The Failure of Jihadi Conflict Resolution
The internal in-fighting of the Kharijites was the main factor that led to the destruction of their militant groups, so much so that when the seventh century Governor al-Hajjaj ordered his military commander al-Muhallab to pursue fighting the Kharijites, al-Muhallab calmly responded: “I see no point in fighting them since they themselves are fighting each other. If they carry on like this, that is [after all] what we desire, for therein lies their destruction (halak).”
– Nelly Lahoud, The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, on how the early Islamic extremist khawarij sect was battling itself, leading to its eventual downfall, and its relevance for the contemporary jihadi movement.
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.
States Above Groups
By April 2013, things started to go terribly wrong between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. When the late Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi instructed his fighters to expand from Iraq to Syria to reclaim control over Jabhat al-Nusra, he defied direct orders from al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in the process. Over the summer and fall of 2013, the Islamic State’s aggressive posture toward other jihadis led to heightened tensions, which escalated into infighting in January 2014 and ignited the so-called jihadi civil war. The following month, al Zawahiri officially expelled the Islamic State from his al-Qaeda network.
From late 2013 to October 2014, a broad range of jihadi actors opposing the Islamic State proposed 15 calls for arbitration and reconciliation between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. These initiatives came almost exclusively from al-Qaeda or aligned individuals, illustrating how imperative it was for the group to mitigate tensions. For instance, al-Zawahiri at first designated Abu Khalid al Suri, a veteran jihadist and Ahrar al-Sham commander, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, to be in charge of handling the conflict. These early calls for reconciliation generally emphasized that both al-Nusra and the Islamic State should be considered truthful mujahideen, showing that around the time of the split in February 2014 the ambition was still to keep the factions together and not alienate Islamic State leaders and fighters.
The failure of the initiatives, however, was striking. A closer look at some of them reveals how challenging it was to mediate between the factions and how it was destined to fail from the beginning. Almost nothing is known about al Suri’s diplomacy before he was assassinated by two Islamic State operatives. In the single public statement he made, he warned the Islamic State that continued infighting would only benefit the Assad regime, and requested Islamic State leaders and fighters to repent and to submit to a Sharia court. A Syria-based al-Qaeda media official informed me about al Wuhayshi’s effort and how he sent a letter to both al Baghdadi and Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al Julani — but only the latter responded. A major issue for al Wuhayshi was that he was not on the ground in Syria, which made it difficult to influence opinions.
Senior figures on the ground in Syria decided to take over when it was clear that al Suri and al Wuhayshi were not producing results. The first was Hamad al Ali, a Kuwaiti associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and an apparent favorite of al-Zawahiri. Al Ali first met with al Julani to hear his side of the story, before meeting with either al Baghdadi or his deputy Abu Ali al Anbari to hear the Islamic State’s version. Because al Ali was so convinced by al Julani’s version of events, he decided to record his conversation with al Baghdadi/al Anbari. Soon after, however, al Ali was forced to flee from Syria with competing explanations for why, thus making it difficult to assess the actual reason. On his own initiative, al-Nusra’s spokesman Abu Sulayman al Muhajir took over mediation efforts, interceding between al Julani and al Baghdadi in an attempt to find common ground that could mitigate the conflict. As al Muhajir told this author in a lengthy series of Telegram and voice message exchanges, he could never be considered neutral due to his affiliation with al-Nusra, and for that reason he brought Abu Abd al Aziz al Qatari, the founder of the al-Qaeda-aligned but Islamic State-sympathetic group Jund al-Aqsa, to one of his meetings with al Baghdadi. Al-Qatari was an Afghanistan veteran allegedly with close ties to deceased al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Hamza al Muhajir, and Abu Omar al Baghdadi. However, after meeting with Islamic State leaders al Baghdadi, al Anbari, and Abu Muhammad al Adnani, he was unable to convince them to stop their aggression before he was killed in January 2014.
Just as the infighting was about to begin, Jabhat al-Nusra’s own leader, Abu Muhammed al Julani, went public with three initiatives to prevent the conflict from escalating further. Al-Nusra was created as a subgroup to the Islamic State, but al Julani now proposed that al-Baghdadi cancel both groups and that a new group with the name Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham be established. The Islamic State immediately rejected this. In a second attempt, al-Julani proposed to establish a new independent Sharia court with representatives from all factions and to implement a ceasefire. Once again, the Islamic State rejected the proposal. In a third and final attempt in the aftermath of the assassination of al Suri, al-Julani demanded that the Islamic State submit to a Sharia court led by three leading jihadi ideologues, namely Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al Filastini, and Abu Sulayman al Ulwan. Al Julani gave the Islamic State five days to respond but never received a direct answer. Instead, the Islamic State issued a statement ridiculing the idea that it was behind the assassination of al Suri.
