The Universal Enemy
Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity
Darryl Li



THE NOONTIME AIR WAS SWELTERING, THE OUTDOOR MARKET packed, and Fadhil was not in the best of moods. It was a summer day in Zenica, an industrial city in central Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2007. Fadhil wore a t-shirt and jeans and had short hair and stubble on his face. He told me his story over a cup of Bosnian coffee in a cramped kiosk near the stall where he worked as a peddler. Fadhil was raised in Baghdad and came to the country then known as Yugoslavia in 1979, eventually enrolling in Zenica University’s prestigious metallurgy department. In those days, Yugoslavia was a leading state in the Non-Aligned Movement, seeking a path separate from the two blocs that divided the world in the Cold War. Industrial knowledge from Yugoslavia’s mines, refineries, and factories was in high demand among many recently decolonized countries. Flush with oil revenue, the Iraqi state subsidized travel for students like Fadhil to Yugoslavia, which in turn welcomed Arabs and others from what today is called the Global South. At some point in the 1980s, Fadhil slowed the pace of his studies: he had to work part-time as a vendor to support himself, was getting married to a Muslim woman from Zenica, and didn’t want to go home, where he would almost certainly have been drafted to fight in the war against Iran.

Fadhil’s attempt to avoid one war, however, put him in the midst of another, this time much closer to his front door. His adopted country began to split apart through the emergence of nationalist political forces; his friends and neighbors now considered themselves Muslims, Croats, and Serbs first rather than Yugoslavs.1 In January 1993, he volunteered for the newly formed Bosnian army “to defend myself and my children” even though as a foreigner he was exempt from conscription. And because Fadhil prayed regularly and did not drink—unlike many of the Bosnians he knew who identified as Muslim—he preferred to join a unit with other pious fighters, most of whom had recently arrived from abroad. Fadhil’s patterns of observance also changed: he grew a longer beard and quit smoking.

Fadhil was one of several thousand foreign Muslims who fought in Bosnia in the name of jihad. Most of them ended up in a special detachment, called in Bosnian “Odred Elmudžahedin” but more commonly known even among the locals who joined as the Katiba, the Arabic word for battalion. The men hailed from dozens of countries, easily as many as those that sent peacekeepers to Bosnia for the United Nations (UN) or took part in the coalition that would invade Fadhil’s homeland a decade later. Most were Arabs, either coming directly from the Gulf states or migrant workers from north Africa living in Italy. A smaller number were raised in Europe or the United States of Arab, Turkish, or South Asian backgrounds, as well as some converts. Their motivations, orientations toward Islamic piety, and class backgrounds varied widely and confound any straightforward attempt at correlating individuals to social variables or nationalities. At its maximum strength in the final months of the war, the Katiba officially comprised around one thousand men—approximately half foreign, half Bosnian. It chose its own leaders, raised its own funds from abroad, and had its own religious education program, which adhered largely to the Salafi orientation to Islam.2 At the same time, the unit served under the flag of the avowedly multi-ethnic nation-state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Fadhil acquired Bosnian citizenship on the basis of his army service; in the fifteen years since arriving in Zenica he had earned a degree, started a family, and fought for his adopted country, so it made sense to him at the time. “I didn’t have plans to go anywhere else, so why not?” After the war ended in late 1995, Fadhil earned his diploma but had to take more exams to get the professional qualifications he was seeking, so he kept working as a vendor to pay the bills. Fadhil’s many legal troubles began after the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, when local authorities commenced a long-running campaign to expel Arabs who had fought in the war. By the time we first met, Fadhil was appealing the revocation of his citizenship while also waiting on his application for a foreigner’s residency permit—after having lived in the country for more than half of his life. Despite his lack of any criminal record and his having been featured in human rights reports and Western newspapers, he saw little hope for the future. And he has never worked in metallurgy.

I asked Fadhil if he felt Bosnian. “When you know you’re wanted, it’s different,” he answered, staring out the window and stubbornly wiping sweat from his brow every few seconds. Now, after the years of harassment, he was fed up and irritable and even contemplated returning to Iraq despite the bloodletting going on there. But his Arabic was peppered with Bosnian words, a trace of having spent so much of his life in the country. “I still have dignity [Ar: karāma]. If I stay, who knows what will happen? In a few more years, there may be another citizenship review [B: revizija]. I’m tired of ghurba.” This last word connotes foreignness in Arabic but also strangeness, or better yet estrangement.

Feelings of strangeness and estrangement have long suffused conversations about Muslims who in recent decades have traveled great distances to fight under the banner of jihad: most notably in Afghanistan since 1979, but even more after the 1991 end of the Cold War in places such as Kashmir, Iraq, the Philippines, Chechnya, Somalia, and Syria. The roving participants in transnational jihads are often cast as the enemy of mankind—the latest in the ignoble lineage of the hostis humani generis stretching back to pirates and other figures of outlawry who have been subjected to radical forms of exclusion and demonization. They allegedly stand opposed not just to “the West” but to multiculturalism, to tolerance, to the very idea of common humanity itself. The jihad fighter—especially the one who travels across national boundaries—is a universal enemy. This is not due to an implacable hostility to humanity on his part, but because he has been declared as such by those whose right to speak in the name of the universal is often taken for granted. This book argues that such jihads are more usefully thought of as universalist projects in their own right; as we will see, to do so is neither to pay them a compliment nor to put them in the dock. Rather, this approach requires asking what it means to claim the mantle of the universal and dealing with the violence that making such claims often entails. Exploring such issues allows us to rethink and connect conversations about Islam, international law, empire, race, and war in unexpected ways. The Universal Enemy is therefore an anthropology of universalism: it attempts to understand how universalist claims are made and enacted, especially by people who are not ordinarily associated with ideas of the universal. Unlike most of what has been written on this topic, this book brackets questions of explaining and solving the “problem” of jihad and instead asks how these jihads can help us see the broader world differently than we may have otherwise.


This book explores the lives and times of men who came to Bosnia for jihad, those described as “transnational volunteers,” “foreign fighters,” and, of course, “terrorists.” I will refer to them generally as mujahids, the Arabic-origin term for those who participate in jihad that can be translated, if not very elegantly, as “struggler” or “one who exerts effort.”3 Not every mujahid crosses borders—indeed, most people claiming this label do not—but those who do are of special interest. Participating in armed forms of solidarity without the permission of any nation-state—fighting in “other people’s wars”—is treated as suspect in a world order that favors the model of the citizen-soldier as the paradigm for legitimate violence.4 Yet this is the concrete issue raised by the mujahids under discussion here, one that has often been overlooked by conversations about establishing an Islamic state or implementing divine law, or shariʿa. In some senses, Fadhil’s story, which will be explored further in this study, is unusual, since he lived in Bosnia before the war and stayed when it ended. But it is precisely this anomaly—that he did not come for jihad, but rather one could say that jihad came to him in a way—that is helpful in unsettling many prevalent assumptions about this phenomenon.

Following the arc of Fadhil’s life reveals some of the larger issues at stake. His participation in jihad was important and not something he has ever regretted, but it was embedded in other activities: study, work, marriage, prayer, lots and lots of waiting, and imprisonment, both figurative and literal. Fadhil’s trajectory has been marked by the Non-Aligned Movement, by attempts to incarnate some notion of a global Islamic community (umma), and by the myriad interventions of the US-led “International Community.” Fadhil’s experiences underscore that the story of the jihad in Bosnia is simultaneously one of settling in a particular place and getting to know its people, in encounters shaped and reshaped by much larger forces. The Universal Enemy is an account of world politics whose protagonists move beneath and between governments.5 It tells the story of this jihad by tracing a series of peregrinations between the Balkans, the Middle East, and elsewhere as they intersect with and shed light on a shifting world order.

That world order is the era of what can be loosely understood as American empire. The United States is a settler polity that has also long engaged in alien rule over foreign territories while also cultivating various forms of influence over weaker countries. After the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, its global role transformed into one of unipolar dominance. Washington’s favored style of hegemony, originally developed in the western hemisphere, was now extended to much of the wider world: informal dependency and vassalage through a series of power relations mediated by debt, military assistance, and development aid, provided either directly or through multilateral institutions. While this influence varied enormously in degree from place to place, it operated through the juridical form of putatively independent, equal, and freely consenting sovereign nation-states. In the Arab world in particular, Washington was free to pursue military intervention without significant contestation from other global powers for nearly a quarter-century, from the 1991 war on Iraq until 2015, when Russian forces openly joined the fighting in Syria.

