1979: Annus Horribilis—Modern Jihad Goes Global

Book excerpt: Sebastian Gorka, 'Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War'

100,000 people gather in Tehran for a massive rally against the Shah, January 1979 / AP
April 9, 2016

Three momentous events mark 1979 as the year in which modern jihad, having evolved over the course of the century, emerged as a global movement: the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran, the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While the conditions for an Islamist explosion had existed for a long time, these events were the spark.

On April 1, 1979, following the overthrow of the shah and the return of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in France, the Shiite populace of Iran voted in a national referendum to become an Islamic republic. A new constitution outlined the central role of divine revelation in determining Iran’s laws, which would be based on the Koran and the Sunnah, the traditions of Islam. Then on November 4, a crowd of student protesters who were loyal to Khomeini and committed to taking their revolution to the "great Satan," America, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans hostage. Most of them would remain in captivity until the day Ronald Reagan took Jimmy Carter’s place in the White House. Focused on rescuing their imprisoned countrymen, Americans had a poor understanding of the broader picture in Iran. The elderly Khomeini was not seen as a serious alternative to the royal Pahlavi family, who were friendly to the United States. But the revolutionary cleric and his new guard of religious fanatics were able to exploit the ancient Persian reserves of pride and resilience, quickly imposing a Shia version of theocracy in which Islam and politics were totally reintegrated. The mullahs of Tehran became the center of political as well as religious power in Tehran.

Mideast Two Revolutions
Demonstrators hold up a poster of exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini during an anti-shah demonstration in Tehran in 1978 / AP

The Shia of Iran thus demonstrated to the world—including the Sunnis, many of whom would be envious—that the theocratic caliph- ate was viable in the modern world. It also demonstrated that Muslims not only should but could reject the Western separation of politics and faith. Modernity’s separation of Allah’s writ and governance could be reversed.

Just as important, the success of the Iranian revolution and the embassy attack proved that the United States, and by inference all other great powers, was not invulnerable. The Muslim world did not have to be the powerless victim of Western machinations, such as interference in Iran’s domestic affairs and overarching control of the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Twelve days after the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, about three hundred armed Islamists, inexperienced and ill- equipped, seized control of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam and the equivalent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These men were interested in a holy war not against infidel Christians or Jews but against their fellow Muslims. Led by a man who would later declare himself the long-awaited mahdi—just as Mohammed Ahmad had done years before in Khartoum—these jihadists invoked the principle of takfirism to declare any Muslim who disagreed with them an apostate, a false Muslim, starting with the royal family, the house of Saud, whom they saw as puppets of the infidel West. Their war was first with their fellow Muslims who had fallen away from the path of purity. The militants managed to hold the Grand Mosque for almost two weeks, a stunning accomplishment. But it was only after the siege was finally broken and most of the jihadists killed—with the covert assistance of French commandos—that the implications of this jihadi attack and the breadth of the conspiracy became clear.

In his definitive account, The Siege of Mecca, Yaroslav Trofimov reports that the attackers were not simply a collection of embittered loners or isolated fundamentalists. They shared their hatred of the Saudi regime and their "apostate" countrymen with an influential group of Saudi clerics, key members of the ulema, the religious leaders of the country. These clerics lamented the loss of faith that had made the global community of Muslims, the ummah, weak, allowing it to be dominated by the infidel West. Recall that the Saudi state was founded on a compact between the house of Saud and the fundamentalist cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al Wahhab. In the eyes of these puritanical clerics, the behavior of the royal family and the spread of Western influence across the Arabian Peninsula were signs that it was time for that compact to be revoked. The clerics encouraged a turn to violence, offering a religious sanction for jihad against the house of Saud and the other "apostate" Muslims of Saudi Arabia.