A range of ideologues sympathetic to al-Qaeda attempted to mediate. Two Western-based Egyptians — Hani Sibai and Tariq Abdelhaleem — suggested seven points facilitating reconciliation, which included the establishment of a joint committee to settle grievances between the groups. According to their proposal, this committee should consist of a judge from the Islamic State, one from Jabhat al-Nusra, and a third independent judge. They also recommended creating a supra-group shura (consultative) council to facilitate consultation between the conflicting parties regarding jihad and the management of jihadi-controlled territory.
However, the Syria-based cleric Abdullah al Muhaysini launched his mubadarat al-umma (Initiative of the Umma), and gained more attention by proposing a nine-point process to reconcile the Islamic State and al-Nusra and start an arbitration process. Like previous proposals, it included the creation of an independent court with signatories to the proposal guaranteeing the implementation of its rulings, but in addition it also suggested the creation of a media center in charge of communicating matters relating to the reconciliation process. The initiative of al Muhaysini was based on the logic of benefiting the umma (maslaha al-umma) rather than benefiting the group (maslaha al-jama’a). Although the initiative received prominent backing and acceptance from all other groups, it never succeeded in gaining the approval of the Islamic State. As the conflict escalated throughout 2014, even the Pakistani group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan proposed to send a reconciliation delegation to Syria to mediate between the groups.
In the end, however, all these proposals and initiatives were rejected by the Islamic State, which generally opposed any efforts at external adjudication. According to the late Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the reason the group completely rejected the creation of an independent court, as most of the initiatives called for, was twofold. First, the jihadi movement had been divided into two camps, one that supports the Islamic State and one that does not, which makes it impossible to elect a neutral candidate to arbitrate. Second, he raised a problem related to hierarchy and authority. As a state, the Islamic State is superior to any group, and — he argued — adjudication should not take place between a state and a group. The only possibility in the view of the Islamic State was that a judicial process within the Islamic State was established to settle the conflict.
Hegemony for the Common Good
Some years later, at the end of 2017, another period of intense intra-jihadi conflict began. This time the conflict was between Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the successor organization to Jabhat al-Nusra, and a group of defectors who remained loyal to al-Qaeda and eventually became known as Hurras al Deen. The two groups differed on the question of loyalty to al-Qaeda and the legitimacy of breaking a pledge of allegiance. In a first attempt to de-escalate the situation, a group of senior jihadi scholars, including al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and Umar al Haddouchi, launched a new peace initiative. Immediately receiving strong support from both Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members and al-Qaeda loyalists, it was seen as a serious effort to establish a new structural arrangement within Idlib to facilitate both groups. But after only two days al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada were forced to withdraw from the initiative, most likely after strong pressure from the Jordanian intelligence service. While the initiative at first continued, albeit in weakened fashion, it was effectively dismantled when Hayat Tahrir al-Sham refused to endorse it officially, arguing that it was already in contact with the other side trying to find a solution. This clearly did not happen, and in November the situation further escalated when Hayat Tahrir al-Sham arrested several high-ranking al-Qaeda loyalists.
The two parties agreed on the establishment of a new committee in December 2017 under the leadership of Abu Abd al Karim al Khorasani, an Egyptian al-Qaeda shura council member, about whom little else is known. The committee managed to secure the release of the prisoners and facilitated the drafting of a 16-point agreement between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Qaeda loyalists, but the deal eventually fell through, most likely because the deal so heavily favored Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The restrictions stipulated that the al-Qaeda loyalists should hand over all their weapons to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that they were prohibited from establishing areas of control, and that they generally were not allowed to engage in any activity that could weaken the group.
In a rare success story, however, diplomacy finally worked to mitigate tensions in late 2018. At this point, al-Qaeda loyalists had formalized their presence with the creation of Hurras al-Deen, and al Khorasani had been appointed head of a new three-man committee — which also included one representative from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Deen respectively — to solve existing and future problems between the groups. In its first engagement, the committee managed to negotiate the release of a young French girl, Yasmine, from the Hurras al-Deen-affiliated French foreign fighter battalion Firqatul Ghuraba and facilitate the reunion with her mother. While the settlement managed to decrease tensions between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its rivals, it lasted only a short while.
In January 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham once again engaged in military confrontations with Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Deen al-Zinki and, in the process, refused all offers for arbitration. The following month, things got even worse when Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Deen again started to debate issues related to the rightful ownership of weapons and matters of creed and methodology. At first, Hurras al-Deen leaders suggested establishing a group of “independent” ideologues, namely al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, Nail bin Ghazi, Tariq Abdelhaleem, Hani al Sibai, and Sadiq al Hashemi, to review the case and issue a judgment. However, al Maqdisi argued that adjudication was impossible, telling the author in a WhatsApp message: “I won’t judge because al-hay’a [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] has become like the state group [the Islamic State]. They don’t accept judgement unless it satisfies them. And when it goes against them, they don’t accept it from me or from Abu Qatada. And not from others.”