In this world order, there have been two primary ways of characterizing armed conflicts: localized ethnic wars and a globally threatening militant Islam.6 The former, marked by the “post–Cold War,” is presented as peripheral, regionally confined, and destabilizing in only a distant sense, producing hordes of hapless victims in need of mercy and management. While the West may decide to intervene on one side or another, formally it projects an image of neutrality as a referee or policeman committed only to lofty values such as humanitarianism. The latter, framed as “post-9/11,” produces the figure of the terrorist as the one the world must band together to defeat. Here, self-defense for the United States or the West is conveniently elided into a defense of all humanity. Together, these two framings represent conjoined and mutually justifying aspects of the world order.7 The management of ethnic conflict impels action in the register of compassion, but with pragmatic benefits such as preserving regional stability or preventing refugee flows. The Global War on Terror (GWOT) mobilizes the language of self-protection, but happens to be for the good of all, given the centrality of the United States to world order. Two kinds of war—humanitarian intervention and war on terror—are proffered by the left and right hands of empire, respectively.

There is perhaps no place that better exemplifies the relationship between these two intertwined understandings of war in a US-dominated world than Bosnia-Herzegovina. The armed conflicts accompanying the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1991–2001) and especially in Bosnia (1992–1995) as one of its six constituent parts captivated the attention of the West.8 A cascading logic of nationalism and partition led to widespread atrocities in the service of creating new demographically pure territories—the events that introduced the term ethnic cleansing into global media discourse.9 The protracted nature of the fighting, especially the nearly four-year siege of the capital city of Sarajevo by Serb nationalists seeking to secede from Bosnia, was perhaps the most vivid symbol of dashed hopes for a harmonious post–Cold War dispensation. Media images of a European city under assault and emaciated men—emaciated white men, to be precise—behind barbed wire converged with the half-century commemorative recasting of World War II as a crusade against evil as embodied by the mass atrocity of the Holocaust. The failures of the UN peacekeeping operation, the most ambitious and expensive ever at the time, severely strained the organization’s credibility as well as that of the Atlantic Alliance. The Bosnian war ended on terms unsatisfying for most concerned: with the country quasi-partitioned under a protectorate run by the United States and the European Union in a constitutional system structured in a way so as to virtually guarantee paralysis along nationalist lines. Mass atrocities would be punished through international tribunals targeting individuals, but the territorial projects made possible by those atrocities were institutionalized. More broadly, the wars of Yugoslav succession were a vital part of the remaking of the European project: they formed a backdrop of “Balkan” chaos that provided a contrast with and justification for the newly emergent and prosperous European Union. As a spectacle of white-on-white violence on the world stage, the wars presented what could be safely treated as a crisis internal to the West over its ability to maintain order and face down the specter of absolute evil.

There are many works seeking to explain the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of nationalism or its diminutive form, ethnicity. This book is not one of them. Instead, it seeks a broader horizon that takes into account global hierarchies of race: like the dominant literature, it analyzes the Balkans’ marginal position at the edges of Europe but it goes further by highlighting the region’s links to the darker-skinned peoples to the south and east. The generation of scholarship that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia has been largely dedicated to challenging narratives about nationalism, even to the extent of neglecting the ravages of neoliberal capital in the region.10 This literature laments how southeast Europe has been harmfully depicted as exotic, backward, and violent, like Asia and Africa.11 However cogent the critique, whenever ex-Yugoslavs actually encounter nonwhite peoples from those other regions—either as migrants or while traveling themselves—they can suddenly become quite European enough. The scholarship’s comparison of the Balkans to the nonwhite parts of the world has left few tools for probing the region’s actual connections to them. The result has been a history ultimately by, for, and about white people, however incomplete or precarious that whiteness may be.

This inattention to race bears directly on understanding one of the major geopolitical issues of the day.12 For Bosnia was not merely the paradigmatic site of post–Cold War ethnic conflict and humanitarian intervention. It was also an early battleground for GWOT, and one that brought to light the expansive scope and seemingly unbounded reach of that campaign. Among the first captives to arrive in the infamous prison at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba in January 2002 were six Algerians living in Bosnia, seized far from the zone of active warfare in Afghanistan. They had been arrested in the weeks after 9/11 by local authorities acting at the behest of the United States, which accused them of belonging to a global Islamic conspiracy led by al-Qaʿida. When a Sarajevo court ordered the men released three months later due to lack of evidence, they were instead handed over to the United States. Unlike previous cases of covert abductions overseas by Washington, this instance of capture was openly justified in domestic US courts under an expansive legal theory of war, the same one used for detentions on the battlefields of Afghanistan. The landmark 2008 US Supreme Court decision establishing habeas corpus rights for detainees in Guantánamo, Boumediene v. Bush, bears one of these men’s names.13 The litigation that led to Boumediene fueled a morality tale throughout the first decade of this century about the history of habeas corpus and an American struggle to balance security and freedom. It was a saga whose heroes and heroines were mostly white American judges and lawyers, and it was one that faded with a whimper after the Supreme Court ruling, even as the Guantánamo prison looks set to remain open for the indefinite future.

Returning to the original facts of the Boumediene case, the scene of the crime as it were, these mysterious Arabs in Bosnia seemed bizarre and racially out of place. For proponents of GWOT, they embodied the omnipresence of the new enemy; for critics, their abduction was a sign that Washington was willing to stop nowhere and at nothing in its pursuit of chimerical threats. But both lacked a context in which to make sense of the presence of these men. This book is, among other things, a history of the circulations and encounters across region, race, and culture that made Boumediene possible. The six Algerians served as a reminder that even within the US-dominated world order, other forms of transnational solidarity were at work, syncopated to the historical rhythms described above. These included echoes of diverse pan-Islamic mobilizations—from the late-nineteenth-century through the 1979–1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan—in shifting relations of competition, collaboration, and confrontation with various imperial projects.14 The most familiar stories about Bosnia have presented squabbling local nationalist factions, with the Western powers standing above them, whether hailed as saviors or decried as meddlers. Missing from this story of natives and colonizers has been a view from another boat, a perspective that responds to empire through diasporic rather than strictly parochial terms.15

The Bosnia crisis also riveted the attention of Muslims worldwide, especially those living within the West. For these audiences, the resonant historical parallels were not so much with the Holocaust but with the colonization of Palestine or even the fifteenth-century Spanish conquest of Andalusia.16 As a European country where Muslims were a plurality, Bosnia was (over)loaded with symbolic significance from both ends. The fact that so many Bosnians are Muslim was a sign of the West’s universality, while their whiteness was a sign of Islam’s universality. This makes Bosnia a helpful site for thinking about how the racialization of Muslims in the Global War on Terror resonates with processes of racialization between Muslims as well.17 Both promises of universality were, of course, conditional and limited; Bosnians, as Europeans, received more concern than Rwandans being slaughtered wholesale on a continent to the south, but this provided little consolation as they starved under siege, dodged snipers, and watched the town of Srebrenica overrun and its Muslim male population massacred with the rest scattered into exile, all under the watchful eye of the International Community.

And solidarity from Muslims worldwide brought its own dilemmas. Its most visible form arrived in the mujahids who fought as part of or alongside the Bosnian army.18 In addition, there were many aid organizations and proselytizers; some of them also participated in combat, while others kept their distance. The mujahids committed various atrocities during the war, including executing enemy prisoners. And both fighters and aid workers have been accused of attempting to impose forms of religious practice labeled as “Wahhabi” and described as backward and illiberal. At the war’s end, the vast majority of the foreign Muslim volunteers left: some to new war zones, others to seek asylum in Europe, yet others to return home. A few stayed in Bosnia as civilians, married, and started families. Nevertheless, their presence continued to stir controversy, serving as fodder in debates between partisans of Croat, Serb, and Bosniak nationalisms. For Bosnia’s Muslims, opinion has been divided between those who stress the Arabs’ alleged contributions and those who see them as troublemakers validating the very caricatures and stereotypes that all Muslims must face.19

This book argues that the most useful way of understanding the contentious phenomenon of the jihad in Bosnia is through the lens of universalism. Thinking more clearly about questions of universalism will help to make the jihad legible in political terms rather than in pathologizing or moralistic ones.20 To tell this story, I have resorted to a kind of ethnographic history from below—one that unfolds across different regions and seeks grounding in local contexts without being limited by them. Such an approach also sheds light on other universalist projects, especially more powerful ones organized along nation-state lines. It traces the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations peacekeeping, and the Global War on Terror in ways rarely apprehended before and provides a set of terms for comparing them.

