Jihadi Developments

Briefing Note

Jihadi Developments

29 Aug 2014

In the first of a new series of Briefing Notes on the role of religion in conflict, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics looks at recent developments in global jihadi movements, focusing particularly on tactical changes, increased factionalism and a notable generational shift in fighters.

  • The vacuum of governance following the Arab Spring has provided impetus to jihadi movements in seizing and holding territory, bringing with it the requirement to govern.
  • Governance has provided the opportunity to impose extreme interpretations of Sharia on populations under jihadi control.
  • The most high profile of these splits is that between ISIS and al-Qaeda.
  • There has been a generational shift in modern jihadi movements, with the emergence of a younger, more radical group of fighters.

The schismatic tendencies of the jihadi movement are nothing new, but the Syrian civil war has seen schism on an unprecedented scale: in December 2013 the BBC reported estimates of over 1000 different armed groups in Syria, many of which are to some degree Islamist.

Recent factionalism has also become much more high profile. The split in February 2014 between al-Qaeda and ISIS has had huge repercussions in the global jihadi community and for Western policy. But it seems likely that it formalised a division that went back much further, possibly even to 2006. According to experts such as Aron Lund, at the least the relationship from 2006 – 2014 was kept ambiguous.

It was the importance of the war in Syria in jihadi thought that made the ISIS/al-Qaeda split especially significant. Despite largely shared ideology, ISIS's claim to a Caliphate renders those who oppose it apostates, including those affiliated to al-Qaeda, says Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on the two groups.

As the two organisations most appealing to jihadis around the world, the effects of this division are far-reaching, with praise of ISIS from Nigeria, and pledges of allegiance as far as Indonesia. This graph showing allegiance and enmity between global jihadi groups emphasizes the importance of the al-Qaeda/ISIS split across the world.

This developing factionalism can be seen reflected across the jihadi world: in Nigeria, Boko Haram and Ansaru split over differing tactics and perceptions of legitimate targets, says John Campbell (though it seems possible that they are now working together again); in Somalia, al-Shabaab has been riven by division, according to Stig Jarle Hansen; and there have been reports of major rifts within the Pakistani Taliban – always more an umbrella group for various smaller outfits.

Accompanying this increased factionalism has been the development of a broader variety of tactics across different jihadi movements. Indeed, one of the prime differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS (and its predecessor groups) has been tactical rather than ideological. ISIS has always pursued an explicitly sectarian policy, aiming to rally the Sunni community around Sunni jihadi groups as a defence against Shia aggression. Al-Qaeda on the other hand, while equally sectarian in its outlook, feared that this risked alienating its supporters.

The greatest change in jihadi operations over recent years has been in their seizure and government of territory. This has always been an aim and indeed the Taliban governed in Afghanistan, but the chaos that followed the Arab Spring has provided opportunities unavailable since 2001 and has changed a number of groups from terrorist organisations into occupying armies.

These opportunities have enabled the application of one of the jihadi movement's great ambitions: the imposition of their understanding of Sharia to the communities under their control. In the case of ISIS, this has been seen through the use of Dhimmi pacts (a "protection contract" with certain non-Muslim minority groups that has led to mass expulsions from ISIS territory) and other atrocities such as the ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi.

But the move towards seizing and governing territory also appears to have prompted a shift in tactics in an effort to secure the acquiescence of the populace. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been governing through pre-existing tribal and administrative structures; in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula marries into the local population and resists foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, in Kenya there are reports that al-Shabaab is seeking to exploit the country's political divisions to create space for the group to operate, and replicates the tactic of creating a backlash against the Muslim community so that they turn to the group for defence.

Another significant force of factionalism in jihadi movements seems to be focused on generational shifts. Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, notes that violent division in jihadi ranks in Syria and more widely can be linked to a younger, more radical generation of fighters.

For more information on current trends in global jihadism, see in-depth analysis from the  Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, including backgrounders on ISIS and Boko Haram.