The Countering Jihadism Reading List – 19 recommended books

To be continuously updated


Below are 19 books that I consider essential reading* for understanding the nature of the Jihadism** problem and formulating the toughest and most strategic CT approach (as opposed to only tactical) during the new administration.

As a doctor will say, correctly diagnosing the cause of a problem is the key to figuring out how to stop it from happening.

First, to put the following list in context, my basic analysis of “what Jihadism is:”

(1) Modern ISIS and Al-Qaeda -style Jihadism is fundamentally an internal political rebellion/revolution against the Muslim establishment and status quo. The US and the West becomes a target to the extent that we are perceived as taking sides in that dispute.

(2) Jihadism should be roughly understood as a 21st century Middle Eastern version of the violent reform movements of the 20th century  Communism, National Socialism, and Anarchism. This becomes clear when we look at what Jihadists DO not just what they SAY (more on this below).

(3) We can beat Jihadism using the same tactical and strategic formulas used to defeat Nazi and Communist ideology during the last century. Hence the  broader concept of a 21st century Marshall Plan that is being advocated by members  of Team Trump is a very good one.

19 Recommended Books: 

(1)  ISIS is a Revolution. Scott Atran

Maybe the best piece I’ve read in terms of explaining Jihadism’s very strong appeal:

What accounts for the failure of ‘The War on Terror’ and associated efforts to counter the spread of violent extremism? The failure starts with reacting in anger and revenge, engendering more savagery without stopping to grasp the revolutionary character of radical Arab Sunni revivalism.  This revival is a dynamic, countercultural movement of world-historic proportions spearheaded by ISIS…

Everything I observed in my time working in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt  is consistent with Atran’s article. ISISism does appeal to a meaningful segment of the young (and especially) male population. Even many who would never join – especially Islamists – are in fact closet sympathizers.

(2) The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents.

One can’t truly understand Jihadism without understanding the history of Anarchism, both in a tactical CT sense and in the more strategic “why people are joining sense.”

Alex Butterworth’s book effectively shows why people joined these movements in response to the massive social and economic changes of late 1800s and early 1900s Europe.  These changes are basically really only happening in the Middle East now. And they are leading to the same kinds of reactions.

Chapter 12 on why  leading Anarchists eventually moved to accept “The System” and give up Revolution is filled with clues about how to stop the appeal of ISIS-style Jihadism today.

Unfortunately, it was far easier to “give up” Revolution in 1920s England for one very simple reason: the size of the economic pie.  Because it was large enough, the main issue was a fairer distribution. In the 1910s onward, for example, the government literally seized the aristocracy’s wealth and land and shifted it to the working classes (see the excellent book Black Diamonds).  Not surprisingly no Communist-type movements of significance ever arose in the UK.

The problem with 21st century Middle Eastern countries is that the economic pie is very small. There is far less to redistribute (outside of oil countries). Hence the importance of the 21st century Marshall Plan concept.  The pie has to be expanded otherwise there can be no dent in the appeal of Jihadism.

(3) Leaderless Jihad. Sageman.

This was important analysis when written a decade ago.  However, the thesis has proven even more compelling 10 years later because of the entrenchment of the internet/social media age and the destruction of the original pre-9/11 AQ network.

Future Jihadist movements will almost by definition have to be more Anarchic or “leaderless” as described by Sageman.

Not by choice but due to necessity. Why? Because with the kinds of monitoring tools now at the disposal of Western security forces, once a group reaches a point past 20 or so people, it will eventually be broken up. The age of hierarchal 1990s-style Al-Qaeda or IRA type groups is long past.

(4) The Essential Kropotkin Reader. 

A compilation of writings by the most important Anarchist thinker of the early 20th century is must-read for anyone trying to understand the Jihadism problem.

Here’s a key point overlooked in debates about the “Islamic” nature of Jihadist concepts:

Jihadism isn’t that complicated. Nor is it even primarily driven by religion per se. Remember it’s really a political anti-establishment rebellion. And it’s based on a few basic  and universal “revolutionary concepts” that have been used by any of the other major violent reform movements on the modern political era (National Socialism, Communism, & Anarchism).

Take Sayyid Qutb, the so-called Godfather of Al-Qaeda. He is often credited for coming up with something “new” and “innovative” on a religious basis.  When in reality his basic concepts are basically fairly standard revolutionary principles, repackaged for his local Egyptian-Islamic audience.

