ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām and Palestine

In: Die Welt des Islams
Thomas Hegghammer Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)

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ʿAbdallāh ʿAzzām (1941–1989) helped make jihadism more transnational by spearheading the effort to bring Muslim foreign fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s. But why would a West Bank native devote himself to a war in Central Asia and not to the Palestinian struggle? In order to understand ʿAzzām’s unusual ideological trajectory, this article examines his relationship with Palestine, notably his experiences growing up in the territories, the extent of his involvement in the armed Palestinian struggle, and his views on the conflict with Israel. The article draws on previously underexploited primary sources, including ʿAzzām’s own writings, rare Arabic-language biographies, and interviews with family members. I argue that ʿAzzām’s Palestinian background predisposed him to transnational militancy. His exile in 1967 made him an aggrieved and rootless citizen of the Islamic world. His time fighting the Israel Defense Forces with the Fedayeen in 1969–70 gave him a taste of combat and a glimpse of pan-Islamic solidarity in practice. The inaccessibility of the battlefield after 1970 combined with ʿAzzām’s distaste for the leftist PLO led him to pursue the more accessible jihad in Afghanistan instead. There, he hoped to build an Islamist army that could reconquer Palestine. When Ḥamās rose as a military organization in the late 1980s, ʿAzzām embraced and supported it. Thus ʿAzzām was, to some extent, a byproduct of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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