Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State and global jihad

Without jihadi allies, the Islamic State group will find it increasingly difficult to hold onto the governments it has built and the territory it has captured, writes William McCants

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Islamic State (IS) group will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonises local jihadist competitors and powerful non-Muslim states. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism toward these entities for the sake of expediency, but then it would no longer be able to recruit followers as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

Since it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken on 17 affiliates or “governorates” that operate in 12 countries outside of Syria and Iraq. Many of the governorates were pre-existing jihadist groups or factions that joined the Islamic State because they identified with its antagonism toward local jihadist competitors and its unyielding animosity toward non-Muslim nations.

Yet, this hostility subsequently limits the group’s ability to build governments or take territory beyond the confines of Syria and Iraq. In most countries where the Islamic State has planted its flag, its aggression prompted powerful local jihadist rivals[s] or international foes to check its advances. Again, the Islamic State could soften its antagonism to one or the other for the sake of convenience, but this would compromise its recruiting ability and tarnish its reputation as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.

According to its propaganda, the Islamic State accepts all oaths of allegiance from individuals and groups outside Syria and Iraq. Those groups, however, cannot form governorates until they document their oaths, unify with other jihadist groups in the territory, nominate a governor, select members for a regional consultative council, and devise a strategy for taking territory and implementing sharia law. They then present “all this to the Islamic State leadership for approval,” with the “caliph” determining who will lead the governorate. Groups in lands that are not designated governorates will be contacted by the Islamic State to “receive information and directives” from the “caliph”. They are asked to join the governorate closest to them.

As of July 2016, the Islamic State officially claimed 39 governorates, spanning 14 countries. The 17 governorates outside of Syria and Iraq operate in Libya (Barqah, Fazzan, Tarabulus); Yemen (Adan Abyan, Al-Bayda, Hadramawt, Sanaa, Shabwah, Liwa’ al-Akhdar); Saudi Arabia (Al-Bahrayn, Al-Hijaz, Najd); Algeria; Egypt (Sinai); Afghanistan and Pakistan (Khurasan); Russia (Caucasus); and Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon (Gharb Ifriqiyyah). It also claims a presence in Somalia and “covert units” in Turkey, France, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

The Islamic State’s governorates can be divided into three types: statelets, insurgencies, and terrorist organisations. For the purposes of this article, a statelet is a governorate that monopolises violence in some territory, levies taxes, imposes law, and provides public services. It functions like a government even if it is not recognised as such by other nations. An insurgency is a governorate that often occupies territory but cannot always hold it; it is unable or unwilling to perform the functions of a statelet. A terrorist organisation is a governorate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely.

Outside Syria and Iraq, only the governorates in Libya and Afghanistan qualify as statelets, the latter barely. The Khurasan Governorate in Afghanistan controls a few villages in Nangarhar Province, whereas the Tarabulus Governorate in Libya controls Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and some minor adjacent towns to the west and east. (The group’s hold on Sirte is rapidly weakening.) The Gharb Ifriqiyyah Governorate, a.k.a. Boko Haram, is an insurgency. The other governorates in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Russia are terrorist groups.

Unsurprisingly, all of the governorates, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, are found in countries with recent or ongoing civil wars and revolutions. Weakened states have security vacuums that jihadist groups exploit for operating and gaining territory; obtaining materiel and moving personnel via illicit networks; and recruiting by way of deep political and social grievances. When expanding, the Islamic State has prioritised moving into territory that is hospitable for rapid growth.

Were the Islamic State left unchecked to exploit these factors, it would seize territory quickly. The group is exceptionally good at attracting thousands of foreign fighters to its cause, fundraising locally, and preparing the battlefield through propaganda and subterfuge. It also has a large war chest that it can spend to augment the strength of its affiliates, which it has done in Libya and Afghanistan.

LOSING FRIENDS: But many of the Islamic State’s governorates face stiff competition from other jihadist groups, which are often sympathetic to the Islamic State’s rival Al-Qaeda.

For example, the Islamic State in Libya lost its first base in Darna because it antagonised other jihadist groups that supported Al-Qaeda. The governorates in Yemen have struggled to remain relevant against the vastly more powerful Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose personnel have operated in Yemen for more than two decades, intermarrying and allying with local tribes.

When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi signalled that jihadis in Yemen should subordinate themselves to him in a November 2014 audiotape, he needlessly alienated AQAP, which up until then had pointedly not picked sides in the dispute between its mother organisation and the Islamic State because of sympathy in its ranks for the latter. Senior AQAP cleric Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari responded by calling the Islamic State caliphate religiously illegitimate.

“We did not want to talk about the current dispute and the sedition in Syria… however, our brothers in the Islamic State… surprised us with several steps, including their announcement of the caliphate [and] they announced the expansion of the caliphate in a number of countries which they have no governance over and considered them to be provinces that belonged to them,” he stated.

In Algeria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) blunted the Islamic State’s recruitment drive by denouncing it and carrying out high-profile attacks. The Taliban, which the Islamic State has lambasted as a nationalist enterprise, has confined the Khurasan Governorate to a few villages in Afghanistan.

