In November, Dr. Tore Hamming released Jihadi Politics. The Global Jihad Civil War 2014-2019, which builds on his PhD dissertation, and is likely the most comprehensive book on jihadism written in the last few year.
Dr. Hamming is Director of Refslund Analytics, and a non-resident fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, King’s College London. He has conducted fieldwork in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, and has written for Le Monde, Al Jazeera, and The Guardian, among others.
Traditionally, both experts and the general public know little about what goes on inside jihadist movements, as they are made of secretive and clandestine actors. The book largely fills this gap by going beyond the traditional narratives and focusing on the internal dynamics of the jihadist movement with the aim of explaining conflict among groups and individuals. In the author’s words, much is about al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but, throughout the story, other groups are involved.
Hamming’s work is an invaluable resource thanks to its double perspective that allows readers to get a better understanding of the broad drivers of conflict and the importance of theology and ideology, while at the same time meticulously describing the role and actions of many individuals who were central in either exacerbating or mitigating internal conflict.
The most important insight relates to the status of jihadists, which, throughout history, has often gone way beyond that of religious extremists. The book provides a nuanced interpretation of jihadists as political actors and helps explain the rationale driving their violence and forming their identity. As such, it goes against the narrative of viewing jihadists as exclusively religious extremists.
Why do jihadists engage in, and even prioritize, conflicts with other jihadists with whom they often share a history, grand strategy, and ideology? They largely seek the same ultimate objective but disagree about the methods to reach that objective and other minor theological issues. For example, these include the criteria for establishing an Islamic political entity and the process of declaring someone an unbeliever. Existing explanations for intra-jihadist conflict tend to argue that extremist ideology is at fault, causing jihadists to turn against one another.
Conventional Politics Rationale
Hamming’s perspective, however, is that extremism alone is insufficient to explain jihadist fratricide fights. Instead, intra-jihadist conflict is better explained through a conventional power politics rationale. Groups fight because they want to dominate and because they strive for some degree of hegemony. Certain groups view themselves as representing the one and only religiopolitical authority on either a local, regional, or global scale, whereas others view themselves as one among equals.
The Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, for example, represents a claim to be the only legitimate Islamic authority, whereas al-Qaeda generally views itself as one fighting group — albeit the preferable option — among many. These diverging perceptions inform not only how groups view themselves but also how they engage with other groups, whether through cooperation or conflict. Unsurprisingly, those seeking hegemony are prone to challenge rival jihadists that they view as competitors.
A History of Intra-Jihadist Conflict
Hamming’s work should be regarded as a history of intra-jihadi conflict seen through the jihadis’ own lenses. Primarily dealing with the conflict between al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and related jihadist groups, it covers the intra-group period leading up to the split between al-Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate (1999-2013), the split itself (2014) and the ensuing period of inter-group contestation and fighting (2014-2019).
The research question moving the author’s investigation was why do jihadists fight with each other? Indeed, this seems like a paradox based on three assumptions. First, on an ideological level, jihadists share more than what divides them. Second, given that they are usually facing a superior enemy, it would seem reasonable to think that jihadists would gain more from cooperation than from infighting. Third, they are extremely isolated political actors with few other potentially cooperative partners.
The negative consequences of fighting each other appear obvious, and this is what makes the author’s research question strikingly compelling. Ultimately, political rifts and fratricide within the jihadist movement weaken these extremist groups. The question remains whether Western policymakers and military leaders are willing to further exploit these divisions to their advantage.
As far as the structure is concerned, the book is divided into six parts comprising 13 chapters, with an Introduction, an Epilogue, and a few interesting appendixes.
- Part One, The Politics of Sunni Jihadism, presents the conceptual framework and discusses the notion of conflict within the Sunni jihadi movement.
- Part Two, Setting the Stage, introduces the historical background for the contemporary conflict.
- Part Three, Intensification of Conflict, deals with the intensification of the internal clash.
- Part Four, Movement Fragmentation, Polarization and Internationalization, discusses the next phases of the conflict, characterized by momentous change on the jihadist political level.
- Part Five, Between Purity and Pragmatism, analyzes the many ways in which the radicalization of the conflict took place. Finally, Part Six, Internalizing Fitna, looks at how intra-jihadist conflict became internalized within the respective groups in 2016-2019 as pressure from the inside to reform ultimately led to renewed fragmentation and an escalation of hostilities.
As Michael A.K.G. Innes, author of Streets Without Joy, appropriately explains, books on ISIS that have emerged over the last few years make note of the fitna, but none explore it in this much depth. Therefore, Dr. Hamming’s work can be regarded as an empirically rich account from a world-leading expert that will undoubtedly take its place as a key reference for anyone seeking to make sense of al-Qaeda and its legacies.
Based on the author’s tremendous knowledge of jihadism and the Middle East, years of digital anthropology, hundreds of primary documents, and interviews with jihadists, Jihadi Politics, The Global Jihad Civil War 2014-2019 offers an unprecedented glimpse into what likely is the most complex phase in history of jihadism, while, at the same time, providing an interesting and thought-provoking perspective on its future evolution and trajectories.