Dr. Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the US Military Academy at West Point as well as Senior Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. Along with other colleagues, Lahoud is the author of a detailed study of jihadi discourse and the Arab Spring.
Here, she talks with Kristen Gillespie about jihadi infighting, the Islamic State and its prospects and why “Syria [has] proved that jihad is not the solution.”
Q: In the CTC’s report about jihad and the Arab Spring, which you co-authored, you write about the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra that “the divide between the two groups even risks undermining the symbolic position that [Ayman] al-Zawahiri occupies as the global leader of jihad.”
Does the global leadership matter as much now that regional groups in Iraq and Syria have found their footing and, in the case of IS, are operating unilaterally? Does jihadi infighting matter when there is such a wide berth for them to existin Iraq and Syria these days?
It is important not to overestimate what we mean by global jihadi leadership.
Under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, disputes among jihadis have come out into the open in ways that they were not before, but this is not to suggest that there were no problems before.
While Ayman al-Zawahiri is indeed sidelined, the de-classified Abbottabad documents make it clear that Bin Laden too was sidelined in the sense that regional jihadi groups were not playing by the rules that he would have liked them to play by. He didn’t approve of their media communications, he did not approve of their actions – he felt they were a liability to jihad.
Having said that, the leadership of Al-Qaeda has never been explicitly and publicly disputed in the same way that it is at the moment, and it has gone on the offensive, at least rhetorically.
For the first time, Al-Qaeda disowned a jihadi group by name. It did so in February when it disowned the ISIL, the group that has changed its name yet again to the Islamic State. In May, the spokesperson for ISIL, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, responded dismissing al-Zawahiri’s claim to leadership, and asserted that “we were never a branch of Al-Qaeda.”
By that he meant that when Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia under the leadership of al-Zarqawi, then Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it ceased to be under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda. In other words, al-‘Adnani is explaining that ISI, then ISIL, was never part of Al-Qaeda.
He went on to warn al-Zawahiri that if he ever set foot in “our territory, you will have no option but to pledge allegiance to our leader and serve as a soldier in his army.”
We’ve never seen those kinds of challenges before with respect to Al-Qaeda. These public disputes were brought to the fore due to the conflict in Syria.
I think militancy in Syria has stalled the Arab Spring. It introduced the element of jihad in ways that initially gave credibility to jihadism in Syria, particularly because Jabhat a-Nusra was the first jihadi group to emerge in Syria and it conducted itself in a way that made it popular.
In the initial stage, Jabhat al-Nusra targeted regime forces and avoided civilians, and it refrained from engaging in sectarian discourse. Whereas in different countries that underwent regime change as a result of the Arab Spring, peaceful protestors were the engine that brought down dictators as jihadis were relegated to the role of spectators, the conflict in Syria gave jihadism a momentum. At the same time, the same conflict has divided jihadism in an unprecedented fashion.
Despite the gains we are currently witnessing, particularly in Iraq, jihadism has never been as publicly fractured as it is at the moment.
Q: Has the prolonged conflict in Syria served the jihadist movements there since they have largely only been checked by each other?
Let’s put the current success we’re seeing from ISIL/IS in perspective: up until recently, ISIL/IS had been largely spared by the Syrian regime.
This was most likely due to the fact that the ISIL/IS had been focusing on fighting Jabhat a-Nusra and other Islamic militant groups in Syria that were targeting the Syrian regime; accordingly, the ISIL was indirectly serving the interests of the regime. However, in view of the recent advances that the ISIL/IS made, the Syrian regime has been targeting and bombing areas controlled by the ISIL/IS.
ISIL/IS is now under more pressure from government forces than it was before.
Q: I think your report nailed it when you wrote of one of Al-Qaeda’s leaders, Yahya al-Libi, “exhibiting resentful statements towards the very people whose audience he was seeking,” referring to his statements exhorting Muslims to join them yet also chastising them.
How do jihadis imagine they will garner support when they persecute moderates and characterize Muslims who oppose them as apostates?
If you’re asking for my opinion, no, I can’t imagine them winning public opinion in the Muslim world. This is a new era for jihadism – this is new because for the past several decades, jihadism was operating in a Muslim world that was dominated by dictators.
