Why clerics turn deadly

  • Fall 2017
Why clerics turn deadly

Richard Nielsen is an associate professor of political science at MIT. His recent book, Deadly Clerics, uses statistical text analysis and fieldwork in Cairo mosques to understand the radicalization of jihadi clerics in the Arab world. Below is an excerpt from the book.

FALL 2017 : précis Faculty Piece
November 16, 2017

In July 2010, the media wing of al-Qaeda interviewed the American-born jihadist1 cleric2 Anwar al-Awlaqi from a secret location in Yemen. One striking element of the resulting video is that throughout, al-Awlaki’s remarks reflect the trappings of academia. Rather than emphasizing his violent credentials, the introductory frames recount al-Awlaki’s curriculum vitae, including a BA from the University of Colorado and a masters from San Diego State University.3 After welcoming him, the interviewer asks what al-Awlaki’s role was in inciting Major Nidal Hasan to carry out the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009. His response? “Yes, Nidal Hasan was a student of mine and I am honored by this” (emphasis mine, na am, niḍāl ḥasan min ṭulābī, wa ānā ātasharaf bidhalik), revealing that when portraying himself to his fellow jihadists, al-Awlaqi defines himself primarily as a scholar and teacher rather than as a fighter or dissident.4

Al-Awlaki is not the only jihadist who styles himself an academic. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has released a curriculum vitae that was vague on details but touted his PhD from the University of Baghdad and his purported reputation as a knowledgeable scholar of Islamic law. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, writes prodigious tomes with scores of academic-style citations. Like any citation-obsessed academic, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most prominent jihadist theoreticians, crowed about being identified in a 2006 RAND study as the most influential living jihadist thinker based on citations by featuring the study on his website. And even Usama Bin Laden, the now-deceased leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, imitated the academic pretension of taking photographs in front of bookshelves to convey learned authority.5

This book explores the academic culture of jihadist clerics to illuminate how jihadist ideology is produced and reproduced among the elites of the jihadist movement. Scholars of Islamic law such as Zeghal (1996, 34) understand that Muslim clerics are academics who strive for a life of pious learning, often with professional titles that exactly mirror those of academics in other settings. However, scholarship on political violence has frequently overlooked the academic identities of jihadist clerics, instead conceptualizing them primarily as religious leaders, preachers, writers, extremists, and militants. Clerics can turn to violence for a variety of reasons, but I focus on two major pathways. The first way to become a jihadist cleric is to become a jihadist first, and then a cleric later. As I show below, these jihadists-turned-clerics can be understood through existing models of lay Muslim radicalization.

The second pathway to jihadism that I describe highlights an overlooked aspect of cleric radicalization: a surprisingly mundane set of academic career pressures that can push clerics toward militant jihadist ideas. My core argument is that blocked ambition—the inability of an actor to achieve a substantial, deeply-held goal—nudges clerics toward jihadism. Blocked ambition is a common human experience and has been suggested as a cause of radicalization in other contexts. When the ambition of a cleric to become an academic is blocked by failure on the cleric job market or by state repression, those clerics whose ambitions are blocked are at much greater risk of becoming jihadist. To put the argument colloquially, I offer a disgruntled-graduate-student theory of jihad.

The divide is stark: clerics who find gainful employment in state-dominated academic, religious, and political institutions in the Middle East are extremely unlikely to preach violent jihad, while those who work outside of this system are more likely to end up preaching violence. Of course, it may be the case that some clerics with state-funded jobs secretly endorse jihadism, but secretly held beliefs are not my concern. Instead, I seek to understand those clerics who openly preach and incite political violence.

