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Mobilization of Muslims for Jihad: Insights from the Past and their Relevance Today

ImageMuhammad Haniff Hassan in Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analysis, vol. 5, no. 8, August 2013.

What makes the mobilization of Muslims for jihad successful? Answering this question requires a look into a case representing a success story of such mobilization in recent history.

There have been many attempts at mobilizing Muslims for jihad in modern times, beginning with the invasion into Muslim lands by European colonial powers. However, the most successful mobilization is arguably the one carried out to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1990. Neither the call for jihad against the European colonization of Muslim lands nor for the liberation of Palestine achieved the same result in terms of the response from and the impact on Muslims. Tens of thousands of volunteers joined the fight and millions flowed to fund the jihad in Afghanistan during the peak of the mobilization. Even the current attempt by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to mobilize Muslims for jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq which has been ongoing for more than a decade has not experienced the same success.

The factors which contributed to the success of the mobilization against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan can be categorized into two: ideological factors rooted to the vision of Islamic revivalism and the notion of jihad in Islam against non-Muslim domination of Muslim life and countries, and structural factors that contributed to the appeal and spread of the ideas behind the mobilization. While acknowledging that ideas were indeed responsible in creating the mobilization, the structural factors are only touched upon here. They include: 1) a precipitant event that provided justification for a rallying call or frames of collective action and context for a mobilization, and 2) powerful allies in the form of political elites, major powers and existing religious institutions that had provided assistance to jihad mobilization efforts, directly or indirectly.

Precipitant Event

The precipitant or dramatic event in this case refers to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion became a major source of grievance among Muslims. Its resulting impact on Afghan Muslims provided an opportunity for active mobilization of Muslims all over the world. The Soviet invasion also generated international support for the Afghan jihad from the US and its allies who viewed it from a strategic viewpoint as a means to contain and defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War period.

Validation of the relationship between the success of the mobilization and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is found across many studies in the field of political violence. Tore Bjørgo’s conclusion on the root causes of terrorism is particularly instructive. He wrote in Root Causes of Terrorism that “Repression by foreign forces or occupation by colonial powers has given rise to a great many national liberation movements that have sought recourse in terrorist tactics, guerrilla warfare, and other political means. Despite their use of terrorist methods, some liberation movements enjoy considerable support and legitimacy among their own constituencies, and sometimes also from segments of international public opinion.”

Similarly, other scholars have sought to highlight the importance of historical context on the emergence of political violence. Frances F. Piven and Richard A. Cloward in Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail noted that “Popular insurgency does not proceed from someone else’s rules or hopes: it has its own logic and direction. It flows from historically specific circumstances: it is a reaction against those circumstances, and it is also limited by those circumstances.” In this case, the Soviet invasion was as much the context as the precipitant event. 

Powerful Allies

Many researchers on the era of the Soviet-Afghan jihad have highlighted the involvement of the US and its allies in the form of financial, material and political support as part of their Cold War strategy against the communist bloc. In facilitating the mobilization and training of Muslim fighters and supplying weaponry for jihad, they contributed to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the fall of its local collaborators in Kabul in 1992. The assistance was done covertly under the codename of Operation Cyclone. It was estimated that between 1980 and 1987, the United States spent US$15–30 million to as high as US$600 million a year on the operation. Although mujahidin factions tended to downplay the United States’ role in the Afghan jihad by denying that any assistance reached them, the presence of US support can be inferred from the writings of `Abdullah `Azzam who was the leading figure in mobilizing Muslims during the Afghan jihad.

For instance, `Azzam admitted receiving Stinger missiles (portable surface-to-air missiles) from the US but claimed that the cost of each missile (US$70,000) was borne by the Saudi government, thus avoiding giving credit to the United States. The denial of receiving direct assistance from the US is not surprising, however. In fact, it corroborates research which found that all forms of support from the US during that period were channeled through a third party, which may have been either the Pakistan or Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies, before they were distributed to various Afghan militant groups.

`Azzam also highlighted the lack of US interference in the mobilization of Muslims for the Afghan jihad on its own territory, a policy in stark contrast to that of today. For instance, Maktab Al-Khidmat, an agency founded for the purpose of mobilizing Muslims’ assistance for Afghan jihad all over the world, operated all over the US. `Azzam also confirmed the existence of an affiliate agency, Al-Kifah Refugee Centre that helped to raise awareness, funds and support for the jihad in Afghanistan, established by the Al-Faruq Mosque in Brooklyn, New York. `Azzam also had an account with the Independence Savings Bank for fundraising purposes in the United States.