To speak of jihad as universalism is not a form of praise: universalisms—as many have noted and this study further confirms—invariably entail violent hierarchies and erasures, even if they hold out exhilarating possibilities. To take only the most obvious of exclusions, the universalism discussed here is also a deeply masculinized one that relies on the peregrinations of men while presuming women to be stationary. My concern here is to highlight the structural dilemmas that universalisms share.21 Perhaps the starkest way to bring this out is to juxtapose mujahids and peacekeepers. Both seek to incarnate particular ways of imagining the human community, bringing together diverse constituencies, especially in facing locals who may be reluctant, hostile, or opportunistic. Both tend to stumble through the local language and oscillate between marveling at the hospitality they have seen and the duplicity that sometimes follows. Both exercise power across boundaries—juridical, racial, and so on—raising serious questions of responsibility and difference. Both offer favored locals resources and the opportunity to become one of them through travel. Both are accused by critics of unrealistic devotion to ideals as well as base motivations that cheapen those ideals. Both are admired for assuming risks despite the apparent lack of an “organic” link to these sites of conflict and face suspicion over their motives for the same reason. Both are engaged in bringing projects of social transformation with questionable local legitimacy, and struggle over how aggressively to pursue those programs and how much to interfere in local dynamics. But in most conversations in the West, it is the mujahids who are described as “foreign fighters” irreconcilable to local context, while other people with guns who are no less foreign are seen to incarnate an International Community that necessarily includes the local but exceeds it at the same time. This book seeks to understand and unsettle the conditions that make this contrast seem intuitively obvious to so many. Doing so requires developing a clearer sense of how to usefully think about universalism.


“Hey,” one of Mahdi’s companions on the front line perked up one evening, sniffing the air. “What’s that? Do you smell that?” They were two Black Britons of Jamaican origin fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan; Mahdi was also a veteran of the Bosnian jihad, which he joined shortly after embracing Islam in the early 1990s. While others tried to pick up the scent themselves, Mahdi’s friend continued to marvel: “Is that . . . [sniff, sniff] is that . . . [sniff, sniff]” and then the punchline: “. . . fish ’n chips?!” It had been months since either fish or chips, both very much beloved, had been anywhere near Mahdi’s mind, and the joke reached out to mercilessly tickle him as if from another world years later as we discussed his past in a south London coffee shop. “It was just so wonderful,” Mahdi said wistfully after being spent with laughter. “It was a reminder that we had a past. That we had a life, before everything in this jihad. And it made us all the more happy that we had become Muslims.”

Mahdi’s madeleine moment calls to mind how media coverage of foreign fighters often revels in discovering attachments to tokens of Western consumerism, as if playing video games or enjoying fast food is a scandalous betrayal of their values. After all, jihadists are held to be committed to re-creating a mythical vision of life in seventh-century Arabia. More generally, pan-Islamic visions have often been condemned to failure because actual Muslims have conflicting interests; because Islam has nothing to offer nonbelievers; because a religion that started with some Arabs in the desert centuries ago is limited by definition. These critiques are echoes of an old argument that universalism—at least those forms marked as undesirable—flattens human differences regardless of context or nuance in the service of dehumanizing, coercive political projects. In a parallel context, human rights has long been faulted for failing to capture the diverse ways in which societies conceive of justice; underwriting the exclusion of certain critics as enemies of humanity; and perpetuating a fraud since it is based on treaties written by dead white men anyway. The burdens of this critique do not fall upon all with equal force: human rights ideology remains resilient in the face of all manner of refutation, while the dismissal of jihad produces a peculiar kind of oblivion—the kind that makes possible puzzlement or surprise at the idea that a jihadist can also like fish and chips.

The impulse to refute universalism will always remain valuable as a tool of critique, especially when such claims are deployed in the service of power. But the object of critique is often universality, the notion that a particular normative claim, empirical assertion, or explanatory theory is applicable or valid in all cases. This approach tends to overlook and misapprehend the effects of universalism as a structure of aspirations.22 And it is far less useful in accounting for invocations of the universal whose provenance is not necessarily Western, whose idiom is not necessarily liberal. Here, the analytical challenge lies not only in unmasking the problems of universalist claims but also in making sense of their precarious emergence and unlikely purchase.23 Thinking of universalism as practice—and not simply as ideology—reminds us that the categories of universal and particular in any given situation relate in complex and shifting ways. For Mahdi, conversion to Islam and participation in violence in its name did not require him to erase or forsake Britishness; indeed, awareness of the gap between his background and his commitment to Islam could even be a source of joy. Universalism does not and cannot demand total homogeneity; rather, it is a claim to transcend difference, which therefore requires means to regulate and redefine it.

One useful way to understand the practice of universalism is to start with the suffix, ism. Ultimately derived from ancient Greek, ism is a marker of nominalization, often giving rise to a concept or a category. This might lead us to developing an ideology, a genealogy, a theory. It would lead us to ask whether something is universal or is not. Instead, we will venture from the reminder that ism is also the Arabic word for “name.” We can ask in a given situation who is speaking in the name of the universal and what makes it possible for them to do so in a way that seems authoritative or even self-evident. Doing so directs attention toward the practical challenges and dilemmas that ensue, especially from the constant redefinition of the universal and the particular and the line that both divides and conjoins them.24

Let us take another example. Ismail Royer, a white middle-class Christian from St. Louis, Missouri, converted to Islam and traveled to Bosnia for jihad during his first year of college. Two decades later at an office in downtown Washington, D.C., he recounted a day during the war when he and some other mujahids sat down for lunch. They were underneath a tent, divided into small groups, each clustered around a shared plate of meat and rice. Suddenly, Ismail heard a voice from behind him call out in Arabic, “Hey! You an American?!” The object of address was unmistakable: Ismail was the only American in a group of mostly Gulf Arabs. Equally unmistakable was the contempt in the question, casually tossed into the air between bites of food by someone who didn’t even bother to turn around and speak to him directly. As a white convert, Ismail was accustomed to being accepted and indeed celebrated by Middle Eastern Muslims, but here the subtext was clear: he was being singled out as different, his dedication to Islam and the jihad questioned. Moreover, the lack of any justification or explanation accompanying the question signaled that it came from someone assuming the right to speak—or in this case to interrogate and accuse—in the name of an unmarked universal whose terms are safely presumed among this group to be Muslim. Aware that he was being tested, Ismail grunted, with matching nonchalance, “Yeah. You Saudi?” Ismail explained to me the logic of his riposte: nationality was generally a neutral category in the jihad. Mujahids were often identified by their citizenship, and Ismail had no problem being known as “Ismail the American.” This was only a problem for those coming from Saudi Arabia; since their country is named after a dynastic ruling family, calling them “Saudi” implied an uncomfortable degree of personal fealty or subservience unbecoming those with a strong tribal identity. They instead preferred monikers denoting their region, such as the Hijaz or Najd. Ismail’s reply poked at this sore spot without overreacting in a way that would betray any insecurity over his own Muslimness. The impudent bully was momentarily startled and all the mujahids guffawed in appreciation. Ismail successfully challenged the Saudi’s assumption of the right to speak in the name of the universal: if the man had sought to put Ismail in his (national) place, Ismail returned the favor while gently reminding him that neither of them identified too strongly with their citizenships. The two would go on to become good friends.

Universalisms entail several things, which tend to come together under jumbled, shifting, and unlikely historical circumstances. They involve loose sets of ideals directed at all of humanity, which can be drawn from any number of places, such as a religious tradition or a set of theoretical texts; let us call this an idiom. Too often the discussion of universalism begins and ends at the level of idiom, as when “Islam,” “liberalism,” and “Marxism” are glossed as comparable universalisms, each following easily from an underlying written code. Universalism is something that should be approached as specific and concrete; there is no single “Islamic universalism” or “Western universalism” as such, but rather multiple universalist projects whose primary idioms may describe themselves as broadly Islamic or Western and which strive for the ability to invoke such categories with a force that is convincing. Instead of employing universalism as shorthand for civilization or other discredited monolithic categories, this book tries to build its analysis up from smaller scales, following how the players in this story cobble together ideas, institutional forms, and practices that they deem Islamic.

