The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s report on divisions within Al-Qaeda (AQ) and related groups has been out for a week or so now. It’s entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions Within Al-Qaeda and its Periphery. So far, it’s been the kind of high-quality analysis people have come to expect from CTC. (Hegghammer says it’s “destined to become a classic in the field of jihadism studies.”) As the title suggests, the report focuses on the endogenous factors that have lead to the declining strength of AQ, it’s affiliates, and associated groups. These factors are of two types: “internal divisions plaguing al‐Qaeda and the jihadi movement proper; and fault lines dividing the jihadi movement from other Muslim and Islamist actors” (e.g. Shi’ism, Hamas). The report contends that these divisions have lacked the proper attention that they warrant and should be exploited to their full potential.
The report’s first chapter is about the “debates and divisions within and around al-Qaeda.” It begins with a major premise of the report: al-Qaeda is on the decline but is still dangerous nonetheless. The loss of key operational AQ figures; the weakening or defeat of AQ affiliates (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Algeria); and ideological challenges from former jihadis are all provided as support for the notion that AQ has seen much better days.
These setbacks and others suggest that al‐Qaeda is not any closer to achieving its long‐term goals than it was on 10 September 2001. Indeed, the opposite is true: the United States remains entrenched in the Middle East politically, economically and militarily; the Taliban‐led Islamic state in Afghanistan was ousted from power; Iraq, which al‐Qaeda hoped to overthrow, was instead upended by the United States and replaced by a weakly‐functioning democracy dominated by Shi’a politicians; Israel remains firmly in existence; and al‐Qaeda has been unable to inspire mass support from Muslims around the world.
The authors of the first chapter point to the attempted Christmas day bombing of 2009, Nadal Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood, and the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Afghanistan as examples of AQ’s operational capability. The recent attempted cargo bomb plot could be added to this list, among others. The authors go on to list a conceptual framework of seven types of divisions: ideology, strategy, tactics, goals, enemy, organizational structure, and power. I’ll summarize each in turn.
Ideology: There are four purposes of ideology with regards to global jihadis– 1) Argue to Muslims that Islam is in a state of decline 2) Identify the cause of this decline in near and far enemies 3) Create a new identity based on jihadism 4) Present violent jihad as the program of action. While AQ and other jihadi groups attempt to present themselves as monoliths, in agreement on all matters, they’re rife with ideological divisions. For example, who is the the true enemy (Shi’ites, Western states, Jews, Israel, “apostate” regimes in the Middle East)? What’s the best way to fight this enemy (Zarqawi-esque indiscriminate killing or more targeted attacks)? What will a Islamic state look like? These differences are accounted for in terms of the inevitability of divisions in a complex political movement driven by individuals with different socio-economic backgrounds from different countries.
Goals: AQ’s objectives are manifold and often unclear. Some of these include reestablishing the caliphate, personal salvation of its members, and defending the umma from the West, Zionism, etc. Vague and unclear goals “are a useful way to appeal to a broad variety of angry people, but such imprecision also weakens the group’s ability to explain the final purpose of self‐sacrifice.”
Enemy: Members of AQ and other jihadi groups are divided on who the enemy truly is–”The group has alternatively mentioned the United States, Crusaders, Zionism, global unbelief, Jews, the international order and others among its list of enemies.” In the latter half of the 1990s, the US has been AQ enemy number one, but “Zionism” has been often mentioned as well. The authors point out Brynjar Lia’s observation that Israel/Jews is the only enemy of AQ that hasn’t been proffered a truce of some sort or mentioned in positive terms. The US can pull out of the Middle East or convert to Islam to cease hostilities, but there is no such outstanding offer for Israel/Jews. The authors argue that assuming Israel is a major enemy of AQ, AQ has made it even more unclear with their attacks on “apostate” Muslim regimes.
Strategy: The authors borrow from Lia again by arguing that jihadis are divided between “strategists” and “doctrinarians.” The former “aim to build broad constituencies” while the latter “are willing to sacrifice broad support for ideological homogeneity.” The doctrinarians believe that God’s will is on the side of those who hold correct beliefs and thus a small group of the ideologically pure is preferable to a large constituency with diverse theological opinions. The record doesn’t accord with the doctrinarians’ view though: see, Iraq, Algeria, and Afghanistan as countries in which the jihadis went overboard in their wanton violence due to ideological excess.
Tactics: The division here among jihadis is who to target and how. ”In particular, the most significant debates have centered in recent years on the legitimacy of violence against Muslims and the use of suicide attacks, beheadings and other particularly cruel forms of violence.” Takfir (the act of declaring a Muslim and apostate) is a point of contention that is addressed in chapter 2. (I’ll probably blog about that and other chapters.)
Organizational Structure: There are internal bureaucratic problems within AQ just like in any other organization. Money has been an issue. Some jihadis are disgruntled to see money wasted, some want more money than they are receiving, some believe jihadis of other countries ethnicities are receiving more money than others. Another debate within AQ is whether or not to organize it as “brand” or a “bureaucracy.” Those who argue for the former (e.g. OBL and Zawahiri) see AQ as an ideological standard that will recruit a wide variety of militants. Those on the “bureaucracy” side want AQ to be more hierarchical, a “quasi rapid reaction force for the umma.”
Power: The authors note that OBL and Zawahiri are still seen by jihadis as the number one and two, respectively of AQ. They are able to attract an audience and can still influence their closer affiliates. But the “far-flung” jihadi organizations are influenced by AQ Central only in terms of brand and reputation, “not direct operational authority.” ”Considering that affiliate leaders control more operational elements than bin Ladin and Zawahiri, it is reasonable to think they may actually be the critical leadership nodes in al‐Qaeda.” In the Militant Ideology Atlas, William McCants argues that OBL and Zawahiri aren’t as influential among jihadis as lesser-known theologians.