By Simon Staffell and Akil Awan, eds.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 296 pp. $45.
Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi for Middle East Quarterly
Jihadism Transformed contains eleven essays of varying quality, mostly focusing on the two main competing global Sunni jihadist movements: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The book examines, in particular, the narratives these groups have developed and exploited to attract recruits in different parts of the world, both in the Muslim-majority lands that represent epicenters of jihadism and in the West. The exception is an essay by Christopher Anzalone of McGill University that looks at Shiite militant mobilization in response to the perceived Sunni jihadist threat, especially in Syria.
Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University, who has done extensive field work in Yemen, represents one of the better contributors, offering important insights into the contrasting narratives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State’s Yemen “provinces.” AQAP, she shows, is more attuned to the local environment, making use of poetry and other local cultural material to attract an audience. In contrast, the Islamic State’s less successful Yemen provinces have been too monochromatic, simply trying to exploit the Sunni-Shiite sectarian dynamic embodied in the civil war roiling in Yemen.
In contrast, an essay by University of Pisa’s Valentina Bartolucci is a poor attempt to compare the narratives of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State. Besides reaffirming the obvious (e.g., that jihadists frequently frame events in terms of good vs. evil), the Islamic State material she chooses to examine—images from its former English language magazine Dabiq—appears superficial at best.*
Similarly unsatisfactory is the closing essay by Awan, one of the volume’s editors, who attempts to provide a “more nuanced understanding” of the motivations of young Western Muslims to join jihadist groups. His attempts at “myth-busting” are not original and downright misleading. For example, he restates the common fallacy that religious motives are not of prime importance because many jihadists display ignorance of the details of their religion.
Overall, Jihadism Transformed presents some examples of solid research that could serve as a helpful primer, but the book’s unevenness may obscure its value for the general reader.
* To elaborate on this point further (which did not make it into the final publication of this review because of word limits): The timeline of references in the volume extends beyond January 2016, so a much better point of comparison would surely have been the Islamic State video campaign directed at the Maghreb region that was released in that month. Besides this broader problem, the author also makes an error in claiming that AQIM praised the Islamic State for the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Looking at AQIM’s statement on the attacks, there is no mention of the Islamic State at all, but rather just a general praise of the attackers for defending the honour of Islam while condemning France’s broader role in the Muslim world.