Understanding the Jihadi Landscape of Today: The Competition Between the ‘Doves’ and ‘Hawks’


The overarching motif of much of my work is how extant and fledgling technologies will succor the coming waves of 21st century terrorism. I believe this terrorist-technological symbiosis to be a paramount dynamic for assessing the trajectory and scope of contemporary violent-political movements—yet it isn’t the only one. Indeed, while this blog often waxes lyrical on this formative interplay, murderous technologies alone can only bring terrorists so far. As the US is learning with its prolific use of armed drones, technology is not a substitute for sound strategy. Given their resource constraints, the same is doubly germane in the context of terrorist organizations.

If a terrorist’s objectives started and ended with the employment of extra-normal violence, technological innovation alone—new explosive materials, self-aiming machine guns, etc.—would suffice. Of course, engaging in frivolous murder would render them sadists—not ‘terrorists’. That violence, for the latter, is a mere vehicle for the advancement of political ends is a truism invoked pro forma in nearly every thematic publication. However, the need to fine-tune or modulate the use of violence to deduce an output that is the minimum required for furthering strategic goals is often overlooked.

Preventing the ‘Violent Overdose’

As evidenced by the indiscriminate and ruthless target selection of Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), in Somalia and Iraq/Syria respectively, too much force is often counter-productive. Anyone familiar with Mao 101 knows that for insurgencies to thrive (which, in practice, is what al Qaeda’s [AQ] mishmash of affiliates constitute today), the support—tacit or active—of the environing populations is indispensable.  The ‘hosts’ represent a primary source of recruitment, logistics, and operational intelligence (because they blend in easier and often have cross-communal ties in areas of enemy control) and assuming a group gets on their ‘good side’, they’ll facilitate its counter-espionage and won’t betray ‘the cause.’ Needless to say, a heavy-handed approach–one in which ideological dissent, of any sort, invariably meets an uncompromising ‘fist’—undercuts this existential desideratum.

To be sure, soft-handed approaches have their own pitfalls. As explicated at length in Jacob Shapiro’s book ‘The Terrorist’s Dilemma’, those who join terrorist movements, their combat units specifically, are typically gung-ho with respect to ‘seeing action’ and the violence it entails. Shooting guns and firing RPGs is what they sign up for—not the provision of compassionate governance. Moreover, those ready to make the ultimate sacrifice are, understandably, ideologically chauvinistic and even puritanical. In sanctimoniously perceiving themselves as God’s corporeal surrogate force (as per the case of Salafi-Jihadists), Islamic terrorists are ‘men on a mission’ and thus prone to assuming a license to kill whoever crosses their ‘pure’ and heavenly dominion. The implication is that any terrorist leader who—wary of the brutal excesses of his legionnaires—tries to tether this zealotry, may compel the ‘hawks’ to secede and establish/join factions whose practices are operationally detrimental.

If arriving at and enforcing an adequate level of violence wasn’t hard enough, terrorist leaders must do so distally and while communicatively handicapped (i.e. the high risk of enemy eavesdropping) vis-à-vis their subordinates in the field. Nonetheless, should this directional transaction consummate, those on the receiving end—the operatives and lower-tier commanders–must decide whether to heed or disregard the promulgated rules of engagement (ROE). Lacking a formidable mechanism for sanctioning insubordination, disseminated protocols become suggestive, rather than compulsory.

The predicament above has wracked terrorist organizations throughout modern history. Unable to get their often-sprawling and eclectic networks of subordinates to be on the same tactical and strategic page, terrorist groups may kill a lot of people—but that’s as about as much as they will accomplish. Certainly, it’s more than questionable whether starry-eyed movements, such as the Global Jihadi conglomerate, could ever fulfill their utopian goals (i.e. a global caliphate) were they capable of firing on all cylinders. However, while rhetorically maximalist, much of AQ and its associated movements (AQAM) are dead sober with the realization of more obtainable ends; specifically, establishing and holding “small enclaves [emirates] across the globe in regions that are not well-policed.”

Generals vs. Clerics: AQAM’s Strategic Woes

AQAM’s track record of furthering the above strategy is a mixed bag. Moreover, its occasions of progress are often labile, with success stories relapsing into wretched implosions. Such has been the case in nearly every one of its theatres of operation.

