The author wishes to thank Paul Cruickshank, Michael Gabbay, Emily Gade, Glenn Robinson, Zachary Shore, and Craig Whiteside for their constructive feedback and invaluable insights. They have informed this piece tremendously.
Why do Islamists kill each other? In the last three decades, Islamist rebels enmeshed in civil wars have descended into internecine conflicts that divided their ranks, alienated their supporters, and cost them their bid for power. From the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, to al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the Islamic State, each of these movements had perfect opportunities to topple their regimes. Yet, in the midst of civil wars, they turned their guns on fellow rebels, choosing to pursue hegemonic leadership over coalition unity. In fact, they assisted incumbent elites in crisis by handing them the perfect opportunity to divide and conquer their movements. What explains this self-defeating behavior?
Fratricidal jihadists share three unique characteristics — or flaws — that make them prone to internecine wars. First, they frame their civil conflicts along Manichean lines, reducing the complexity of adversarial relations into categories of us versus them, good versus evil, Islam versus impiety. By doing so, they amalgamate their disparate enemies into a single united camp.
Second, fratricidal jihadists pursue transformative goals that are too ambitious for rebels with limited imaginations. Their doctrinaire ideology sacrifices all political realism, making them suspicious of kindred groups that might sell them out in the name of pragmatism. They prefer to wipe out their rivals than compete with them through political strategies.
Third, fratricidal jihadists usually begin as extreme factions that indiscriminately target civilians in their wars against a regime. Their ideological justifications generate a permissive moral code that allows for the killing of their own brothers in arms. Those who willfully justify the wanton killing of innocents will not find it difficult to turn their guns on fellow rebels who violate their notions of ideological purity.
Underpinning these recurrent strategic errors is a puritanical ideology impervious to accommodation with alternative worldviews. Jihadists often operate alongside militant factions that share some of their objectives but do not embrace their political ideals. They cannot even bring themselves to compromise with groups that share their political ideals but diverge with them on tactical pragmatism. Their puritanical ideology is also a major obstacle to strategic learning and adaption.They appear to be incapable of internalizing lessons from past failures, as evident from their proclivity to repeat mistakes even after being cautioned by veterans of earlier conflicts. These inherent weaknesses offer the international community strategic lessons for fighting future iterations of the Islamic State.
In the last three decades, Islamist rebels have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on three major fronts. During the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) saw the Algerian government mired in a legitimacy crisis after a military coup ended a popular electoral process. Rather than capitalize on the regime's internal vulnerabilities and international isolation, the GIA embarked on a fratricidal war with rival Islamists and alienated its supporters through mass atrocities. It lost the war and took down the entire Islamist project with it.
In the 2000s, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other Sunni insurgents had the American-led coalition in a bind as the latter desperately sought a way out of a quagmire. Yet, like the GIA, AQI turned its guns on fellow rebels and sought to monopolize power at the expense of unity. Afterward, it was routed by the Sunni communities that once hosted its fighters.
The Islamic State is the latest jihadist group to fall victim to its own predation. It failed to learn the lessons of earlier jihads as it rebuilt its ranks in Iraq following the precipitous decline of its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq. Rather than seeking to forge unity with Syria's Islamist factions, it went its own way, by declaring a caliphate and waging war on fellow rebels. Today, it has lost the territory it once held in Iraq and is all but finished in Syria.1
These three movements were well positioned to make gains against their regimes. At a minimum, they could have avoided the precipitous downfall they suffered at the hands of their adversaries, had they not turned their guns on fellow rebels. Yet, in the midst of their civil wars, they prioritized fighting with rivals above winning conflicts. In the process, they alienated their supporters, fragmented their movements and drove away external sponsors. More puzzlingly, they did not heed the warnings of veteran jihadists who communicated their concerns directly and clearly.
