The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

A Guest on This Earth:
Humām al-Balawī and the Birth of Jihadist Fiction

Nadav Samin

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

News of the jihad aroused his interest in a special way.1

It is the springtime of jihadist literature. As literary movements go, this one is a rather shabby affair. Yet it is one that jihadist militants and the scholars who follow them have proclaimed to be in full swing. The efflorescence of jihadi poetry in Islamic State domains has been described by Robin Creswell and Bernard Haykel as a signature aspect of the group’s revolutionary appeal.2 The forging of new militant selves in pursuit of ancient glories proceeds across the Islamic State mediascape at a breathtaking pace, eclipsing al-Qaeda’s earlier Internet-borne efforts by orders of magnitude.

In the time between the weakening of al-Qaeda and the rise of the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria, a curious blip appeared in the world of militant letters. A short story in the jihadi vein, written anonymously, was posted on Internet forums in 2006. When I first came across the story that year, I took it as just another curiosity of the jihadist mediascape. Four years later, in January 2010, news broke of the so-called Triple Agent Humām al-Balawī, the Jordanian informant turned al-Qaeda operative who killed himself along with eight others in a suicide attack at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. It emerged that before taking the operative’s plunge, al-Balawī had carved out a revered space for himself on the jihadist Internet as an influential essayist and forum moderator. Unable to forget the short story I’d discovered online in 2006, I revisited that curious literary artifact, now hearing echoes of al-Balawī’s writerly voice and biography in its tortured prose.

Did al-Balawī also try his hand at fiction writing? I think so. And if my supposition is correct, al-Balawī is the author of the first known work of jihadist fiction, a short story titled “Take Me to Jihad.” The story of Jaʿfar ʿUtba, white-collar professional and failed holy warrior, and that of its author, Humām al-Balawī, invite reflection on significant aspects of modern Islamic politics, including the nature and influence of the jihadist mediascape and the centrality of religious conviction in the militant universe. Jaʿfar’s story, like that of its author, reveals how the radically new nature of this mediascape helps reshape religious beliefs, forging new personas and new cultures in its wake.

The story, in a nutshell, goes as follows: Jaʿfar ʿUtba is a mechanical engineering student at a Jordanian university whose interest in militant action—jihad—is aroused by the attacks of September 11. At first conflicted about his new passion, he overcomes his doubts after he discovers the world of jihadist militancy on the Internet. Unlike the religious figures in his Amman neighborhood, who counsel moderation or at least nonviolence, the zealots on the Internet call unequivocally for armed struggle. Resonating with their message, Jaʿfar longs to go to Iraq but cannot get there until several years later, when his company sends him on a business trip to Baghdad. Just as he is planning to join the militants, though, he receives an urgent call from his wife begging that he return home to help care for their gravely ill daughter. Jaʿfar does so, only to find his child on her deathbed. A subsequent effort to travel to Sudan for jihad is also thwarted, and thirty-five years later, Jaʿfar the successful businessman is shown near death, lamenting his failure to act on his convictions.

In light of the known facts of Humām al-Balawī’s life and in comparison with his attributed polemical essays, the story of Jaʿfar ʿUtba provides strong reason to believe that it is the work of the Jordanian doctor. Several similarities between the lives of the author and his protagonist Jaʿfar announce themselves early in the story. Jaʿfar lives in a working-class neighborhood in East Amman. Humām al-Balawī grew up in al-Nuzha, a working-class neighborhood in East Amman, adjacent to al-Ḥusayn, a Palestinian refugee camp. Jaʿfar’s father, Ustādh ʿUmar, is a teacher, as was al-Balawī’s father, Khalīl.3 And like al-Balawī, Jaʿfar is knowledgeable about his faith yet not particularly devout, casual about his lax adherence to religious ritual until his conversion to militancy.4

As is well known, al-Balawī was a medical doctor who worked for a number of years at a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Jordanian capital. Though Jaʿfar is depicted as an engineering student, the author of Jaʿfar’s story displays an uncommon familiarity with medical terminology and concepts. Characters in the story experience a range of maladies, including a near “schizophrenic break,” “meningitis,” a “brain tumor,” “liver cancer,” and other conditions. The author describes the seventy-year-old Jaʿfar as suffering “from a collapsed heart valve, which causes pulmonary edema from time to time and is accompanied by shortness of breath.” The frequent injections of medical expertise into the narrative suggest that the author had far more than secondhand knowledge of the subject. One also finds stylistic features in Jaʿfar’s story that are distinctive to al-Balawī’s polemical essays (at least in the literary circles in which he traveled). The author’s frequent use of quotation marks to signal facetiousness or sarcasm (e.g., “normal” and “abnormal” people, by Jaʿfar’s scornful reckoning) is an idiosyncratic literary device replicated in at least one of those essays.5