In 2012, for instance, AQ’s North African subsidiary—AQIM—joined forces with other indigenous Islamic/non-Islamic (i.e. the Tuareg MNLA) militant groups in rebellion against the Malian central government; an offensive that culminated in the conquest of a territory the size of Texas in the country’s sparsely populated north. While a French military intervention was ultimately decisive in turning the tide of war, AQIM’s numerous and costly indiscretions—including, inter alia, the marginalization of other militant groups and village elders, the swift imposition of draconian Sharia law, and the widespread rape and forced marriages of local women—did little to help its cause. Though far from defeated today, AQIM squandered a huge opportunity to cultivate rapport with the locals, fill a palpable governmental void, and establish for itself robust and lasting regional foothold.

AQIM’s missteps in Mali can hardly be looked at in isolation. Rather, they’re a microcosm of the AQ consortium’s enduring propensity of erring on the side of ideological purity vs. strategic pragmatism. This philosophical dualism constitutes a heated, fissiparous debate that not only continues to prevent strategic synergy within the Global Jihadi Community, but also renders any of their victories short-lived.

Entrenched at one end of this discourse is the school of ‘military strategists’ whose foremost pursuit is deriving the modus operandi most conducive to political victory. Sure, they have their religious principles, but they’re willing to put them aside—if only in the short term–in favor of empirical efficacy. On the opposing end of the spectrum are the hardline Salafi puritans, for “whom doctrinal purity is of quintessential importance, even if it means fighting side-battles, alienating allies and shattering any semblance of a common front against the Zionist-Crusader enemy.”

Addicted to Doctrine: A Tour d’horizon

The above dichotomy has and continues to be a salient fixture on the Jihadi battlefield. In the 90’s it surfaced in the boondocks of Afghanistan, where one Jihadi camp fulminated against entering into any alliance with the Taliban, whose unorthodox religious rituals were perceived to be dubious at best and downright heretical at worst. It again reared its pestilent head in Algeria where, amidst a bloody civil war, the prevailing Jihadi outfit (the GIA) ultimately blanketed all non-aligned segments of the population with the ‘kuffar’ (infidel) epithet; thereby rubber-stamping the slaughter en masse of thousands of civilians. In the end, the gruesome barbarity proved to be its undoing. From a zenith of virtual domination over region south of Algiers (aka the ‘Triangle of Death’), the GIA’s unyielding doctrinism, and the myriad enemies it created, plunged the group to its death.

The lessons of Afghanistan and Algeria were duly noted among the circle of Jihadi strategists. Abu Musab-Al Suri, one of the Global Jihadi Movement’s (GJM) preeminent strategic gurus, didn’t pull any punches, excoriating the puritanical doctrinaires whose presence in the Jihadi current “created an incompatibility of strategic proportions by provoking conflicts with everyone, even though the resistance has to be popular, meaning a complete participation of all sects of the population, inclusive of all its multiple diverse groups, if it is to succeed.” Yet his invectives were soon met with menacing recriminations—one Salafi luminary and fervent GIA mouthpiece even issuing a fatwa charging al-Suri with heresy.

Following 9/11, the rank obduracy of the doctrinaire camp continued to manifest. Under the helm of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was initially booming. Leveraging both a cauldron of Sunni resentment and the vacuum of post-war law and order, AQI successfully positioned itself as a bulwark against Shiite persecution. Its numbers swelling from both internal and external influxes of recruits, AQI soon carved for itself an expansive territorial stronghold in an area (Anbar province) roughly the size of Greece (53,208 sqm).

And yet again, like clockwork, magisterial excesses brought the group to the brink of collapse. Its unforgiving campaign of attacks on Iraq’s Shiite ‘apostates’, an attempt at sowing a wider sectarian war, was bad enough for the group’s reputation. But even after an acerbic dressing-down from AQ’s nominal leadership (i.e. the 2005 Zawarihi to Zarqawi letter), AQI’s perverseness continued to thumb its nose.