Take, for example, how al-Qaeda leaders sought to warn Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, using the case of Algeria as a cautionary tale. Atiyah Abdul Rahman, senior Libyan operational planner within al-Qaeda's top leadership (killed in Pakistan by a U.S. drone attack in 2011), sent a letter to al-Zarqawi before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006:
Ask me whatever you like about Algeria between 1994 and 1995, when [the Islamist movement] was at the height of its power and capabilities, and was on the verge of taking over the government. … I lived through it myself, and I saw firsthand; no one told me about it. … [GIA militants] destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delusions, and neglect and alienation of people through oppression, deviance, and harsh conduct. … Their enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves.2
A few years later, Osama bin Laden, concerned with growing infighting between AQI and Sunni insurgents, sent an audiotaped "Message to Our People in Iraq," in which he urged all the insurgents and tribes to reconcile their differences and acknowledge that "errors" had been made.3 He advised his followers to avoid "fanatical loyalty to men" and reminded them that what unites Muslims is their adherence to Islam, not their "belonging to a tribe, homeland, or organization." Yet, the future leaders of the Islamic State, the successors of AQI, practiced exactly what he cautioned against.4
One of the most notable early critics of puritanical groups (i.e., jihadi Salafists) was Abu Musab al-Suri, who criticized them for their lack of strategic thought or revolutionary theory. He railed against the "inflexible dogmatism and narrow-mindedness" of Salafists.5 One may fault his fierce independence and lack of deep roots in traditional Salafism for contributing to his failure to influence jihadists, but the same cannot be said of other radical authorities who issued clarion warnings similar to al-Suri's. For example, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, perhaps the leading jihadi Salafist authority, also sought to warn al-Zarqawi, his former disciple.6 Similarly, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), articulated in writing the strategic errors that should be avoided by the jihadists who captured vast territory in northeast Mali in 2012. Based on his Algerian experience, he warned against the premature establishment of an Islamic state, extreme application of sharia law and fighting with other factions.7
ROLE OF IDEOLOGY
Extreme violence in rebel movements can be driven by strategic considerations such as competition for territory, resources or leadership within the rebel hierarchy.8 But not all rebel groups are equally prone to pursue their strategic aims by killing their rivals. Some compete for power by forging balancing alliances,9 outbidding others10 or spoiling the efforts of rivals to strike a deal with the regime.11 Only the most ideologically extreme factions — the ones that advance Manichean worldviews, transformative goals and indiscriminate violence — are willing to initiate rebel fratricide.
Several cognitive and organizational mechanisms can help explain why ideological extremists cannot compromise with rival groups. Puritanical individuals are more attuned to ideological differences than political centrists and are prone to "belief superiority," associated with a tendency toward "non-corruptibility."12 People with extreme beliefs also exhibit a greater need for certainty than centrists, and a high level of uncertainty is associated with a high sense of threat.13 Additionally, persons with conservative worldviews, which would include Islamists, tend to be more dogmatic than those with more liberal views.14 Furthermore, ideologically extreme groups are likely to associate with other extremists, leading to an ideological encapsulation that shuts out the countervailing voices necessary to learning and adapting.15 Lastly, extremist leaders with utopian projects can more easily rationalize violence against those who appear to stand in the way of their revolutionary objectives.16
The three cases of fratricidal Islamists in Algeria, Iraq and Syria highlight how ideological extremism contributes to movement fragmentation, internecine fighting and, ultimately, defeat. In each case, polarizing narratives, transformative goals and indiscriminate violence directly contributed to strife with other Islamist groups and, ultimately, to fratricidal bloodletting.
THE ALGERIAN GIA
During the 1990s, in the midst of a civil war against the Algerian military government, the GIA and the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) fiercely clashed with each other, undermining the unity of their rebel movement and rescuing the vulnerable regime from its crisis. The AIS ultimately defected to the state, while the GIA splintered and ceased to exist.
In 1989, Algeria had embarked on the path of political liberalization in the aftermath of mass anti-state riots. A new constitution officially ended the one-party system, opening the door for liberal and Islamist opposition groups to directly challenge the longstanding monopoly of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). Islamists took advantage of this opportunity by forming their own party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which managed to win 188 out of 430 National Assembly seats in the first round of voting in December 1991. The FIS was poised to win an overwhelming majority of seats in the second round, set for January 1992, but Algeria's generals intervened to halt the electoral process. Thousands of FIS cadres were rounded up and detained, triggering a violent rebellion.
Several Islamist rebel groups emerged to topple the military regime, the two biggest being the GIA and AIS. The emergence of the GIA in 1992 marked the ascendancy of hardline revolutionaries who rejected the electoral path and insisted on total war to establish an Islamic state. Confronted with the possibility of losing leadership, the FIS put forward the AIS as an alternative to the GIA in July 1994.17 The AIS wanted to restore the pre-war equilibrium in which radicals were subordinate to the leadership of the Islamist movement. It also rejected GIA's indiscriminate violence and sought to compel the military regime to negotiate a political settlement that would free FIS leaders, reverse the ban on their organization and return to the pre-coup status quo.18
The GIA and AIS advanced diametrically opposed conflict narratives, strategic objectives and targeting policies. These divergences were rooted in an ideological divide as to the role of democracy in Islam, the permissibility of Islamists joining secular political systems and the centrality of violence in building an Islamic state.