Just 2 examples:

 “Jahaliya” in functional terms there is no difference between the Kropotkin Golden Age and the Qutb Golden age or even the Nazi Golden Age idea. All were based on the idea that there once was a “perfect” historical period where everything was great. However, as the narrative goes,  over the course of the centuries that greatness was corrupted by the greed/selfishness/ of less than true believers. Fortunately the path to get back to the Golden Age is quite simple – kill or eliminate those people and groups that have caused society to deviate from its previous greatness.

My strong hunch  is that Qutb (like every early member of the Muslim Brotherhood) had read both Kropitkin and Hitler. After all, those are the types of books that all Egyptian intellectuals born in 1906 would have read. And then  – perhaps subconsciously – changed the words to repackage for an Egyptian-Islamic narrative

“Takfir” – again, Qutb is credit with something innovative from a religious basis.  However, there is nothing functionally “new” about the concept of declaring X group outside the fold to justify political violence against them.  The only difference with Jihadists today is in the explanation and historical/cultural references used to justify it.

Hitler declared the Jews and Slavs outside the  Arayan fold to justify what the Nazis did.

Lenin “excommunicated” the Church and the Aristocracy in order to justify taking them out.

So either Hitler and Lenin were “Takfirists”, or Qutb’s concept of Takfir is merely an Islamic repackaging of the same basic justification for political violence that was being used everywhere in his time.

This matters to debates about 21st century Jihadism because the question is what is the motivator here?

Is it an “incorrect” knowledge of the religious texts that can be corrected with better teaching? Or is it about a rebellion against the establishment?  

I think it’s the latter. For that reason I am skeptical of the idea that “teaching people more about their religion” is going to have any effect. The answer is to focus on economic development so people are content locally. As a matter of principle, I can’t see anything else long-term that will work.

(5) The Rise and Fall of Communism. 

The Communist experience should serve as a cautionary to anyone getting complacent about the idea that there is only “tiny” support for Jihadism in 2016.

Modern political history clearly shows that the march to widespread public support for true extremism happens over time, never overnight.  Over the course of decades, not years.

The march to popular support for extremism happens when the peaceful and moderate approaches to reform fail to produce results, emboldening extremists like Lenin whose basic analysis was “the reason we failed in 1848, 1870, 1905 etc was because we just weren’t tough enough.”

That’s exactly what Jihadists are saying in the Middle East today. And every year they gain more followers, maybe not actively, but my strong suspicion is passively.

Another point re Communism – so many people poured over the religious significance of ISIS declaring a Caliphate and announcing a focus on a single state in Syria as if they had done something nobody had ever done before.  Violent movements always change their tactics  out of necessity or if new opportunities arise.

There was nothing in Communist ideology that would have suggested Russia was the ideal place for Revolution.  Yet the opportunity occurred, and they took it. Communists went “local” in 1927 to focus on Socialism in one country because they had no choice.  They were getting crushed if they focused globally.

In the same way, ISIS went local because they had an opportunity. No big religious mystery to unpack.

 (6) The Making of a Stormtrooper. Peter Merkl

A detailed study of the backgrounds of 500+ people who joined the Nazi Stormtroopers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Storm Troopers are the closest revolutionary group from history in terms of  social backgrounds to modern Jihadism.

If one “understands” which types of people became Brown Shirts in the 1920s, they understand what patterns to look for to understand who is or is likely to join radical Islamic movements today.

(7) Hitler. Joachim Fest.

Quite possibly the best book I’ve read “on” ISIS.

If one understands why many -if not most – average Germans in the 1930s actually saw Hitler as “the prophet of modernity” they understand why a not insignificant number  in the Middle East  might see similar things in the Islamic State philosophy today.

(8) Germans Into Nazis. Peter Fritzsche

Same as Point 5. For those who claim that ISIS has “no” popular support and that there is nothing to worry about:

In 1920 Hitlerism was totally on the margins.  In 1933 it was the mainstream.

The book explains in great detail how Germany went from Point A to Point B.

Nobody should be so complacent to think that ISISism couldn’t do the same thing in an Arab country by 2030.

(9) Mein Kampf

The bigger picture of Violent Reformism can’t be understood unless they have read this book.