With Sunni ‘quislings’ (AKA anybody that didn’t submit to AQI’s totalitarianism) now joining Shiites in the group’s crosshairs, AQI’s wrath was unalloyed. Along with a host of other iniquities, it’s irreverent domineering of local tribal structures and norms, again including forced marriages, the monetary extortion of its subjects (i.e. kidnapping ransoms), and coercive recruitment practices, embittered a Sunni constituency whose support was inseparable to AQI’s territorial foothold.

In the eyes of Zarqawi and his successors, a change of tack—the enforcement of ideological and disciplinary standards/guidelines–became unavoidable. Ultimately, any reforms proved too little too late. Hounded by a Sunni ‘Awakening’ in which 100,000 erstwhile insurgents joined with US-led coalition forces to eradicate their areal bases, AQI (which, in a cosmetic save of face, changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI]) was forced to devolve into decentralized regional command structures to survive. However, this, together with the group’s struggle to replace the deference long commanded by its subsequently assassinated lynchpin Zarqawi, only compounded the internalization of much needed top-down disciplinary revisions.

Admittedly, after an organizational nadir in which it lost much of its Western Iraqi (Anbar province) ‘emirate’ and fighting strength, the ISIS is now on the rebound; some even arguing it is now more powerful than ever. However, in addition to the recruitment bonanza afforded to it by the bloody Sunni vs. Allawite/Shiite civil war, much of this resurgence has more to do with the sectarian governance of Iraq’s executive than it does a popular embrace of the ISI ethos.

Learning the Hard Way: The Case of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

Like the Algerian Jihad before it, the Iraq case study is an edifying exhibit of how ideological rigidity compromises AQ’s strategic goals. Some AQ affiliates are indeed beginning to ‘get it’; local inhabitants don’t necessarily have to love you–but they shouldn’t be driven to hate you. Popular ambivalence is enough.

Ostensibly flouting a 2010 advisory lettered by Usama Bin Laden–in which the late AQ chief cautioned his Yemen affiliate over the prematurity of establishing an Islamic state in its respective locale–AQAP couldn’t resist an opportunity; the insurrection and attendant power vacuum of southern Yemen’s Arab Spring premiere was calling. Soon, its next go at governance, which eventuated in a yearlong occupation in the southern governorates of Ahyan and Shabwa, took to the sky.

AQAP’s template for rule, and moreover winning the hearts and minds, was speciously propitious—community engagement, basic service delivery, administration of justice, humanitarian assistance, population security, freedom of movement for commercial activities, etc. For beneath the humanitarian veneer laid its true, all too familiar colors: a virulent and unsparing religious rule that alienated locals and ultimately prompted thousands to flee its grip. It’s local support having soured—a Yemenite counter-offensive backed by armed US drones sallied forth, pushing AQAP into full-on retreat.

Some AQ affiliates may never learn or accept the lessons of ideological inflexibility. AQAP isn’t one of them. Reeling from its territorial losses, the realization that the selective enforcement of key Shariah provisions–while remediating the local population’s main problems (i.e. security, water disputes, sanitation)—was “more fruitful” than forcefully applying a strict interpretation of Islamic law was finally beginning register. True, AQAP and its ilk will never be angels—but they don’t have to be. They just have to demonstrate that they’re better than the alternative—an incompetent kleptocratic Yemen regime that shuns their legitimate grievances.

Relatively speaking, AQAP’s blueprint going forward has been more tactful; an element that’s allowed it to expand its presence “across the country.” Rather than supplant the local tribal systems—as was much the case in Iraq—the group has sought to work with and even empower them. Regular meetings are convened with community elders for local problem solving, while order—in the form of a religiously inspired “supra-tribal” system—has replaced the chaotic tribal feuds of years past. In effect, this has shielded weaker tribes “from the predatory behavior of stronger rivals” and has also “created opportunities for some ambitious locals, including those of weaker factions, to rise beyond their social position.”

Most important, AQAP has been mindful not to give the locals a reason to confront it—preferring to leave that job to Yemen’s/US military. In addition to stewarding the public’s physiological and security needs, the group has exhibited a willingness to “quietly blend in.” They now pick their battles wisely, eschewing attacks on civilians in favor of military/regime officials. And when civilians do go down—as was the case in a hospital attack on December that left 52 dead–the group has shown unprecedented (albeit conceivably feigned) contrition; it’s military leader, Qasim al-Raymi, taking full responsibility and formally apologizing following the foregoing ‘mishap.’