From the start of the civil war, the GIA portrayed the Algerian state as a tyrannical apostate regime and its supporters and employees as equally culpable. It denied the possibility of neutrality in the conflict and treated security forces and public workers all as part of the apostate order.19 The GIA framed the conflict as a total war to transform Algeria's polity, not to reintegrate Islamists into the electoral process; democracy was viewed as heresy, and jihad as the only way to remove secular rulers.20 It rejected negotiations or reconciliation with moderate regime elements and instead raised the mantra of "no dialogue, no ceasefire, no reconciliation, and no security or guarantees with the apostate regime."21
In contrast, the AIS insisted that the struggle was between a hawkish faction within the regime that opposed a just political settlement on the one hand, and Islamists who were deprived of the fruits of their electoral victories on the other. The AIS did not view the war in terms of apostasy and rarely averred that all who worked with the Algerian state were enemies of the movement. It sought to reintegrate Islamists into the political process and did not insist on the complete transformation of the Algerian state into a theocracy.22
The GIA waged a comprehensive campaign to induce regime collapse, initially clashing with security forces and assassinating policemen and military personnel. In 1993, it expanded its targeting to include government officials. Representatives of opposition groups, foreigners, journalists and intellectuals were next. Beginning in 1995, the GIA's victims were mainly civilians, killed randomly through bombings or deliberately through indiscriminate attacks in villages and at fake checkpoints. It also attacked France for its support of the Algerian regime.23 In contrast to this expansive violence, the AIS limited its attacks to security forces and government officials. It opposed and denounced attacks on intellectuals, foreigners and anyone not directly involved in the persecution of Islamists. Such violence discredited the image of the movement and played into the hands of the "eradicationists" within the regime.24
The GIA struck back, denouncing its critics and demanding they cease their condemnation of the jihad. Open war between the GIA and AIS began on May 4, 1995, when the former issued a communiqué declaring that AIS leaders had one month to contact the GIA to repent and join its ranks.25 Shortly afterward, the GIA issued an explicit threat against eight FIS leaders, demanding they cease speaking in the name of the Islamist movement.26 On June 13, 1995, the GIA issued communiqué No. 36, which permitted "the shedding of the blood of those 'blood merchants' inside and outside (Algeria) unless they repent."27
The GIA began acting on its threats. There were repeated reports in 1995 of clashes between the GIA and AIS, resulting in the deaths of approximately 60 militants.28 When GIA leaders feared that some of the latecomers to their faction were not committed to their Salafi worldview and total-war objectives, they began to purge them from the organization. In November 1995, the GIA executed Muhammad Said (a prominent FIS leader and well-known preacher, who had joined the GIA in May 1994).29 These executions were not isolated leadership purges. After a series of warnings and threats, the GIA explicitly declared war on the AIS on January 4, 1996.30 Later that month, sources close to the FIS Executive Body Abroad accused the GIA of slaying 140 FIS activists, including 40 commanders.31
By 1996, GIA's widespread violence against civilians turned public support against the Islamist movement.32 The government took advantage of shifting attitudes by arming pro-government militias (officially known as the Groupes de Légitime Défense, commonly referred to as "Patriots").33 GIA's fratricide — against former supporters, rival rebels and civilian militias — reached stupefying levels in a series of massacres that began at the end of 1996. At least 76 took place between November 1996 and July 2001, most of which (42) occurred in 1997. The killings were concentrated in villages around Algiers, Blida and Medea (south of Algiers), Ain Defla (southwest of Algiers) and Relizane (west of Algiers). All were within the GIA's areas of operation.34
Ali Benhadjar, the commander of a splinter group calling itself the Islamic League for Preaching and Combat, summarized the fault lines dividing the GIA from his group and the AIS: "We would have preferred political means if our rights had been respected. Our armed struggle was in self-defense. For the GIA, the only true struggle was the armed struggle. Anything else was haram [forbidden in Islam]."35
By 1997, the Islamist movement was successfully delegitimized in the eyes of many Algerians. Islamists turned their supporters into proponents of law and order — the military, intelligence and security services. Faced with a crisis of legitimacy, the AIS defected to the state. It agreed to call for a ceasefire without any substantial concessions from the regime. The civil war effectively came to an end by 1999, without any of the Islamist goals having been achieved. Some of the GIA's fighters joined other radical groups, one of which evolved into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which in 2007 rebranded itself again as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a terrorist group that vexes but hardly poses a strategic threat to the Algerian government today.
AL-QAEDA IN IRAQ
Less than a decade after the colossal failure of the GIA in Algeria, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) embarked on a similar path of extremism and strategic errors that led to its near destruction by the late 2000s, largely at the hands of Iraqis who had initially welcomed its presence. It did so by triggering a sectarian war that sparked retaliatory violence against ordinary Sunnis it could not defend and by claiming a monopoly over the insurgent movement's leadership. When confronted with criticism and rejection, it unleashed fratricidal violence against its host communities and fellow Sunni rebels, sealing its fate in the process.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 fostered resistance by nationalists, disenfranchised Baathists, local Islamists and foreign jihadists. The insurgents in Iraq eventually converged around two political tendencies.36 The majority were made up of Sunni nationalists of Islamist leanings associated with the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahidin Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Salah al-Din al-Ayubi Brigades. While they harbored Islamic worldviews, their common goal was the reintegration of disenfranchised Sunnis in a future Iraqi regime on equal footing with Shia and Kurds. They insisted on a unified Iraq that would share with Sunnis the country's oil wealth, public employment, ministerial positions and government patronage. They also demanded that Iraq remain aligned with the Arab world, and thus distant from Iran's orbit. Above all, they wanted representation in the security services, which were increasingly controlled by Shia parties and militias.
The second dominant faction in the Iraqi insurgency consisted of jihadists associated with AQI and the Ansar al-Sunna Group. This faction represented an extreme form of Islamism that rejected democracy, demonized Shia and aimed to turn Iraq into an Islamic state ruled in accordance with its version of Sunni orthodoxy. Its core cadres were made up of fighters connected with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant with previous connections to jihadists in Afghanistan (but not Bin Laden's camps). AQI employed expansive violence that targeted coalition occupation forces, Iraq's economic infrastructure, Iraqi security services, government officials, foreign contractors, Shia and Kurdish parties and militias, voters and Sunnis willing to work with the new order. Its primary strategy, however, was to spark a sectarian war through provocative attacks on Shia civilians in markets, mosques, funerals and religious ceremonies.37
Both of these factions — Islamic nationalists and jihadists — cooperated based on their shared goal of expelling coalition forces from Iraq and undermining the new Iraqi regime. Their insurgency created a major crisis for the George W. Bush administration, leading to calls for withdrawing American troops and ending the occupation. By 2006, victory was in sight as the United States sought to extricate itself from Iraq.
Yet, "victory" was undermined by AQI's own strategic errors, which turned Sunni tribes and insurgents against it. AQI made three major mistakes associated with its polarizing conflict narratives, transformative objectives and indiscriminate violence. To foster a base of support within the Sunni population, AQI enflamed sectarianism by portraying the war in Iraq as a fight against Shiism. Sectarian polarization was intended to present AQI as an indispensable defender of the Sunnis. This strategy culminated in the bombing of the golden-domed Askari shrine in Samarra on February 22, 2006. This well-planned attack on one of the four major Shia shrines in Iraq struck at the heart of Shia identity. It provoked retaliatory sectarian killings against Sunni communities in and around Baghdad, as well as other mixed-sect cities.38 This was AQI's first major mistake. It had overestimated its ability to protect Sunni communities, many of which bore the brunt of sectarian cleansing at the hands of Shia militias. This created an opening for the United States to present itself as the only power capable of protecting Sunnis from Iranian-backed militias and security services, setting the stage for the "Surge" strategy.
AQI's second mistake relates to Iraq's Sunni tribes. AQI alienated the tribes of western Iraq by imposing puritanical fundamentalism on them, undermining tribal hierarchies through their strategic marriages and infringing on their economic turf.39 As early as 2004, it outlawed music and satellite dishes and demanded that women in public be covered in black from head to toe.40 AQI also killed tribesmen who took contracts from coalition forces.
These killings gave the occupation forces an opening to reach out to the tribes against a common enemy; this became the basis for the "Awakening" movement. Awakening Councils were established in nearly all provinces and cities in which AQI operated, with the notable exception of Mosul.
AQI's last major mistake related to its transformative strategy. Sensing an impending victory over the United States, AQI sought to position itself as the sole leader of the insurgent movement. Beginning in 2006, it formed an umbrella organization known as the Mujahidin Shura Council. Later that year, it formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and called upon all other similar groups to join it. AQI also began strong-arming other factions to submit to its leadership (an enormous error that had also been made by the GIA and would be repeated by the Islamic State in Syria less than a decade later). When other rebel groups rejected this call, AQI began clashing with them and killing their commanders. The Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahidin Army of Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna have all accused AQI of killing scores of their militants.41
Criticism of the newly formed Islamic State might not have amounted to much had ISI not proceeded to kill several commanders of the insurgent groups that refused to pledge loyalty to the group's leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. In April 2007, the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), one of the largest Sunni Islamist groups, accused AQI of killing 30 of its members. Here is how a spokesman of IAI described the conflict with AQI:
Al-Qaeda [in Iraq] claims to be a Salafist movement, but we believe it is far from Salafism, which is more moderate and flexible. In al-Qaeda's view, everything is extreme: people are either Muslims or apostates; all women must wear the niqab [a veil that covers both head and body] even though it is impractical at this time and would draw the enemy's attention. Al-Qaeda's people are ignorant of politics and religion, and this ignorance has direct military implications.42
Even closer to AQI was the Ansar al-Sunna group. Each is a jihadi Salafist organization whose ideology is a carbon copy of the other's. Both rejected negotiations with the United States and the Iraqi government, wanted to establish an Islamic emirate and did not hesitate to kill Shia. Moreover, both AQI and the Ansar al-Sunna emerged from the same mother group known as Ansar al-Islam. Yet, this lineage did not prevent AQI's fratricide against Ansar al-Sunna.
Documents discovered by the U.S. military in September 2007 during a raid on a desert camp near Sinjar, close to the Syrian border, reveal the nature of the rift between AQI and the Ansar al-Sunna.43 At least three broad themes emerged from the exchanges in these documents. First, AQI is arrogant and excessive in its maltreatment of other insurgent groups and their civilian support base. AQI kills or threatens fellow insurgents with death unless they pledge loyalty to its group and have killed scores of insurgents, often for unknown reasons. Second, AQI's insistence that all insurgent groups join the Islamic State of Iraq is the root cause of the rupture between AQI and other insurgent factions, especially al-Ansar. Third, as a consequence of its predatory behavior, AQI is increasingly desperate for allies.
AQI alienated groups that were willing to work with it by making an aggressive claim to leadership. It overestimated its power and ability to compel others to join its state. In doing so, it created enemies out of former allies and turned the Sunni population against it. The U.S. military and the Iraqi government took advantage of AQI's mistakes by reaching out to insurgents and tribes in a new strategy of Sunni engagement intended to drive a wedge between extremist insurgents and their Sunni supporters.
The fortunes of Iraq's jihadists turned when the tidal wave of Arab uprisings reached Syria in March 2011. By 2013, AQI (now branded as ISI) took advantage of Iraq's sectarian politics, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 to rebuild its ranks and reassert its presence in the region. However, rather than forge unity with Syrian rebels, the Islamic State split the ranks of al-Nusra Front, one of the most powerful rebel groups to emerge from the Syrian conflict. It also shocked the world by vividly exposing its genocidal violence against the Shia and Yazidis. At the height of its arrogance, it declared the formation of a caliphate, the Islamic State, and insisted that all rebel groups in Syria pledge loyalty to its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It went on to attack fellow rebels of all stripes, driving them out of Syria's oil-rich regions of Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor; it took complete control of the city of Raqqa and sought to do the same in Aleppo and other cities.44
Like its forerunners, the Islamic State framed the conflict in polarizing terms that left no room for neutrality. Actors in the conflict had to choose sides, either with it or against it. It portrayed all Shia and Alawites as mortal enemies, but it did not stop there. The Kurds were equally viewed as a threat to its utopian project, as were secular rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafists who insisted on maintaining Syria's territorial integrity, such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (ASIM).
The most puzzling entry on the list of enemies was al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group whose leaders fought in Iraq.45 The main distinction between the two was al-Nusra Front's pragmatic prioritizing of the Syrian jihad above the longer-term ambition of governing an Islamic state and its willingness to put aside ideological slogans in order to coordinate operations with other factions.
The Islamic State also pursued a transformative political project that did not align with the preferences of Syria's rebels. Rather than toppling the Syrian regime and forming a state where Syria's diverse communities and political factions could compete for postconflict spoils, it insisted on carving out a state for Sunnis only, one that violated the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. Whereas other rebels were mainly focused on attacking the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies, the Islamic State was preoccupied with sectarian and ethnic cleansing and establishing governing institutions based on anachronistic interpretations of sharia law.
More damaging to rebel unity was the way the Islamic State behaved toward civilian populations and captured regime forces. Mass atrocities, slavery and rape were supplemented with crucifixions and beheadings. Burning people alive and drowning them while being filmed further tainted the image of Arab Spring revolutionaries and focused the world's attention on the fact that the Islamic State posed a greater threat than the Syrian regime. Just as rebels had to choose between the Islamic State and its rivals, the world was forced to choose between fanatical Islamists and the Syrian dictatorship. The new U.S. administration eventually suspended all aid to the anti-Assad forces.46
Tensions between the Islamic State and other rebels boiled over into factional warfare as early as 2013.47 Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, affiliated with the FSA, was the first to be attacked. In August 2013, the Islamic State executed 18 of its members after they refused to pledge allegiance to its organization. In January 2014, the Islamic State detained, tortured and executed Dr. Hussein Suleiman (Abu Rayan), ASIM's commander in Tel Abiyad in al-Raqqa. This led to open warfare, with scores of fighters reportedly killed on both sides. Al-Nusra Front came in on the side of ASIM, the first time it had fought openly with the Islamic State since their split into two groups. Throughout these months, the Islamic State was also fighting the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) in Hasakah.
The powerful Tawhid Brigade, a Muslim Brotherhood faction, was the next Islamist group to face off with the Islamic State. They clashed over control of key neighborhoods in rebel-held Aleppo, a fight that lasted until mid-2014. Jaysh al-Islam picked up where the Tawhid Brigade left off. A hardline Salafist faction dominant in the Damascus countryside, Jaysh al-Islam became one of the fiercest rivals of the Islamic State. Their infighting was captured by two infamous video productions, both of which revealed the intensity of rebel fratricide in Syria. The first was produced by the Islamic State. Titled "Repent before We Apprehend You," it featured the beheading of 12 fighters belonging to Jaysh al-Islam and al-Nusra Front. In retaliation, Jaysh al-Islam filmed the execution of 18 Islamic State fighters in a production titled "The Mujahidin's Retribution against the Kharijite Traitors."48
The Islamic State's fratricide strategy appeared to bear fruit in 2014-15; it became the preeminent radical Islamist organization since Bin Laden's al-Qaeda. It attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters from around the globe and reigned over territory the size of Britain.49 But, like its predecessors in the GIA and AQI, it was only a matter of time before its strategic errors caught up with it.
