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SELF‐INFLICTED WOUNDS: DEBATES AND DIVISIONS WITHIN AL‐QA’IDA AND ITS PERIPHERY
Edited by Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman
COMBATING TERRORISM CENTER at West Point
December 16, 2010
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next September, the United States, its Western allies, and nearly all states in the Islamic world are facing a weakened jihadi enemy, but one still capable of inflicting, or threatening to inflict, spectacular acts of terrorist violence. The recent attempts to send package bombs on cargo planes is only the latest in a series of plots suggesting that although al‐Qa’ida and its cohorts have suffered a number of setbacks, the group and its affiliates and associates continue to pose a serious challenge to the security of the United States and
Self‐Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al‐Qa’ida and its Periphery examines the internal, or endogenous, reasons that have hastened the decline of the jihadi movement.
In doing so, it exposes the jihadi movement, with al‐Qa’ida at its helm, as one that lacks coherence and unity, despite its claims to the contrary. The report divides the jihadis’ endogenous problems into two categories: internal divisions plaguing al‐Qa’ida and the jihadi movement proper; and fault lines dividing the jihadi movement from other Muslim and Islamist actors.
The internal jihadi divisions examined in this report include tactical disagreements over takfir (excommunication of Muslims) and the killing of Muslims; strategic disagreements over whether the jihadi struggle should focus on the near enemy (i.e., nominally Muslim regimes) or the far enemy (the United States and its Western allies); friction between jihadi pragmatists and jihadi doctrinarians; rifts between al‐Qa’ida Central and local affiliates; as well as the sometimes tense relations between Arab and non‐Arab members of the jihadi movement. The competition between the jihadis and their Muslim counterparts scrutinizes the jihadis’ relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Shi’a community.
Three main counterintuitive findings can be gleaned from the discussion. First, while the net impact of divisions within and around the jihadis on their movement is negative, the jihadi movement is resilient to some of these divisions due to its unique structure and situational context. Even worse, and contrary to the received wisdom, intra‐jihadi rifts and fault lines between jihadis and other Islamic actors may even enhance some of the jihadi movement’s resilient traits.
Second, we find that although the jihadi movement’s competition with its non‐jihadi Islamic counterparts is mostly harmful to al‐Qa’ida, such competition bestows certain advantages on the group. On the one hand, al‐Qa’ida cannot possibly compete with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or Hizballah, who have far deeper social bases and provide social services to their constituents. At the same time, al‐Qa’ida’s status as a recalcitrant underdog affords it a higher degree of credibility among
more extremist members of the umma.
A third broad finding is that jihadi divisions matter in different ways. Quarrels over tactics and strategy tend to be more damaging to jihadis than dissent over goals and views of the enemy. Disagreements over tactics—and especially ongoing protests at al‐Qa’ida’s killing of Muslims—have greater potential to shove al‐Qa’ida further toward the margins of the Islamic community than to split jihadi organizations. Ongoing leadership debates over strategic questions, on the other hand, can pose direct threats to the group itself, but do not necessarily marginalize al‐Qa’ida further from the mainstream. In practical terms, certain tactics tend to be more controversial for jihadis than lack of consensus on broader questions as goals and objectives because tactical adaptations have direct practical consequences visible on the ground.
The report highlights a number of additional findings. First, it argues that the jihadi movement can be usefully divided into three categories—global, classical, and hybrid— with important implications for counterterrorism policy. Counter‐radicalization and deradicalization techniques that might be effective with global jihadis, for example, may not be as effective with classical or hybrid jihadis. Second, the practice of takfir and attacks on Muslims are the jihadis’ most consequential weakness and should be actively exploited. And third, the jihadi community is increasingly divided about its leadership, especially as a younger generation of virtually‐connected fighters usurps raditional sources of strategic and ideological authority.
In the final section of the report, the editors conclude with a number of recommendations for policymakers. They are designed to advance our thinking on how jihadi and Islamist fault lines can be exploited in a way that does not exacerbate the problem of jihadi violence.