Proving that some clerics become jihadists because their academic ambitions are blocked is not an easy task. In the chapters that follow, I demonstrate that indicators of blocked ambition in the lives of would-be clerics—weak graduate school networks, non-academic jobs, and removal from academic posts—are highly correlated with whether clerics preach jihadist ideas. Of course, there are other plausible explanations for this outcome: some would-be clerics develop jihadist ideas early and never seek a traditional academic career, and even if they do, they may be shut out of traditional academic circles precisely because their ideas are already too radical. Sorting out the various pathways to jihadism is difficult, and even though I provide a substantial amount of new quantitative and qualitative data on jihadist clerics, the evidence I can provide remains circumstantial. However, it represents the outer frontier of what is currently knowable about why some clerics advocate jihadism.

Understanding the rise of modern jihadism

Few ideologies have influenced international affairs in the 21st century more than militant jihadism. Modern jihadism is a movement founded around an ideology that claims to hearken back to the founding doctrines of Islam but is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. At its core, jihadism is violent Islamism. It is Islamism because jihadist ideology holds that society should be governed by Islamic doctrines (according to jihadists’ interpretation of Islam). It is inherently violent because jihadists hold that violence is a legitimate means for achieving the society and government they desire. Modern jihadists reach these conclusions by drawing a doctrinal connection between the foundational Islamic concept of God’s sovereignty and the violent imposition of the society and government that jihadists believe God desires. For jihadists, God’s sovereignty requires that only God’s laws be fol- lowed, so any form of government that does not take God’s laws as its own should be resisted and replaced, violently if necessary. From this foundational claim, jihadist apologists work to develop interpretations of Islamic law that permit violence in a variety of circumstances to achieve jihadists' political goals, though jihadists differ about precisely how these goals should be pursued and what form an ideal Islamic government should take.

Modern jihadism has been developing by fits and starts over the past century. Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979), Hassan al-Banna (1906–1949), and Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) each developed and refined ideas that would come to constitute the framing principles of modern jihadism. Still, modern jihadism did not really come into existence until the intellectual development provided by Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989) and the violent Egyptian Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, Hegghammer dates the dawn of the modern jihadist era to as recently as 1979 or 1980 (Hegghammer 2010a, 3).

Observers at the end of the 20th century might be forgiven for overlooking signs that names like “Bin Laden” and “The Islamic State” would become household terms. Data from the Google n-grams project shows that the term “jihad” was relatively infrequent in English-language books until 1950, when its use began to rise dramatically.6 By the eve of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and targets in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, the term “jihad” was being used seven times as often as in 1950. Usama bin Laden’s name does not register until 1998, the year in which he directed attacks against the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and came to the attention of the American public for the first time. Even then, Flagg Miller writes that, “Bin Laden’s role in global affairs was not immediately apparent to Muslim audiences familiar with his career” (Miller 2015, 9). Then, in 2001, the September 11th attack catapulted jihadism and Bin Laden to the fore of American consciousness and foreign policy. Reference to “jihad” in English-language books approximately tripled from its 2000 value, and Bin Laden’s name became roughly nine times more frequent, exceeding references to “jihad” itself. On the day of his death, Bin Laden was the subject of virtually every headline, and the subject of a substantial amount of web activity.7

Today, militant jihadism is perhaps the most widely influential revolutionary ideology in the international system, having shaped world events over the last twenty years and still posing a remarkably durable challenge to the existing international order. Nationalist strains of jihadism have fueled tenacious territorial conflicts in Palestine, Chechnya, and elsewhere. Transnational jihadists have called for the complete overthrow of the existing international system and virtually all of the norms which undergird it (Mendelsohn 2009), and have followed through with dramatic acts of political violence. As a result, US foreign policy has been dominated by the specter of jihadism in a way that few anticipated even during the tense weeks following the September 11 attacks. By October of 2001, the US military was striking targets in Afghanistan in a war that would officially last thirteen years. In 2003, the United States launched a second war against Iraq, lasting almost nine years. Although the initial impetus for war was not to root out jihadists, the administration of President George W. Bush consistently referred to Iraq as a front in the “war on terror”8 and the power vacuum that ensued after American forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein was filled, in part, by a tenacious jihadist insurgency aimed at both ousting American forces and settling scores with Shia militias.

