The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    Essays

A Guest on This Earth

Humām al-Balawī and the Birth of Jihadist Fiction

Nadav Samin

Training for jihad; Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Uncovering the first known work of jihadist fiction and its engimatic author.

News of the jihad aroused his interest in a special way.11xHumām al-Balawī, “Take Me to Jihad.” All excerpts translated by the author.

It is the springtime of jihadist literature. As literary movements go, this one is a rather shabby affair. Yet it is one that jihadist militants and the scholars who follow them have proclaimed to be in full swing. The efflorescence of jihadi poetry in Islamic State domains has been described by Robin Creswell and Bernard Haykel as a signature aspect of the group’s revolutionary appeal.2 The forging of new militant selves in pursuit of ancient glories proceeds across the Islamic State mediascape at a breathtaking pace, eclipsing al-Qaeda’s earlier Internet-borne efforts by orders of magnitude.

In the time between the weakening of al-Qaeda and the rise of the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria, a curious blip appeared in the world of militant letters. A short story in the jihadi vein, written anonymously, was posted on Internet forums in 2006. When I first came across the story that year, I took it as just another curiosity of the jihadist mediascape. Four years later, in January 2010, news broke of the so-called Triple Agent Humām al-Balawī, the Jordanian informant turned al-Qaeda operative who killed himself along with eight others in a suicide attack at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. It emerged that before taking the operative’s plunge, al-Balawī had carved out a revered space for himself on the jihadist Internet as an influential essayist and forum moderator. Unable to forget the short story I’d discovered online in 2006, I revisited that curious literary artifact, now hearing echoes of al-Balawī’s writerly voice and biography in its tortured prose.

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