Bodies, State, Territory, Identity


Interview with Riva Kastoryano following the publication of Burying Jihadis. Bodies Between State, Territory and Identity, London, Hurst and New York, Oxford University Press, July 2018.

What is the subject matter of your book?

This book is a variation on the theme of territory. Based on the terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London and 2015 in Paris, the book analyses the ways in which space and territory are used by both jihadists and states. Each case study raises different questions and brings different issues into play. The worldwide travels of the 9/11 hijackers are the very expression of globalization and have prompted the United States to assert itself as a sort of “global nation” above any normative consideration. The Madrid attacks have shown the ties of first generation migrants with their home country and have revealed the transnational phenomenon at the core of the global jihad. The involvement of second generation so called home-grown jihadists in the London, France and Belgium attacks has led European countries to re-consider multicultural policies.
The argument of the book hinges on the tensions between globalization and state sovereignty. Looking at the burial of the Jihadis, who reject territoriality and claim their belonging to ummah (worldwide Muslim community) the book questions the relevance of the state and its role in combining citizenship, territoriality and belonging, in the “global” world.

By drawing the geography of the jihadi’s networks, trajectories, travels and meeting in some “nod” cities until their suicide attacks in New York, Madrid and London – updated with the attacks in France – the book shows how they have used global space. To raise the question of their burial is to look at the state’s response to their use of global space, and to their identification to an unbounded global “imagined community”, the ummah. These bodies, instruments of war and objects of sacrifice, are driven by an ambiguous rhetoric as to their single attachment to the ummah that calls into question the link between body (blood and identity) and nation, and, consequently, between citizenship, nationality and territory. The handling of these bodies or their remains, different from one country to another, evinces a link between the jihadis’ non territorial identification and the states’ reactions with regard to territoriality. The act of burial and the place of burial connect individuals to their community and their ancestors.

The relationship between the trajectories of jihadists and their place of burial involves their mobility, refers to their circle of kinship and friends, to their use of networks (local and/or global). To connect these elements to their place of burial puts the question of citizenship and its relation to territory at the core of the debate. Analysing the burial of jihadis in these terms comes to question the territory as belonging.

Could burials of jihadis be considered as a reterritorialisation by states and a way to reaffirm their sovereignty?

Leaders of radical Islam counsel young jihadis to break off ties with family authority and to reject nationality and citizenship as a basis for their identity. All that remains is the ummah, the community of believers. Burying their bodies, which, as a representation of global power, escape state control, amounts to re-territorializing them indeed.

The United States, Spain, the United Kingdom and France have treated very differently the remains of those terrorists who had operated on their soil. The bodies of 9/11 terrorists left no trace, in Madrid, bodies were given to the families and in Great Britain, home-grown terrorists were expected to be buried at home, in Britain.  What can you tell us about such difference in the way states have dealt with remains?

Each case raises different questions and brings different issues into play. In the United States, what was hit was one of the symbols of power and wealth – the World Trade Center – as well as a symbol of war – the Pentagon. The attacks were carried out by nineteen young jihadis of different nationalities, social backgrounds and educational levels who had travelled worldwide. These men had been everywhere and were eventually buried “nowhere”, at no place, leaving no trace, as a sign of their globalization. With the war on terror launched by President George W. Bush, the United States expressed its determination to appear as a “global nation” out to pursue its enemy wherever it was to be found.
In Spain, the hijackers were first generation immigrants. Their bodies were meant to be sent back to their homeland as a way to « restore » citizenship to jihadis who reject territorial and national belonging. The Madrid attack brought to light the importance of the transnational in globalization: it is a matter of the close relationship between home and host countries while expressing the geographical position of Spain as one of the borders of the Schengen area. Thus, despite militant discourse advocating global jihad and a non-territorial attachment to the ummah, trips between Spain and Morocco constituted their principal itinerary and attested the transnational space of action. This led home states to promote a transnational politics of integration in Europe as a way of controlling their citizens abroad.
In London, unlike the 9/11 hijackers, who had travelled from Asia to Europe and from Saudi Arabia to the United States through complex networks, the young men had organized locally. British authorities immediately labelled them “home-grown terrorists”, the most common phenomena characterizing jihad ever since. Their travels were limited to trips between Great Britain and Pakistan (at the Afghan border). A degree of ambiguity thus subsists in the reference to Pakistan both as a “land of jihad” and “homeland.” Young immigrants of Pakistani origin who embrace jihadism thus refer to a triple attachment: the ummah (therefore without borders), their parents’ country or the country of origin with its increasingly blurred boundaries, and the United Kingdom, the country of their birth and citizenship.
As for their burial, it was clear for Home Office that “sons of the land” should be buried “at home”, i.e. in the United Kingdom. The existence of home-grown terrorists relates the question of terrorism to the question of immigration, integration and multiculturalism, and challenges the link between nationality and territory. Debates over integration policies now refer more than anything else to security issues.

The “home-grown” phenomenon raises the issue of diaspora. Young jihadis assert their British citizenship while putting forward their ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Their attachment to the diaspora does not prevent British Muslims from expressing concerns about the development of Islamic extremism throughout the world. The home-grown phenomenon settled also multiculturalism at the core of the debate of terrorism and security closely related, now, to immigration and integration. In France, (Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan in 2015) where jihadists were also labelled “home-grown” similar questions of citizenship and belonging have been raised. But in the case of France, jihadist diaspora does not seem to refer to the country of their parents but to Syria, the land of an “imagined califate”, an imagined land of resistance, a land to be conquered and for which to fight.

In conclusion, what can you tell us in a few words about the notion of territory today?
In a Westphalian world, territory remains the space where power is concentrated. And so does it in a post-Westphalian world. When a faction of al-Qaeda took control of an area the size of the UK on the border between Syria and Iraq, proclaimed itself to be the “Islamic State” and named Al-Baghdadi as its caliph in June 2014 (during Ramadan), it had no legitimacy in the eyes of international law and the nations concerned. Yet it confirmed the essential role of territory within the tactics of war and an expansionist strategy.

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI

Back to top