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Jihadism in 2014: Defining the Movement

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READDec 25, 2014 | 09:00 GMT

By Scott Stewart

Editor's Note: The following is the first installment of a series examining how the global jihadist movement evolved in 2014.

Last November and December I wrote a series of analyses entitled “Gauging the Jihadist Movement” in which I detailed the global jihadist movement for Stratfor readers. I assessed where that movement stood, both in relation to its goals and by measuring its progress in terms of terrorist and insurgent theory. But much has changed over the past year, so an update on the movement is needed.

The basic framework I established last year to measure the movement has not changed. Indeed, recent developments, including the declaration of a global caliphate by the Islamic State, support the first part of the series, which outlined the goals of the global jihadist movement. Furthermore, developments on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria demonstrate the need to consider the movement in relation to insurgent theory, not just terrorist theory. These topics covered in the first two parts of last year's series are worth reviewing for a better understanding of this year's developments.

The structure of the jihadist movement has significantly changed over the past year, so we will have to focus on these changes before we delve into an examination of the various components that compose the movement. Therefore, this week I will discuss the changes in the structure of the jihadist movement before assessing the status of the movement in subsequent parts of the series.

A Key Division

As we noted last year, the jihadist movement is not monolithic: It is composed of several different actors and groups, some of which abide by different religious doctrines and operational tenets. Those differences were prominently displayed in February by the formal split between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The growing tension between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — which subsequently became the Islamic State — was in fact something we highlighted last year to show the diversity within the jihadist movement.

But the split is much more than a mere ideological dispute. It is a worldly struggle for power and wealth, and in many parts of Syria it has erupted into open warfare between al Qaeda franchise group Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Members of the two groups have assassinated, captured and executed members of the opposing group as they fight against the Syrian army and other Syrian rebel groups. However, there does seem to be some regional variation in the way the two groups interact depending on their local leaders and the degree of direct competition over resources in a particular area. For example, in Qalamoun, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State sometimes worked together against common enemies, but earlier this year the Islamic State pushed al-Nusra out of the region altogether during a bloody battle for control of the lucrative energy fields in Deir el-Zour.

The split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State has created a second pole in the jihadist movement. The first pole is al Qaeda and the franchise groups and grassroots jihadists associated with it, and the second pole is the Islamic State and the regional groups and grassroots jihadists that have pledged allegiance to it. This split, however, has not really expanded the jihadist movement but has only divided the existing movement.

The Islamic State Is Not A Game Changer

Though there are a limited number of groups that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State, these groups tend to be splinters off existing jihadist groups rather than new entities. For example, Jund al-Khilifah in Algeria is a group that split away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. There has been some re-branding of existing jihadists but not a lot of actual external growth. This dynamic is not new, and in the past, existing jihadist groups took on the al Qaeda brand name. For example, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat assumed the name al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in September 2006.

The Islamic State has certainly grown on the ground in Iraq and Syria, both by absorbing other groups and by recruiting new local and foreign fighters. However, we have not seen the group expand beyond its core areas of operation in a meaningful way. The organization's growth outside its core area can be attributed solely to the rebranding of existing jihadist groups and to the splintering of existing groups. New Islamic State groups have not emerged.

In addition to Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, a faction of the former Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia has declared loyalty to the Islamic State, as have a faction of the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, the Dagestani faction of the Caucasus Emirates, some of the Libyan jihadists in the Derna area, some elements of the Pakistani Taliban and the Sinai faction of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt. There are also some indications that Boko Haram is modeling its methods in northeastern Nigeria after the Islamic State's method of operation, but we have yet to see Boko Haram formally declare its allegiance to the Islamic State. 

Also, while there has been a recent uptick in attacks by grassroots jihadists associating themselves with the Islamic State, the number and severity of those attacks have been rather modest. There is little evidence to indicate that the pool of grassroots jihadists is appreciably larger than it was before the Islamic State split away from the al Qaeda orbit.

Also, it is important to recognize that grassroots jihadists are often lone radicals who may have less loyalty to particular groups. Though groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State generate propaganda that help radicalize grassroots jihadists, these operatives usually don't receive the same type of ideological indoctrination as those who attend physical terrorist training camps. Consequently, grassroots operatives could have less preference between al Qaeda and the Islamic State and could conceivably be influenced to take action by both. For example, it would not be surprising for a person taking action in the name of the Islamic State to use bomb-making instructions from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire Magazine.

Many observers expected the Islamic State to supplant al Qaeda as the leader of the global jihadist movement because of mass defections following Islamic State's battlefield success, but this simply has not happened. Indeed jihadist ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as well as influential jihadist leaders such as Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been highly critical of the Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate, and al Qaeda franchise groups have not defected en masse to the Islamic State.

Additionally, the Islamic State's penchant for publishing videos on the Internet documenting the execution of its foreign hostages and prisoners of war — most of whom are Muslims — has raised a great deal of criticism. Indeed, some al Qaeda franchise groups have strongly criticized such displays of wanton violence, and in comparison, al Qaeda has come to seem more moderate. As far back as 2005, al Qaeda leaders criticized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that became the Islamic State, for being too sectarian and exceedingly brutal.

Jabhat al-Nusra has executed prisoners and people accused of spying, but it has largely used bullets rather than beheadings. The group has also refrained from posting its executions to the Internet as the Islamic State has done to gruesome effect. Jabhat al-Nusra also released American journalist Theo Padnos in August, as the Islamic State was in the midst of a campaign to behead Western hostages. The release was intentionally meant to highlight the differences between the two groups.

The split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State has divided and weakened the jihadist movement globally. This competition is not only harmful to jihadist groups because of social media arguments or physical battles in places such as Syria. It is also something that can and will be taken advantage of by those seeking to undermine the movement.

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