After the siege of the Grand Mosque was put down, the jihadis’ connection to the influential Saudi clerics was unearthed and the individual imams were identified by Saudi intelligence. The king then invited them to the palace, where instead of having them incarcerated or beheaded, he made them an offer that was difficult to refuse. He proposed a new compact: The propagation of jihadist ideology within the country, on Islamic soil—dar al Islam—would be utterly haram, or forbidden. In exchange for a promise that the ideology would never again threaten the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the house of Saud, the government would support its propagation in infidel lands (dar al harb) around the globe. This commitment, backed by a massive influx of petrodollars, made the kingdom the most important force behind the spread of fundamentalist and radicalized Islamic ideology around the world.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
Afghans protesting Soviet involvement in their country invading their embassy in Tehran, Jan. 6, 1980 / AP

The third pivotal event of 1979 was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 24. The Marxist government of Afghanistan, a Muslim nation, was battling an internal threat from indigenous fundamentalist groups. Afghans had become increasingly discontent with the regime’s socialist reforms, and by December 1979 ancient clans and tribes of skilled warriors were attacking government institutions and assets. Having signed a treaty of friendship with the Afghan regime the year before, the Soviet Union decided it was time to step in and assist its "ally." Thirty thousand troops rolled in on Christmas Eve, a number that would grow to a hundred thousand.

While the upheavals in Iran and Saudi Arabia had an important psychological effect on future jihadists, the conflict in Afghanistan had the most direct influence on modern jihad. It was there that the ideas of a global jihad were forged and the original jihadist army coalesced, in no small part because of the massive resources that poured in from America and Saudi Arabia to support the indigenous mujahideen. In his essay "Martyrs: The Building Blocks of Nations," Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s boss and the real founder of Al Qaeda, attested to the importance of the Afghan holy war:

Some thought that the Earth had become devastated and that this ummah had been drained of the thirst for martyrdom. Therefore, Allah exploded the Jihad on the land of Afghanistan and groups of youths from the Islamic World marched forth to Afghanistan in search of Jihad and martyrdom.

The Jihad initially began as a few drops, until Allah decided to ignite the sparks within this blessed people and explode the Jihad, blessing with it the land of Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslims until its good encompassed the whole World.

Azzam, bin Laden, and their small band of Arabs—no more than a few hundred—transformed a conflict between Moscow and the tribes of Afghanistan into a global movement for Islamic jihad in which Muslims of different languages, cultures, and countries coalesced into one brotherhood in pursuit of one objective—the victory of Islam and the word of Allah across the earth. Without Azzam’s new ideas about jihad, legitimized by his scholarly prestige, and bin Laden’s access to millions of dollars in funding, Afghanistan’s jihad might have stayed within its borders. Together, these two men were able to take their enterprise global and start a fire that still rages today, more incandescent than ever.


Abdullah Azzam was born into a Palestinian family who had to flee the West Bank after the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. He became a disciple of the Muslim Brotherhood, studying during his formative years the incendiary works of its founder, Hassan al Banna (1906–1949) and those of Sayyid Qutb, finding in them the expression of his own rage and sense of victimhood. Studying in Syria and Egypt and teaching in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, he came into contact with the leading Islamist movements of the day, weaving their disparate intellectual threads together into a cohesive doctrine, which he eventually published in 1984 as a fatwa titled Defense of the Muslim Lands. The foundational work for the global jihad of the twentieth century, Azzam’s Defense contains the key assertions at the heart of every jihadist enterprise:

Abdullah Azzam
Abdullah Azzam / AP
  • Muslims have been humiliated at the hands of impure regimes and colonial powers.
  • Islam will suffer ultimate defeat if Muslims do not take on jihad as a personal obligation.
  • The only way for Islam to be saved is for the caliphate to be reestablished for the glory of Allah.

Muslims are the people who have been entrusted with the final revelation of God, Azzam writes, and Islam is the only religion destined for the whole of humanity. Yet Muslims have been humiliated and subjugated. The unclean, the polytheists, those who do not believe in Allah, he says,

have duped the dull masses of Muslims by installing their wooden-headed puppets as false figureheads of states that remain under their control.

Colonialism has taken on a new face.