But it is in the thematic parallels between al-Balawī’s known works and the story of Jaʿfar that the strongest evidence for al-Balawī’s authorship emerges. Like his protagonist Jaʿfar, al-Balawī had been thwarted in several attempts to travel to Iraq for jihad, as he recounted in a published interview with al-Qaeda operatives just before his bombing mission: “I made many attempts to join the jihad in Iraq, but Allah decreed something else for me.”6 Perhaps the most compelling parallel—because of its specificity and quirkiness—is what Jaʿfar professes to be his greatest fear: dying in bed. Such a death, as opposed to dying in battle, was al-Balawī’s leitmotif in his polemical essays. In the one of which he was proudest, “When Will My Words Taste My Blood?” (written in January 2009, in response to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza), al-Balawī described his greatest fear:

I feel as if I’ve become an old man that people pass by whispering: “He’s an old man, and his whole generation is gone.” For every day that I pass in shirking mode, a little bit of my life, health, and will are stolen from me, and the gap between what I dream about being and what I am in reality grows wider. Every praise poem turns to elegy, and every fire burns my heart to ashes with love for jihad…. What I fear most is that I will meet a man who went off to his Maker a martyr on account of the words I’ve written, while I die in my bed.7

Toward the end of the story, after his dreams of militant action have been repeatedly dashed, Jaʿfar takes stock of his otherwise successful life:

Look at you, Jaʿfar, in your bed, a prisoner without chains.… I waited for them to take you [to the field of battle] but no one came to do so, except the king of death, on the battle shirker’s bed.… Here I am, approaching death, weighed down with guilt. Has sitting on the sidelines of jihad kept me safe?… I will die here in my bed like a mangy camel.

Why did the story of Jaʿfar ʿUtba elude the canon, such as it is, of al-Balawī’s known works?8 Perhaps this experimental work of fiction was too revealing of its author’s personal life to be claimed for posterity by Abū Dujāna al-Khorāsānī (the pseudonym al-Balawī used for his jihadist writings). Whatever the reasons, the story of Jaʿfar possesses the dubious distinction of being the first known work of jihadist short fiction, befitting the tortured and troubled soul that dreamed it up eleven years ago.

The impact of September 11 resembled a strong tremor at the core of the earth, causing fissures and cracks invisible to the naked eye. It reversed the direction of the clock, and the features of the new century were transformed on account of what was accomplished by those civilian airplanes, planes that achieved what even the most ferocious warplanes could not achieve in decades. Who was behind this momentous event? Who dared smash the twin idols of Manhattan, announcing the beginning of the fourth world war, altering history with plastic knives and nineteen men? From which military school did he graduate? What was his rank? Where was his army? Jaʿfar wasn’t the only one asking himself these questions. Everyone on the planet was wondering the same.

Like his protagonist, al-Balawī was outwardly a “normal” man, a young professional and urban commuter who worked for a United Nations medical center in the Jordanian capital. Why did a pediatrician, husband, and father of two young daughters take to pen and later sword in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden and his successors? What accounts for al-Balawī’s “radicalization”? The answers are not simple. The path to jihadist militancy is contingent, capricious, and indeterminate. We must consider the particulars of al-Balawī’s life to understand how they intersected with the jihadist movement, a militant, transnational movement born of the confluence of geopolitics, religious conviction, and a new and emergent mediascape.

The Balawīs were a family triply displaced. Khalīl, the father, was born in 1943 in the Negev or Naqab region of what is today southern Israel, near the city of Beer Sheva (Biʾr Sabʿa). Khalīl’s surname affiliates him with Balī, a formerly nomadic tribe whose branches once traversed what are today four radically different polities: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. In the upheavals of 1948, Khalīl’s family fled the Negev for Jordan, where they settled. Khalīl’s second displacement was propelled more by economic circumstances than political ones. Lured like so many other educated Arab professionals by the promise of higher wages in the Gulf States, Humām’s father relocated around 1969 to Kuwait, where he took a teaching position.

