#Reviewing Jihad & Co.

Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power. Aisha Ahmad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Since 2014, there has been a flurry of books seeking to recount the genesis of the Islamic State and to explain the conditions, decisions, and events that allowed the group to rise. As the group’s short-lived period of territorial control recedes into history, we can expect more in-depth scholarship on the economic means that enabled its rise, including donations, taxation and extortion, oil, trafficking in antiquities, and trafficking narcotics.[1] For those seeking to understand more broadly how underground economic activity and Islamist ideologies can work in concert, Aisha Ahmad’s new book, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power, provides a coherent, lucid, and concise explanation. Part reflection on the state-building process, part sociological treatment of two Islamic societies, and part inquiry into the hardscrabble but often sophisticated economics of life in two battle-scarred areas, the volume is an admirable treatment of the reciprocity between underground economic actors and Islamist groups, and it occupies a unique niche within the academic literature on jihadi groups.

Ahmad’s thesis consists of two interlocking principles: First, in the low-trust environments of civil wars and conflict zones in the Islamic world, Islam serves as a form of social capital that facilitates economic activity by allowing the unity and trust that are conducive to business. Second, Islamist groups in these conflict zones offer businesses reduced security costs, as such groups can offer their services to all business people and not simply those aligned with their demographic groups. In environments run by warlords and other violent non-state groups, where state authority is weak or non-existent, the protection racket operates in a free-market fashion. Different warlords operating in the protection market both require their services to be purchased and compete violently with other groups to protect and expand their territory. Their services add a tremendous amount of overhead that merchants must account for when shipping goods across unstable areas. However, through imprudent practices, warlords can price themselves out of the market and cause cash-heavy business actors to purchase services from a competitor, thereby undercutting that warlord. The implications of these two statements are powerful, as Ahmad convincingly argues.

As her first example, she discusses Afghanistan and the rise of a large trade in smuggled goods there. Because of a decades-long effort to circumvent Pakistani customs, Afghanistan had a sophisticated network of powerful smugglers and traders who aided the mujahideen in preparing their counterattack to the Soviets after the latter’s invasion. A joint U.S.–Pakistani effort to arm the rebels entailed a surge in business for the Afghan business operatives, who now found themselves acting as conduits between Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) operatives and mujahideen. In return, Afghan smugglers and traders forged relationships with Pakistani officials and began a lucrative business of smuggling other items into Pakistan on trucks returning from gun shipments.

Mujahideen in Afghanistan with smuggled weapons (Getty Images)

Traders in the region had already established a long tradition of supporting mosques and using Islamic law to settle disputes. In the context of a “godless” invading force, Islam was a clear “rallying point for the anti-Soviet cause.”[2] Because many of the goods being smuggled and traded were illicit under Islamic law, traders resorted to machinations such as obtaining fatwas sanctifying their business or increasing their donations to Islamic causes. In the wake of the violence that preceded the emergence of the Taliban, security costs shot up as various factions defended their areas on the trading routes.

Much of the early monetary support for the Taliban came from individuals, mosques, and madrasas impressed by the group’s piety. A strict adherence to a particular interpretation of Islamic law lay at the heart of the Taliban’s operating paradigm and appeal. The group “cultivated their reputation for economic honesty,” and because of that became appealing to traders as an alternative to the corruption and violence that existed along the trade routes.[3] Subsequently, businesses began donating large sums because the Taliban engaged in a program of removing the checkpoints of their rivals, which were so burdensome to traders, without setting up their own. Eventually, the support of the business community allowed the Taliban to remove its rivals and secure the support of Pakistan.

Unfortunately for the traders, the Taliban’s anti-corruption efforts eventually extended to the businesses themselves. As Ahmad notes, the “institutionalized system of corruption was an intrinsic component of their [the traders’] regular business interactions.”[4] By aligning themselves with a hardline Islamist movement, then, the smugglers and traders who supported that movement when it offered an alternative to the protection rackets found themselves on the receiving end of the policies that brought it widespread support in its early days. In addition to Ahmad’s discussion of Afghanistan and Somalia, she also discusses several recent phenomena, including the economic engine that sustained the Islamic State and the trafficking activities prevalent in the Maghreb and the Sahel.

A key strength of the book is its conciseness. In a previous career, I taught high school English. When teaching thesis statements, I would tell my students that, given the limited time and space they had to write essays on standardized tests, they should ensure that every sentence they wrote worked in the service of their thesis. I have kind things to say about Ahmad’s style in that regard. Its argument does not feel forced; where some authors may have been tempted to stretch the argument into a work of twice the length of Jihad & Co., Ahmad avoids padding the work, offering a brief background and discussion of concepts before clearly laying out the argument and tying everything back to the two-part mechanism described above. Such focus on essentials makes this an even more appealing read for time-strapped professionals who want to get up to speed on the subject quickly.

A key contribution of this book is to demonstrate the entanglement of economic and business logics of that process with the Islamist political bent of many of the regions in which such processes are taking place.

Much of the international discussion around the Islamic State's short-lived proto-state focused not just on the group’s external appeal and attacks, but on the ways in which it was able to create and, for a while, sustain the institutions of a state. As Ahmad points out, behind the chaos and resentment of conflict in Iraq and Syria was “a powerful and endogenous process of order making” that seems to inhere in state formation.[5] A key contribution of this book is to demonstrate the entanglement of economic and business logics of that process with the Islamist political bent of many of the regions in which such processes are taking place.

Ahmad’s recommendations—incentivizing cooperation from local business communities, engaging in deep analysis of jihadist groups prior to making any decisions, and adopting a policy of “restraint and humility” when intervening in Muslim societies—are broad, but wise.[6] Through a nuanced understanding of historical ties between jihadist groups and business people, policymakers and academics can more rationally assess incentives, supply chains, and other ways in which the economic mingles with the political in fragile and civil war environments. Ahmad’s book can provide them with a useful point of departure for such endeavors.

Robert Pulwer is a former education professional who recently graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He currently works for a government contractor.

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Header Image: Photo by Benjamin Lowy (Getty)


[1] For a good overview of the subject, see, among many others, Ana Swanson, “How the Islamic State Makes Its Money,” Washington Post, November 18, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/18/how-isis-makes-its-money/?utm_term=.64d1260c50d2.

[2] Aisha Ahmad, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2017), 53.

[3] Ibid., 82.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 193.

[6] Ibid., 199