It is no secret that salafi-jihadism, the ideology of the deadliest Islamist organizations around the globe, is in a deep crisis. Despite its rapid growth since 2001, salafi-jihadism (hitherto referred to as jihadism) never constituted a single, unified faction.a Instead, its ideologues and organizations often disagree about fundamental issues in the crucible of civil war.1 Two disagreements in particular have become centrifugal, splintering jihadis into opposing camps. The first pertains to the issue of collective takfir—the act of Muslims declaring other Muslims to be infidels—and its byproduct of mass civilian atrocities and sectarian targeting. The second revolves around the importance of establishing ‘Islamic’ states and the application of strict sharia governance within those states, which risk alienating local populations and turning them against jihadis. These two divides constitute a factional dichotomy between puritanism and populism within jihadism.
The Islamic State has embraced puritanical extremism as its defining character. It insists that it constitutes the ‘Victorious Sect’ that uncompromisingly adheres to salafi orthodoxy in doctrine and practice.2 It takes every opportunity to apply ‘Islamic’ law and expunge what it considers ritualistic innovations in its territories; rejects alliances with ‘apostate’ parties or states; and seeks to establish an ‘Islamic’ caliphate without any regard to modern norms of national sovereignty.
This puritanism is juxtaposed with the opportunistic populism of Islamist movements that supposedly tolerate public blasphemy to avoid alienating supporters; delay establishing sharia-based states and instead choose to work within the confines of civil democratic states; and make alliances with secular factions or apostate governments in the name of realpolitik. Jihadis have historically reserved these critiques for Muslim Brotherhood factions and Islamist nationalists like Hamas, but in recent years, the Islamic State has been accusing al-Qa`ida of populist Islamism that seeks to win the hearts and minds of Muslims rather than mold them into believers through the strict application of ‘Islamic’ law.