They have come from every horizon to share us amongst them like callers to a feast. There is no greater humiliation for the people expected to lead humanity to redemption.

The unbelievers have thus joined together to humiliate the Muslims, and the only way Muslims can fight back is to come together under a unified caliphate "in order to make victorious Allah’s religion of Islamic monotheism."

Defense of the Muslim Lands begins with an epigraph justifying violent jihad in the words of Mohammed: "But those who are killed in the Way of Allah, He will never let their deeds be lost." If there were any doubt about Azzam’s emphasis on martyrdom in service to Allah, he clarified it in his "Martyrs: The Building Blocks of Nations":

History does not write its lines except with blood. Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls. Honor and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses.

For Azzam, nothing is more honorable than for a Muslim to die fighting in the collective effort to reestablish the caliphate. In the short term, however, he was concerned about drawing more fighters to Afghanistan, so in Defense of the Muslim Lands he emphasizes the personal obligation of every Muslim to jihad. Insisting that his call for universal holy war is supported by a wide array of Muslim scholars, he details the lengthy process he went through to get this approval. During the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, he recalls, he delivered a lecture before more than one hundred scholars from around the Muslim world, "from whom there was not a single objection."

This broad scholarly support of Azzam’s teaching was important for two reasons. The approval of the ulema, the learned men and scholars, established the validity of his fatwa before the Muslim world. At the same time, it showed that support for Azzam’s notion of jihad extended far beyond the "Arab mujahideen," the foreign jihadis fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The scholars Azzam consulted may not have joined him on the battlefield, but their approval allowed his call to jihad to resonate across the globe. As one scholar wrote in his endorsement of the fatwa, "Therefore it is incumbent upon every Muslim today, capable of carrying a weapon, to march forward to jihad to aid his or her Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and in every place in need, even though his or her parents do not permit it. ..."

Azzam himself understood the crucial role of ideologues in the battle. He knew victory could not be achieved by the sword alone. Expounding on the Hadith, the stories and sayings of Mohammed, he stated that "the ink of the scholar is worth more than the blood of the martyr." He continued:

Indeed nations are only brought to life by their beliefs and their concepts, and they die only with their desires and their lusts.

The life of the Muslim ummah is solely dependent on the ink of its scholars and the blood of its martyrs.

What is more beautiful than the writing of the ummah’s history with both the ink of a scholar and his blood, such that the map of Islamic history becomes colored with two lines: one of them black, and that is what the scholar wrote with the ink of his pen; and the other one red, and that is what the martyr wrote with his blood.

And something more beautiful than this is when the blood is one and the pen is one, so that the hand of the scholar which expends the ink and moves the pen, is the same as the hand which expends its blood and moves the ummah.

The extent to which the number of martyred scholars increases is the extent to which nations are delivered from their slumber, rescued from their decline, and awoken from their sleep.

In this file photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, Lebanese people gather at the scene of an attack claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades
In this file photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, Lebanese people gather at the scene of an attack claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades / AP

Like other ideologues before him, Azzam appreciated the importance of ideas and beliefs on the battlefield. People, he knew, will not fight for territory or treasure alone; they have to believe in the righteousness of their cause. It was Azzam who would elaborate the ultimate justice of jihad and provide the rationale for thousands, indeed tens of thousands, to join the battle for Allah against the infidels.

Azzam’s influence stretched well beyond the Afghan war. Even after he was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989, his call to universal war strengthened and catalyzed Al Qaeda’s growth into a global brand, eventually spawning ISIS and, in 2014, the creation of the new Islamic State—the caliphate reborn.

Elaborating on the importance of Azzam in launching the global jihadist movement, the publishers of the English-language version of Defense of the Muslim Lands write in their introduction:

Abdullah Azzam was greatly influenced by the Jihad in Afghanistan and the Jihad was greatly influenced by him. To it he concentrated his full effort, that he ultimately became the most prominent figure in the Afghani Jihad aside from the Afghan leaders. He spared no effort to pro- mote the Afghan cause to the whole world, especially throughout the Muslim ummah.... He changed the minds of Muslims about Jihad in Afghanistan and presented the Jihad as an Islamic cause which concerns all Muslims around the world [emphasis added].

