nations could help launch holy war on a global scale.

The first wave petered out in the early 1990s but laid the foundation for the second wave, started by Azzam’s associate Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in the mid-1990s. Bin Laden had seen national jihadist efforts in Algeria and Egypt fail in the early 1990s, and Saudi Arabia rejected his idea of using a version of Azzam’s Jihadist International to defend against Iraqi aggression during the 1990-91 Gulf crises. These events convinced Azzam that the jihad must focus on striking the “far enemy” of the United States to drive it out of the Islamic world, thus rendering existing regimes vulnerable. Robinson cleverly labels this concept the “America First” school of jihad. It included massive attacks on US targets starting with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and culminating on September 11. US interventions crushed core al-Qaida in the early 2000s, mostly ending the second wave, although some al-Qaida franchises continued expeditionary terrorist attacks well into the 2000s.

The Islamic State defined the third wave of global jihad, emerging from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War. Its leaders, first Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the reestablishment of the caliphate and encouraged fighters from around the world to flock to their budding state. They hoped to create a pure Islamic state that would erase the artificial national boundaries separating Muslim peoples and destroy apostasy in all forms. The Islamic State also launched a global wave of terrorism against the West and many Muslim targets and sought to drive Western armies and influence from the Middle East.

The fourth wave of global jihad was what the ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri labeled “personal jihad,” or what other scholars have called “leaderless jihad.” This wave was defined not by central organization or state building but by the use of the Internet to inspire individuals or small cells to execute attacks in Western societies. Examples include the 2015 San Bernardino shootings and the 2016 Nice truck attack. This version of jihad is less deadly than other waves because of its ad hoc nature and smaller scale, but it is also extremely difficult to predict and stop as there is no central structure to dismantle. Robinson concludes that the United States and its allies will likely face this form of terrorism into the indefinite future but that it is far from an existential threat.

Robinson punctures the idea that global jihadism is a product of Islam writ large by showing that its intellectual roots are a hodgepodge of Islamic and non-Islamic thinkers. Radical Muslims like Sayyid Qutb contributed key ideas like the reformation of the concept of jahiliyya from the traditional idea of the time of ignorance before the arrival of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula to a defining trait of entire modern Muslim societies that had abandoned Qutb’s rigid form of Islam and accepted Western influences. This idea justified extreme violence against these regimes and revolutionary transformation of these societies by a small, radical elite.

However, Robinson also shows the importance of secular thinkers to global jihadist ideology. Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard, Leon Trotsky’s permanent revolution, and Frantz Fanon’s redemptive violence against the colonial oppressor all influenced these movements. The larger point is that global jihadist ideology does not stem from an essential core of Islam; indeed, few of the major figures in this book had much formal training in Islamic law or thought. Rather, global jihadists selectively interpreted Islamic texts and traditions and mixed them with modern ideas from other revolutionary movements, all in response to contemporary political and cultural problems. This analysis makes this book one of the best antidotes to essentialist thinking about Islam that I have read.

Robinson runs into some trouble in his conclusion, where he compares global jihadism to other modern extremist movements. He argues that global jihadism is best understood as a “movement of rage,” akin to the Khmer Rouge, China’s Red Guards, or Boko Haram. Movements of rage embrace charismatic leadership, apocalyptic and anti-modern ideology, and extreme violence. They see modern Enlightenment ideas and culture as an infection on their race, faith, or nation and advocate violent “gnosicide,” or the extermination of elites and minorities who represent modern knowledge and culture. Robinson differentiates such groups from revolutionary movements based in Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality. He includes Marxists, fascists, and postcolonial nationalists, all groups that pursue modern ends with revolutionary and often violent means.

However, it is unclear why fascism should be included in this category and not as a movement of rage. While, as Robinson notes, fascist movements advocated material progress, economic development, and efficiency, they also endorsed a host of anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment ideals: the denigration of reason; the glorification of violence; the embrace of human inequality within and between nations; the restoration of a glorious, mythical past; and hatred of effeminate cultural elites.

Moreover, these waves of global jihad did not carry out the gnosicide that Robinson says is essential to movements of rage. Aside from the Islamic State, global jihadists have not primarily targeted urban elites or the educated, focusing instead on mass casualty attacks on civilian populations and symbols of power in the United States and Europe. One problem is that Robinson’s archetypal movements of rage are mass movements capable of carrying out purges across society whereas three of the four waves of this book are elite, vanguard groups that did not govern large swathes of territory and were capable mainly of sporadic acts of violence. While global jihadists do fit in the movement of rage category because of their total rejection of Western influence, they use violence quite differently than these groups, making this an unwieldy categorization.

Robinson deserves praise for connecting global jihadism to modern revolutionary traditions, but the dichotomy between movements of rage and Enlightenment-inspired revolutionary movements is too rigid a typology to encompass dozens of groups spanning the globe over more than a century. It might be better to present global jihadists as revolutionary reactionaries employing modern concepts like the vanguard, the permanent revolution, and leaderless resistance in pursuit of anti-modernist goals.

These critiques aside, Global Jihad is a great read and a tremendous resource that experts, generalists, and students will all find valuable. It deserves to be a landmark text in the fields of terrorism studies, global conflict, and religious studies.

Citation: Joseph Stieb. Review of Robinson, Glenn E., Global Jihad: A Brief History. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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