As discussed above, thinking anthropologically about universalism also requires identifying a horizon of belonging, a category that includes some people and treats all others as theoretically capable of incorporation. Even this inclusion, of course, is inevitably striated with all sorts of hierarchies and exclusions: most notably, the Bosnian jihad called for help from Muslims around the world yet always found ways to discourage women from coming to fight. While writing this book, the most common note of skepticism I encountered from colleagues was the question of how something could be both Islamic and truly universal. But universalism in this book is a question of aspiration, not a claim of empirical reality, normative validity, or explanatory power. The idea of a universalism that speaks to all of humanity with little assurance or even concern that anyone is actually listening should be familiar. International human rights lawyers promulgate new rules as universal in full awareness that most of the world’s population may be unaware of or even oppose them. Diplomats frequently chide, implore, and demand on behalf of the “International Community” regardless of how many people identify with that community. For those who traveled to fight in Bosnia, Islam also carried a message for all of mankind. In this view, the umma is both the subset of humanity that has accepted Islam as well as humanity’s ultimate horizon through the possibility—however remote or hypothetical—of conversion.25 And indeed, as the examples of Mahdi and Ismail remind us, at least a handful of those who fought had only just become Muslim.

Universalisms’ promise to transcend differences between people does not necessarily propose to erase those differences or to preserve them, but it must have mechanisms to process them. Social cleavages and antagonisms around gender, nationality, race, and class were not ignored by the jihad, but rather repolarized and managed in a variety of ways. This book examines some of the concrete practices and institutions that enabled a group of Muslims in Bosnia to debate, stand together, and fall out with each other, thus creating new social formations and reshaping old ones. This puts difference at the center of the story about universalism instead of casting it as contingent practice subservient to textualized religious truths, norms, or ideals. Universalisms also require some theory of authority that can regulate the use of violence and adjudicate which differences are contingent and which mark an absolute limit.

Speaking in the name of the universal is also far more likely to be effective if attached to an institutional formation of some kind. For the jihad in Bosnia, the Katiba was such a formation, although not all foreign mujahids joined it (Ismail was a reject, perhaps arousing too much suspicion of being a spy). In general, of course, the most common institutional form for making universalist claims that actually stick is the nation-state. The nation-state, even in its most xenophobic manifestations, always makes universalist claims: the nation is a concrete embodiment of a universal notion of freedom or human belonging or something else and presupposes the existence of other nations as well. Indeed, nation-states often can participate in different universalist projects at once: in the case of wartime Bosnia-Herzegovina, appeals to the liberal international legal order and to the umma were both common. And, as we shall see, Islamic solidarity was itself a broad category taking many different and even conflicting forms.

The outsized weight of the nation-state as a political formation in the contemporary era means that the best-known universalisms tend to be state-based: let us call these internationalisms, universalist projects that are explicitly organized on an inter-state basis. If the first half of the book follows the practice of universalism to make the jihad in Bosnia legible in terms beyond pathos and morality, the second half juxtaposes the jihad to three internationalisms in particular: socialism in the states of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), United Nations peacekeeping, and the US-led Global War on Terror. In each of these cases, the lens of a transregional ethnographic history from below reveals new dimensions: this book will follow the NAM through the eyes of Arab students in Yugoslavia rather than the typical pageants of postcolonial summitry; it will regard UN peacekeepers not as totems of independent states but as heirs to histories of colonial soldiering; and it will trace the paths of GWOT captives through and against a global network of prisons rather than as mere victims of human rights abuses.

On several occasions so far, I have resorted to examples from international law in order to illustrate ideas about universalism. This is hardly a coincidence: international law provides idioms for many of the best-known examples of universalism today. International law, of course, has also been widely criticized as an instrument of imperialism, as the premier example of false or harmful universalism.26 Worth mentioning here are two major challenges to the nineteenth-century notion of an international legal order in which full formal participation was limited to Western states. C. H. Alexandrowicz, a Polish citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who spent a significant part of his career in newly independent India, undermined this order’s pretensions to universality. He adduced evidence of non-European participation as sovereign equals in the international legal order of the early modern period. Alexandrowicz showed how even many acts of colonial conquest were based on treaties concluded with local potentates—thereby confirming that no matter how craven, European powers nevertheless at some point conferred legal recognition upon native authorities.27 The German Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, on the other hand, warned that invocations of universal categories would provide new and even more compelling justifications for violence against the excluded. Such a move threatened to transform the enmity between any two states into a war of all against one in the name of humanity. He also averred that expanding the European order through decolonization would only result in an abstract universalism not grounded in concrete political orders.28 The thrust of Alexandrowicz’s work was to seek a more complete and just universality, while Schmitt seemed to question the desirability of universality altogether. Both of these critiques have shaped this book. Schmitt called attention to the work performed by invocations of the universal in justifying and enacting violence, while Alexandrowicz’s attentiveness to the participation of “peripheral” actors in the legal order remains an exemplar of how empirical research can push against Eurocentric narratives. Nevertheless, attempts to theorize universalism within international law scholarship remained hampered by the field’s more general focus on norms, texts, or the lives of elite jurists and have rarely been placed into a thick social or historical context.29

Drawing on ethnography and history, The Universal Enemy presents a counterpoint for consideration: a universalism that at first glance appears radically different from those typically studied in international law.30 In doing so, it hopes to develop a sharper and more theoretically robust account of universalism in practice.31 For international law is here more than a model for thinking about jihad. It has also informed my own professional and intellectual formation in ways that made this book possible. Further explanation is in order.


During my first research trip to Bosnia, in December 2006, I met Abu Hamza, a Syrian who was the public face of the Arab ex-mujahids in the country. Bosnia was at that time one of the few countries in which veterans of transnational jihad movements maintained a regular public presence and could meet with journalists and researchers in relative openness. Abu Hamza was, of course, suspicious at first—the only people who are interested in such topics, he told me, are spies. His caution was hardly misplaced: our meeting came only a few months after revelations in mainstream media of a network of secret CIA prisons in Thailand, Romania, Poland, and elsewhere used to torture alleged al-Qaʿida members. Arabs in Bosnia had been arrested, questioned, and in some cases deported; those who left the country also found themselves hunted down. A journalist who interviewed the wife of one of the six Algerians sent to Guantánamo turned out to be an undercover German intelligence officer. Abu Hamza recognized that the type of research I was attempting was not like an ordinary media interview, but was more akin to joining a family, marrying a daughter. And for that, he said, he would need a “token of friendship” [ʿarabūn al-adāqa]. What did that mean? He smiled and said it was up to me to figure out what form that would take.

Since that first conversation with Abu Hamza in 2006, I have spent a total of one year in Bosnia, mostly in trips averaging one month in duration between 2009 and 2012 with visits until 2018. Roughly half of my time was in the capital, Sarajevo, where I lived in various neighborhoods, from the relatively affluent city center and Koševo Hill to the more working-class outlying area of Alipašino Polje. During the rest of my research, I was based in downtown Zenica, located about an hour’s drive northwest of Sarajevo. Zenica was a major center for foreign Islamic solidarity efforts during the war, as it was the largest city under undisputed government control and better-connected to the outside world than besieged Sarajevo. The core research of this book is based on a biographical database consisting of over two hundred non-Bosnians who fought in the jihad, drawing from archival documents, primary source publications, and a network of interlocutors that included twenty-eight self-described mujahids—seventeen foreign, eleven Bosnian. Most of these were people with whom I had repeated, extended, and open-ended conversations over the course of multiple years, in Arabic or English. In addition, there were Arab aid workers and other migrants, Bosnian clerics, war veterans, journalists, and intellectuals. Nearly all of these were men; I was able to interview a few Bosnian women married to Arab mujahids and migrants as well and several children of such couples. Interviews were held in coffee shops, private homes, or the immigration detention center at Lukavica, which will be discussed in Chapter 7. Outside Bosnia, this research took me to Egypt, France, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Yemen. Interviews were supplemented by archival research, mostly with Bosnian army documents collected by the UN war crimes tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia. Unlike most other transnational jihads, the one in Bosnia was affiliated with a nation-state and a regular army, leaving behind a considerable and uniquely detailed paper trail. And because the events of the war and the time of my fieldwork were separated by less than a generation, I could incorporate archival documents directly into some interviews—including with individuals who were mentioned in them.