Due to his efforts, the Afghani Jihad became universal, in which Muslims from every part of the world came to fight.

Azzam had dedicated his own life to jihad, and his clerical credentials were impeccable. His doctorate in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which gave him full authority to issue fatwas, was from the most important theological institution in the Sunni world, Al Azhar in Cairo. His prestige was one reason that Defense of the Muslim Lands, from the time it was issued until the summer of 2014, when ISIS reestablished the caliphate, was the modern jihadi movement’s most effective tool for mobilizing support.

Another reason was that the logic of Azzam’s fatwa was flawless. Azzam had translated the geopolitical crisis of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan into a religious mandate for action. The USSR was a kuffar, an infidel nation, and the worst kind—driven by an atheist dogma that denied not only Allah but all transcendental truth. This infidel superpower had invaded dar al Islam, sacred Muslim land. The government in Kabul may have been made up of socialists, but the nation was part of Khorasan, ancient Islamic territory. Its invasion by infidel forces demanded that the global community of Muslims wage a holy war to repel the kuffar invaders.

Azzam reasoned that because there was no caliph to declare jihad against the USSR or any other infidel group, Muslims could not wait for direction from the outside. No longer an action declared by an imperial leader, jihad was thus "democratized." Azzam’s fatwa became the most important document sanctioning and requiring holy Islamic war for the next three decades.


While Abdullah Azzam forms one pillar of modern jihad, Osama bin Laden forms the other. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought Azzam into the foreign fighter movement, and the first Gulf War, a dozen years later, propelled his onetime deputy, bin Laden, to the leadership of a global terror organization targeting America and American interests around the world.

The scion of a prominent Saudi family—his father was one of the wealthiest building contractors in the desert nation and a friend of the king—Osama bin Laden was working for the family firm when radicals stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca. While he had likely come into contact with the ideas of Sayyid Qutb as well as with Azzam, he was not yet fully radicalized, and he saw the siege as a treasonous act against a legitimate Islamic government. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan one month later, something snapped. He later told an interviewer, "When the invasion of Afghanistan started, I was enraged and went there at once. I arrived within days, before the end of 1979." Though it is improbable that he actually arrived in Afghanistan "within days" of the Soviet invasion, it is likely that he traveled there in great secrecy to deliver support for the mujahideen from wealthy Gulf donors, keeping his family in the dark about his mission.


Azzam was the older, revered scholar and teacher, while bin Laden was a twenty-three-year-old ascetic with access to many millions of dollars in funds from his own family and from donors throughout the Middle East. By the early 1980s, bin Laden was a conduit for external funding and a key figure in the recruitment of fighters, bringing thousands of men through Pakistan to Afghanistan in support of the holy war against the atheist Soviet Union.

The pairing of Azzam and bin Laden was critical to the success of the enterprise. Azzam was not the first to talk about jihad, but with bin Laden’s financial and operational assistance, he gave the ideology a longer reach than it had ever had before. The Saudis and many other Arab Muslims felt an obligation to support the jihad for religious purposes, and bin Laden could facilitate their support. At the same time, the United States was providing covert support to the indigenous mujahideen of Afghanistan to weaken the Soviet regime. For the time being, the interest of the capitalist West coincided with that of the Wahhabi fundamentalists. Both saw the Soviet Union as their enemy. By the end of the 1980s, having lost more than fourteen thousand soldiers in a vicious unconventional war in a region that had brought defeat to invaders as disparate as Alexander the Great and the British Empire, the Kremlin decided that the war in Afghanistan was no longer worth it. American Stinger missiles, Pakistani intelligence, and small arms from China had made the local Afghan fighters a force to be reckoned with. In the view of the new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, they could not be defeated without inordinate cost to the USSR.

