When Jihadis Kill Jihadis: The Implications of Militant Infighting – by Tore Hamming | WPR

When Jihadis Kill Jihadis: The Implications of Militant Infighting

Tore Hamming | WPR – World Politics Review

Last week’s attack against a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, by a radicalized French Muslim illustrates that jihadis, or militant Islamists, still pose a serious threat to national security in the U.S.A. and Europe.

Since late 2013, jihadis have also become a threat to other jihadis, regularly killing each other on battlefields across the Middle East in numbers that have observers talking about a jihadi civil war.

In Syria, armed rebels affiliated with al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State continue to fight each other, while the most potent force battling the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan is the Taliban.     

To Western ears, this sounds like a good development. After all, our enemies are busy killing one another rather than turning their guns on us.

Although predictions that the jihadis might be headed toward self-destruction are overblown, the infighting does have a detrimental impact on the broader jihadi movement.

The most obvious direct negative consequence of internecine jihadi conflict is that infighting results in jihadis being killed. While numbers are difficult to estimate, we know that jihadis have died in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria from bullets — or bombs — fired by fellow, but rival, jihadis.

The numbers are relatively low in Egypt and Nigeria; become more significant in Somalia, Libya and Yemen; and reach high levels in Syria and Afghanistan, where the infighting has left thousands of jihadis dead.

Such fratricidal killings would be problematic for any movement, but this is particularly the case for the jihadis. Despite their recent success in attracting large numbers of sympathizers, jihadi militancy still appeals to a very small number of people around the globe. Considering the numerical superiority of their enemies, every fighter counts.

When jihadis direct their guns toward one another, it also takes away critical resources and strategic focus from their fight against their primary and common enemies: The near enemy, or local Arab regimes; and the far enemy, or Israel and the West.

While jihadis traditionally have been divided between groups that prioritize one or the other, such a distinction makes little sense on battlefields in places like Syria and Afghanistan, where both the near and far enemy are present and, occasionally, fight on the same side.

Time and again, jihadis themselves have warned about such strategic cul-de-sacs, which ultimately distract from their greater ambitions. Osama bin Laden stressed the danger of opening too many battlefronts, while al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, consistently points to the detrimental impact of infighting in his attempts to steer the jihadi movement back to its main objective.

Another consequence of the infighting is that the jihadi movement is now more fractured and polarized than it’s ever been since its modern resurgence in the 1960s. Fratricide leads to intragroup and intergroup tensions, causing established groups to splinter and new groups to form. When jihadis kill other jihadis whose ideological beliefs are similar, and who at times are even former brothers-in-arms, it inevitably gives rise to a level of mutual distrust that is hard to heal.

That can be debilitating for groups that are fundamentally military organizations, in which an esprit de corps is essential. On the level of the broader jihadi movement, the split between al-Qaida and the Islamic State in 2014 resulted in unprecedented polarization, as the Islamic State required other jihadi groups to choose sides, with neutrality not tolerated.

More recently, there has been lots of talk about potential alliances or mergers between jihadi groups. While not impossible, any such attempt at organizational collaboration becomes difficult after groups have fought each other. The fear is that the former brothers-turned-enemies will not become brothers again, but rather “trojan horses” seeking to cause havoc once the groups merge.

Stopping the jihadi infighting is complicated by another significant factor. The act of killing another Muslim or of excommunicating someone from the religion is a highly sensitive issue. As a result, jihadis have devoted considerable effort since 2013 to make such actions acceptable in specific contexts.

We know that socialization into the cultural narratives of violence is conducive to future waves of violence. Similarly, the theoretical legitimization of intra-jihadi violence has been used to inculcate current jihadis as well as the next generation, which has grown up accustomed to extreme violence and the normality of criticizing and even attacking other jihadis.

While jihadism has always been prone to internal conflict, this intense period of socialization to intra-jihadi violence raises the question of whether internecine conflict will become the new norm.

Some jihadis do not tolerate the internal conflict and rebel against it by abandoning the cause. In 2014, it became common to hear of foreign fighters returning to their home countries after becoming disillusioned with jihad. One reason they offered was that they had originally come to Syria to fight the Assad regime but ended up fighting other Muslims.

Jihadis put significant efforts into recruiting fighters, so when their own actions end up alienating those who have already rallied to the cause, it is problematic. In this sense, infighting arguably has a moderating impact, although the numbers of disillusioned fighters compared to those who remain committed continues to be very small.

For those who do remain, the competitive environment and infighting between jihadi groups raises the risk of further radicalizing beliefs and behavior. Competition and infighting forces jihadi groups to distinguish themselves from other groups, often through the use of violence. The jihadi group that operated as al-Qaida in Iraq already employed extreme violence, but in its new iteration as the Islamic State, it relied even more on violence — in the form of regular mass beheadings, often videotaped and disseminated through the internet, as well as sectarian massacres and burning victims alive — to attract followers.

The question that interests Western policymakers focusing on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism is to what extent jihadi infighting and its impacts can be exploited. Most of the effects listed above are endogenous to the jihadi movement, limiting the ability of outsiders to actively exploit the situation.

That said, we should not expect jihadis to self-destruct anytime soon, as solidarity still exists within groups and among the broader movement. But the recent escalation of internal conflict will likely challenge the movement in years to come in ways that jihadis will find difficult to overcome.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • michael hawkins  On 12/18/2018 at 11:45 am

    We in the west always report on what we term as tersest , but never report the involvement of the developed countries destabilising those countries

    Sent from my iPad

  • Clyde Duncan  On 12/22/2018 at 1:19 pm

    “INFIGHTING” dat incurable malady – Now, it gone and infected dem politicians in Guyana, it seems.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: