The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 was not just bad news for the West: for the local Islamic State branch, known as Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP), it was the worst possible result. American air power had targeted the ISKP for years, but was mostly successful in killing the leaders of the group while only modestly injuring the fighters as a whole. Instead, it was a concerted Taliban offensive in the northern province of Jowzjan, and later in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, that nearly wiped out the ISKP. Now that they control Afghanistan, the Taliban’s priority is to put an end to the ISKP presence in the country. Despite reports that ISKP activity has spread throughout the country, the Taliban has intensified its repression through the deployment of special operations forces and regular night raids, while the ISKP has now reported over seventy skirmishes between the two groups.
Thousands of miles away, West Africa’s two most prominent jihadists were killed by their rivals in the space of three months. Boko Haram’s long-wanted leader Abu Bakr Shekau was killed in May 2021. Yet neither the Nigerian military nor Western drones carried out the attack. On the contrary, Shekau’s former comrades from the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) ambushed him and ended his rule. In August, Boko Haram retaliated by killing ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
These events all date back to events in Syria in 2013-2014. By analyzing the trajectory of modern internal jihadist conflict, policymakers can better understand – and harness – the ongoing fragmentation and infighting within these extremist networks.
The civil war begins
The trend of intra-jihadist conflict is rooted in the expansion and division of jihadist groups in Syria that began more than a decade ago. In the summer of 2011, six members of the Islamic State in Iraq crossed the border into Syria to establish a local Islamic State chapter. They named the group Jabhat al-Nusra and over the next two years succeeded in building the group into one of the most dominant forces in Syria’s militant opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra was officially subordinated to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq, but step by step al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani rejected the instructions he received from the ‘Iraq. Al-Baghdadi eventually sent a team of high-ranking leaders to Syria to settle the growing dispute, to no avail.
The Islamic State in Iraq reacted to this failure by entering Syria and ordering the dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra and its reintegration into the Islamic State. Yet al-Julani instead pledged his allegiance directly to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then unwittingly drawn into the dispute. Al-Zawahiri eventually issued a decision via internal letters that favored al-Julani, but al-Baghdadi opposed it. This led to a split between al-Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate in February 2014.
Although clashes between the Islamic State and other opposition groups had taken place in the previous months, the organizational split ushered in the jihadist civil war in Syria. Following their formal separation, al-Qaeda (represented by Jabhat al-Nusra) and Islamic State fighters have targeted each other and regular skirmishes have broken out as the groups battle for control of territory.
At the same time, these affiliated groups and ideologues formulated a legal legitimization for the infighting through a series of speeches and statements. These were meant to establish a theological basis to facilitate attack or defense against rival jihadists. The leaders of the Islamic State have developed a binary rhetoric, us against them. The unsurprising result has been an increasingly polarized and fragmented movement.
Due to the rhetoric of the Islamic State, the ongoing conflict has spread beyond the Syrian theater. With the jihadist movement divided into two opposing camps and the establishment of a legal logic legitimizing the conflict between them, opportunities abounded for the conflict to spread to other countries in which the Islamic State maintained a presence in the alongside rival jihadist groups.
Fratricide first migrated to Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya (2015), then Nigeria (2016), Egypt (2017) and Yemen (2018), before finally breaking out in the Sahel (2019- 2020). In these countries, existing jihadist groups have shifted their sympathies from one group to another or have splintered. This dynamic underscored that internal divisions were not simply a phenomenon fueled by local factors in the Syrian conflict, but rather the product of divergent perceptions, ambitions and ideologies within the global jihadist movement.