Humām was born in Kuwait in 1977. His name means “king,” but derives from a root that means, more commonly, “worry” or “anxiety.” Khalīl’s residence in Kuwait came to a rude end in 1991, when the kingdom expelled its Palestinian residents in retribution for Yasir Arafat’s pledge to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Humām, who experienced this third displacement as a child, was undoubtedly nurtured on the memories of earlier ruptures in his family history. After high school in Amman, Humām earned admission to medical school in Istanbul, where he pursued his degrees and met and married his wife, Defne Bayrak.9 Six years later, the couple returned to Amman, where Humām lived and worked until he departed for Pakistan and his suicide mission.

In this trifold displacement, Humām al-Balawī was no different from hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians in Jordan and beyond. Why, then, did Humām succumb, embracing the jihadist’s persona and convictions? He was, after all, a medical doctor, trained to preserve life, not to kill vengefully, as he promised to do in one of several valedictory videos choreographed by his Taliban handlers. Torture and harassment by the authorities likely factored into his choices, as they did the decisions of his Egyptian co-handler, al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. A loathing of secular autocracy and a yearning for a utopian alternative surely did so as well. There is no use pronouncing with full certainty on matters so opaque. Yet one factor undoubtedly helps to explain how Humām al-Balawī achieved infamy: his immersion in the jihadist mediascape.

The events of September 11 had a singular effect on him, activating in his mind dormant brain cells, and stirring in the depths of his heart a love of jihad, which had until that point been merely an inchoate emotion, without any definition or identity, or any road map for extracting it from captivity. The films of the mujāhidīn broadcast now and again by al-Jazeera would remind Jaʿfar about events in Iraq. He showed an increasing interest in them until, overcome by a state of mind resembling addiction, he went searching for them on the Internet.

Nearly twenty years after its inception, the world of Internet jihad has evolved into an elaborate echo chamber in which alternative realities displace offline worlds. To understand how this might be the case, consider from our own context the curious traction of the birther movement or the Trump presidential candidacy—kindred phenomena in more ways than one. The Internet has eroded consensus realities by accelerating what anthropologist Dale Eickelman has described as “an increasing fragmentation of authority” through “incursions of small media”—once fax machines and cassette tapes, now Twitter accounts and self-produced, professional-quality short videos.10 The jihadist mediascape is the philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s vision of the simulacrum come to life: a simulated universe of salvific representations that constitutes its own reality.11 For a small but significant number of Arab and Muslim youth, it is the only reality worth acknowledging.

In their discourse, appearance, and mannerisms, Islamic State militants declare their intent to revive the times of the Prophet and enact the events preceding the End of Days. The jihadist mediascape thus possesses its own cosmology and eschatology, which together eclipse secular time and with it the worldly aspirations of wayward and curious youth. For many such young people, this world is one of broken dreams, corrupt state officials, police repression, sexual anxiety, and restless energy. Not all choose to sit idly at the café and wait for the disenchanted system to clank into Weberian gear. For al-Balawī, the simulated reality of an online mediascape proved more viscerally real and compelling than his own middle-class routine.

Al-Balawī’s story is significant because it prefigures the social media–driven strategies of Islamic State recruitment and messaging that have shocked the world during the last three years. His transformation from Internet essayist to militant bomber was a moment of culmination for the emergent jihadist mediascape, signaling its capacity to produce new types of political personas and shape new forms of politics. Al-Balawī first achieved renown in the hideaways of the jihadi Internet as the imaginative and biting essayist Abū Dujāna al-Khorāsānī, the movement honorific (kunya) he adopted in 2007. In 2006, the year in which the story of Jaʿfar first appeared, however, al-Balawī was still living the relatively ordinary life of an urban commuter, raising two daughters in Amman with his wife and spending much of his free time on the Internet. Before becoming the story himself, Humām was a storyteller, constantly inventing new selves on the Internet. From displaced child of a serially displaced father to physician and family man to fiction writer and militant essayist, al-Balawī finally created his supreme fiction—the persona of the jihad warrior he in fact became.

In a propaganda parting shot filmed for his militant handlers, al-Balawī assumes the finger-waving demeanor of a jihadist religious scholar, citing Islamic proof texts to justify the lawfulness and necessity of suicide attacks.12 Like the protagonist of his story, al-Balawī idolized Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī, a fellow Jordanian who founded the precursor to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and was likewise fond of fingerwagging. During his final interview, al-Balawī seems at one point to imitate the rhetoric of the late Zarqāwī, killed in Iraq in 2006 in a US airstrike. “Allāhum Ahzimhum wa-zalzilhum” (“O God, defeat them and shake them”), he says, invoking a famous phrase of al-Zarqāwī’s derived from a Tradition of the Prophet (hadith), which al-Qaeda’s official media outlet al-Saḥāb adopted as part of its standard audiovisual signature, seen also at the beginning of al-Balawī’s own videos. Al-Balawī the consumer of jihadist content thus became a producer in his own right, moving through distinct personas up to and beyond the execution of his fateful act. In his transition from battle-shirking littérateur to self-sacrificing militant, al-Balawī left a trail of discarded narrative forms. The most intimate of these, I suggest, is the story of Jaʿfar ʿUtba.