The grievances that jihadis articulated resonated even with people who did not agree with them. But when some dictators fell (in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), it became clear for jihadis that the majority of the people opted to form political parties to contest elections, all of which are deemed by jihadis to amount to processes that violate God’s Law.
The conflict in Syria, however, has been a double-edged sword: one the one hand, for the peacefully minded, it proved that not all dictators are ousted equally; on the other hand, while the jihadis were able to introduce jihad into the equation of the Arab Spring, judging by their current divisions, Syria also proved that jihad is not the solution.
If the jihadis were able to bring down Bashar al-Assad, they would have been able to show evidence for their claim that “jihad is the only solution”; instead, they have been using jihadi against each other.
Q: It seems that “brand jihadi” is gaining new life as the Islamic State markets T-shirts and other products with their black flag and slogans. Last week Facebook banned the sale of their merch on its site.
We also see videos and songs praising IS battles and victories, and at Syria Direct we follow the Twitter accounts of several foreign fighters who have left Britain or other Western countries to join IS in Syria and say they hope for martyrdom. Is there a new impetus to IS?
This is not new – I should note that jihadis don’t use music – they use anashid, which is a cappella singing without any musical instruments. This has been part of the jihadi “establishment” for a very long time. They’ve captured the attention of the youth and beyond with anashid that promote jihad.
They’ve also been producing videos for a very long time – taping their operations and other materials that could be used for propaganda purposes; they have used the Internet to promote their worldview and broadcast their news through jihadi websites; they’ve established media arms that produce and distribute their materials and in recent times they turned to Twitter to promote their news and worldviews.
The films that were recently produced by the ISIL are filled with brutal scenes and are horrifying. I can’t imagine these films being used to win public opinion, but more to terrify people, which is different.
Q: The arrival of more foreign fighters to Syria is indeed happening?
We are witnessing many foreign fighters from different parts of the world joining the ISIL/IS.
In the short term, they are very dangerous and they are unpredictable and their violence is indeed something to worry about. In the long term, I can’t envisage that the IS is going to win public support.
Q: From the outside, it appears that jihadi groups pursue two narratives: the first, that they enjoy enormous support and are able to defeat their enemies on the way to imminently rebuilding the Caliphate, and the other, an image painted with brutal, bloody videos of executions filmed and posted online.
How can they win public support when the latter videos show their tactics so clearly? How do you reconcile such differing narratives?
I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but again, they’re unable to succeed on all fronts. In the Caucuses, they are concerned about their own jihadis infighting and bringing it back to the Caucuses. It depends on the kind of picture you want to emphasize.
You can highlight what is good for the jihadis, and they are highly active at the moment, but are they really gaining ground for the long term? Are they consolidating? Are they really building a serious foundation for the Islamic caliphate? We can talk about all the cities that have fallen in the hands of the jihadis but I can’t see them consolidating the territory or retaining that territory in the long term.
Q: Our information from interviews with Iraqi Sunnis seeking to overthrow Maliki indicates that the Anbar tribes appear to think they can gain an edge by allowing IS to overrun the country, at least until Maliki steps down. “We will deal with IS later,” one tribal leader told us recently. What do you think about that?
It wouldn’t surprise me – this happened in the past when Zarqawi was in Iraq and initially many Sunnis joined him. But when they saw that he was more interested in sectarianism and going after the Shiites then after the Sunnis who disagreed with him, they separated from him and infighting ensued amongst Sunni militant groups.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the collective grievances of Sunnis toward the Maliki government are making some Sunnis side with the ISIL/IS for convenience and short-term purposes.
Q: Are jihadi groups a product of the tyrannical rule in the societies that produce them?
I wouldn’t say that this is what the societies make them to be. At the end of the day, the jihadis are a tiny minority and if you look at the societies where they come from, most Muslims are horrified by jihadis and are more concerned by the threat that jihadism poses to Muslim societies than people in the West.
I don’t believe that it is the broader culture that turns Muslims into jihadis. I don’t want to give one reason for the birth of jihadism – there are many reasons. Scholars of terrorism will tell you there is no point in profiling terrorists and for the same reason there is no point in profiling jihadis.
There is undoubtedly the political problem the Muslim world has been suffering from for decades, the problem of oppression, lack of accountability on the part of various regimes etc… and I think this has given rise to different political phenomena, one of which is jihadism.