On December 16, 2010, the New America Foundation hosted co-editors of Self-Inflicted Wounds: Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery, a new report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Assaf Moghadam, Director of Terrorism Studies, Combating Terrorism Center at West Poin, discussed the ideological schisms now apparent within global jihadi movements. Their comments, moderated by Colonel Cindy Jebb of West Point, highlighted the “weak spots” found in jihadi discourse. They also challenged assumptions about the nature, scope, and credibility of the threat. Self-Inflicted Wounds and those comments issued by Fishman and Moghadam offered much needed perspective as America’s enduring conflict with al Qaeda and others closes in on the decade mark.
According to the panelists, strategic and tactical divisions generally handicap extremism. These mismatches prevent groups from cooperating in a more meaningful way. Grievances, definitions of “the enemy,” remedies for real and imagined suffering, and theological mandates vary greatly, so much so that the threat will remain limited to the fringes and never achieve true popularity. Hierarchy and authority also matter, as Fishman pointed out during his opening statement: recent trends suggest mid-level jihadists are becoming increasingly autonomous; meanwhile, jihadi leadership is losing traction within their respective outfits. The end result of this devolutionary process is a degraded movement incapable of achieving any one of its lofty goals.
The event outlined both the failures of the broader jihadi movement—with specific attention paid to ongoing internal debates—and the resiliency of the threat. Self-Inflicted Wounds, its presenters, and authors, never pretends that the threat is fading. Instead, contributors like Fishman and Modhadam recognize that the danger is real but different. Anticipating these changes and modifying counterterrorism strategies accordingly is critical.