To be sure, Syria's rebels were never united; their political divisions preceded the rise of the Islamic State.50 Yet, despite their fragmentation, their infighting was largely limited to episodic military skirmishes and political squabbling. More important, by 2013, dominant factions began to emerge around which unity could have been forged. A group like ASIM, with an estimated 15,000 fighters, combined Salafism with nationalism, serving as a possible bridge between Jihadists associated with al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, on the one hand, and secular nationalists associated with the FSA, on the other. The importance of ASIM was so apparent that external sponsors with divergent agendas (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) agreed to support it.51 The rise of the Islamic State shifted the rebels' focus away from consolidating power and toppling the regime to protecting themselves from predatory IS attacks. This centrifugal dynamic recapitulated the events that tore asunder the Islamist movements in Algeria and Iraq in the preceding decades, and it led to the same outcome: defeat.
The recurrent errors of fratricidal jihadists — and their failure to learn from their mistakes — suggest that their extremism is a source of weakness, not strength as some have recently suggested.52 Their predatory behavior is hardwired in the genetic codes of their movements, making it near impossible to learn from their past mistakes. Their ideological purity, based on the belief that only their interpretation of the inherited Islamic tradition is legitimate, serves as a double-edged sword. The moral vision of an uncompromisingly puritanical Islamic order simplifies political life by offering a clear, organized narrative of right and wrong, good and evil, permissible and forbidden. This narrative attracts militants from around the world and fosters organizational cohesion by pointing the rank and file toward a single incorruptible goal.
Yet, this Manichean framing also inspires a virulent ideology that demonizes enemies, venerates self-sacrifice and conjures up illusions of a utopian world. Civil wars are messy and require realism, unsavory alliances with strange bedfellows and the pursuit of achievable objectives based on a balance of forces. Puritanical jihadists find it exceedingly difficult to balance pragmatic considerations with the fanatical doctrine that brings them to the land of jihad in the first place.53 Their impatience regarding the gradual political and social work necessary to build up a mass base that can sustain a movement for the long haul leads to strategic errors. They rely on coercive extraction to meet the needs of their jihad, becoming a heavy burden on their host communities. They are suspicious of pragmatists who might sell them out, preferring to attack them rather than reach a modus vivendi for mutual advantage. Their sense of ideological superiority rationalizes extreme violence against friend and foe alike. Their outrageous tactics inspire fear, not admiration. When communities have an opportunity to turn their backs on these fratricidal extremists, they seize it with a vengeance.
What are the strategic implications of dealing with the next iteration of the Islamic State? There are three lessons for the international community. First, the defeat of violent jihadists usually follows from their own mistakes, not from the strategic talent of the powers that oppose them. It is important to recognize that Islamists are ideologically divided despite their shared intellectual heritage and goal of building polities anchored in "Islamic" values and laws. Rather than lump all Islamists into a single adversarial category (something extremists do to their own detriment), it is important to understand the nuances that divide this movement into fractious camps and how those divisions can shape conflict trajectories.
Second, every time a menacing jihadist group emerges, there is a tendency for analysts to insist that the only way to fight these groups is to engage in an ideological counternarrative that diminishes their appeal. Yet, in all three cases, the key to defeat was not "good ideas" displacing bad ones, but rather capitalizing on the errors of the adversary by funding and arming the rivals they themselves created and supporting those forces with military might. To be sure, these measures have serious human-rights implications and do not obviate the need for long-term strategies to rebuild broken polities and create inclusive and effective governing institutions.
Finally, while the international community may want to celebrate or even encourage jihadists to fight with other Islamist factions, their fratricide does not come without a price. Fragmented movements are notorious for mass atrocities against civilians, as seen in Algeria, Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, divided rebels may not win their civil wars, but they can act as spoilers in conflict-ending negotiations, prolonging conflicts, preventing stabilization and reconstruction efforts, and fostering opportunities for transnational extremists and illicit traffickers to thrive. The defeat of the Islamic State has left behind Stalingrad-like destruction in major population centers. Attending to this humanitarian disaster is an urgent priority. Otherwise, a new breed of extremists will capitalize on mass grievances and failed governance to reconstitute a fresh version of the Islamic State.
1 Sarah Almukhtar et al., "The Islamic State: From Insurgency to Rogue State and Back," New York Times, October 22, 2017.
2 See West Point Combating Terrorism Center Harmony Document Database, "Letter Exposes New Leader in Al-Qaeda High Command," September 25, 2006.
4 According to analysis of the Abbottabad documents, captured during the 2011 operation to kill bin Laden, the latter sought to reconcile jihadi factions with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with the help of Ansar al-Islam, but to no avail. See Nelly Lahoud et al., Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined? (Combating Terrorism Center, 2012), 26.
5 Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus'ab al-Suri (Oxford University Press, 2009), 9.