As with many ethnographies, the bulk of the research for this book was conducted while I was a doctoral student in anthropology. But I was also undergoing a concurrent course of training and professionalization as an attorney, after having worked for several human rights organizations prior to graduate school. During that first meeting with Abu Hamza, I had intended to keep these two aspects of my background separate and approach potential interlocutors purely as an academic researcher. As time passed, it became clear that the work of anthropology and lawyering could not remain separate, and indeed that for me they could only proceed together in lockstep. This is because the Global War on Terror has been configured as an intensively litigious space—contrary to accusations of “lawlessness,” it has been a campaign marked by an anxiousness to frame actions in legal terms, even if done so in ways that may seem to clash with liberal norms and commitments to the rule of law. As a non-Muslim citizen of the United States, I was not surprised to face suspicion; while a few people I contacted by phone angrily berated me as a spy before hanging up, most others politely stopped replying to messages after an initial meeting or conversation, leaving me to stew in uncertainty and self-doubt. Meanwhile, from many Bosnians, I experienced considerable racial curiosity and at times hostility as a person of East Asian origin, especially in smaller cities and towns, at a time when Chinese merchants were becoming an increasingly prevalent and resented sight.32 But once I spoke English with a certain kind of accent and identified myself with well-known American universities, I was quickly shown the deference customarily accorded to “Internationals.” Mention of my research topic would then shift conversations back to the register of suspicion that I was looking to besmirch Bosnia’s international reputation by tying it to concerns about terrorism. Given all of this, the role of human rights lawyer seemed the most legible and least threatening identity to embrace in approaching potential interlocutors.

Accordingly, this book may be read as an anthropology of law, but it is also a product of ethnographic lawyering, drawing on the broad repertoire of technical skills, ways of reasoning, discourses of authority, even habits of bodily comportment that mark the legal profession. Most ethnographic encounters involve at least the pretense of some reciprocity between researchers and interlocutors: in this case, acting as a lawyer was the only thing I could offer that seemed useful. But inhabiting such a professional role entails entering into specific relationships of responsibility with clients that bring their own dilemmas. Academic research about one’s own clients poses obvious methodological challenges, given the tension between representing a client and developing the critical distance from them upon which research depends. And it raises concerns about unethical exploitation of the attorney-client relationship as well. Navigating the demands of these different roles was a constant struggle. Thinking ethnographically with formal legal categories—generating theoretical insights from their use in everyday life—requires disentangling the most important types of lawyering that inflected this research.

The first form of lawyering was as party counsel, or representing clients in adversarial situations, such as litigation in the US federal courts. While in law school—and after my first research trip to Bosnia—I had the opportunity to join a legal clinic specializing in cases arising from the Global War on Terror.33 In 2008, I found myself assigned to a team representing Ahmad Zuhair, a national of Saudi Arabia abducted in Lahore, Pakistan, and held without charge as an “unlawful enemy combatant” at Guantánamo. By an incredible coincidence, he had also spent time in the Balkans during the 1990s and was accused, among many other things, of having fought in the jihad—an allegation that he steadfastly denied, along with all the others leveled by the US government.34 Mr. Zuhair and another captive maintained what was at the time the longest hunger strike ever at Guantánamo, leading the government to subject him to a regime of forced feeding that was in many respects another form of torture. Several times a day for four years, Mr. Zuhair was painfully strapped into a restraint chair, and a cold, unlubricated plastic tube was rammed up his nose in order to pump nutrients into his stomach. We filed emergency motions seeking relief for Mr. Zuhair and were fortunate enough to persuade a federal judge in Washington to order an independent medical expert to conduct a physical examination—the first time this was ever done at the prison.35 In the meantime, we prepared to challenge the case against Mr. Zuhair, which required investigating the government’s allegations, including those concerning his time in Bosnia. This entailed building on my own previous research to interview potential witnesses and locate relevant documents, as well as reaching out to Mr. Zuhair’s family and acquaintances in other countries and discussing his case with him directly at the prison. I participated in one such visit in February 2009. Later that spring, just weeks before the scheduled court hearing that would determine the legality of Mr. Zuhair’s detention, the US government unilaterally decided to transfer him to Saudi Arabia. He was held in a “rehabilitation center” in Riyadh—essentially another form of nonjudicial detention, albeit far less draconian than Guantánamo and, crucially, allowing family visits—before finally being released without charge several years later.

My experience working on Mr. Zuhair’s legal team is an important part of the backdrop of this book. But you will not read any more about it here. Writing an ethnography of this experience that would successfully balance both the critical imperatives and ethical sensibilities that I seek to uphold would likely have been impossible. But there is no way to know for sure, because of a more immediate reason: most of the evidence used in Guantánamo detention cases is classified by the US government.36 Then, like all other lawyers and paralegals defending Guantánamo captives, I had to travel to a “secure facility” near the Pentagon to see the evidence. We were not permitted to remove the files from the building; any written notes, including from meetings with clients at the base, were presumptively classified and could only be removed with government consent.37 Any court filings referencing classified information had to be composed on government computers at the secure facility, which were not connected to the Internet. Accordingly, Mr. Zuhair’s case only registers as an absence in the pages that follow.38 While it is important to stress that none of the information in this book comes from these experiences, working on this case shaped the many questions and lines of inquiry that the project would take.

The second form of lawyering that inflects this study was my work as counsel for amicus curiae, Latin for “friend of the court.” A long-standing institution of common law that has found its way into various international courts, the amicus is a third party who intervenes in a case with a court’s permission, often in explicit support of one side.39 In theory, however, their primary obligation is to the court itself, in order to help judges arrive at sound conclusions. I mobilized such interventions in two cases filed by Abu Hamza that were essentially test cases for the other Arabs in Bosnia. In the first case, the amicus was the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local NGO. I prepared a brief that the Helsinki Committee submitted to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina describing the relevant international standards governing the revocation of citizenship.40 In the second case, the amicus was the US-based organization Human Rights Watch, which submitted an intervention to the European Court of Human Rights analyzing the legal framework for immigration detention under European human rights law.41 In both cases, Abu Hamza won partial victories, although not on the issues that amici addressed.42

Amicus curiae interventions provided a space of interaction with the law in which to balance concerns over method and ethics. Amicus briefs did not seek to argue the merits or facts of Abu Hamza’s case, that obviously being the role of his own counsel. Instead, they deployed the prestige of these NGOs to bolster arguments to the courts about what the applicable legal standards should be. This afforded the possibility of maintaining certain broad normative stances—such as an opposition to torture or to arbitrary deprivation of citizenship—without committing myself to any specific opinion or perspective on what Abu Hamza or other mujahids had done. Lawyering for the amicus was hardly a neutral act, but it also allowed me to preserve some degree of critical distance from the parties themselves. In this way, I sought to place myself in the gap between supporting a “friend” of the court and providing the “token of friendship” [ʿarabūn al-adāqa] requested by Abu Hamza.

Finally, there was the more general role of human rights advocate. While in Bosnia, I developed an informal (and unpaid) relationship with the local human rights NGO mentioned above, the Helsinki Committee. Over the course of my research, Abu Hamza and several other of my interlocutors found themselves placed in a newly built immigration detention center in Sarajevo. I was able to continue seeing them there, but only in my capacity as a consultant for the Helsinki Committee. While this work did not require being a licensed attorney, it nevertheless entailed inhabiting a certain NGO worker role that depends on a fluency in English and in the specific manner of speaking that invokes and repurposes international and European human rights law and its related forms of regulatory and technocratic implementation. During my visits, I was careful to delineate my two professional identities of researcher and advocate when speaking to detainees, and accordingly prioritized the human rights aspect of discussing their cases and conditions. Several were uninterested in taking conversations beyond that. Others were eager to speak about everything, reasoning that participating in my anthropological research would also be helpful to them in the long term through the altering of public perceptions and understandings.

While lawyering shaped this ethnography in many ways, the converse was true only to a lesser extent. The most logical space to bring my ethnography to bear in litigation has been in the familiar but somewhat limited role of the expert witness, and I have accordingly done so in court cases touching on the Bosnian jihad in the United States and the United Kingdom.43 Educating judges about the social context out of which GWOT captives emerged has its uses, encouraging them to resist reflexively criminalizing everyday forms of wandering across the Global South in search of adventure, jobs, religious learning, or mere safety. Too often, however, ethnography helped me see what the law cannot do, at least not without massive and sustained political pressure. Notwithstanding the enormous attention paid to courts as guardians of rights, my anthropological sensibilities led me to appreciate how much of the dirty work of GWOT takes place in transnational spaces between governments that produced jails and killing fields designed to evade judicial scrutiny. Litigating against GWOT is a frustrating form of shadow-boxing, and that is something anthropology could do little to change from within the courtroom. Outside, one can only hope that the insights of this study may contribute to wider shifts in thinking and debate.


Just beyond the threshold of this book and before going further into the story, a few words of clarification are in order about some of the most loaded concepts that will frequently appear, as well as some that will not.

Jihad, most often and sensationally glossed as Islamic “holy war,” can of course mean many things, from a spiritual struggle for self-improvement to armed confrontation. Even when jihad is more narrowly defined as armed activity sanctioned by Islam and grounded in its various norms, however, it is a label that has been applied to very different types of conflicts. This book does not purport to arrive at any “correct” interpretations of the term. Focusing on doctrinal rectitude would only reinforce the flawed assumption that political violence flows directly from readings—or misreadings—of religious texts. Instead, this book is dedicated to understanding some of the many different ways jihad is used to justify and organize political violence.

