Once upon a time al-Qaida and the Islamic State were part of the same network. They were joined in a hierarchical structure and brothers in arms fighting side-by-side against a common enemy. Religiously they also believed in the same creed. In early 2014, however, infighting and conflict erupted between the two groups and over the years, the relationship has escalated dramatically with the two groups now viewing one another as archenemies.
In fact, the intra-Jihadi conflict was not limited to the relationship between al-Qaida and the Islamic State but infected the entire Sunni Jihadi movement that experienced a severe internal fragmentation and polarization. That is despite the paradoxical nature of intra-Jihadi conflict: Jihadis generally agree on their religio-political conviction and ambition, they share network and history, and as extreme political outliers they fight against the same enemy.
The internal dynamics between Jihadis remain a black box. Although intra-Jihadi conflict is not a new phenomenon, there have been few efforts to explain why and how it occurs. Yet, as recent events show, understanding these internal conflict dynamics is of major importance; they greatly impact the Jihadi movement, including enemy prioritisation and the resulting terrorism threat.
In his thesis, Tore Refslund Hamming theoretically argues and empirically shows how and why Jihadis engage in internal conflict. A religio-political framework helps explain how discursive and violent conflict is framed through a religious terminology but motivated by specific political rationales. Driven by a locally or globally hegemonic rationale, Jihadi groups are inclined to instigate conflict with other Jihadis if they fail to subsume rivalling Jihadi groups into their own network.
Methodologically, Hamming approaches the research qualitatively while illustrating the magnitude of the phenomenon using descriptive statistics. It is quite challenging to gain insights into the internal affairs of Jihadis. Hamming overcomes these challenges by combining several years of online anthropological fieldwork on encrypted platforms with numerous interviews with some of the most influential Jihadi ideologues alive. This creative methodological approach enabled the collection of a major archive of primary sources and the ability to observe Jihadis and their digital behavior.
Hamming’s research opens the black box of Jihadis’ internal dynamics and expands and nuances the understanding of the relative importance of politics and religion within the movement. It demonstrates a certain movement logic governing relations among Jihadis and pinpoints the impact of influential individuals within the movement. Since internal conflict is a hypersensitive issue, it is consequently preceded by a framing process aiming at legitimising violent confrontations. To conclude, all too often Jihadis are viewed exclusively as religious extremists, yet Hamming’s research helps understand Jihadis as the political actors they also are. His research shows that this is extremely important to anticipate their future behavior and priorities.
Read Tore Refslund Hamming's thesis in CADMUS.
Tore Refslund Hamming is a political scientist from Denmark, specialising in militant Islamism and terrorism. He defended his thesis in October 2020 while also being a non-resident fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Previously, Hamming also held fellowships at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Department of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Oxford, Le Centre de recherches internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po-Paris, and at the Danish Institute of International Studies. His academic publications include journal articles in Perspectives on Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, POMEPS Studies, and St Antony’s International Review. He has continuously advised Western governments on counterterrorism and appeared as expert witness in several court cases in Denmark against returned foreign fighters.