Taken together, by presenting itself as an innocuous—if not charitable—player on the ground and keeping its weapons trained at military targets (which often goads a response that incurs heavy collateral damage), AQ affiliates buoy their territorial staying power while allowing deeds to burnish its ideological credibility among the natives.

Despite its measure of success in Yemen—and to be discussed, in Syria—the formula above has not been adopted ecumenically. This is not for a lack of advocacy; prominent AQ figureheads, from Ayman al-Zawahiri and his new deputy Nasir al-Wahaysi to AQIM’s Abdelmalek Droukdel, have all championed the “gentler, kinder” approach quite emphatically. For example, it was the Wahaysi who warned his AQIM counterparts against “beating people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray.” While Zawahiri, for his part, recently called on Egyptian militants to halt their persecution of Christians, and concentrate their efforts on deposing the country’s American ‘puppet’ regime. Nevertheless, some affiliates don’t want to or—owing to structural limitations (i.e. poor communication)–can’t listen.

‘Straight F’ Students: The Case of al-Shabaab

An illustrative case concerns AQ’s loosely affiliated Somali franchise, al-Shabaab. By mid-2008, things were looking bright for the group. It controlled not only much of south-central Somalia, but also most of the country’s capital, Mogadishu. But after riding high for years and transforming itself from irrelevance to “one of those most successful and high visibility Jihadi movements in the world,” al-Shabaan took a turn for the worse. Its steamrolling of repressive Islamic rule, and the callous indifference it displayed towards those under its thrall—notably the blocking of humanitarian aid during abject famine and the suicide bombings of medical students and doctors lining up for scholarships—not only envenomed the native populace, but also disenchanted the more pragmatic factions within the group itself. With the latter’s opprobrium (including one foreign operative who, in a written letter, tattled to Zawahiri on the group’s sordid conduct) came a plethora of defections. The group’s authoritarian leader, Ahmed Godane, not one to brook dissent, responded unforgivingly; embarking on a systematic and violent purge of the contrarians and whistleblowers within his ranks.

An estimated 5,000 strong at its peak, the internecine fighting that ensued has sapped al-Shabaab of manpower, resources, and perhaps of greatest consequence, legitimacy. Faced with a dogged and better-equipped African Union/Somali National Army force out to extirpate it once and for all, al-Shabaab’s flimsy support base has made its ability to hold contested territory rather “limited.” Sure, the territory still under its control is vast—but it’s mired in a terminal contraction. Consequently, as one analyst has put it:  “It [al-Shabaab] now stands little chance of establishing an Islamic state in Somalia, a goal that was not so improbable in 2008.”

As underscored by the deadly Westgate mall attack in September, the group remains a viable threat and is by no means headed for a reptilian extinction. However, if the group’s strategic end is the establishment of an Islamic state, ‘tactical successes’ (aka acts of terrorism) will not take it very far.

Jabhat al Nusra: AQ’s Shining Light

By contrast, if AQ’s nominal leadership were giving out ‘affiliate of the year awards’, the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) front would be the uncontested front-runner. Many of its members are former AQI fighters who learned the hard way how to/how not to behave when governing over a territory. As such, al-Nusra’s arcane commander, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, set out to “assiduously avoid the mistakes” of his previous Iraqi employers. And thus far, it appears the organization he commands has done just that.

Much like the aforementioned al-Suri—the Jihadi pundit who wrote prolifically on the failures of the of the Jihadi campaigns in Syria, Algeria and Afghanistan—JN’s strategists are well-versed in the fundaments of insurgency doctrine, particularly the Maoist school of guerilla/asymmetric warfare and its emphasis on winning ‘hearts and minds’:

“Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation.” (Mao Ze Dung, On Guerilla Warfare, 1937)

Hewing the adage above, JN worked to ingratiate itself with host populations from the get go, constructing a social wing (i.e. ‘Qism al-Igatha’ or ‘The Relief Department) that distributes food, gas and blankets to the needy, as well as regulates grocery stores to prevent the overcharging of goods. In parallel, the group has revived local education systems where co-ed classes run at near full capacity. It’s also orchestrated a number of public outreach initiatives, from ice-cream giveaways and Koran recitation contests to snow-clearing projects as a means of highlighting the group’s gentler side. But most importantly, the group is mild in the enforcement of Islamic law. Women, for instance, are permitted to walk around unveiled, “mingle with men, and listen to music in public.” And best of all, buying booze is not a problem, “as long as one does not drink it in public.”