To this end, distinguishing violent from nonviolent uses of jihad is only the first step; even violent forms of jihad can pursue radically different political projects. Fighting against non-Muslims in situations of occupation or civil war is one; revolt against Muslim rulers is another; yet a third—associated with the organization that came to be known as al-Qaʿida—has been war against the United States in an attempt to force a military withdrawal from Muslim-majority countries and end its support for repressive regimes.44 Some jihads have combined elements of these projects, most notably the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that rose to global prominence after declaring itself as a caliphate for Muslims worldwide in 2014. Confounding things further has been the rise of attacks by individual Muslims living in the West who have appeared to act without belonging to any organizational formation. The Global War on Terror has conflated all of these phenomena wholesale under the rubric of a single overarching threat, reserving special concern for those who have crossed borders as part of their armed commitments.

Against such conflation, this book does not seek to analyze all forms of violent jihad. Indeed, I do not believe any useful all-encompassing explanation to be possible, since there is no compelling conceptual reason to group all kinds of violence claiming the label of jihad and to separate them from all the others. Following the practice of the protagonists of this story, I will refer to “the jihad” as the campaign to bring Muslims from throughout the world to Bosnia with the notion that this national diversity was itself a source of legitimacy. This understanding overlaps with but is distinct from Bosnians and others labeling the war effort as a whole as a jihad, meaning that among other things it is justified in terms of Islam—an ambiguity that will be explored further in this book. As the stories recounted in this study will make amply clear, treating jihadism as an ideology or a movement is untenable. While there may be some people who are committed to pursuing jihad for its own sake, that still does not tell us what jihad is or why it is a useful category when it is applied to a wide range of very different kinds of political conflict. Moreover, insofar as jihad is considered an obligation, that does not mean it necessarily comes to define those who engage in it. A Syrian veteran of the jihad, Ayman Awad, made this point in a television interview: “When people go into the mosque and are praying, we say, ‘There are worshipers in the mosque,’ but when they leave the mosque we can’t say, ‘What are the worshipers doing?’ or ‘These are the worshipers.’ This label is finished, it doesn’t apply anymore because these people have started doing other things.”45 For these reasons, the words jihadi, jihadism, and jihadist will not be called upon to do any conceptual work in this book, since the work they seem most fit for is confusion.

Writing about jihad has for too long been overdetermined by the politics of anti-Muslim animus which, like all forms of racism, distorts critical thinking by setting up notions that are both easy to debunk and yet tenaciously enduring. There have been two prevailing approaches in public debates and scholarly discussions about violence and Islam. We can think of these as lumping and splitting, often associated with Samuel Huntington and Edward Said, respectively.46 The former emphasizes the threat posed by a coherent object called “Islam” or “Muslims.” The latter responds by rejecting this essentialism in favor of emphasizing diversity, particularity, local context: there is no single Islam, but rather many Islams. Faced with transnational jihads, lumpers reconfirm a monolithic notion of Islam as a worldwide militant conspiracy while splitters dismiss them as marginal or sometimes emphasize their enmity against some fellow Muslims to demonstrate a lack of religious authenticity. The lumpers, with their glaring lack of analytical subtlety and complicity with racist and regressive politics, have been widely criticized and require no further comment here. More interesting are the shortcomings of the splitters, who have tended to be more dominant in critical scholarship on Islam and the Middle East. For all of their merits, their focus on critiquing essentialism has left us few tools to make sense of the acts of sacrifice that do occasionally take place in the name of Islam between people who seem to lack any other tie of commonality or interest.47 In this view, the call to jihad can seem only like empty rhetoric manipulated by elites or the preserve of scattered fanatics. Here, anti-essentialism can work invidiously as both wedge and bludgeon, separating “Good Muslims” from “Bad Muslims,” as defined by conformity to the diktats of the United States government.48

Anyone looking for an answer to the question of whether jihadis are authentically Muslim or whether Muslims are authentically peaceful is unlikely to be satisfied by this book. As W.E.B. Du Bois warned audiences at the outset of his magisterial study Black Reconstruction in America, readers who fundamentally refuse the humanity of those being written about “will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down.”49 This book is instead directed primarily at those fellow travelers who already reject the demonization of Muslims, but who recognize that this is no substitute for serious conversations about political violence. This need is especially urgent given the plain insufficiency of the most common critical responses, which tend to read armed jihads as nothing more than manipulated tools of Western powers and their favored client states or as epiphenomenal “blowback” of their destructive policies. Such arguments are not only unsatisfactory as explanations, they effectively cede the narrative about these armed groups to “terrorism experts.” This latter body of work has been assailed for bias and ignorance, but even in its more enlightened versions, it remains fundamentally hobbled by a framework of servicing the national security state with usable insights. The framework of national security treats state violence as merely a normalized response to threat—a characterization that is especially perverse in the case of a state built on a foundation of genocide and slavery and that remains deeply invested in racial violence at home and abroad.50

Finally, it should go without saying—but sadly does not—that the concept of “terrorism” is today useful only in delegitimizing the political actions of those stuck with the label.51 In other words, to call someone a terrorist is to deny any political dimension to their use of violence—and, paradoxically, only serves to reconfirm that this violence is political, even as it takes moralistic forms (as “evil”) or technocratic ones (“extremism”). So notwithstanding some shared topics and sources, this book does not purport to contribute to terrorism studies. If anything, it hopes to chart the fundamental limitations of that field by showing how serious scholarship on contemporary jihad groups—which terrorism studies have hitherto mostly failed to produce—actually requires centering a critical analysis of empire. The best way to study terrorism, it turns out, may be to do the one thing that terrorism studies can never do: refuse to take for granted the globalized order of racial violence that the national security state aims to protect.

The debates over humanitarian intervention and terrorism that have marked the world order of the past quarter-century meet at an impasse. Whenever either type of war is challenged, the ultimate retort of power is one that remains unchanged: “Something must be done” and “Doing nothing is not an option.” Between this something that proves too little and this nothing that says too much, The Universal Enemy hopes to offer a different perspective on radicalism, solidarity, and violence. Since the end of the Cold War, the choice presented has too often been limited to “nonviolence”—which often is ultimately too comfortable with accepting state violence—and nonstate violence dismissed as unaccountable spectacle. Yet a grounded and reflexive approach to violence, including in the work of solidarity, is something that radical movements cannot do without. And working toward such a project requires clearer criteria for evaluating claims to solidarity and tools for understanding how they may work and fail in practice. For all their commitments to and alignments with reactionary politics, those mobilizing in the name of jihad have been among the few actors in recent decades to have taken seriously the challenges of organizing political violence across borders in the face of American empire. Their efforts and errors merit closer attention than has been paid so far, and radicals of all stripes ignore them at their own peril.


1. Often the first thing one learns about the country is that Bosnia has three dominant nationalities: Serbs (who are of Orthodox background), Croats (who are of Catholic background), and Bosniaks (who are of Muslim background). Muslims made up a plurality of Bosnia’s population before the 1992–1995 war and are a slight majority today.

The second thing one should learn is how important it is to unthink many of the assumptions embedded in these categories. Chapter 2 will discuss this in greater detail. For now, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the adjective Bosnian pertains to the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the state identified with it, but it does not refer to a widely recognized nation. So, for example, “Bosnian Serbs” are those who identify with the Serb nation living in Bosnia.

2. Salafi is a word that will appear throughout this book and will be discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 4. In the interest of not letting explication stand in the way of argument and narrative, let us say for now that Salafi is perhaps most usefully thought of as an orientation of Islamic creed and practice that tends to be perceived by others as particularly strict and dogmatic. Wahhabi is used as a synonym for Salafi, often considered pejorative.

3. Some readers may be familiar with the word mujahideen, one of the plural forms of mujahid. This term was popularized in (largely favorable) English-language media coverage of Afghans fighting against Soviet forces in the 1980s and used approvingly in speeches by US president Ronald Reagan.

4. The other major alternative category to the citizen-soldier that has returned to prominence in the past quarter-century has been the mercenary. The latter, tethered to some form of state authority and recast as the private military contractor, has enjoyed far greater legitimacy in an era of neoliberal capital. In relation to the citizen-soldier ideal, however, the two figures provoke mirrored anxieties: the volunteer is seen as motivated by an excessive ideological zeal, the mercenary as having no cause other than pecuniary gain. On the broader relationship between state-formation, the organization of violence, and the rise of the citizen-soldier model, see Janice Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns.