The clamoring of students at the doors of the bus brought a sarcastic smile to Jaʿfar’s face. He’d become “abnormal” in a society of ordinary people, where love of the material world and worshipping and fighting for its sake was “normalcy,” while love of jihad in the path of God and fighting to elevate his word was “deviancy” from this normal condition. Jaʿfar felt as if he were a guest on this earth, not meant to live past his third decade, or as if he were a traveler passing through, stopping for a break. He gazed at the people on the bus with pity and sympathy for their condition. They were clamoring to reach the university on schedule, but not one of them had been clamoring to reach the highest paradise!

Changes in the nature of modern media that promote the rehearsal and recycling of new personas cannot alone explain why a person would die for a cause so seemingly quixotic. The new mediascape, whether in the American heartland or jihadland, affords the opportunity to assert new forms of social action, but it does not alone provide a motive for doing so. The desire to emulate others who took up and promoted the cause on- and offline is a powerful motivation. Yet underlying the shared commitments of leaders and disciples is a shared religious conviction, one that is central to understanding the nature of Islamist militancy today.

In another propaganda video prepared by al-Qaeda and the Taliban before al-Balawī’s departure for his bombing mission, the aspiring martyr dedicated parting messages to two individuals. One of these was Lewis ʿAṭiyyat Allāh,13 a popular Saudi Internet essayist and bin Laden sympathizer who was active on jihadist forums until 2004 and who seems to have inspired al-Balawī’s own writings. “God willing, you will return once again to the field of writing, because your mujāhidīn brothers are yearning for your writings,” al-Balawī told ʿAṭiyyat Allāh. “By God, no one like you has come after you, and all the writers were and still are indebted to you. I ask God that you respond to this call, and that you return to writing for the aid of this religion.”14

The anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed profiled Lewis ʿAṭiyyat Allāh in Contesting the Saudi State. She found him to be “a real bourgeois, a pious and engaged middle-class man,” who “mastered the art of dialogue according to Western standards, although he may not want to acknowledge his reproduction of this discourse.”15 In Lewis ʿAṭiyyat Allāh, Humām al-Balawī saw a person like himself: educated, committed, yet profoundly dissatisfied with the circumstances of his age.

ʿAṭiyyat Allāh and al-Balawī shared another essential quality: religious conviction. For al-Rasheed, ʿAṭiyyat Allāh’s militant religiosity cannot be reduced to a generic radicalism for which faith in God is secondary, a viewpoint to which the political scientist Olivier Roy is inclined.16 It is, rather, the principal driver of ʿAṭiyyat Allāh’s politics, worldview, and online activism.

To whom should I go? Who will I ask? For inquiring about jihad in our day and age is not like inquiring about the rules for ritual purity, menstruation, or childbirth. Inquiring about the rulings for coming to the aid of oppressed Muslims is not like inquiring about the rules for marriage, divorce, or singing.

What is the specific Muslim interpretive community to which Lewis and Humām adhere? Lewis and Humām are adherents of Salafism, a school of Sunni thought that encompasses a great many Muslim interpretive movements and, as a consequence of this capaciousness, is often quite fuzzy. Salafism is an orientation toward Islam that enables the individual believer to obtain direct access to scriptural proof texts (Quran and hadith) without the mediation of seminary-trained scholars or the abstruse traditions they debate and uphold.17 It is at once a demolition and a renovation of the old religious order. Salafism is a challenging concept because it tends toward two countervailing outcomes for the modern Muslim believer, both of which stem from its core premises. The two key assertions of Salafism, that Muslims can have access to religious truth directly through proof texts and that through this process they might attain absolute knowledge of true Islam, can either facilitate new Muslim modernities or subvert the modern world order.

Salafi thought, elaborated through dedicated satellite television stations, websites, pamphlets, magazines, and self-help–style manuals, is ideally suited to the shaping of new Muslim modernities. The Salafi focus on basic theological tenets and everyday ritual practices provides a ready-made set of conceptual tools that can be integrated easily into an urban Muslim professional’s life. Salafism in this sense performs the role of post-Reformation Protestantism, at least when viewed in a Weberian light.