Although direct military clashes have been modest in most regions, they have intensified in Afghanistan, the Sahel and West Africa, with serious consequences for local jihadists. The extreme nature of this development is embodied in the fact that fratricide does not just involve infighting between groups within the same movement and who share general ideological tenets, but between former brothers in arms who fought side by side. For example, before they started killing each other, Jabhat al-Nusra was part of the Islamic State in Iraq; the Islamic State of Khorasan was created by senior commanders who defected from the Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan; the Islamic State in Somalia also emerged from elements leaving al-Shabaab; and Boko Haram was part of the Islamic State in West Africa Province. And after Jabhat al-Nusra disassociated itself from al-Qaeda in the summer of 2016, it began targeting al-Qaeda loyalists in Syria organized under the Hurras al-Deen label.
Jihadist power politics
A major question remains: why do jihadists engage in – and even prioritize – conflicts with other jihadists with whom they often share a history, grand strategy and ideology? They largely seek the same ultimate goal but disagree on the methods of achieving that goal and on other minor theological issues. For example, these include the criteria for establishing an Islamic political entity and the process for declaring someone a non-believer. Existing explanations of intra-jihadist conflicts tend to argue that extremist ideology is at fault, causing jihadists to turn against each other. Extremism alone, however, is not enough to explain jihadist fratricide and, above all, its timing.
Instead, the intra-jihadist conflict is best explained by a conventional logic of power politics. Groups fight because they want to dominate and because they aspire to a certain degree of hegemony. Some groups see themselves as representing the one and only politico-religious authority on a local, regional or global scale, while others see themselves as one among equals. The declaration of a caliphate by the Islamic State, for example, represents a claim to be the only legitimate Islamic authority, while al-Qaeda generally sees itself as a fighting group – albeit the preferable option – among many. ‘others. These divergent perceptions not only inform how groups perceive themselves, but also how they engage with other groups, whether through cooperation or conflict. Unsurprisingly, those seeking hegemony are inclined to challenge rival jihadists whom they see as competitors.
Yet, despite being largely motivated by political logic, jihadists exclusively frame their conflicts through a discursive theological framework.
The enemy of our enemy is our luck
Although Western policy makers and counterterrorism professionals have not played a direct role in the development of the intra-jihadist struggle, the fratricide, fragmentation and polarization of these groups provide them with opportunities to exploit .
The most direct and obvious benefit of jihadist fratricide is that many jihadists are killed not by Western or local militaries, but by rival jihadists. Between 2014 and 2019, around eight thousand jihadists were victims of fratricide. This number, drawn from both primary jihadist sources and crypto platforms, as well as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, is likely a conservative estimate, and it has since increased. For the enemies of jihadism, this is good news.
While these deaths are a direct illustration of a positive outcome from fratricide, there are other less obvious benefits as well. The internal conflict that began in 2014 has set a precedent that could affect intra-jihadist relations in the future. Jihadists are the author of a powerful body of literature enabling and legitimizing internal violence that can lead to unstable relationships for future generations of militants. Moreover, internal conflicts divert the strategic focus and resources of jihadists from their battles against local political regimes or international actors.
Finally, the intra-jihadist conflict opens up three major opportunities that state actors can exploit to further weaken the jihadist movement. First, state actors could conduct psychological operations to amplify existing divisions and further sow discord among jihadists. For example, this could include spreading misinformation and rumors that escalate already existing tensions between and within groups, such as over the issue of engagement with non-jihadist actors. A second option is to induce the fragmentation of the group through political engagement, which the group’s hardliners are unlikely to tolerate. For example, if Western nations were to engage more directly and explicitly with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, the group would face severe internal criticism and risk splitting. A third option is to provide direct support to an actor against a common enemy. While that might seem like a distant option to most Western policymakers, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. For example, from a counterterrorism perspective, helping the Taliban defeat the ISKP would make sense, even if it is politically unpalatable.
Ultimately, political divisions and fratricides within the jihadist movement weaken these extremist groups. The question remains whether Western policymakers and military leaders are prepared to further exploit these divisions to their advantage.
Dr Tore Refslund Hamming is Director of Refslund Analytics and Senior Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of Jihadist Politics: The Global Jihadist Civil War, 2014-2019 (forthcoming, Hurst/OUP).
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Image Credit: Kawa Basharat/Xinhua