“Inside These War Zones, Everyone is Talking About Money”

A Review of Aisha Ahmad, Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Oxford University Press 2017).

Is there an Islamic path to state-building? Historically, Islam has provided many of the tools needed by rulers looking to institutionalize their authority: a lawbook that extends to regulating commerce and diplomacy, a shared language, and an international cadre of trained jurists and administrators. Merchants and emissaries could travel across the medieval Islamic world, confident of how Muslim rulers would conduct their affairs.

There are similarities with the contemporary world, especially in places where there has been a protracted collapse of state authority.

Aisha Ahmad is a Pakistani-born political scientist who presents a bold thesis in her book Jihad & Co. Over many years in Peshawar she observed the close links between the traders of the Pakistan-Afghan frontier and the emergence of the Taliban. She develops a simple and compelling argument. In a context in which state authority had disintegrated and social capital had restricted to trusting only members of one’s lineage and tribe, businessmen initially embraced Islamism because it provided a mechanism for demonstrating a good reputation. This made it possible to conduct business across ethno-political boundaries. Meanwhile, some radical Islamists—in this case, the Taliban—found that their elementary framework for socio-political organization, drawing on deep-rooted notions of justice including hostility to corruption and arbitrary extortion, made for an effective proto-state administration. Such an Islamist administration lowered the costs of trade, because they removed most checkpoints on roads and provided receipts for taxes paid (documents that were respected across their realm), and regularized commercial taxes using Islamic principles. Initially beholden to the business community, the Taliban became much less accommodating when they won power.

This is a war economy with a twist. In the classic war economy, black market traders partner with warlords. The traders want profits and the warlords want power, but it may quickly become difficult to discern who is who, as criminals enter politics and politicians become businessmen. In Ahmad’s case, the businessmen partner with Islamist insurgents rather than warlords. The politicians find that their Islamism is good for business, which is good for them too, but their political project is still an Islamic state.

This is a vital and neglected topic. As Ahmad writes, ‘From outside, these conflicts appear to be driven by ideas and identities; but inside these war zones, everyone is talking about money.’ (p. 187)

Ahmad’s second case study is Somalia which has some striking similarities with the Taliban. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Mogadishu business community faced many of the same problems as their counterparts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border: breakdown of mechanisms for dispute resolution, lack of institutions for functioning across clan boundaries, multiple arbitrary checkpoints and extractive taxation. In due course they found a similar two-step solution in an Islamist proto-state. First they drew upon Islam to build social trust so that they could conduct business across the clan-fractured political landscape of Somalia, and then they found—and funded—an Islamist movement that could sweep away the warlords and cut the cost of doing business. This was the Union of Islamic Courts, which in 2005-06 mobilized not only business funding but also popular outrage against warlords. The Mogadishu Islamist proto-state was, however, even more transient than Taliban rule in Afghanistan: it quickly began antagonizing its supporters and provoked external military intervention.

At the close of her book Ahmad also draws attention to other cases: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the west African Sahel and Sahara, and the Islamic State/Daeesh in Syria and Iraq. She suggests that this points to a wider phenomenon of Islamist proto-states backed by black market businesses.

At this point Ahmad’s main hypothesis begins to fray. The kinds of purported state authority, and the kinds of businesses, differ in important ways across her cases.

She also overlooks an important example, geographically and culturally close to Somalia, where businesses were exceptionally active in trying to build a new state—Sudan. From the 1970s onwards, Islamic banks and trading houses, closely intertwined with the Muslim Brothers, gradually took over a recognized bureaucratic state (albeit one in prolonged crisis). Like the case of the Somali merchants, this was also an exercise in mobilizing the remittances of migrants and financial mechanisms in those countries to create an Islamist business model.

Thus, we have a spectrum of cases, from a recognized enduring state (Sudan), a relatively long-lived state (the Taliban), an ambitious proto-state (Daeesh), a transient proto-state (the Union of Islamic Courts), and a case in which there was no state-like entity at all (AQIM).

There’s also a spectrum of different kinds of business class and their political involvements. In Sudan it was major registered commercial enterprises, some of which strayed into the shadow economy. In Somalia, legitimate businesses (notably the telecoms and financial services industries) had already made strategic use of Islam, alongside kinship, as a mechanism for social trust, well before the UIC. There hadn’t been a state in Somalia for fifteen years, and so the distinction between a licit and a black market economy was not meaningful. The businesses made tactical use of the UIC—and just as quickly jettisoned them when the tide turned. In Afghanistan, established traders, deeply entrenched in cross-border trade of at-best-dubious legality, made a strategic alliance with the Taliban. In the Sahara, some tobacco smugglers opportunistically donned Islamist garb. (Most transnational organized crime syndicates avoided jihadists—they didn’t want any extra attention from counter-terrorism operations.) In Syria and Iraq, Daeesh exploited pre-existing black market networks. And in northern Nigeria, the business class didn’t back Boko Haram at all.

The real strength of Aisha Ahmad’s book is in the ethnography: she has an exceptional grasp of the real dealings of traders and Islamists in Peshawar and Mogadishu, and that is vividly expressed in the book. As with all first-rate field accounts of important but ill-understood events, Jihad & Co raises more questions than it answers. It shows how commercial interests can mold themselves to ideology, as businessmen gravitate towards propping up public authority in war economy. Perhaps most fundamentally, she shows the enduring importance of an ethical public discourse in a war zone, and reminds us the reasons why public Islam can provide such a role.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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