Like AQAP, JN predominantly sticks to attacks on military targets while making a conscious effort to minimize civilian casualties–in some cases, even canceling suicide bombings or operations when innocent bystanders enter the line of fire (incidentally, the closely allied Ahrar ash-Sham group, AQ’s unsung ‘other cousin’, echoes this restraint and has punished those who derogate from its ROE). Furthermore, unlike its ISIS relative, JN keeps its global jihadi orientations/rhetoric on the down-low, and airs a more nationalistic overtone that eschews polarizing, exclusionary labels (i.e. kaffir).

Together with its reputation for battlefield tenacity, JN’s endearment efforts have made it one of the most venerated groups within the anti-Assad demographic. In fact, when the group was designated by the US as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ for its AQ ties in 2012, thousands of Syrians trumpeted their support in a petition entitled ‘We Are All JN” and took to the streets to protest the move.

Perhaps what distinguishes JN above all is what it doesn’t do, which (ala the ISIS) is frittering away resources to antagonize important allies. Indeed, in a speech posted on a Jihadist website in response to the US ‘FoT’ designation, JN chief Golani implored his fighters not to limit their allegiance “to members of the group alone,” arguing that: “We are not a political party. We are a group concerned with the affairs of Muslims in general, and in restoring the rights of the oppressed. Therefore, it is essential that we maintain good relations with other groups and treat them well, regardless of their mistakes.”

So much is JN keen on avoiding the devastating fratricidal conflicts of Jihads past that when ordered by its former boss, ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to liquidate members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership—it flat out refused. Considering that the ISIS reportedly channeled half of its financial holdings to help Golani setup shop, the rebuff was all the more brazen. Naturally, JN’s overt pragmatism set it on a collision course with the ideologically unbending ISIS, one that—at least in certain areas—has descended into all out confrontation.

Conclusion: Forecasting a Likely Winner

Despite the Syrian (*cough* Iranian) Army’s recent inroads, its prospects for recouping a quantitative majority of real-state are slim to none.  Instead, a cantonalization of sovereignty appears is more likely; the Assad regime ruling over the country’s strategically/economically important zones, and the mélange of opposition groups installing de-facto mini-states in the hinterlands. For the Jihadists longing for an emirate in all of Syria, such an outcome is far from ideal—though certainly not the end of the world. JN and its Salafi kin would have a real opportunity to consolidate their territorial presence, polish their administrative bona fides, rear (albeit slowly) a generation of piously like-minded youth, and ultimately establish a bastion of Islamism in the heart of the Arab world.

The performance of the Jihadist groups in Syria has important implications for the wider ideological purity vs. pragmatism schism covered in this discussion. As it stands, the former camp (the ISIS) controls non-negligible swathes of territory. Yet it does so through sheer brutality that, as reflected in the case studies above, is empirically untenable in the long run. On the other hand, the pragmatic camp (JN+AQ-linked Islamic Front groups) may not be enamored by all but, at least for now, its governance seemingly elicits popular ambivalence—if not tepid approval.

Should the latter outperform the former in maintaining a smooth and relatively serene grip on power, it will go down as a major victory for the credibility of its strategic, ‘long haul’ oriented platform. This, in turn, may propel other current or future Jihadi movements to imbibe the recipe of success and work to command ideological pliability within their ranks. In fact, as evidenced by the ‘social outreach’ campaigns being waged by AQ-linked Ansar al Shariah movements in both Tunisia and Libya, the ‘baby steps’ credo has already begun to proliferate.

Of course, the patience of the more hawkish contingents within such groups will be tested.  And moreover, the communication barriers cited previously will make enforcing moderation easier said than done.  But as covered in article #2, these barriers are slowly, but steadily receding.

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