Check out the latest offering from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within Al-Qaida and Its Periphery, edited by Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman. This is an edited volume that looks at all sorts of internal jihadist debates such as over the notion of takfir, tactics, strategy, and many other things. It’s the usual bang-up job from the CTC and it would be a useful antidote to those who think that the jihadists are actually more pure in their understanding of Islam than other Muslims. (I say “would be” because I rather doubt that the people who believe that will read this book. Call me cynical and I’ll plead guilty.) The New American foundation had a great launch for this book a couple weeks ago and they have posted the video online.
Every one of the essays in this volume shows why the jihadist movement cannot only be understood as a single united entity. My own work, it is true, has tended to show them as a united entity. (See e.g. this and this.) That said, I do not believe that that is the only way to understand them. Rather, I think it is merely a way, albeit an indispensible one, to think about them. The differences among jihadists are equally important.
The analogy I give is with communism. During the Cold War there were decided differences among, say, Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism, Hungarian Communism, Albanian Communism, and Eurocommunism. That said, the adherents of these various movements could all, quite correctly, be said to be communists. One would have been hard-pressed to understand any of these without knowing something about Marx, Lenin, Mao, the dialectic, the proletariat, etc. At the same time, these differences which seemed so minor to those of us where were small “d” democrats were felt very passionately by the communists. This fact opened up opportunities for us.
So it is, I think, with the jihadists. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, the jihadists are many, yet they are one.