Jihadism Transformed, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State’s Global Battle of Ideas
By Simon Staffell and Akil N. Awan (Editors)
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 273 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Christine Sixta Rinehart, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of South Carolina Palmetto College

Jihadism Transformed is a collection of essays that elucidates the ideological battle that has raged all over the globe between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This book fills the scholarship gap regarding the differences in religious philosophy and goals between the two terrorist organizations. Essays examine the relationships between ISIS and al-Qaeda in the following countries: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, in addition to Western and African regions.

The “Introduction by the Editors” provides an overview of the Arab Spring and the impact it had on al-Qaeda and the future Islamic State. It was speculated that Islamism would die a subtle death when democracy became the primary goal of the Arab Spring. However, when the Arab Spring resulted in dismal failure all over the Middle East and Africa, the establishment of the caliphate by IS managed to revitalize jihadism. IS has managed to take the jihadist movement from an ethereal dream to an established reality with the creation of the Caliphate and an actual Islamic state.

In Chapter 2, Nelly Lahoud tracks the evolution of the Islamic State through its names, including its divorce from al-Qaeda. According to Abu Mohammad al-Adnani (official ISIS spokesman), IS divorced al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda was pursuing reconciliation and had lost its way; if al-Qaeda had reformed itself, it would have been forgiven by IS. Perhaps, the split would have never occurred. However, the rift did not mend. “Thus, if AQ’s leaders wanted to show that they and their followers were willing to die for the cause, IS’s leaders are keen to highlight that they want to kill for the cause” (p. 33).

Chapter 3 examines the role of Ayman al-Zawahiri in the rise of ISIL. Split into five sections, Donald Holbrook highlights that MENA uprisings undermined al-Qaeda in numerous ways, showing that authoritarian regimes could be dismantled without the use of jihad and that establishing a democracy was possible. Al-Zawahiri emphasized that al-Qaeda differed from ISIL in two major ways: its global reach and use of moderation in violent jihad. However, Holbrook points out the cracks in Zawahiri’s narrative, stating al-Qaeda has never been concerned about life in general.

The next series of chapters look at ISIS literature within the state. Editor Simon Staffel writes in Chapter 4 that Egypt is crucial to understanding transitions in jihadist narratives as Egypt was the origin of the Salafi-jihadist narrative. This chapter analyzes the rise of IS in Egypt through the examination of narratives from the jihadist movement after January 25, 2011, the date of the emergence of the democratic movement in Egypt. Salafi-jihadism is intrinsically connected to local politics and has not as of yet, embraced the global brutality of IS. In Chapter 5, Jonathan Githens-Mazer explores why the narrative of violence resonates in Tunisian audiences and how violent actors justify their activities when more peaceful outlets exist in Tunisia. Elisabeth Kendall argues in Chapter 6 that AQAP has continued to solidify its prolific presence in Yemen even though the Islamic State has already penetrated Yemen. AQAP in Yemen had created a cultural jihadist narrative in Yemen that resonates while IS has not made much effort to propagandize the Yemeni people.

Similarly in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa, Valentina Bartolucci finds that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and IS have always been two different movements with two different ideologies through an in-depth analysis of group texts. In Nigeria, Boko Harem allied itself with ISIS in March 2015 and Virginia Comolli traces this process in Chapter 8. In Chapter 9, Martha Turnbull looks at the devolution of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan while simultaneously experiencing growth in supporters of the Islamic state, thus inevitably decreasing the ideological distance between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Christopher Anzalone examines how Shiites have confronted Sunni jihadist discourse in Chapter 10, analyzing how the Arab Spring became more of a sectarian movement in Syria and Iraq. The last chapter by Editor Akil Awan tries to identify why Westerners are joining ISIS or why the narrative of ISIS resonates with Western young Muslims and Muslim converts.

Although applicable to students of all ages, this book is more appropriate for upper division undergraduate students, graduate students, policymakers, and academics. While short, each chapter examines texts from both ISIS and al-Qaeda, providing a rich understudied comparison between ISIS and al-Qaeda. This book does a tremendous job of identifying ideological and cultural differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS, a subject that has previously been unexamined. It is highly recommended for those interested in Islamism discourse and terrorist organization ideology.