Saudi Arabia, one of the key US key allies supporting the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion was noted to have matched dollar-for-dollar the United States’ financial support. The Saudis also adopted a policy of non-intervention towards jihad mobilization within their country and `Azzam admitted that Saudi citizens made up the largest group of foreign volunteers in Afghanistan. Other sources report that the Saudi Arabian national airline even gave 75% discounts on airfare tickets to Pakistan to support travelers to Afghanistan who wished to answer the call of mobilization.

Pakistan was another key ally in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion, noted for being the main conduit of US assistance for the Afghans through its Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In addition, Pakistan initiated training for the fighters, provided safe havens, opened borders and mobilized Pakistanis for jihad. `Azzam held the Pakistani president at the time, Zia ul-Haq, in high regard, and described him as a staunch supporter willing to sacrifice his own life for the jihad in Afghanistan. It was also known that `Azzam operated his mobilization network from Peshawar in Pakistan.

All the above accounts point to a significant degree of tolerance, support and facilitation by the US and its allies towards mobilization efforts which also included the dissemination of militant ideology. Sageman wrote in Understanding Terror Networks that “The global salafi jihad is without doubt an indirect consequence of US involvement in the Afghan-Soviet war. Without the US’ support for the jihad, the Soviets would probably not have withdrawn from Afghanistan. US covert action supported a traditional jihad, which included foreign Muslim volunteers.”

Resource Mobilization

There is much more evidence to support the existence of non-ideational structural factors that contributed to the success of Muslim mobilization. However, the objective here is not to provide an exhaustive list but to sufficiently validate the role of such non-ideational structural factors in determining the success of the mobilization that were also validated by other researchers, particularly in the field of resource mobilization and political opportunity theory within the study of social movements.

Recognizing that political/collective action and mobilization does not occur in a vacuum, scholars of social movements have long acknowledged the role of structural factors in constraining and facilitating political action and in providing environments that are conducive (or otherwise) for successful mobilization. Specifically, many scholars of social movements have recognized the importance and the positive effects of powerful allies within political elites on the movement’s mobilization process.

Resource mobilization, a theory within the study of social movements, states that the success of a movement’s mobilization is critically dependent on the availability of resources and its effective use. One of the resources identified is the existence of powerful allies like the US and states that sponsor the movement’s mobilization. Another theory within the study of social movements is political opportunity which holds that the success of a movement is due to the political opportunities available to it. Among the many opportunities identified by the theory is the existence of powerful allies among the political elites that enable and facilitate mobilization.

Mayer N. Zald and John D. McCarthy wrote in Social Movements in an Organizational Society that “Resource mobilization perspectives have stressed that resources and the structures of everyday life are important to understanding social movement processes, and the behavior of religious groups in this regard offer extensive illustrations of the point. Rather than stressing the role of religious belief in such facilitation, which was common earlier, [they indicated] how religious institutional structures may affect social movement trajectories.” This is similar to the role played by existing Islamic groups like the Muslim World League and religious establishments in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that significantly helped facilitate mobilization efforts for the Afghan jihad.


The past carries useful insights for understanding current phenomena. The successful mobilization during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets can therefore provide useful insight to the current attempt to mobilize Muslims for jihad in various conflict zones by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Similar to the mobilizations in the past, the first factor – a precipitant event – has direct relevance. Studies of the process of radicalization point to the significance of the war in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan as precipitant events in radicalizing Muslim youth to join the transnational jihad effort and plot attacks against foreign military powers in both countries.

In Inside Jihadism, Farhad Khosrokhavar comes to such a conclusion after analyzing the spread of militant ideology among Muslims in the West. Khosrokhavar wrote that “It is clear from a review of extremist material and interviews that militants are seeking to appeal to young American and European Muslims by playing on their anger over the war in Iraq and the image of Islam under attack” and then argues that the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Muslim countries will have a direct impact in mitigating the current threat of jihadists. According to him, quick resolution to the wars, while ensuring the stability of countries involved, was imperative to avoid security problems at local, regional and international levels.

Additionally, Marc Sageman argued in Leaderless Jihad that the removal of the American forces in Iraq, among other initiatives, was “absolutely essential… to counter Al Qaeda propaganda” and to extinguish “the sense of moral outrage” among Muslims. Furthermore, in 2006 the Pew Global Attitudes project Islam and the West: Searching for Common Ground surveyed Muslim perceptions of and attitudes to the image of the United States and its policies. Comparing the results from 2006 with the first survey data obtained in 2002, the project reported that its “surveys have documented the rise of anti-Americanism around the world, and especially in predominantly Muslim countries.” Seven out of eight people surveyed viewed the United States unfavorably. Additionally, the project report noted that “Anti-Americanism is largely driven by aversion to United States policies such as the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the United States support for Israel (emphasis mine),” and that “Anti-Americanism worsened in the Mideast in response to the war in Iraq – but it soared among Muslims in other parts of the world that previously did not view the United States poorly – notably in Indonesia and Nigeria.”