6 Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
7 Pascale Combelles Siegel, "AQIM's Playbook in Mali," CTC Sentinel 6, no. 3 (2013), 9-11.
8 Hanne Fjelde and Desirée Nilsson, "Rebels against Rebels: Explaining Violence between Rebel Groups," Journal of Conflict Resolution 56, no. 4 (2012): 604-628; and Peter Krause, Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win (Cornell University Press, 2017).
9 Fotini Christia, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
10 Adria Lawrence, "Triggering Nationalist Violence: Competition and Conflict in Uprisings against Colonial Rule," International Security 35, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 88-122; and Seden Akcinaroglu and Efe Tokdemir, "To Instill Fear or Love: Terrorist Groups and the Strategy of Building Reputation," Conflict Management and Peace Science (July 2016): 1-26.
11 Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, "Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence," International Organization 56, no. 2 (2002): 263-296; and Wendy Pearlman, "Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process," International Security 33, no. 3 (Winter 2008/09): 79-109.
12 Kaitlin Toner et al., "Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority," Psychological Science 24 (2013): 2,454-2,462; Mark J. Brandt, Anthony M. Evans, and Jarret T. Crawford, "The Unthinkable or Confident Extremist? Political Extremists Are More Likely Than Moderates to Reject Experimenter-Generated Anchors," Psychology Science (2014): 1-14.
13 John T. Jost et al., "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," Psychological Bulletin 129, no. 3 (2003): 339-375; and Jeff Greenberg and Eva Jonas, "Psychological Motives and Political Orientation — The Left, the Right, and the Rigid: Comment on Jost et al.," Psychological Bulletin 129 no. 3 (2003): 376-382.
14 Becky L. Choma, Carolyn L. Hafer et al., "Political liberalism and political conservatism: Functionally Independent?" Personality and Individual Differences 53 (2012): 431-436.
15 Markus Kemmelmeier, "Political Conservatism, Rigidity, and Dogmatism in American Foreign Policy Officials: The 1966 Mennis Data," Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied 141, no. 1 (2007): 77–90; and Donatella della Porta,Clandestine Political Violence(Cambridge University Press, 2013), chap. 7.
16 Nam Kyu Kim, "Revolutionary Leaders and Mass Killing," Journal of Conflict Resolution (2016): 4-6.
17 See interview with Ahmed Ben Aicha, AIS commander, in Al-Hayat, June 8, 1996.
18 Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990-1998 (Columbia University Press, 2000), 198-206.
20 According to Umar Chikhi, one of the original nine founders of the GIA, Abdelhaq Layada — the GIA's first general commander — rejected calls for fighting for a political process. Chikhi states, "Differences started to surface between the political leadership of the FIS and the commander of the Group [GIA] over the strategy that they should adopt. The politicians would suggest using political means to overcome the crisis and regarded armed action as a 'pressure tool' … but Abdelhaq Layada responded by saying the solution can only be achieved by armed action." See Uthman Tazghart, "Interview with Umar Chikhi, Last Surviving Founding Member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group," Al-Majallah, part 1, January 14, 2001.
21 Jamal Zitouni, the fifth GIA leader, enshrined this mantra into GIA's manifesto, The Guidance of the Lord. It is a 62-page pamphlet carrying the name Abu Abdel Rahman Amin and dated 27 Rabia al-Thani 1416/1995. The quotation is from p. 27.
22 Madani Mezraq, AIS's general commander, explained years later that "we fought on the basis of two principles: a return to the legitimate political process and respect for the choice of the Algerian people." Listen to part one of a three-part radio interview conducted by Noureddine Khababa with Madani Mezraq on March 18, 2012, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYOHp2dCBEM.
23 Martinez, 205, 213.
24 Ibid., 198-206.
25 See Al-Ansar, newsletter no. 96, May 12, 1995. This is a London-based GIA publication.
26 Camile al-Tawil, The Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1998), 209.
27 See Al-Ansar, newsletter no. 101, June 15, 1995.
28 Michael Willis, The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History (Ithaca Press, 1996), 353.
29 The GIA sent a two-hour videotaped "confession" of Abdelwahab Lamara and Mahfouz Tajeen (Abu Khalil), both GIA commanders who joined in 1994. In the video, Lamara describes how Said and others sought on several occasions to take over the leadership of the GIA. Both Tajeen and Lamara were executed the following day. The entire taped "confession" is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB3xN5_Ntqk.
30 Omar Ashour, The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (Routledge, 2009), 58.
31 Mohammed M. Hafez, Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (Lynne Rienner Pub, 2003), 119.
32 Abdallah Anas, one of the few Algerian Afghans to remain on FIS's Executive Committee after 1992, acknowledged that the GIA's violence had driven up popular support for Algeria's General Liamine Zeroual during his successful bid for the presidency in the November 1995 elections. See Camil al-Tawil, "Algerian Islamic Salvation Front: Armed Islamic Group Responsible for Sahraoui's Assassination," Al-Hayat, December 9, 1995.
