Fratricidal Jihadists: Why Islamists Keep Losing their Civil Wars

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The rapid and complete collapse of the Islamic State is the latest reminder that fratricidal jihadis are destined to lose. Over the last three decades, jihadis have consecutively lost their civil wars in Algeria, Iraq and Syria because of three
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  86 M IDDLE  E AST  P OLICY , V OL . XXV, N O . 2, S UMMER   2018 © 2018, The Author  Middle East Policy  © 2018, Middle East Policy Council F RATRICIDAL  J IHADISTS : W HY  I SLAMISTS  K  EEP  L OSING   THEIR   C IVIL  W ARS  Mohammed M. Hafez   Dr. Hafez is an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval  Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. * W hy do Islamists kill each other? In the last three decades, Islamist rebels enmeshed in civil wars have descended into internecine conicts that divided their ranks, alienated their sup- porters, and cost them their bid for power. From the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, to al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the Islamic State, each of these movements had perfect op- portunities to topple their regimes. Yet, in the midst of civil wars, they turned their guns on fellow rebels, choosing to pursue hegemonic leadership over coalition unity. In fact, they assisted incumbent elites in crisis by handing them the perfect oppor-tunity to divide and conquer their move-ments. What explains this self-defeating  behavior?Fratricidal jihadists share three unique characteristics — or aws — that make them prone to internecine wars. First, they frame their civil conicts along Manichean lines, reducing the complexity of adver-sarial relations into categories of us versus them, good versus evil, Islam versus impiety. By doing so, they amalgamate their disparate enemies into a single united camp.Second, fratricidal jihadists pursue transformative goals that are too ambitious for rebels with limited imaginations. Their doctrinaire ideology sacrices all political realism, making them suspicious of kin-dred groups that might sell them out in the name of pragmatism. They prefer to wipe out their rivals than compete with them through political strategies. Third, fratricidal jihadists usually begin as extreme factions that indiscriminately target civilians in their wars against a re- gime. Their ideological justications gener  -ate a permissive moral code that allows for the killing of their own brothers in arms. Those who willfully justify the wanton kill- ing of innocents will not nd it difcult to turn their guns on fellow rebels who violate their notions of ideological purity. Underpinning these recurrent strategic errors is a puritanical ideology impervious to accommodation with alternative world-views. Jihadists often operate alongside *  The author wishes to thank Paul Cruickshank, Michael Gabbay, Emily Gade, Glenn Robinson, Zachary Shore, and Craig Whiteside for their constructive feedback and invaluable insights. They have informed this  piece tremendously.  87 H AFEZ : F RATRICIDAL  J IHADISTS militant factions that share some of their objectives but do not embrace their politi-cal ideals. They cannot even bring them-selves to compromise with groups that share their political ideals but diverge with them on tactical pragmatism. Their puri-tanical ideology is also a major obstacle to strategic learning and adaption. They appear to be incapable of internalizing lessons from past failures, as evident from their proclivity to repeat mistakes even after being cautioned by veterans of earlier conicts. These inherent weaknesses of  -fer the international community strategic lessons for ghting future iterations of the Islamic State. THE PUZZLE In the last three decades, Islamist rebels have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on three major fronts. Dur-ing the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) saw the Algerian government mired in a legitimacy crisis after a military coup ended a popular electoral process. Rather than capitalize on the regime’s internal vulnerabilities and international isolation, the GIA embarked on a fratricidal war with rival Islamists and alienated its supporters through mass atrocities. It lost the war and took down the entire Islamist project with it. In the 2000s, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other Sunni insurgents had the Ameri-can-led coalition in a bind as the latter des- perately sought a way out of a quagmire. Yet, like the GIA, AQI turned its guns on fellow rebels and sought to monopolize  power at the expense of unity. Afterward, it was routed by the Sunni communities that once hosted its ghters. The Islamic State is the latest jihadist group to fall victim to its own predation. It failed to learn the lessons of earlier jihads as it rebuilt its ranks in Iraq following the  precipitous decline of its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq. Rather than seeking to forge unity with Syria’s Islamist fac-tions, it went its own way, by declaring a caliphate and waging war on fellow rebels. Today, it has lost the territory it once held in Iraq and is all but nished in Syria. 