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Civil War Among the Jihadis

Of the 1.8 billion Muslims on the planet, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates the number of Jihadis between 100,000 and 230,000 across 70 countries. Approximately one Muslim out of 10,000 has taken the step to become a “holy warrior.” The term “jihadi” was initially used in the Arab media and was coined by a devout Saudi cleric who was hostile to those who had exceeded Islamic boundaries of jihad. Westerners see these holy warriors as terrorists, but in their perception, they are fighting for Allah’s truth, as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad.

Essentially, the world of jihadism has become split between two organizations: al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State (I.S.). Al-Qa’ida, if you remember, is the terrorist organization that hijacked four commercial aircraft on 9/11 and destroyed the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. One plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania as passengers tried to overtake the terrorists. On the other hand, after the U.S. incursion into Iraq, the Islamic State overran much of Syria and Iraq and created its caliphate. Iraqi and U.S. forces repudiated their success by repulsing their gains in Iraq, and Syrian and Russian troops retook their Syrian territories.

There is a civil war raging between the two organizations. Despite the shared ideological commitments of al-Qa’ida and I.S., there is mutual hatred between the two. They still detest the West, but they despise each other more. The battlefield is mostly West Africa, Yemen, and Afghanistan. A 2020 article by Mohammed Hafez published in the CTC Sentinel identifies the five main differences between them. These five differences indicate what each organization believes is the strategy that it will take to impose a worldwide Islamic doctrine.

First, al-Qa’ida does not believe in collective takfir while the Islamic State does. Takfir is the art of Muslims declaring other Muslims to be infidels. It's a form of excommunication, similar to what the Catholic Church does to its errant priests and parishioners. Collective takfir allows whole villages or communities to be declared infidels, which allows mass civilian atrocities.

Second, al-Qa’ida believes in joint governance with communities, allowing some toleration and divergence from sharia law depending on local customs. The I.S. believes in strict sharia law with no deviation.

Third, al-Qa’ida cooperates with a diverse range of political and military alliances. The Islamic State rejects alliances with ideologically distant factions. For example, al-Qa'ida works with the Taliban in Afghanistan. While there is an Islamic State franchise in Afghanistan, they do not align with the Taliban.

Fourth, al-Qa’ida, a Sunni based organization, works with other Muslim factions such as Shi’ites and Alawites. The Islamic State only embraces Sunni sectarianism.

Fifth, al-Qa’ida is willing to work with selective Muslim organizations to achieve its goals. The Islamic State will only work with Muslim organizations whose goals match theirs; the strict practice of Islam as taught by the Prophet.

In summation, al-Qa’ida uses opportunistic populism to establish a presence and achieve their goals of Muslim ideology. The Islamic State has embraced puritanical extremism. While puritanical extremism sounds strict, there are many Islamic groups this appeals to.

The two organizations offer upstart jihadi groups access to technology, funding, organization, ideology, and support. Up until the present period, jihadists had never coalesced into a united front, but they certainly have that window of opportunity should they choose to do so. Initially, I would have thought that al-Qa’ida had the most flexible strategy for franchising jihadi groups worldwide. They are willing to bend the rules and tolerate a discussion about religious dogma. However, the Islamic State seems to be doing well in jihadi recruitment. Their puritanical belief suggests to me that strict sharia appeals to a particular group of Muslim adherents. It will be interesting to follow this trend and see how and when this civil war concludes.

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