On March 5, my colleague Robert D. Kaplan wrote about how, despite the efforts of global elites to engineer a world in which primordial divisions are vanquished, divisions such as nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism continue to survive and prosper. As I was reading Robert's thoughts, it occurred to me that it is not just the idealistic dreams of the global jet-setting elite that are being dashed upon the shoal of rocks that is human nature. We are also witnessing the utopian dreams of jihadist ideologues meet the same cruel fate.
Now, I am not by any means equating the global elite with jihadist ideologues. Indeed, jihadist ideologues have never subscribed to the universalistic ideas of the global elite. Instead, their philosophy is starkly dualistic, separating the world into two camps: Muslims and non-Muslims or, as they refer to them, Dar al-Islam (literally house of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (literally house of war). The jihadists believe in a form of Islamic millennialism whereby the Muslims will vanquish the non-Muslims in an apocalyptic struggle. Once they have won this battle, they will establish an earthly paradise ruled by Sharia in which the entire world lives in harmony under submission to Allah.
However, we are seeing the jihadist movement being wracked by the same types of forces that continue to impact all other human organizations, including the nation-state. Even within the Dar al-Islam that the jihadists are attempting to create, there remains a great deal of discord, dissention and death.
Dissention in Syria, Algeria and Somalia
Perhaps the best example of the divisions within the jihadist movement is on display in Syria. After helping establish Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, announced in April 2013 that his group was subsuming Jabhat al-Nusra and would henceforth be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Al-Baghdadi obviously did not coordinate this hostile takeover with the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, who appealed to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for help. Al-Zawahiri ruled against al-Baghdadi and ordered him to cease operations in Syria, but al-Baghdadi rebelled and disregarded al-Zawahiri's orders. The group has now officially broken away from al Qaeda, and is currently fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra as well as other jihadist actors in Syria for control of the jihad in Syria. In addition to the personal struggle for power between al-Baghdadi and al-Golani, there is also a nationalistic aspect to the dispute, since some Syrians want to have a Syrian leader of the jihadist effort in that country rather than an Iraqi like al-Baghdadi.
On Feb. 23, Abu Khaled al-Suri, the head of the Syrian jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, was killed by a suicide bombing in Aleppo. Al-Suri was also reportedly a senior al Qaeda member and close associate of al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Many believe the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant killed al-Suri, but the group has denied responsibility.
Today, groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham not only need to worry about fighting government forces, they also must combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This infighting has provided a much-needed respite for the Syrian regime.
In early February, a jihadist group in the Gaza Strip published a video on YouTube in which it proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Jihadists in Gaza are not new, and jihadists based in Iraq have long had links to Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, but it was notable to see a Gaza-based group declare allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant rather than al Qaeda.
Another example of the divisiveness brought about by pride and personal ambition is the long-standing tension between Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his counterparts and organizational superiors in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's southern zone, as well as the group's leadership in northern Algeria. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's Shura Council chastised Belmokhtar for his disdain and disrespect for the leadership in a letter sent to Belmokhtar and later recovered in northern Mali. Belmokhtar split from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in December of 2012 to form his own jihadist group.
Tribal politics, nationalism, ambition and personal conflicts have also factored into the development of the Somali jihadist group al Shabaab. In 2013, al Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane (also known as Abu Zubayr) began a purge of dissident leaders to tighten his control over the group. In the so-called Godane coup, his forces assassinated Ibrahim al-Afghani, a senior al Shabaab leader who had criticized Godane's leadership in an open letter. Godane's men also killed U.S. citizen Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, who Godane's forces had pursued for several months due to his criticism of Godane, along with a number of other foreign fighters. Following these killings, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who led the Islamist militant group Hizbul Islam before joining al Shabaab, defected to the Somali government due to fear of Godane.