But the "Arab Muj," who had come from outside Afghanistan to fight in this new holy war, especially Osama bin Laden, would draw another conclusion. Less than a year after the last Soviet troop convoy had left the territory of Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam, the leader of the MAK, the organization that had recruited more than fifty-five thousand foreign fighters to come and wage war in Afghanistan, was dead, and bin Laden inherited the jihadi organization that would soon become Al Qaeda. But bin Laden had a different interpretation of what had just happened in Afghanistan—what it meant for the future of all Muslims and the fight against infidels everywhere.

For the wealthy Saudi, who had just spent a decade in a war zone fighting the overwhelmingly more numerous and better equipped Soviets, there was only one way to interpret the victory of the jihadists: they truly were warriors of Allah, true mujahideen, fighters in a holy war supported by God. There was no other way to explain the victory over the superior forces of a superpower. It would be inconceivable for bin Laden and his ilk to conclude that the war was in fact won because another infidel superpower, the United States, had facilitated the victory of the local Afghans through a covert program supported by his lazy countrymen safe and sound back in Saudi Arabia. His certainty that the Arab mujahideen were now vindicated as God’s own fighters eventually spurred bin Laden to broaden his jihadi horizons. But only after another war broke out.

Kuwaiti demonstrators holding placard which shows Saddam Hussein as bloodthirsty during a rally in Damascus, Syria / AP

The following year saw Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invade Kuwait. His occupation of the neighboring nation also put the Saudi kingdom and its royal family at risk, as many believed that after the fall of Kuwait, Saddam would next invade Saudi Arabia. By this point Osama was losing faith in the elite of his homeland, but the king had been a close friend of his father’s, and far more important than that, Saudi Arabia was the home to the holiest and most precious sites in all Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina, where Mohammed had established the first caliphate. The kingdom had to be protected from Saddam Hussein, a Baathist thug who modeled himself more on Stalin than Mohammed.

Bin Laden met with King Fahd and the Saudi defense minister, asking them not to depend on non-Muslim (infidel) assistance from the United States and offering to defend Saudi Arabia with his own legion of seasoned Arab mujahideen. But the king declined and instead invited America and its allies to deploy their troops to the Arabian Peninsula. This deployment, however, required a fatwa, issued by the royal court’s domesticated clerics, the first of its kind in Islamic his- tory. Although stationing infidel troops in the land of Mecca and Medina had been utterly haram, or forbidden, since the time of the first caliphate, now it was decreed permissible. For bin Laden, this meant the crusaders were back, but this time they had been invited by the king himself. Islam had been betrayed and sullied by its own royal leadership. This decision changed the world, moving bin Laden to turn his guerrilla band into an international terror organization that would bring jihad to the streets of America.

Bin Laden now began publicly to denounce the king, his father’s close friend, as a lackey of the infidels. Attempts to silence him failed, and eventually he was banished from the kingdom and stripped of his Saudi citizenship. After the Gulf War, he moved to Sudan and took his organization—renamed Al Qaeda, "The Base"—with him.

Al Qaeda now had a new target. Instead of killing infidels who had dared to invade Muslim lands, as with the Soviets in Afghanistan, the holy war would be taken directly to the infidel, either in his own land or in locations abroad that offered an easy target.

While the operations against the infidels were planned in secret, bin Laden decided to come out of the shadows and publicly issue a fatwa of his own, Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places, urging all Muslims, just as his mentor Abdullah Azzam had, to take up the fight and become jihadis themselves. Al Qaeda may have been born in the mountains and villages of Central Asia in a war with an occupying military, but now the enemy was everywhere, its ranks including office workers in New York, embassy employees in Africa, and American sailors in Yemen. The following decade would witness the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the suicide attack against the USS Cole in the Port of Aden in 1999.

Modern jihad had finally gone global. And then came September 11, 2001.

This essay was excerpted from Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War by Sebastian Gorka, available from Regnery Publishing on April 11.