Yet if Salafi hermeneutics can encourage and facilitate Muslim integration into a globalized modernity, their promise of absolute truth can also promote the exclusion and even the anathematizing of those outside the privileged circle. This aspect of Salafism is as much an intra-Muslim concern as it is an interfaith one. The question of who is and who is not a correct believer animates many, if not most, conflicts in the Muslim world today. The aggressively exclusionary dimension of Salafism counteracts its more felicitous aspect, inhibiting the integration of modern Muslim thought with the more liberal, multicultural, and tolerant premises that constitute the ideals of the modern, globalizing world, or at least did so until recently.

In al-Balawī’s short story, the many shades of Salafism are dramatized through Jaʿfar’s encounters with various religious personalities at his local and university mosques. Seeking a route to join the jihad in US-occupied Iraq, Jaʿfar makes inquiries with three potentially sympathetic individuals. Each of his three encounters represents a typology of Muslim believer, the crucial distinction among them being how each is oriented toward the dominant political order and the legitimacy of religiously inspired violence against it.

The first of the three, Abū Maḥmūd, is the imam of Jaʿfar’s local mosque. He firmly discourages the direction Jaʿfar seems to be taking. For al-Balawī, Abū Maḥmūd represents the worldview of traditional Islamic scholars, the ʿulamāʾ. They are in rhetorical solidarity with the struggles of Muslims abroad but decline to endorse militant action because of their inherent conservatism and fealty to Arab governments, in this case the Jordanian regime. Paying lip service to Salafism, they embody the hierarchies and institutions Salafism sets out to challenge.

Jaʿfar went to afternoon prayers, and waited afterward for the imam. Shaykh Abū Maḥmūd welcomed him with a smile, which encouraged Jaʿfar to pose the question….

Jaʿfar: “My shaykh, there is a question for which I’d like an answer.”

Shaykh Abū Maḥmūd: “Go ahead, Jaʿfar, what’s the problem? What would you like to ask?”

Jaʿfar: “There’s an issue that is confusing me, and I’d like your help.”

The Shaykh: “Does it concern marriage or proposing marriage? Has God afflicted you with love?”

And here Shaykh Abū Maḥmūd let out a loud laugh, which Jaʿfar met with a nervous smile.

Jaʿfar said: “Shaykh, I want to ask about the Islamic ruling for traveling to Iraq for jihad.”

Abū Maḥmūd’s facial expression changed, taking on a serious appearance. He said: “Pardon me, son, but who planted this idea in your head?”

The second figure Jaʿfar encounters is Muḥammad Khair, a campus activist with the student association of the Muslim Brotherhood. Khair seeks to divert Jaʿfar’s zealous energies toward missionary activities on campus, but Jaʿfar rejects his efforts. Muḥammad Khair personifies a kind of reasonableness and compromise that is particularly infuriating to Jaʿfar. Though he claims to advance Islamic goals, our protagonist reasons, the Brotherhood activist tacitly legitimizes the corrupt Jordanian political system.

Muḥammad Khair represents the modernist Salafi stream of thinking. He embraces political participation in Islamic terms and for Islamic purposes but sees no fundamental incompatibility between Islamic political thought and republican or Western institutions. The antagonism between the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood and its militant offshoots finds expression in the dialogue between these two characters in al-Balawī’s story. When Khair urges Jaʿfar to study hard and become a good engineer, campaign for student council elections, and help prepare for Islamic festivals, Jaʿfar cuts him short: “My studies can go to hell, and the student elections can go to hell, and the festivals can go to hell!” This is the only confrontation in the story, a reminder that for Islamists the most threatening adversaries are often fellow religious activists.

The third figure, Abū Muthannā, is a former detainee and jihad sympathizer fresh from the company of the imprisoned radical scholar Abū Muḥammad al-Maqdisī. While praised by al-Balawī and revered by his protagonist Jaʿfar, al-Maqdisī is notable in real life for being a critic of his disciple al-Zarqāwī as well as the latter’s successors in the Islamic State movement. Such is the extremism of the Islamic State that many of its supporters have threatened al-Maqdisī with death for his positions. In “Take Me to Jihad,” he is also trying to head to Iraq, but his path is being blocked by the Jordanian intelligence service, the same organization that would investigate Humām al-Balawī several years later for his pro-jihadi Internet activities.18

Recently released from prison, Abū Muthannā is described as “a slender man with a thick beard, who spent a lot of time with the books” at the university mosque. Jaʿfar is giddy when he learns of Abū Muthannā’s jihadist credentials, considering their meeting to be foreordained by God. Yet even this most hardcore of characters has himself failed to find a way to Iraq, and he discourages Jaʿfar from attempting the journey, albeit for practical reasons (the route has been compromised) rather than ideological ones. The failure of the story’s most committed militant to fulfill the jihadist ideal mirrors and magnifies the angst of Jaʿfar and his creator Humām al-Balawī.