5. For some time, the discipline of International Relations has been criticized for erasing or marginalizing the thick sets of social relations that shape the interactions between states. “Paradoxically, the core concepts of [International Relations] work to drain international relations of their content! The discipline’s object of analysis—the international—becomes a spare space of strategic interaction between [nation-states as] ‘pre-existing’ entities.” Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey, “Retrieving the Imperial,” 112.

6. Another terminological signpost may be in order here. In this book, Islamist movements are those that take the state as a primary locus of activity, one that should conform to and uphold some notion of Islam. Pan-Islamic actors are those whose primary concern is solidarity with other Muslim communities throughout the world. One can be a pan-Islamic activist without being an Islamist and vice versa, although there is often considerable overlap between these two positions.

7. Both framings, of course, were shaped by long historical antecedents. “Ethnic conflict” was a new name for an old problem, namely the expulsions, exterminations, and subordinations that were often demanded by the logic of the territorial nation-state. And the specter of Islam—the only major worldwide missionizing religion other than Christianity—as a virus threatening to unite disparate peoples against the West has played its part in many an armed mobilization over the centuries. The two framings are overlapping and mutually reinforcing in any number of conflicts. See, e.g., Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors.

8. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprised six constituent republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. After the other republics seceded, Serbia and Montenegro in 1992 christened their union the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and designated it the successor to the former communist state. At the same time, the FRY supported Serb nationalist forces fighting to secede from Croatia and Bosnia. Those wars effectively ended in 1995 with a decisive victory for the Croatian state (accompanied by mass ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia) and a soft partition in Bosnia along nationalist lines. Separately, ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo—an autonomous province within Serbia—waged their own insurgency, leading to a NATO bombing campaign against the FRY in 1999. Kosovo was placed under international governance and unilaterally declared independence in 2008; the legal status of the territory remains unresolved. In 2006, Serbia and Montenegro parted ways.

9. The contemporaneous literature on ethnic cleansing in the 1990s Yugoslav wars is quite immense. For a useful overview of this process in Bosnia and postwar attempts to reverse it, see Gerard Toal and Carl Dahlman, Bosnia Remade.

10. It took some twenty years after the collapse of Yugoslavia for full-length ethnographies of Bosnia in English to appear that were not about nationalism, the war, or Western intervention. See Larisa Jašarević, Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market; Maple Razsa, Bastards of Utopia. For earlier challenges to this trend, see Stef Jansen, “The Privatisation of Home and Hope”; Pamela Ballinger, “Watery Spaces, Globalizing Places.”

11. Much of this work was in dialogue with postcolonial theory, especially Edward Said’s book Orientalism. See Dušan Bjelić and Obrad Savić, Balkan as Metaphor; Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans; Milica Bakić-Hayden, “Nesting Orientalisms.” As Catherine Baker has powerfully argued, this literature’s bracketing of race is consistent with postcolonial theory’s own uneven treatment of race and slavery. See Race and the Yugoslav Region.

12. For one corrective to Balkanist anthropology’s undertheorized approach to processes of racialization, see Chelsi West Ohueri, “Mapping Race and Belonging in the Margins of Europe.”

13. 553 U.S. 723 (2008). Two of the men have published a memoir of their experiences. See Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir, Witnesses of the Unseen.

14. Cemil Aydın helpfully draws a distinction between the older concept of umma as the community of Muslim believers and “the Muslim world” as a modern geopolitical category that emerged under the globalized white supremacy of nineteenth-century imperialism. “The Muslim world” as a concept thus exists both as a fixture of Western imaginaries as well as a category that Muslim activists could seize upon for their own critiques of imperialism. See The Idea of the Muslim World.

15. Writing about Muslim confrontations against Portuguese expansionism in the sixteenth century Indian Ocean, Engseng Ho traces how notions of jihad “emerged out of diasporic Muslim circles, and its expression affords us one view of empire through diasporic eyes . . .” “Empire Through Diasporic Eyes,” 222.

16. Comparisons to Palestine and Andalusia were explicit in the titles of Arabic-language books about the war. See, e.g., ʿAbd al-Wahhāb Zaytūn, al-Būsna wal-Harsak: Filasīn ukhrā fī qalb Ūrūbbā; Muammad Muammad Amzyān, al-Būsna wal-Harsak: al-Andalus al-thāniya!

17. Much of the best scholarship on race and Islam emerges from work on or in conversation with the Black radical tradition and is thereby more squarely planted within the West (even as it challenges the boundaries of that category) than the kinds of encounters charted in this book. See, e.g., Sylvia Chan-Malik, Being Muslim; Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Muslim Cool; Hisham Aidi, Rebel Music; Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon; Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims; Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican.

18. It is worth noting that foreign volunteers fought on all sides of the war, and this study further contributes to the disproportionate attention given to Muslims. Most of the criticisms of Arab fighters were also in evidence against foreign volunteers on the Croat side, including lack of discipline and mistreating local women. See Nir Arielli, “In Search of Meaning.”

19. This conjoined figure of threat—jihadi, Arab, Wahhabi—is a flashpoint in broader debates over piety and the public role of Islam in Bosnia, whose most contentious issues include women’s headscarves and the design of new and refurbished mosques. See, e.g., Andreja Mesarič, “Wearing Hijab in Sarajevo”; Emira Ibrahimpašić, “Women Living Islam in Post-War and Post-Socialist Bosnia-Herzegovina”; Azra Akšamija, “Our Mosques Are Us.”

20. Here, I follow Roxanne Euben, who treats jihad as a form of meaning-making that is central to understandings of politics rather than outside of it: “[I]n this view jihad endows human struggle to remake a common world with existential weight.” Roxanne Euben, “Killing (for) Politics,” 10.

21. Faisal Devji has made a similar point, comparing al-Qaʿida to various global humanitarian movements such as those organized around global warming or nuclear dangers. The approach here differs, however, in the purpose of the comparison. Devji insists on placing al-Qaʿida outside the threshold of the political, either because it allegedly lacks a rational means-ends calculus or due to its commitment to the abstract category of humanity over the nation-state. See Landscapes of the Jihad, 3–4; Terrorist in Search of Humanity, 18–23. The accompanying empirical emphasis on media outputs as reflective surfaces leaves unread the actual histories, relations, dilemmas, and antagonisms of jihad groups—what one might otherwise call their politics. This perspective short-changes not only jihad groups but the other universalisms Devji compares them to, such as environmental or human rights campaigns, which are also treated as pathologies of globalization.

22. Anna Tsing argues that treating universalism ethnographically requires understanding it “as an aspiration, an always unfinished achievement, rather than the confirmation of a pre-formed law. Then it is possible to notice that universal aspirations must travel across distances and differences, and we can take this travel as an ethnographic object.” Friction, 7. Tsing’s work on universalism, which unfolded in the shadow of debates over globalization and the environment in the 1990s and early 2000s, can be usefully connected to parallel thinking about themes of aspiration and disputation that have recurred in the anthropology of Islam and Muslims. See Naveeda Khan, Muslim Becoming; Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” 14–17.

23. Étienne Balibar makes a similar point in cautioning against making any “plea for or against universalism as such” in favor of disentangling the processes and tensions that are inherent to universalisms as actually existing endeavors. “On Universalism.”

While Balibar’s engagements on the contingencies and multiplicities of universalism are valuable, this book proposes a way of understanding universalisms on a smaller scale that can be more easily approached through empirical research. Otherwise Balibar’s concept of universalism risks lapsing into banal anti-essentialism, however, especially when asked about Islam: “Islamic State is a local variant of jihadism, which itself should not be conflated with Muslim fundamentalism in general. And a fortiori fundamentalism should not be confused with Islam, which is itself deeply divided between different traditionalisms and varieties of modernism. . . . It is Islamic State that is barbaric, not Islam.” Jean Birnbaum, “Etienne Balibar: ‘L’universel ne rassemble pas, il divise’,” Le Monde, September 9, 2017.

24. The authority to make those evaluations and set those standards will always be an object of contestation. Similarly, the extent to which a particular universalism’s criteria for evaluating differences is accepted is an empirical question: “[T]he universal does not have any necessary body, any necessary content. Instead, different groups compete to give their particular aims a temporary function of universal representation.” Ernesto Laclau, “Universalism, Particularism and the Question of Identity,” 90.

25. For a useful collection of essays that ethnographically interrogate the category of humanity in its deployment in various “Western” discourses such as humanitarianism and biomedicine, see Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin, In the Name of Humanity.

