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Jihad & Co. by Aisha Ahmad

Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms

Ideology is generally seen as the driving force behind militant jihadist groups. It’s the identity that provides a mandate; however, ideology alone doesn’t explain why a group is able to rise to power and gain control over a region. In Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power, Aisha Ahmad explores why the success of jihadist groups is not primarily about ideology but is rather about money.

Through extensive research, Ahmad argues that Islamists are able to take control in these conflicts because they have the support of the local business class. The book examines both Afghanistan and Somalia, through the respective rise of the Taliban and the Islamic Courts Union, and then also looks at ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan, and Mali.

In a region where there are various groups vying for power – such as in Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet war, when regional warlords fought for control – the local business class tips the scales in favour of the Islamists. While each local warlord will charge a business person to move goods through their territory, Islamists can sell security and protection across factional lines and offer lower costs. This causes people to throw their support, and their cash, behind Islamists over other regional strongmen.

Furthermore, the book maintains, business people in these regions use Islamic identity to build trust with their customers and business partners. Since they’ve adopted this religious identity over time, it becomes easier for them to support an Islamist group.

Jihad & Co. lays out a fascinating and engaging argument. Ahmad’s contextual analysis, as well as her on-the-ground observations, create a compelling overarching narrative that weaves together the scholarship. By looking beneath the veneer of identity politics, she is able to tease out specific economic motivations that push people to support Islamists in their rise to power.

Much of the book’s research was conducted in some of the most dangerous parts of the world and includes interviews with individuals who were involved in shaping and responding to these conflicts. Through the exploration of these often inaccessible viewpoints, Jihad & Co. provides a rare glimpse into places and situations that are too often oversimplified.

Most significantly, this book introduces a new way of thinking about Islamist power. As violent conflicts around the world continue to play out, having an understanding of how groups gain control over a region is crucial to figuring out responses and future prevention. Jihad & Co. not only uncovers a root cause of this phenomenon, it also offers a different framework for approaching these situations. This economic lens is essential in order to understand how power is clinched and negotiated in these conflict zones.

Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power is published by Oxford University Press.

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