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.

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  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,

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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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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