It is also widely believed that Godane orchestrated the June 2011 death of al Qaeda in East Africa leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed due to Abdullah Mohammed's sharp criticism of al Shabaab's leadership. Some have also claimed that Godane got wind of a plan by al Qaeda to have Abdullah Mohammed (a Comoran) or other foreign al Qaeda leaders installed to lead al Shabaab. Either way, Abdullah Mohammed's criticism was very well documented in an autobiography he published on a jihadist website in 2009, and given how Godane has responded to others who have criticized his leadership, the biography clearly could have provided grounds for his "accidental" death.
Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy
The divisions in the jihadist movement have muddied the waters in places like Syria and Libya and have made it quite difficult to determine affiliations and organizational structure. The divisions also raise some interesting questions regarding the Authorization for Use of Military Force — the legal document that has driven U.S. counterterrorism operations since shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
The Authorization for Use of Military Force permits military action "against those nations, organizations, or persons he [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." Congress and the U.S. court system have generally interpreted the Authorization for Use of Military Force to refer to al Qaeda and the Taliban, even though they are not specifically named.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its predecessor organizations frequently targeted U.S. forces in Iraq. However, the group has shown no real intent to conduct transnational attacks against the United States since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq. And now that the group has disassociated from al Qaeda, can U.S. forces still target it under the Authorization for Use of Military Force? What about new jihadist groups that are not associated with al Qaeda? These new jihadist groups are almost too numerous to count in Syria.
Aside from the ambiguity caused by the divisions in the jihadist movement, those divisions present some benefits that raise pragmatic conundrums. Is it worth targeting a figure such as al-Baghdadi for a rendition or a missile strike, or is it better to allow him to continue to sow dissention within the jihadist realm and kill al Qaeda figures such as al-Suri?
Another benefit of the fragmentation to the United States is that these smaller groups have tended to be more locally or regionally focused. Quite often they are motivated by nationalistic or tribal objectives rather than global ambitions. For example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant sees itself as positioned to recreate the Islamic state of the Umayyads and Abbasids and is not interested in wasting resources on a transnational war against the United States.
Moreover, even if these smaller groups were wont to attack U.S. targets, they frequently lack the tradecraft required to conduct transnational terrorist attacks outside of their core operational areas. Conducting a terrorist attack in New York requires a different skill set than that used in guerilla warfare.
A History of Infighting
Finally, we must note that this dissention and fragmentation is not new. In fact, we have discussed the fracturing of the jihadist movement since 2005. Occasionally we have seen leaders emerge who have been able to overcome divisions and unite groups. One such individual was Nasir al-Wahayshi, who was able to unite several disparate and ineffective organizations into al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the largest and most effective jihadist groups today. But he has not been able to quell divisions outside of the Arabian Peninsula.
It is not surprising to see such separations within the jihadist movement. Indeed, as we have previously discussed, as al Qaeda admitted local militant groups such as Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamat al-Tawhid wal Jihad under the al Qaeda umbrella, it was also admitting large groups of militants who had their own ideologies and objectives. Some of these groups were closer to the ideology of the al Qaeda core than others, and these doctrinal differences have sown the seeds of divisiveness.
In many ways, the infighting among the jihadist forces resembles the strife between the competing Muslim emirates, sultanates and caliphates of medieval times. However, in medieval times it was Islamic polities fighting each other and today it is non-state actors.
The present-day differences might have been surmountable if the movement had produced a strong charismatic leader who could inspire these diverse militants and convince them to toe the al Qaeda line, but this did not happen under Osama bin Laden's leadership, and Ayman al-Zawahiri has also not demonstrated the ability to be this type of unifying leader.
Indeed, efforts to unite the jihadist movement are failing, and the trend toward fragmentation is not just spreading, it is actually picking up momentum. It has also become far more public since bin Laden's death, with figures such as al-Baghdadi publicly rebelling against al-Zawahiri. As we look at the jihadist movement today, we do not see a leader who will be able to slow, much less reverse, the divisions within the movement.