For more than a decade, the analysis of Islamist movements among scholars and policymakers has been divided between what might be called “lumpers” and “splitters.”
Lumpers typically view “radical Islam” as a broad, coherent movement rooted in religion rather than conventional politics. Splitters view the field of Islamist politics as divided among a wide range of competing ideological and political strands. The replacement of Michael Flynn last February by H. R. McMaster as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser represented a dramatic shift from one extreme to the other. Flynn was one of the lumpiest of the lumpers, while McMaster earned his stripes in Iraq through splitting.
Lumpers typically view “radical Islam” as a coherent whole, with groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood playing different roles, but ultimately ones more similar than different. While these groups may deviate over tactics, lumpers believe, ultimately they share the same religious and civilizational goals, and pursue the same ultimate strategic objective of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. Clear-headed strategy requires seeing the full spectrum of the Islamist challenge—from the manifestly apparent armed groups and terrorists to the underlying ideological and material support networks and broadly-held public attitudes that create an amenable environment. Too much attention to distinctions among groups distracts from what lumpers regard as a civilizational challenge. There is little point in seeking to avoid a clash of civilizations in their view, since it is already here.
Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, came to the White House as the ultimate lumper. His book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (co-authored with Michael Ledeen) is a model of undifferentiated, naïve conflation of different Islamist and populist movements into a single, unified grand enemy. Flynn writes that “we’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.” What binds together Sunni jihadists, Shia revolutionaries, and Islamist political parties is a common embrace of an ideology effectively reduced to totalitarianism. Flynn’s target list thus includes “the state and nonstate supporters and enablers of violent Islamism … fanatical killers acting on behalf of a failed civilization.”
This lumping philosophy is why Flynn, like Trump’s current adviser Sebastian Gorka, has considered it a fundamental strategic imperative to say the words “Radical Islam.” Naming the enemy in this way is necessary to “defeat jihad” because it identifies the full scale of the movement. This, then, would presumably inform a broad strategic approach, identify a full set of adversaries, and suggest specific policies. The goal of lumpers is to target all levels of Islamist radicalization, attacking not only violent extremists but all elements of their potential ideological and material support networks as well.
The lumping approach is agreeable to Arab regimes who seek to delegitimize their nonviolent political rivals. It is easily communicated to a public conditioned since the September 11, 2001, attacks to view Islam with suspicion. It is also robust, in that the very broad analytical categories can be easily adapted to fit virtually any changes on the ground. The problem for the lumpers is that they are wrong. The ideas and practices of Islamists do change over time in response to political conditions, and cannot be reduced to the reading of classical texts or ideological tracts. Islamists do not speak for all Muslims, jihadists are not the same as Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists, and treating them all as part of the same movement produces both poor analysis and counterproductive results.
Splitters, whose approach was exemplified in Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures, a book published in 2013 and edited by Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (to which I contributed a chapter), focus instead on the internal divisions among Islamist groups. Analytically, the goal is to produce finely-grained, accurate assessments of the ideological, organizational, and tactical differences among groups which share broadly-defined ideological orientations.
Splitters seek to leverage those differences in order to identify opportunities for cooperation with potential partners against more radical common adversaries. Their goal is to marginalize violent extremists, denying them the claim to speak on behalf of Islam by highlighting their distance from the overwhelming majority of Muslims. It is this approach which sees the Muslim Brotherhood as part of the solution to violent extremism, for as long as it adheres to non-violence and can compete for the loyalties of potential violent extremists.
McMaster is a splitter. As soon as he was appointed national security adviser, he broke with Flynn by declaring that using the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism” was not helpful. McMaster’s view is rooted in his experience fighting the insurgency in Iraq. Like General David Petraeus, he came to understand that the U.S. was not facing a monolithic “Al-Qaeda” there, but rather a complex tapestry of local militias, tribes, ex-Baathists, and nationalist Iraqi jihadi insurgents who could be split from the globalist insurgents of Al-Qaeda, who by that point had already adopted the name “Islamic State.” The Sons of Iraq program supported those nationalist jihadist insurgents of the “Awakening” against the Islamic State of Iraq, and it worked for a time. Small wonder that Petraeus in 2015 suggested again to try splitting “reconciliables” from Al-Qaeda in Syria against both the Islamic State and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The advantage of the splitters is that they are empirically right about the internal arguments, distinctions, and battles among groups sharing a broad Islamist orientation. Their problem is that it can be politically difficult to communicate and sustain support for a policy that involves supporting groups with avowedly illiberal values and often deeply objectionable political views.
Moreover, splitters must constantly revise their analysis in response to events on the ground in ways that lumpers do not. Lumpers have the dubious advantage of rarely needing to adjust their views, since they see Islamic radicalism as a largely static and unchanging beast. Splitters don’t have that luxury. Many of the finely-grained insights from the pre-2011 period no longer apply in the same way today—not because the analysis was wrong, but because conditions on the ground have changed.
For example, it makes little sense today to view Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a firewall against extremism. That organization has been shattered by fierce state repression following the July 3, 2013, military coup. With most of its leadership and thousands of its members dead, in prison, or in exile, the Brotherhood has lost both its public presence and its famously rigid organizational structure. It can no longer offer democratic political participation as an alternative to armed confrontation, has lost its clarity in rejecting violence, and has a much-reduced ability to exercise control over its membership. Offshoot movements and angry youth members have joined an escalating insurgency, while traditional Brotherhood messaging now mixes freely with revolutionary Salafi ideology. This proves not that the earlier analysis of the Brotherhood was wrong, but that misguided policies can produce dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies. Preventing Islamist political participation and brutally repressing nonviolent Islamists may leave only violent paths for those determined to seek change—or revenge.
Something similar can be seen in the analysis of jihadi movements. In 2011, many splitters argued that Al-Qaeda was in decline due to the democratizing impact of the Arab uprisings and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Today, it is resurgent. The group rebounded by taking advantage of the failed Arab transitions, the region’s proxy wars, and the international focus on the Islamic State. Its branches have a firm foothold in Yemeni areas ostensibly under Saudi and Emirati control, and have taken an ever more decisive place among the remnants of the Syrian insurgency. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s leader, demonstrated this week, Al-Qaeda is well positioned to exploit the failure of the “state building” model by reasserting its own version of jihadi practice.
Lumpers might approach such changes with a one-size-fits-all mentality. But splitters will only have useful analytical advice about this radically transformed environment with highly detailed, current research—which might well produce different conclusions than in the recent past. Public scholarship on Islamist movements, such as the essays collected in a newly released Project on Middle East Political Science collection, demonstrates that such analytical updating continues to produce valuable results.
McMaster’s preference for splitting is a profound improvement over Flynn’s lumping, but it may not necessarily lead in the expected directions. Successful counterinsurgents tend to be splitters, but not all splitters are primarily focused on counterinsurgency. McMaster and other veterans of the “surge” in Iraq appreciate the value of identifying and operationalizing divisions within Islamist movements. But this does not necessarily translate into supporting their inclusion in democratic politics or advocacy against their repression by autocratic allies. The analytical insights which McMaster brings to the White House should capture the full range of Islamist politics and not be overwhelmed by counterterrorism imperatives.