Islamic terrorists are having increasing problems getting along with each other. In Syria two major factions of al Qaeda have been fighting each other since January, leaving over a thousand Islamic terrorists dead and many more disillusioned and demoralized. For the last month two factions of the Pakistani Taliban have been fighting each other, leaving over 60 dead. This sort of thing is not new, but it has been getting more common and more intense. As a result the Islamic terrorist groups involved not only suffer personnel losses, but also find it harder to obtain new recruits and raise money. These problems have become a major issue for al Qaeda, which is most frequently hit with these factional wars.
The Syrian al Qaeda problems began in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group; Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI leaders and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was apparently just an attempt by ISI (which is having a hard time in Iraq) to grab some glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. This dispute escalated in January 2014 when outright war between ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Syria began. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq.
One of the major weaknesses of Islamic terror groups is that they often get into vicious and destructive feuds with each other. It should not be surprising as Islamic terrorists are motivated by religion and in particular a personal call from God to serve. Since no two people are going interpret the details of this divine summons the same way, there will be many different interpretations. These are often formed by ethnic differences. This could be seen in in Mali, where three different Islamic radical groups (Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM) took control of the northern portion of the country in 2012 but were run out in early 2013 by a French-led force. Along the way the three groups were often battling each other.
Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu) was from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) was from neighboring Mauritania. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has members from all over North Africa, but mostly from Algeria. MUJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there was some tension between the two groups. AQIM had the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it was Malian. Until late 2012 all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also had a few Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the impressive image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. The Tuareg members of MUJAO and Ansar Dine could find locals in the north to shelter them while the foreigners (mainly from AQIM) had to flee in early 2013 because they were too easily spotted by Mali civilians and pointed out to the French, Malian and other African troops who quickly occupied the north. In the first six months of 2013 all three groups suffered heavy losses in Mali, either from deaths or desertions. Many non-Mali Islamic terrorists fled and sought new groups to join. Some of those showed up in Syria, where they tended to prefer the more internationalist ISIL rather than the Syria-centric JN.
Then there was Yemen. The arrival of Islamic terrorists from Syria in 2013, many of them Saudis or Yemenis, changed the pattern of terrorist attacks in Yemen and caused friction between the newcomers and those who have been in Yemen for many years. The “Syrians” are more savage and indiscriminate and believe themselves superior because they have seen a lot more fighting in Syria. Except for an army offensive in Yemen last year, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been running a more low key operation. This could lead to yet another civil war within al Qaeda.
These differences often lead to violence, or simply a lack of cooperation between rival Islamic terror groups. This has been happening in Syria as it already happened in Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It’s the nature of the beast. Unfortunately it’s not helping the rebel cause overall in Syria. The Islamic terror groups tend to have the most daring members, the best weapons and the most cash. But the Islamic terror groups are also often difficult to work with, especially for non-religious rebel factions. Worse is the fact that most Islamic rebel groups are ready to pick a fight with anyone, because everyone else lacks a unique relationship with The Almighty. On a more practical level this feuding among Islamic terrorists has hurt the image of Islamic terrorists as saintly warriors fighting to defend Islam. Fighting each other doesn’t help Islam much at all and it is making it harder for Islamic terrorists to recruit and raise money. Al Qaeda leadership has been speaking publically about the problem and privately with the leaders involved.