Even after the official end of the Iraq war, the remnants of this insurgency haunt US foreign policy interests in the Middle East. After apparent defeat in 2007, an insurgent group named the Islamic State of Iraq grasped the opportunities offered by the neighboring Syrian civil war, reinvented itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and has declared itself a jihadist state under Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A 2014 RAND corporation study reports that “beginning in 2010, there was a rise in the number of salafi-jihadist groups and fighters, particularly in Syria and North Africa. There was also an increase in the number of attacks perpetrated by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates” (Jones 2014, x). Despite US efforts to pivot away from the Middle East after fifteen years of fighting jihadists, the next decade of American foreign policy is likely to be as dominated by counter-jihadism as the last.

What explains the rise and persistence of modern jihadism? Broadly speaking, scholars have taken two approaches to answering this question. The first approach attempts to develop general theories to explain rebellion and then applies these theories to understand jihadist movements (see, for example Della Porta 2013). A key debate in this scholarship is whether rebellion is primarily caused by the grievances of those who rebel or by structural conditions that provide opportunities for violent collective action. This approach results in parsimonious theories of rebellion, but these explanations sometimes struggle to explain specific aspects of jihadist violence. A second approach starts from the specific circumstances and details of jihadist movements and traces the apparent causes of their rise using the tools of history, sociology, and anthropology. This work is especially well-attuned to the nuance and texture of jihadists and their social movements, but these explanations are often contextually specific and refer to unique historical moments and the idiosyncrasies of individuals.

My argument in this book draws on both of these approaches. I explain the choices of some Muslim clerics to preach jihad using a theory of blocked ambition that hearkens back to general theories of grievance and rebellion, but I highlight particular forms of blocked ambition that are specific to the context of modern jihadism.


1 Jihadist ideology is a set of ideas organized around the central claim that Islam should be the organizing principle of human affairs and that violence is an acceptable means for pursuing this goal. I use the terms “jihadi” and “jihadist” to denote a person, thing, or organization that is associated with jihadist ideology. These are the most common terms for these individuals and organizations in academic literature, and are literal translations of the term that these actors prefer. Hegghammer (2009) and Hegghammer (2010a) propose alternative terms based on the variety of jihadists goals and methods.

2 There is no uncontested definition of the term “cleric” when applied to Muslim religious elites. For my purposes, a cleric is a person who produces Islamic literature and who may or may not claim a lineage of scholarly authority. I defend my definition in detail in Chapter 2.

3 It appears that al-Awlaki is inflating his credentials. He started, but never finished a degree at San Diego State University.

4 “Anwar Al Awlaki Al Malahem Interview FULL ENGLISH Translation,” YouTube video 45:26 minutes, posted 7/20/2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eInGfXV3YvY, min 8:13, accessed 7/27/2015, and archived at http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/PG4A7K.

5 http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/660/media/images/83127000/jpg/_83127737_83127321.jpg, accessed 2/9/2017, and archived at http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/PG4A7K.

6 The Google n-grams project tracks the frequency of words in approximately 15 percent of all English- language books ever published. I obtain data on the use of the word “jihad” from this url: https: //books.google.com/ngrams/graph?direct_url=t1%3B%2Cjihad%3B%2Cc0, archived.

7 Google search trends for “bin laden” show a dramatic spike on the day of his death: https://www. google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=bin%20laden, archived.

8 Garamone, Jim. “Iraq Part of Global War on Terrorism, Rumsfeld Says.” DoD News. http://archive. defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=43444, accessed 2/9/2017, and archived at http://dx.doi.org/10. 7910/DVN/PG4A7K. 


Zeghal, Malika. 1996. Gardiens De L’Islam: Les Oulémas D’Al Azhar dans L’Egypte Contemporaine. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

<Hegghammer, Thomas. 2010a. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, Flagg. 2015. The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal about Al-Qa’ida. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mendelsohn, Barak. 2009. Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and International Cooperation in the War on Terrorism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jones, Seth G. 2014. A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR637.

Della Porta, Donatella. 2013. Clandestine Political Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.