1 These three movements were well  positioned to make gains against their regimes. At a minimum, they could have avoided the precipitous downfall they suffered at the hands of their adversaries, had they not turned their guns on fel-low rebels. Yet, in the midst of their civil wars, they prioritized ghting with rivals above winning conicts. In the process, they alienated their supporters, fragmented their movements and drove away external sponsors. More puzzlingly, they did not heed the warnings of veteran jihadists who communicated their concerns directly and clearly. Take, for example, how al-Qaeda lead-ers sought to warn Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, using the case of Algeria as a cautionary tale. Atiyah Abdul Rahman, senior Libyan operational planner within al-Qaeda’s top leadership (killed in Paki-stan by a U.S. drone attack in 2011), sent a letter to al-Zarqawi before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006: Ask me whatever you like about Algeria between 1994 and 1995, when [the Islamist movement] was at the height of its power and capabilities, and was on the verge of taking over the government. … I lived through it myself, and I saw rsthand; no one told me about it. … [GIA militants] destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delu-sions, and neglect and alienation of  people through oppression, deviance,  88 M IDDLE  E AST  P OLICY , V OL . XXV, N O . 2, S UMMER   2018 and harsh conduct. … Their enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves. 2 A few years later, Osama bin Laden, concerned with growing inghting be -tween AQI and Sunni insurgents, sent an audiotaped “Message to Our People in Iraq,” in which he urged all the insurgents and tribes to reconcile their differences and acknowledge that “errors” had been made. 3  He advised his followers to avoid “fanatical loyalty to men” and reminded them that what unites Muslims is their adherence to Islam, not their “belonging to a tribe, homeland, or organization.” Yet, the future leaders of the Islamic State, the successors of AQI, practiced exactly what he cautioned against. 4  One of the most notable early critics of puritanical groups (i.e., jihadi Salasts) was Abu Musab al-Suri, who criticized them for their lack of strategic thought or revolutionary theory. He railed against the “inexible dogmatism and narrow-minded - ness” of Salasts. 5  One may fault his erce independence and lack of deep roots in traditional Salasm for contributing to his failure to inuence jihadists, but the same cannot be said of other radical authorities who issued clarion warnings similar to al-Suri’s. For example, Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi, perhaps the leading jihadi Salast authority, also sought to warn al-Zarqawi, his former disciple. 6  Similarly, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), articulated in writing the strategic errors that should be avoided by the jihadists who captured vast territory in northeast Mali in 2012. Based on his Algerian experience, he warned against the premature establishment of an Islamic state, extreme application of sharia law and ghting with other factions. 7   ROLE OF IDEOLOGY Extreme violence in rebel movements can be driven by strategic considerations such as competition for territory, resources or leadership within the rebel hierarchy. 8  But not all rebel groups are equally prone to pursue their strategic aims by killing their rivals. Some compete for power by forging balancing alliances, 9  outbidding others 10  or spoiling the efforts of rivals to strike a deal with the regime. 11  Only the most ideologically extreme factions — the ones that advance Manichean worldviews, transformative goals and indiscriminate violence — are willing to initiate rebel fratricide.Several cognitive and organizational mechanisms can help explain why ideo-logical extremists cannot compromise with rival groups. Puritanical individuals are more attuned to ideological differ-ences than political centrists and are prone to “belief superiority,” associated with a tendency toward “non-corruptibility.” 12  People with extreme beliefs also exhibit a greater need for certainty than centrists, and a high level of uncertainty is associ-ated with a high sense of threat. 13  Addi-tionally, persons with conservative world-views, which would include Islamists, tend to be more dogmatic than those with more liberal views. 14  Furthermore, ideologically extreme groups are likely to associate with other extremists, leading to an ideological encapsulation that shuts out the counter-vailing voices necessary to learning and adapting. 15  Lastly, extremist leaders with utopian projects can more easily rational-ize violence against those who appear to stand in the way of their revolutionary objectives. 16 The three cases of fratricidal Islamists in Algeria, Iraq and Syria highlight how ideological extremism contributes to  89 H AFEZ : F RATRICIDAL  J IHADISTS movement fragmentation, internecine ghting and, ultimately, defeat. In each case, polarizing narratives, transformative goals and indiscriminate violence directly contributed to strife with other Islamist groups and, ultimately, to fratricidal  bloodletting. THE ALGERIAN GIA During the 1990s, in the midst of a civil war against the Algerian military gov-ernment, the GIA and the Islamic Salva-tion Army   (AIS) ercely clashed with each other, undermining the unity of their rebel movement and rescuing the vulnerable regime from its crisis. The AIS ultimately defected to the state, while the GIA splin-tered and ceased to exist. In 1989, Algeria had embarked on the path of political liberalization in the aftermath of mass anti-state riots. A new constitution ofcially ended the one-party system, opening the door for liberal and Islamist opposition groups to directly challenge the longstanding monopoly of the ruling National Liberation Front   (FLN). Islamists took advantage of this opportunity by forming their own party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which managed to win 188 out of 430 National Assembly seats in the rst round of voting in December 1991. The FIS was poised to win an overwhelming majority of seats in the second round, set for January 1992, but Algeria’s generals intervened to halt the electoral process. Thousands of FIS cadres were rounded up and detained, triggering a violent rebellion.Several Islamist rebel groups emerged to topple the military regime, the two  biggest being the GIA and AIS. The emergence of the GIA in 1992 marked the ascendancy of hardline revolutionaries who rejected the electoral path and insisted on total war to establish an Islamic state. Confronted with the possibility of losing leadership, the FIS put forward the AIS as an alternative to the GIA in July 1994. 