Jaʿfar graduated from university, and married his paternal cousin. His life became busier in the face of practical obligations, and his love of jihad diminished somewhat, until Jaʿfar’s life came to appear “normal”.… Jaʿfar’s star was on the rise at his company, so much so that he was made assistant director.… The passage of time caused his commitment to his obligations before his Lord to slacken. He no longer prayed regularly at the mosque, and he didn’t care much to raise his children in a jihadist way. It was as if he had entered a period of laxity.… The Jaʿfar of today is not like Jaʿfar the student.…

Thirty-five years passed.… Jaʿfar no longer found people smiling at him, or sitting to listen to him. The members of his generation had passed away, or were approaching death.… Jaʿfar opened his eyes, and saw people running and conversing, yet he couldn’t hear them. He knew that they couldn’t help him. His recollections turned to when he was an adolescent, crying passionately in front of the computer for his beloved jihad, when he cried until he was almost completely covered in tears.… Jaʿfar closed his eyes for eternity before reaching the hospital, just shy of seventy years old, in his death bed, waiting for…. May God have mercy on him.

Like Jaʿfar, al-Balawī skirted the boundaries of middle-class “normalcy,” evincing a quiet disdain for its bourgeois assumptions. Before breaking with this world, he was globally minded, marrying a foreign woman and working for the preeminent international organization, the United Nations. But unlike his protagonist, al-Balawī ultimately renounced such ties with twenty-first century globalized normalcy and embraced a new, religiously defined version of globalism. This was one that replaces faith in markets with faith in the universality of scriptural revelation. Demanding nothing less than a willingness to die for that faith, it subsists on the wager that the demographic weight and diffusion of Muslim populations together with the multiplier effect of new media can produce a new countervailing globalism, a global Muslim resistance movement born of jihad. This wager seems unlikely to succeed, but the appeal of the movement’s vision of a new ordering of society and state has grown stronger with the weakening of centralized authority across large parts of the Muslim world. If the jihadist movement is at the forefront of a globally resurgent religious politics, it is in no small part because of its masterful capturing of the new mediascape with propaganda that is grandiose, macabre, and even cautiously, awfully literary.


  1. Humām al-Balawī, “Take Me to Jihad.” All excerpts translated by the author.
  2. Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, “Battle Lines,” New Yorker, June 8/15, 2015,
  3. The only comprehensive account of Humām al-Balawī’s life, which relies in part on interviews with his father and other family members, is Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012).
  4. Ibid., 52.
  5. “Permit Me, O Arabs, to Praise the President with the Chant: Long Live the President,” Humām al-Balawī. Al-Balawī’s essays are posted on various blogs and Internet discussion forums. One source for this and his other essays is:
  6. “An Interview with the Shaheed Abu Dujaanah al-Khorasani, As-Sahab Media, January-February 2010,
  7. “When Will My Words Taste My Blood?,” Humām al-Balawī,
  8. Al-Balawī’s online admirers have organized his essays into collections that circulate on the Internet,
  9. Beyrak has since joined the Islamic State in Syria, where, according to her social media profile, she is “an independent journalist from the land of the caliphate.”
  10. Dale F. Eickelman, “Communication and Control in the Middle East: Publication and Its Discontents,” in New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, ed. Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), 38, 40.
  11. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
  12. “Martyrdom Operations,” As-Sahab Media, February-March 2010,
  13. The other individual al-Balawī addressed was the mother of a slain militant.
  14. “An Interview with Abu Dujaanah al-Khorasani,” As-Sahab Media, January-February 2010,
  15. Madawi al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 177, 207.
  16. Olivier Roy, “Olivier Roy: ‘Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste’” [“Jihadism is a generational and nihilistic revolt”], Le Monde, November 24, 2015,
  17. Bernard Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 33–50.
  18. For discussion of these varied Islamist tendencies, see Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Jillian Schwedler, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Quintan Wiktorowicz, The Management of Islamic Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and State Power in Jordan (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001); Stephen Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990); Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985).

Nadav Samin is a Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses in the history and anthropology of the modern Middle East. He is author of the award-winning book, Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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