In the same vein as what was seen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Syria have created grievances among Muslims worldwide leading to opportunities to mobilize Muslims for jihad. When Muslim grievances meet with jihadist worldviews and frames, radicalization is facilitated. However, where the role of powerful allies is concerned, the current wave of attempted mobilization for jihad differs from the case of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The absence of this factor also made mobilization for jihad in Palestine is less successful before or after the Afghan jihad, a fact that was admitted by `Azzam who was a Palestinian and former resistance fighter himself.

The current mobilization lacks the strong and wide support of powerful allies such as the US and its allies, and this significantly limits its success due to the fear of terrorism that is associated with it. Unlike the past, countries all over the world today employ a repressive policy towards the current mobilization of Muslims for jihad to safeguard their national security or avoid international sanctions in an era where a norm against the state support of militant groups that carry out acts of terrorism has become entrenched. The perception of terrorism and security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, facilitated by American efforts has led to various laws, regimes and conventions against terrorism at the international and state level. As a result, the current mobilization is not experiencing the same structural support enjoyed during the Soviet-Afghan war which significantly limits its effect and success.

However, the regimes put in place do not make the structural factor of powerful allies totally irrelevant. Limited but significant allies still exist to sustain jihad mobilization, perpetuate militant ideology and complicate its solution. In the war in Iraq, this structural factor existed in the form of neighboring states with vested interests in opposing the US that provided direct or indirect support to jihadist groups operating in Iraq. Direct support included provision of training, finance, materials, safe havens and volunteers for jihadist groups, while indirect support was in the form of interference in the internal affairs of Iraq in order to affect instability and creating permissive environments for jihadist groups to operate.

One important state, in this regard, is Iran as observed by many researchers. As for Afghanistan, these structures are in the form of elements within the Pakistani government and military, tribal societies bordering Afghanistan and radical religious institutions. Perceiving itself to be encircled by the US from Iraq and Afghanistan located on its western and eastern borders, Iran has been providing support to insurgents and militant groups operating in both countries so as to inflict harm on the US and its allies. Its geostrategic ambition to be a major power in the region also means that it would seek to be actively involved in both countries with the intent of shaping their future. Admittedly, Shiite Iran has no love for Sunni militant groups in Iraq and Afghanistan; notwithstanding this, its pragmatism, as exemplified by its support of Hamas and its meddling in the affairs of both countries with the aim of undermining the coalition forces, did contribute to a permissive environment for jihadist groups to sustain their struggle and survive.


Based on the successful mobilization of Muslims for jihad during Soviet-Afghan war, it can be concluded that mobilization is not purely the result of ideational factors. The effects of ideational factors were also compounded due to non-ideational structural factors that contributed to capture Muslims’ sympathy and create a permissive environment to effect mobilization for jihad in Afghanistan and the proliferation of militant jihad. Some of the key consequences of this were the arrival of thousands of non-Afghan volunteers for jihad who were then exposed to militant ideology, the propagation of militant ideology to the Muslim masses through public talks at mosques, organizations and conferences, and the circulation of print, audio and video materials, and lastly the raising of millions of dollars that were partially used for ideological propagation and mobilization on a large scale.

Prolonged war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the presence of foreign military forces as well as civil war in Syria between Syrian government forces and Free Syrian Army fighters, and the continued existence of structural factors will limit the effect of any attempt to counter and delegitimize militant ideology that seeks to mobilize Muslims for jihad. Counter-ideology, despite its importance and centrality in counterterrorism strategy, is not and cannot be the silver bullet against the current mobilization trend – its success and effectiveness are dependent on other aspects of state policies, which do not only pertain to the counterterrorism domain, but also address foreign policy and international politics.

Muhammad Haniff Hassan is a Research Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and head of the Moderation Studies Program at ICPVTR.

About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at


One thought on “Mobilization of Muslims for Jihad: Insights from the Past and their Relevance Today

  1. During the first Afghani Jihad, the Mujahideen were portrayed as freedom fighters courageously standing up to the tyranny of occupying forces. Fast forward 2 decades later, the Mujahideen are still fighting courageously against the tyranny of foreign occupying forces led – dubbed the ‘coalition of the willing’ led by Uncle Sam. This time, the Mujahideen are portrayed as terrorists. Ironic no? Interestingly, there is parallel of the ‘coalition of the willing’ led by America with the forces of al ahzaab (the confederates) led by the Quraish against the original Mujahideen of this Ummah led by Rasulullah SAW. Just sharing ma’lumat.

    Posted by Syed Danial | August 14, 2013, 4:28 pm

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