Surely, it’s not a coincidence that Mein Kampf is the translated book I see being sold throughout the Middle East more than any other. Its ideas have clearly been absorbed generations of radical Islamists.  Sayyid Qutb, for example, almost certainly would have read this book as would Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A large part of it is  also clearly a textbook on propaganda tactics.  And it seems pretty obvious that the ISIS propaganda people are copying some of the same tactics.

(10) Islamism in Southern Egypt: A Case Study of a Radical Religious Movement

Covers a movement from an underdeveloped region of Egypt that launched a violent uprising against the state in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was the original “populist” extreme Islamism decades before ISIS.

(11) Egypt’s Islamic Group: Regional Revenge

Same as above. Key point in both – the issue was due to local problems.  It wasn’t due to some global Islamic conspiracy launched from Saudi Arabia.

For a focus on this same issue of local Jihadism, see this excellent article by Fabio Merone called  Salafism in Tunisia: Challenges and Opportunities for Democratization.

(12) Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh.  

Written in the early 1980s. Based extensively on primary sources. One of the original “masterpieces” of scholar research on this topic.

Slightly dated — but should be read as a corrective to the idea that Jihadism today is fueled by Saudi Wahhabism.  All of the basic (simple) ideas of modern Jihadism were being used by Egyptians in the 1970s and 1980s, long before the Saudis came onto the regional scene.

(13) Salafi Satellite Media in Egypt 

A 2009 report that I co-authored. It was based on some of the most extensive primary source research to date on the spread of Salafism in Egypt.

Everything about the shift towards Salafism  in Egypt is consistent with what occurred in other era of history, and other parts of the world with Communism, National Socialism, and Anarchism.

It’s the same patterns.

In Egypt people responded by embracing Salafism, because they are Muslim. In Germany they embraced National Socialism because they were German.  In Russia they embraced Communism.

 (14) The Far Enemy:  Why Jihad Went Global

Essential reading in explaining why Al-Qaeda was formed in 1996 to “Go Global.”  It did so because it was throughly defeated and had no choice.

Critically – there was no internet or social media that would allow a group to appeal directly to the people for new recruits, like is possible today.

It was Go Global or nothing. Until the internet came around, nothing else was possible.

And more recently, ISIS’s attempt to “go local” can be seen as a reflection of “going global” got Al-Qaeda destroyed.

See point 5. Violent movements always change when their tactics failed. The Nazis went “legal” after the violent failed in 1924.  Lenin and Stalin always changed their tactics to a local instead of global focus whenever winning required it.

(15) Revising Jihad: The Revisions of Dr Fadl

My 2008 article analyzing a much-hyped book by a Bin Laden generation Jihadist who decided that Al-Qaeda’s violence wasn’t working and wrote  a book  – from jail – saying “Stop.”

Some people thought that this book would lead to the end of Al-Qaeda. In other words, only a few unkind words from a Bin Laden ally would spell the end of the movement.

But these kinds of Revisions fundamentally can not, because they are exclusively addressing tactical issues, not the reasons people join in the first place. The only thing Dr. Fadl said was “Don’t do Jihad unless you have a chance of winning.  If you don’t, it’s not worth it.”  And – as I suggested – his books have had no effect in stopping the appeal of Jihadism.

(16) The Star of Algiers

A great novel conveys the life that is available for 80% of young people in the Middle East and why radicalism offers an appealing alternative.

 (17) Yacoubian Building

Same as 16 but about Egypt.   This is the life for 80% or so of the population. The movie effectively shows why a small but meaningful segment would find Jihadist utopian extremism appealing.

(18) The Islamic State. The Vice documentary

As far as I know, this is the only real “primary source” either print or multi-media form that merely asks the members what they think. An incredible documentary.  Strongly supports everything that Dr. Atran says in the article linked in #1.

 (19 ) The True  Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

A really well written book that provides a sort of theoretical accompaniment to the contents of the Vice documentary.

*Not claiming this is a comprehensive list. It’s merely the books I have read and can remember off the top of my head. The list will be continuously updated.

** I am referring to the long 30-40 year problem of Jihadism. Not the geographic element that is tied to the Syrian and Iraqi geographic situation.

8 thoughts on “The Countering Jihadism Reading List – 19 recommended books

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