33 By 1997, there were an estimated 150,000 militiamen around the country, including in Islamist strongholds.
34 For a comprehensive list of massacres, see Jacob Mundy, "'Wanton and Senseless' Revisited: The Study of Warfare in Civil Conflicts and the Historiography of the Algerian Massacres," African Studies Review 56, no. 3 (2013): 25-55.
35 El Kadi Ihsane, Benhadjar Sets Record Straight on Internecine GIA, December 17, 2001, http://www.algeria-watch.org/en/articles/2001/benhadjar_gia.htm.
36 Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom (United States Institute of Peace, 2007), 35-88.
37 Mohammed M. Hafez, "The Origins of Sectarian Terrorism in Iraq," in The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat, eds. Bruce Hoffman and Fernando Reinares (Columbia University Press, 2014), 436-460.
39 Andrew Phillips, "How al Qaeda Lost Iraq," Australian Journal of International Affairs 63 (2009): 64-84.
40 Karl Vick, "Insurgent Alliance Is Fraying in Fallujah; Locals, Fearing Invasion, Turn against Foreign Arabs," Washington Post, October 13, 2004; and Ellen Knickmeyer, "Zarqawi Followers Clash with Local Sunnis," Washington Post, May 29, 2005.
41 Karin Brulliard, "Dozens Die in 2 Truck Bombings in the North," Washington Post, March 28, 2007; "Al-Qaeda Escalates the Struggle inside Sunni Cities and 'Hamas-Iraq' Splits from the '1920 Revolution Brigades,'" Al-Hayat, March 31, 2007.
42 "Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape," Middle East Report 40 (2008): 3.
43 The declassified documents include two letters are AQI's leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. One is addressed to two unnamed tribal leaders close to Ansar al-Sunna, and the other to Abu Abdullah al-Shafi'i, the leader of their group. Two documents are by unspecified al-Ansar leaders to AQI-ISI, outlining the latter's transgressions toward fellow insurgents and explaining the growing rift between their two factions. One document is an agreement between al-Hajji Abu Sa'adi, a leader of an unknown insurgent group, and Dr. Ismael, representing ISI. (Both names are probably aliases.) The agreement outlines a series of steps to be taken by each side to bring about a cessation of hostilities between the two groups. It is not clear to whom these documents belonged, but at least two of them bear the name of AQI's leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Some are typed in Arabic text while others are handwritten. Some bear the official stamps of known insurgent groups, while others are unbranded. These documents are archived in the Harmony Project, which is run by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
45 Al-Nusra Front was a spinoff of ISI. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent his military commander, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, to establish a fighting group in Syria as the Arab uprising turned into a protracted civil war. Thus, one can lay blame for the split between the two leaders at the feet of the insubordinate al-Jolani. However, both men presumably answered to al-Qaeda's leader, Aymen al-Zawahiri. The latter ruled in favor of maintaining al-Nusra Front as its preferred affiliate in Syria and confined al-Baghdadi's organization to Iraq, a move that was ultimately rejected by the future "caliph."
46 David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, and Ben Hubbard, "Trump Ends Covert Aid to Syrian Rebels Trying to Topple Assad," New York Times, July 19, 2017.
47 I collected data on 508 infighting episodes between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2016. Rebel infighting appeared in every Syrian governorate, but the vast majority of the infighting took place in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo (38 percent) and the Damascus countryside (19 percent), followed by Idlib and Dayr al-Zawr (11 percent each). IS fought the most with rival factions; it was involved in 41percent of all infighting episodes, followed by the other Jihadi Salafist factions of Al-Nusra Front (15 percent), Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (8 percent), and Jaysh al-Islam (7 percent). The Kurdish YPG fought with other Syrian rebels about 7 percent of the time. FSA-affiliated factions were involved in about 6 percent of the fratricidal episodes.
48 Both videos can be accessed at https://leaksource.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/jihad-vs-jihad-islamic-stat….
49 Rick Noach, "Here's How the Islamic State Compares with Real States," Washington Post, September 12, 2014; and The Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq, December 2015.
50 Afshon Ostovar and Will McCants, "The Rebel Alliance: Why Syria's Armed Opposition Has Failed to Unify," The CNA Corporation, March 2013.
51 Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia did not fund the same groups as Qatar and Turkey due to their disagreements over supporting the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Arab Spring revolutions (see Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith, "How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution," Financial Times, May 17, 2003). However, the importance of ASIM as a powerbroker within the Jaysh al-Fath coalition, made up of groups fighting IS and the regime, simultaneously, led all three countries to support this faction (see Kim Sengupta, "Turkey and Saudi Arabia Alarm the West by Backing Islamist Extremists the Americans Had Bombed in Syria," The Independent, May 11, 2015).
52 See, for example, Barbara Walter, "The Extremist's Advantage in Civil Wars," International Security 42, no. 2 (2017): 7-39.
53 Brynjar Lia, "Understanding Jihadi Proto-States," Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015); and William McCants, "The Polarizing Effect of Islamic State Aggression on the Global Jihadist Movement," CTC Sentinel 9, no. 7 (2016).
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.