When I subsequently messaged Abu Qatada, his response was more diplomatic, saying: “I won’t adjudicate until I have been accepted by both parties. Perhaps I will talk but my condition does not permit ruling.” Commenting on the Hurras al-Deen statement, senior Hayat Tahrir al-Sham official Abu Abdallah al Shami remarked that the issues already had been settled from a legal perspective and resultingly his group would not accept arbitration. In a parallel to the Islamic State’s attitude in 2014, he nonetheless suggested that arbitration by the Salvation Government, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-dominated government in Idlib, was a possibility. Hurras al-Deen’s most senior ideologue Sami al Uraydi rejected al Shami’s proposal and instead suggested a combined council of independent ideologues and members of the Salvation Government to settle the conflict. In the end, no council was ever established, but the groups nonetheless managed to forge a relationship that, despite the continued tensions, was tolerable to both parties. Hence, when a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighter in February 2019 died from wounds resulting from an episode of infighting with Hurras al-Deen fighters in the Aleppo countryside, Hurras al-Deen quickly published its condolences and established a court to determine the fate of those responsible. And just a few days later, the two groups reached an agreement concerning six issues to de-escalate the conflict, with a committee appointed to supervise the implementation of the agreement.
The last example of conflict mitigation stems from June 2020, when the latest round of conflict between the two groups erupted. Nine unaffiliated scholars quickly proposed a scholarly peace initiative calling for a ceasefire and a judicial process to rule in the conflict. While Hurras al-Deen was quick to accept the proposal, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham waited several hours before blaming its opponents for instigating the conflict. The group accepted the scholars’ mitigation initiative but argued that any settlement depended on the dismantling of checkpoints not administered by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and that their rivals be held accountable in court. From the perspective of Hurras al-Deen, however, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in fact rejected the scholarly peace initiative by making it dependent on various criteria. In a show of good faith, Hurras al-Deen and its allies eventually decided to disband their checkpoint to facilitate negotiations and allow arbitration to begin, which resulted in numerous local ceasefire agreements.
Similar to the situation in 2014, the majority of the initiatives to resolve internal conflict in the 2017 to 2020 period in Idlib largely failed because one party — in this instance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — generally opposed arbitration. The group increasingly viewed itself as the only legitimate militant opposition to the Assad regime and considered its project exclusive both on a political and military level. From its perspective, hegemony was necessary to ensure a strong opposition against the regime, but internally in the jihadi movement it also implied that the group fundamentally saw its own judicial system as the only legitimate authority to solve conflict.
What This Reveals About Jihadis
Since the outbreak of internal conflict in 2013, fratricide has led to the killing of, conservatively, more than 8,000 jihadis. Equally important, internal conflict has diverted jihadis’ strategic focus away from their primary enemies. For the isolated and marginalized actors that jihadis remain, this is indeed problematic. It is somehow paradoxical that jihadis have been so eager to dispute and confront one another over recent years. And fully aware of the controversial nature of the fratricide and its harmful effects, it is correspondingly paradoxical how unsuccessful they have been mitigating and solving such conflict.
As political actors, jihadis in some respects do not differ all too much from conventional political actors. Some jihadi groups are inclined to dominate their political opponents, while others are disposed to compromise. As the cases above show, hegemonic political ambitions reduce any interest in ceding sovereignty to an external authority such as a supra-group institution. And in the event an external authority does rule against them, they are unlikely to respect any such ruling. Additionally, the issue of hierarchy is also a factor. Both the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham view themselves as superior to rivaling jihadi groups on a formal level. Contrasting ordinary jihadi groups, the Islamic State think of itself as a state while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has generally portrayed its group as the exclusively political authority in Idlib represented through its affiliated government structure.
From the perspective of jihadis, internal conflict could easily have been avoided. The numerous arbitration and reconciliation initiatives suggest that while most jihadis do have an interest in preventing and mitigating internal conflict, their ambition to ensure a cohesive militant movement is time and again hampered by the hegemonic interests of certain groups. Nonetheless, these continued efforts at mediation, arbitration, and reconciliation are important because they indicate the desire of parts of the jihadi movement to remain united and able to cooperate. And this is what essentially prevents the movement’s absolute disintegration.
Cohesion would have benefited not only the broader jihadi movement in reaching its objectives but also the individual groups that have expended valuable resources fighting a fratricide instead of combating their real enemy. On a strategic level, this has been nothing short of a catastrophe for jihadists and a deliverance for counter-terrorism efforts. While jihadi infighting most likely will not lead to the movement’s downfall, there is no doubt that it has weakened it and nurtured a particularly dangerous precedent for the future.
Tore Hamming holds a doctorate in political and social science from the European University Institute and is a non-resident fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College. His research focuses on the Sunni jihadi movement and specifically its internal conflict since 2014. He runs Refslund Analytics, a consultancy specializing in terrorism and jihadism.