17  The AIS wanted to restore the pre-war equilibrium in which radicals were sub-ordinate to the leadership of the Islamist movement. It also rejected GIA’s indis-criminate violence and sought to compel the military regime to negotiate a political settlement that would free FIS leaders, reverse the ban on their organization and return to the pre-coup status quo. 18 The GIA and AIS advanced diametri- cally opposed conict narratives, strategic objectives and targeting policies. These divergences were rooted in an ideological divide as to the role of democracy in Islam, the permissibility of Islamists joining secu-lar political systems and the centrality of violence in building an Islamic state. From the start of the civil war, the GIA  portrayed the Algerian state as a tyrannical apostate regime and its supporters and em- ployees as equally culpable. It denied the  possibility of neutrality in the conict and treated security forces and public workers all as part of the apostate order. 19  The GIA framed the conict as a total war to trans -form Algeria’s polity, not to reintegrate Islamists into the electoral process; de -mocracy was viewed as heresy, and jihad as the only way to remove secular rulers. 20  It rejected negotiations or reconciliation with moderate regime elements and instead raised the mantra of “no dialogue, no ceasere, no reconciliation, and no security or guarantees with the apostate regime.” 21 In contrast, the AIS insisted that the struggle was between a hawkish faction within the regime that opposed a just  political settlement on the one hand, and Islamists who were deprived of the fruits of their electoral victories on the other. The  90 M IDDLE  E AST  P OLICY , V OL . XXV, N O . 2, S UMMER   2018 AIS did not view the war in terms of apos-tasy and rarely averred that all who worked with the Algerian state were enemies of the movement. It sought to reintegrate Islamists into the political process and did not insist on the complete transformation of the Algerian state into a theocracy. 22  The GIA waged a comprehensive cam- paign to induce regime collapse, initially clashing with security forces and assas-sinating policemen and military person-nel. In 1993, it expanded its targeting to include government ofcials. Represen -tatives of opposition groups, foreigners,  journalists and intellectuals were next. Beginning in 1995, the GIA’s victims were mainly civilians, killed randomly through bombings or deliberately through indiscriminate attacks in villages and at fake checkpoints. It also attacked France for its support of the Algerian regime. 23  In contrast to this expansive violence, the AIS limited its attacks to security forces and government ofcials. It opposed and denounced attacks on intellectuals, for-eigners and anyone not directly involved in the persecution of Islamists. Such violence discredited the image of the movement and  played into the hands of the “eradication-ists” within the regime. 24 The GIA struck back, denouncing its critics and demanding they cease their con-demnation of the jihad. Open war between the GIA and AIS began on May 4, 1995, when the former issued a communiqué declaring that AIS leaders had one month to contact the GIA to repent and join its ranks. 25  Shortly afterward, the GIA issued an explicit threat against eight FIS lead-ers, demanding they cease speaking in the name of the Islamist movement. 26  On June 13, 1995, the GIA issued communiqué No. 36, which permitted “the shedding of the  blood of those ‘blood merchants’ inside and outside (Algeria) unless they repent.” 27  The GIA began acting on its threats. There were repeated reports in 1995 of clashes between the GIA and AIS, result-ing in the deaths of approximately 60 mili-tants. 28  When GIA leaders feared that some of the latecomers to their faction were not committed to their Sala worldview and total-war objectives, they began to purge them from the organization. In November 1995, the GIA executed Muhammad Said (a prominent FIS leader and well-known  preacher, who had joined the GIA in May 1994). 29  These executions were not iso-lated leadership purges. After a series of warnings and threats, the GIA explicitly declared war on the AIS on January 4, 1996. 30  Later that month, sources close to the FIS Executive Body Abroad accused the GIA of slaying 140 FIS activists, in-cluding 40 commanders. 31  By 1996, GIA’s widespread violence against civilians turned public support against the Islamist movement. 32  The government took advantage of shifting at-titudes by arming pro-government mili- tias (ofcially known as the Groupes de Légitime Défense, commonly referred to as “Patriots”). 33  GIA’s fratricide — against former supporters, rival rebels and civilian militias — reached stupefying levels in a series of massacres that began at the end of 1996. At least 76 took place between No-vember 1996 and July 2001, most of which (42) occurred in 1997. The killings were concentrated in villages around Algiers, Blida and Medea (south of Algiers), Ain Dea (southwest of Algiers) and Relizane (west of Algiers). All were within the GIA’s areas of operation. 34  Ali Benhadjar, the commander of a splinter group calling itself the Islamic League for Preaching and Combat, sum-marized the fault lines dividing the GIA
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