Why is the West fighting jihadis when jihadis are so successful fighting one another? In Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, and the Sahel, jihadis have directed their guns and explosives against their former brothers-in-arms simply because of diverging organizational affiliation. In Afghanistan, the Taliban even claim credit for routing their Islamic State rivals from the country’s northern province of Jowzjan and Nangarhar and Kunar in the east. The answer, of course, is that despite the continuous infighting among jihadis, outsiders should not — like with the khawarij — expect it to cause the movement’s downfall.
Studying, understanding, and properly reacting to the consistent state of internal conflict within the jihadi movement is important. Time and again jihadis have engaged in debates and contested one another, resulting in infighting or the imprisoning of rivals. It appears that the primary cause behind this regular escalation in conflict is jihadis’ destructive inability to resolve conflict through mechanisms of de-escalation.
My own research on intra-jihadi conflict, or fitna in the parlance of jihadis, which is largely based on extensive fieldwork and online anthropology, illustrates how the failure of conflict mitigation and resolution has become an endemic problem for jihadis. The source of this failure largely has to do with matters of authority, power ambitions, and the absence of institutionalization on a supra-group level. While this may appear as a relatively minor issue, in practice it has been detrimental to jihadis’ strategic objectives and key to understanding their internal and external conflict dynamics.
The so-called jihadi civil war broke out in January 2014 between the Islamic State and rivaling jihadi groups in Syria. Ignited by disagreement about their Syria strategy and the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra — al-Qaeda’s local Syrian affiliate that was established under the supervision of the Islamic State in Iraq — it escalated over the following years and eventually migrated from one battlefield to another. Causing the death of more than 8,000 jihadis, fragmenting and polarizing the movement, and occasionally diverting the objective away from its traditional enemies, the internal conflict has had traumatic consequences that jihadis will suffer from for years to come.
Syria has been the epicenter of the conflict between al-Qaeda and its renegade affiliate the Islamic State, and has been the place where the jihadi movement has suffered most from internal conflicts and from the failure to solve them. Two periods of intra-jihadi conflict demonstrate the scale and impact of the problem for jihadis. The first — which started in late 2013 and continued until the fall of 2014 — involved the organizational splinter between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and the latter’s caliphate declaration. The second began in the fall of 2017 and lasted until the summer of 2020, and covered the contestation between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and rivaling jihadi groups in Idlib, including Hurras al-Deen, the local al-Qaeda outfit.