Investigating migration, transnationalism, and jihadism

By Sarah Fister Gale

Darryl Li focuses on unconventional warriors who roam between regions, such as jihad fighters and military contractors, situating them at the intersection of war, law, migration, empire, and race. He combines ethnography and archival research to understand the evolution of transnational armed groups and their relationship with legal order.

An assistant professor of anthropology, Li’s interest in these issues began early in his career when he spent time as a human rights advocate in the Gaza Strip, during the events of September 11, 2001.

“I remember the first footage of detainees arriving at Guantanamo Bay,” he says. Li noticed that while most of them had been captured in Afghanistan, the detainees were often not from that country. He began to see a common thread of bias. “The basic assumption in the discourse was these were Muslim travelers from other countries, so their presence in Afghanistan was by its own nature suspicious,” he says. “The subtext was ‘what would an Arab be doing in Afghanistan if they weren't part of Al-Qaeda?’”

Although the Global South is full of merchants, pilgrims, laborers, religious students and other travelers moving between countries for legitimate reasons, there were no story lines around such travel and those people were deemed suspicious, Li says.

“I began to see the war on terror as essentially a global exercise in policing transnational Muslim mobility.”

He completed a law degree at Yale in 2009 and a concurrent doctorate at Harvard in 2012. Li’s original dissertation project was focused on the history of Arab pan-Islamists who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The groups that grew out of these events later led to the formation of Al-Qaeda and ultimately 9/11, he says. But they were just one of many threads to emerge from this migration. “Al-Qaeda was one strand of a much larger formation of groups and people, most of whom were not particularly interested in fighting a war against the United States of America,” Li says. “I was trying to reconstruct that broader history and make sense of it.”

After a few months of research in Pakistan, Li learned about a similar group of Arab veterans who had fought in Bosnia in the 1990s. “They were still living there and openly giving interviews, and it wasn’t in an active war zone,” Li notes. “Whereas the people I wanted to talk to in Pakistan were on the run from drones and bounty hunters.”

This shift to Bosnia also raised a number of new questions about ethnic cleansing, humanitarian intervention, and the role of international systems in stopping mass atrocities.

That research led to his first book, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford University Press, 2020), which offers an ethnographic view of the transnational “jihadists” who fought the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia Herzegovina.

From Bosnia to Chicago

Li came to UChicago in 2016, where he has continued his research into these global issues, often with support from UChicago’s Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR). CISSR’s primary mission is to encourage empirical, international research across the social sciences, and it regularly funds international projects for faculty and grad students.

Early on, CISSR supported a manuscript workshop for Li’s book, which allowed him to bring in four scholars from outside UChicago to review his manuscript. Because of the CISSR funding, he found he had resources to think differently about this stage of development for the work. He sought experts whose writing he most admired, and who could help him make his book as accessible and readable as possible.

“Their feedback provided a lot of perspectives that I hadn't really considered,” he says. In some cases, they helped him trust his instincts on what to keep and what to cut. They also offered advice on how reorganize the structure, minimize footnotes, and adjust the way he discussed gender in the narrative.

“It was a rewarding experience and something that I hope other scholars in my position have the opportunity to avail themselves of. When done correctly, it is an incredible format for strengthening one's work and for finding one's authorial voice,” he says.

A year in the field

On leave through spring 2020, Li was awarded a second CISSR grant to study migration and the security sector in the Indian Ocean region.

“The social transformations happening in the Gulf region over the past decades are immensely important from the point of view of the development of capitalism and race and demography,” he says. Though he sees several obstacles to completing this kind of research, including political sensitivities and the high cost of living while in the field.

“These two factors are connected because is the regimes themselves are increasingly savvy about making available funding for research, which of course comes with its own context and sensitivities and limitations,” he says. “Having independent sources of funding for research from CISSR among other places is absolutely critical for the development of this field.”

When Li returns to campus, he plans to teach a number of courses around law, empire, race, and political economy.  “Given the current climate of record level inequality, finding ways to connect those themes to what is happening in students' lives and in society will be very rewarding,” he says. “It is important for our pedagogical mission.”

His course load will also include Power, Identity, and Resistance, an annual course he teaches in the Core and one of his favorites. The experiences gives him the opportunity to work with undergrads in a small classroom format, where he focuses on helping them explore different answers to difficult political and social questions.

“I stress the importance of their right to be wrong, and that the right answer and the best answer are not the same thing,” he says.

He finds that perspective can be challenging for some students who are accustomed to a high school environment where they always had the right answer. “A high-pressure academic environment like at the University of Chicago can really undermine a student’s sense of self-worth, or conversely it can reinforce certain kinds of hubris,” he says. “It's important to create a pedagogical environment where neither of those things is allowed to happen.”

As he looks to his future at UChicago, Li is excited about the growing diversity across the social sciences division, and the anthropology department in particular, which in his time on campus has hired six other new faculty who bring diverse ideas and perspective to the team.

“As a person of color and as an Asian American scholar we tend to be under-represented in the social sciences,” he says. “So this transformation is very promising in terms of creating a more conducive atmosphere for long-term fruitful research.”