When groups are described as monoliths it is typically the result of lacking information on the true internal dynamics within the group. The same goes for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and likeminded Jihadi groups. The general impression of the Islamic State is that of an ideologically stringent, organizationally coherent and hierarchically centralized group. As information slowly drops from the inside a less rosy picture is emerging though.
On an ideological level the Islamic State and its predecessors were always in conflict with al-Qaeda on certain issues mainly related to how they viewed their operational context (waqi’) and the necessary strategy to reach their objectives. It is well known how the Iraqi group identified the Shia as the main threat, prioritized territorial consolidation (tamkin) and perceived itself to be superior vis-à-vis rivalling Jihadi groups. Al-Qaeda in contrast adopted a population-centric approach. The group leadership attempted to institutionalize a pragmatic attitude to manage relations with local populations while seeking cooperation with other Jihadis. The state or the caliphate could wait.
That was the situation in 2014 when the two groups split and started to fight one another. Over the following five years, the Islamic State would largely continue on the same ideological path except changes in its enemy definition and its geographical scope: from mid-2014 the group began its campaign of terror in the West and some months later initiated an expansion process outside the Levant.
But, looking more closely it becomes clear that from the very beginning in 2014 the Islamic State faced internal challenges from elements within the rapidly growing group who differed on key issues of theology and leadership. The primary fault line concerned the conditions and scope of “excommunication” (takfir) which caused a division between the so-called binaliyya (or moderates) and hazimiyya (or extremists) named after the late Islamic State ideologue Turki al-Binali and the Saudi theologian Ahmad al-Hazimi, respectively. Boiled down, the rather complex issue raging between the two factions centered on two theological concepts:
- Udhur bi-l-jahl (ignorance as an excuse); if somebody committing shirk (polytheism) or in critical ways breaks Islamic law due to ignorance should be considered a murtadd (apostate).
- Takfir al-adhir (takfir of the excuser); if one should excommunicate a person who refrains from or rejects excommunicating someone who commits shirk out of ignorance (those who accept udhur bi-l-jahl).
Obviously, differences in opinion on these matters were important for how the Islamic State would approach not just local populations but also other militant groups. Already in 2014 radical elements within the group began to cause problems internally because they did not accept ignorance as an excuse and even promoted endless excommunication of those who differed. Taken to its extreme that would imply excommunicating their own leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in case he did not concur with them. Early on, this internal factionalization remained a minor issue because the extreme position only gained support among fringe elements of the group. But, in 2016-18 the problem resurfaced with detrimental impact on internal cohesion taking the form of an open war involving discursive attacks, arrests and assassinations between leading figures from the opposing factions for control over powerful institutions and the support of al-Baghdadi.
Further aggravating the situation, in March 2019 the Islamic State would finally lose its last enclave of territorial control in the Levant albeit still controlling territory in other countries. The loss of territorial control entailed a return of its modus operandi to clandestine insurgency and guerrilla warfare initiating a “Battle of Attrition” (ghazwat al-istinzaf) against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. Already in the Summer 2018 the group began restructuring its organizational system through merging its provinces (wilayat) in countries like Syria, Iraq and, later, Yemen. Despite al-Baghdadi’s attempt in his second ever video appearance in April 2019 to transmit the image of a cohesive and centralized organization, his group is losing its center of gravity and organizational hierarchy. The remains are a fragmented but ever lethal group.