Competition with other jihadist groups is nearly unavoidable for the Islamic State. As commentator Brynjar Lia observed in 2010, the Islamic State cares more about “doctrinal righteousness” than it does about building a popular front in the Muslim world, which has been the primary strategy of Al-Qaeda. Whereas Al-Qaeda is willing to overlook doctrinal differences for the sake of alliance-building, the Islamic State is less so.  

Because the group styles itself as an empire, it demands an oath of allegiance from all armed groups wherever it declares its writ. Groups that fail to comply risk being branded apostates, traitors not only to the religion but also to the state and meriting death. As might be expected, jihadis who refuse to join the Islamic State dislike being called apostates, which makes it even harder for the Islamic State to build alliances.

Refusenik jihadist groups also resent the Islamic State because it woos their soldiers, which fosters factionalism and infighting. Several of the Islamic State’s governorates were formed by splinters of pre-existing groups. In 2014, Hafiz Saeed Khan and five other leaders in the Pakistani Taliban left the group and formed the Khurasan Governorate. Many of the Islamic State’s recruits in Yemen have come from AQAP.  

The Islamic State’s Caucasus Governorate in Russia is a splinter of Al-Qaeda’s Caucasus Emirate. The governor of the Caucasus Governorate, Abu Muhammad al-Qadari (a.k.a. Rustam Asildarov), previously commanded the Dagestan Governorate, a subset of Al-Qaeda’s Caucasus Emirate. The Algeria Governorate was first formed by an AQIM splinter group calling itself Army of the Caliphate, which pledged allegiance in September 2014.  Three more AQIM militants and two unknown terrorists followed suit over the next few months.

Factions of refusenik jihadist groups have supported the Islamic State for a variety of reasons. Some have wanted more power or wealth. The founders of the Khurasan Governorate joined the Islamic State because the Taliban had passed them over for leadership roles or censored them for graft. Others were excited by the re-establishment of the caliphate. A senior religious leader in AQAP praised al-Baghdadi for declaring his caliphate over the objections of his superiors.

Jihadist groups that join the Islamic State are not only attracted to its uncompromising policies on ideological grounds. They also find these policies useful for distinguishing themselves from jihadist competitors, which can give them an edge in fundraising and recruitment. When the Islamic State’s leadership broke with Al-Qaeda, it castigated its former commanders for not declaring all Shia Muslims infidels and not waging jihad on every Muslim government in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic State’s governorates in Yemen echoed this hardline message to lure soldiers and leaders away from AQAP because they believed the Islamic State was more aggressive in fighting the war against the Shia Houthis in the country and the AQAP was not doing enough to kill Shia civilians.  In Afghanistan, the Khurasan Governorate’s hardline stance lured some Taliban soldiers and commanders when the rank and file were unhappy that its leaders were negotiating for peace with the government in Kabul.

Although the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are equally committed to attacking non-Muslim states, the Islamic State has done more recently to make good on its threats. It was the Islamic State, not Al-Qaeda, that brought down a Russian passenger airliner in response to Russia’s escalation in Syria. The Islamic State, not Al-Qaeda, has inspired or directed dozens of lethal attacks in the West.

The Islamic State is not ideologically required to go to war with all nations at once. Earlier in its history, it focused on state-building in Iraq and sponsored few external plots against non-Muslim states, deferring to Al-Qaeda Central for that task. The Islamic State has also acknowledged that it can sign truces with “infidel” states. But as exemplified by its targets since its caliphate was declared two years ago, the Islamic State has determined that global jihad is important for alleviating pressure on its government in Syria and Iraq and for increasing recruiting.

The Islamic State’s war on the world from its base in Syria and Iraq has invited reprisals against its affiliates. The United States has bombed the Islamic State’s affiliates in Libya and Afghanistan several times. France increased its troops in the Lake Chad region in Africa to support the fight against Boko Haram soon after the group joined the Islamic State. The reprisals limit the governorates’ ability to seize and hold territory, a chief priority of the Islamic State.

Obviously, militant Sunni groups that join the Islamic State have determined that the benefits of joining outweigh the costs. And they are not necessarily wrong. If adopting the Islamic State’s hardline stance allows groups to attract enough personnel and resources to defy their many enemies and achieve their objective of state-building, then the downsides will have been worth it. The Islamic State’s resounding past success in Syria and Iraq and its modest success in Libya demonstrate the rationality of the approach and enhance its attractiveness. But the accelerating collapse of those same statelets at the hands of their many enemies highlights the costs and limits of warring with the world as a political strategy.

CONCLUSION: Without allies, the Islamic State will find it difficult to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures.

When the going got tough for Al-Qaeda, it could rely on friends like the Taliban to protect it, thanks to its decades of jihadist diplomacy and coalition-building. The Islamic State will have no one to turn to when its caliphate collapses unless it mends its ways.

The Islamic State is unlikely to do so. The organisation would have to stop demanding that other groups recognise it as the caliphate, which would undermine the Islamic State’s claim to the office and dull its edge in recruitment. Instead, the Islamic State will likely double down on its hardline stance, gambling that it can attract followers faster than its enemies can kill, capture, or dissuade them.

Although there probably will not be enough recruits to compensate for alienating potential allies, there will still be enough to wage a global terror campaign to remain relevant as the baddest jihadis in town. At least until someone worse comes along.

The writer directs the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in the US. This article was originally published by the US Combating Terrorism Centre.

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