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The day after ISIS: the Middle East after the Islamic State | The future of the Jihadi movement

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In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.

By Tore Hamming, PhD-candidate at the European University Institute working on the internal dynamics within Sunni Jihadism. Tweeting on @torerhamming

Islamic State and internal jihadi discord (fitna)

Since 2013-14 Sunni Jihadi groups have flourished, not just in Syria and Iraq, but in the broader Middle East-North Africa region, in the Khorasan (a historical region which lies mostly in modern day Afghanistan, eastern Iran and parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and most recently in the Philippines. Initially this was partially because of the meteoric rise of the Islamic State. However, the success of the former al-Qaeda affiliate has not only been positive for the Jihadi movement, as its attitude towards other Jihadi groups has ignited internal discord (fitna) within the Jihadi movement (al-haraka al-jihadiyya or al-tayyar al-jihadi). This is not the first time Jihadis have experienced some form of internal disagreement or infighting. Notable other examples include Afghanistan in the 1990s, Group Islamique Armé’s (GIA) aggressiveness towards other groups in Algeria, Abu Musab Zarqawi’s (the founder of Islamic State) disagreements with the al-Qaeda leadership, and the so-called revisionism of Dr Fadl, a former Egyptian Al Jihad leader.

What differs in the contemporary fitna between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is that it takes the character of a total war, where there is no room for neutrality, as exemplified by the experience of Jund al-Aqsa, which briefly became part of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. Interestingly, Jihadis spend a considerable amount of effort promoting unity, and warn against the dangers of fitna, often recalling Ibn Taymiyya’s famous ‘fear of discord’ as illustrated in his statement that “sixty years of tyranny are better than one night of civil strife”. But since 2014 Jihadis have not held back. Jihadi groups on either side of the ideological spectrum have consistently attacked each other through labels of ‘those who postpone’ (murjia) and ‘those who secede’ (khawarij). So far this extremely competitive Jihadi environment has left the broader movement in turmoil and groups are constantly trying to position themselves favourably.

The global jihadi movement after Islamic State

Now, in 2017, predicting the future of the global Jihadi movement is perhaps more difficult than ever. Before the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring, leading Jihadi groups, such as al-Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate (now Islamic State), were weaker than ever. Furthermore, in 2012, al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) experienced a governance disaster in Shabwa and Abyan in Yemen. Fast forward to 2017, it is fair to argue that al-Qaeda is stronger than ever and the Islamic State’s rise to Jihadi stardom has showcased the potential of how influential Jihadi groups can be. Little of this was expected before it happened.

Perhaps the best place to look for insights on developments within the Jihadi movement after the fall of Islamic State is in the writings of the most eminent ideological authority in the Sunni Jihadi field, the Palestinian-Jordanian Abu Qatada al-Filastini. Abu Qatada has a long history in radical Islam, allegedly acting as al-Qaeda’s man in Europe in the 1990s, while also being a strong supporter of the infamous Algerian GIA. Although Abu Qatada has never been a member of any group, preferring instead to occupy the position of affiliated, but independent ideologue, he is certainly a figure whose words most Jihadis pay attention to. Abu Qatada has been critical of the Islamic State since its inception. In an interview with this author in Jordan in December 2016, Abu Qatada explained how the Islamic State was nothing more than a bubble. “It is like a viagra pill” he said. “It goes fast up, fast down”. At this current moment, it appears that he was right.

Transformation and fracturing

With the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate nearing its end and al-Qaeda rediscovering its place at the top of the Jihadi hierarchy, what can be expected? In March this year, Abu Qatada published a fascinating fatwa addressing this question. Titled The Expected Transformations to Occur in the Jihadi Current (al-tahawwulaat al-mutawaqa’ah an tahduthu fi al-tayyaar al-Jihadi), Abu Qatada argues that the Jihadi movement will continue to experience transformation and fracturing in the coming years. Unlike his own generation, which is more doctrinally rigid and isolationist, the new, younger Jihadi generation is characterised by more openness (infitaah).

This generational change will undoubtedly cause tensions within the Jihadi movement for years to come. A few examples from the Syrian arena already point to this. One is the failed merger and ensuing infighting between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fath al-Sham (known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham since January 2017). Another is the discursive ‘crusade’ of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, another highly-esteemed ideologue, against ‘diluters’ (mumayyiʿa) within the Jihadi movement, which resulted in a spat between himself and Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shami, a high-ranking official in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and former member of Jabhat al-Nusra’s Shari’a Committee.

It’s not all good news

The last few years have demonstrated two aspects of importance for the future of the Jihadi movement. One is that the developments described above suggest that the West needs to better understand the Jihadi movement as a continuum of actors with different takes on methodology and rigidity, but all considering themselves to be part of the Jihadi movement. To outsiders these differences may appear miniscule, but to Jihadis they are important enough to fight about. The second is that Jihadis have demonstrated a capacity to adopt a pragmatic strategy to ensure their survival and popularity. Groups like al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are prime examples of this trend, which does not bode well for opponents of Jihadi groups. Ultimately, the contemporary development of fragmentation within the Jihadi movement will not necessarily hurt it, but, as the internal competition forces groups to be more strategic about their approach, may actually strengthen the broader Jihadi current.

This blog is part of the BICOM research series The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State. You can read the other entries in the series here.