26. Arguably the most influential overview of international law’s colonial dimensions remains Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law.

In the shadow of such critiques, the persistence of international law as a ubiquitous language for articulating emancipatory demands has occasioned much reflection among legal scholars about universalism in various forms. Sundhya Pahuja, for example, calls attention to the need to study the “operationalisation of universality,” or the process by which certain norms become accepted as universal. Decolonising International Law, 40–41. Emmanuelle Jouannet has also grappled with the paradoxical relationship linking international law’s hegemonic tendencies and its liberatory promises. Interestingly, she uses the example of al-Qaʿida to demonstrate the limitations of any concept of rational discussion as a basis for renewed universality. See “Universalism and Imperialism,” 402–3.

27. See, e.g., Charles Henry Alexandrowicz, The European-African Confrontation; An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies (16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries). For a critical appraisal of Alexandrowicz’s work, see David Armitage and Jennifer Pitts, “‘This Modern Grotius’: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of C.H. Alexandrowicz,” 21–31.

28. See Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth. From a perspective that seeks to challenge empire and white supremacy, the utility of a Nazi thinker like Schmitt stems precisely (and primarily) from his proximity to liberal modes of reasoning, accompanied by a candor and incisiveness that can come only from the envy of runner-up colonizers.

29. Nevertheless, the move to historicize international legal institutions, including the role of non-Western elites, remains salutary. See, e.g., Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace; Arnulf Becker-Lorca, Mestizo International Law. That Marxist approaches to international law, while generative in their own right, have also yet to systematically engage with social history is perhaps more surprising. See, e.g., China Miéville, Between Equal Rights; B. S. Chimni, International Law and World Order.

30. Needless to say, international legal institutions have themselves also been the object of anthropological research and have raised questions of universalism similar to those explored here. See, e.g., Kamari Clarke, Fictions of Justice; Sally Engle Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence; Annelise Riles, The Network Inside Out; “Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge.”

31. An empirical approach to universalism can be discerned in the work of a common ancestor of both anthropology and the study of international law, the British jurist and colonial official Henry Sumner Maine (1822–1888). In interrogating the prehistory of international law—which he thought of as most analogous to whatever norms governed relations between kinship units in “primitive societies”—Maine argued against the common conflation of jus gentium, or the law of all peoples, and natural law, philosophically derived from principles of nature. Maine explained that for the Romans, jus gentium was drawn from practices observed to be prevalent among the various tribes and communities in Italy and used to govern relations with the very large population of foreign residents. Jus gentium was merely a technology for managing differences born from necessity, without any kind of transcendent value attached. It was only later, when ancient Greek natural law ideas were combined with this Roman legal tradition, that jus gentium began to take on an aspirational dimension that would come to inflect international law much later on. See Ancient Law, 41–47.

32. Chinese migration to Bosnia since the 2000s has been an outgrowth of a larger community in Serbia. See Felix Chang, “Myth and Migration”; Gordana Blagojević, “Savremeni stereotipi Srba o Kinezima u Beogradu.”

33. Clinics are essentially legal services organizations housed within law schools, meant to provide students with practical experience, such as drafting motions and arguing in court, under the supervision of a licensed attorney. This clinic, formally known as the National Litigation Project (NLP) of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights clinic at Yale Law School, was highly unusual in being attached to a well-resourced and prestigious law school. NLP grew out of litigation challenging the detention of Haitian asylum seekers at Guantánamo Bay naval base in the early 1990s and was reincarnated during the Global War on Terror to challenge the policies of the George W. Bush administration.

34. We represented Mr. Zuhair in the framework of seeking a writ of habeas corpus. The June 2008 Supreme Court decision in Boumediene found that Guantánamo detainees had habeas rights, but it left the lower courts to improvise a framework for how to decide such claims, including determining the relevant standards for detention, evidence, and so on.

35. See Zuhair v. Bush, 592 F. Supp. 2d 16 (D.D.C. 2008). Guantánamo habeas petitions were litigated in Washington, due to personal jurisdiction over respondents (often the president or the secretary of defense) based in that city.

36. Work on this case required obtaining a security clearance, which entailed waiving many of my privacy rights and undergoing a background investigation comparable to those used for government employees. Defense lawyers in Guantánamo habeas cases typically received “Secret” level clearances. Several million people hold security clearances in the United States, including civil servants, outside contractors, and other individuals.

37. The question of what can or cannot be brought out of secure facilities is one that underscores the fluid and ambiguous nature of government secrecy classifications, especially because most information classified as secret by the government already exists in the public domain. In Joseph Masco’s ethnography of the Los Alamos nuclear research facility, a scientist recounts being told that the orange he brought to work for lunch could not be left unsupervised, since regulations deemed any spherical object in the laboratory to be classified. See The Nuclear Borderlands, 268.

38. Other legal regimes of secrecy also applied. Much of the unclassified material was nevertheless deemed “protected” by the courts and kept from public release. This is a type of secrecy managed by the judiciary rather than the executive branch. Finally, I am governed by the legal profession’s rules on confidentiality governing the attorney-client relationship.

39. The role of amicus curiae has evolved over the centuries, from providing a specialized service requested by courts (often knowledge on technical matters) to something more like third-party partisanship. In the contemporary US federal judiciary, the latter function is dominant. See Samuel Krislov, “The Amicus Curiae Brief.”

40. See “Expert Opinion on Deprivation of Nationality,” submitted by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, as Amici Curiae Supporting Appellant/Applicant Al Husin Imad, Case No. AP 1222/07, Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

41. See “Written Comments by Human Rights Watch” as amicus supporting applicant Al Husin Imad, application no. 3727/08, European Court of Human Rights, March 1, 2011. The brief was researched and drafted by the following students at the Yale Lowenstein Clinic: Jay Butler, Sally Pei, and Julia Spiegel.

42. See Imad al Husin, AP-1222/07 (Const. Ct. Bosn. & Herz. 2008); Al Husin v. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 3727/08 (Eur. Ct. H.R. 2012).

43. I submitted an expert report in an asylum case in the United Kingdom related to issues discussed in this book that formed part of the basis for granting the relief requested. See Decision and Reasons, appeal AA/00537/2016, ¶¶ 51–58 (First-tier Tribunal, UK Immigration and Asylum Chamber, June 7, 2017).

I was also an expert in sentencing proceedings for Talha Ahsan in US District Court in Connecticut. For more on the role of experts in that case, see USA v. Ahmad and Ahsan, Sentencing Hearing Transcript 39–41, 3:06–cr-00194–JCH (D.Conn. July 9, 2015), ECF No. 211.

Ahsan’s co-defendant, Babar Ahmad, fought in Bosnia and produced much of the early English-language media materials about the jihad. Ahmad also created Azzam. com, one of the first English-language websites supporting transnational jihads. Ironically, would be a major reference for terrorism “experts” unable to read Arabic. I was able to interview Ahmad while he was serving his sentence in federal prison in Pennsylvania and after his return to London.

44. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou has developed one of the more thoughtful elaborations of al-Qaʿida’s strategic logic, attributing it to “a natural development whereby the perceived failure of particular states to act on behalf of populations and their interests has led to the creation of a regional entity seeking to undertake those martial responsibilities globally.” Understanding Al Qaeda, 36.

45. Liqāʾ al-yawm, “Ayman Abū ʿAbd al-Ramān: al-mujāhidūn al-ʿArab fil-Būsna,” aired September 1, 2000, on al-Jazeera,

46. See Edward Said, “Impossible Histories: Why the Many Islams Cannot Be Simplified,” Harper’s, July 2002; Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

47. As Sayres Rudy notes, the Global War on Terror’s logic of distinguishing moderate and radical Muslims has “embraced the anti-essentialist heart of [Said’s] Orientalism” in a way that has sapped the political utility of that book’s critiques. Sayres Rudy, “Pros and Cons,” 39.

48. See Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. It should go without saying that various kinds of differences among Muslims—between practicing and nonpracticing, Sufis and Salafis, Arabs and Bosnians, or between the various schools of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)—do not map directly onto specific political orientations. History is full of more than enough counterexamples to disprove the stereotypes of violent Salafis, pacifist Sufis, and so on.

49. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, xliii.

50. For more on the limitations of standard liberal challenges to Islamophobia, see Azeezah Kanji and S. K. Hussan, “The Problem with Liberal Opposition to Islamophobia,” ROAR Magazine, Spring 2017.

51. Terror as an instrument of governance has a long and variegated history across different contexts, from the French Revolution to the Jim Crow regime in the southern United States. See, e.g., Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson, Genealogies of Terrorism.