By The Economist
Jul 4th 2015
Islamic State is making itself felt in ever more countries. But how much influence does it really have outside Syria and Iraq?
WHEN Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June last year he dropped “Iraq and Syria” from his group’s name. From then on, he said, it should be called simply Islamic State (IS), which was more in line with its ambition to spread its ghastly version of “Islamic” rule across the globe. A year later it does indeed have influence well beyond those countries’ borders, as the bloody past week shows.
Groups using the name of IS claimed responsibility for the shooting of tourists in Tunisia (see article) and the bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait on June 26th. French officials say IS may also be linked to a beheading in Grenoble on the same day. Days later IS said it was behind the bombing of a mosque in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, while some speculated that it was also behind a bomb that killed Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor general, in Cairo. (IS has not claimed that attack, but earlier threatened the judiciary.) On June 29th it grabbed a town in Afghanistan. Two days after that, Egypt’s IS-linked group was in gory action against the army.
IS has connections in the Middle East and beyond, but the relationships between its leaders in Syria and Iraq and those who carry its name elsewhere are varied and murky. In 11 countries, including Yemen and, its most recent addition, Russia (see page 24), IS has recognised a group as one of its own. Elsewhere, eg, in India, groups claim to be IS but are not (yet) accepted by Mr Baghdadi. In Tunisia the gunman may simply have heeded IS’s call on Muslims to carry out attacks; although a group there has pledged allegiance, IS has not recognised it.
Once Mr Baghdadi accepts a bay’a, or pledge of allegiance, IS declares a new “province” of the caliphate. But according to Dabiq, IS’s English-language magazine, the group sets strict criteria for each affiliate. To have a chance of attracting favour, it must appoint a governor, set up a ruling council and implement IS’s version of Islamic rule. It must have a plan to conquer territory. With its claims to statehood, ISIS sets itself apart from other terrorists.
Dabiq also stresses a need for communication and says approved groups will receive support. But for the most part, even these recognised groups appear to have limited operational contact with IS’s leaders in Syria and Iraq. Its Libya outfit appears the most intertwined. That group was established in the north-eastern town of Derna in late 2014 by locals who had fought with IS in Syria and Iraq. Its grisly beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in February resembled similar atrocities in Iraq and Syria, right down to the orange jumpsuits worn by the victims. Video of the killings was produced by the IS media branch.
Egypt’s “Sinai Province”, which grew out of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an established outfit, also has links with IS’s leaders. It has become more lethal since joining up. On July 1st it killed dozens of soldiers during co-ordinated attacks in Sinai. This may be because the Egyptian and Libyan provinces were cultivated by IS’s Khilafah army, which is sent out for foreign operations, including training prospective affiliates.
Other groups simply adopt the IS brand, but show no sign of controlling territory or attempting to rule. The group’s affiliate in Algeria has carried out just one attack, beheading a French tourist, and that was before Mr Baghdadi accepted its oath. Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, has put out slicker videos with an IS flag at the bottom since joining up in March. It has copied IS’s savage beheadings and started to call itself the “West Africa Province”, but little else has changed. “Boko Haram’s leadership is not Arab and won’t be well known to IS,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.
The financial relationship between IS and its offspring is unclear. The group may not have much cash to spare since the coalition against it is targeting the source of its funds, especially oil. Movement of weapons between non-contingent areas of the caliphate is nigh on impossible. Tunisia’s attacker appears to have been trained in Libya rather than Syria or Iraq despite the vast areas under IS control there. Even basic communication may be tricky.
IS may, however, have some sway over where recruits join the fight, which would explain why the large number of Tunisians going to Syria and Iraq has started to drop off. More foreigners are now heading to Libya or staying home to carry out attacks.
Affiliates use varied tactics. In the Gulf, IS members have targeted Shia mosques to foment sectarian strife. In places such as Yemen and Afghanistan, IS seeks to undermine strong branches of al-Qaeda, its jihadist rival. Elsewhere spectacular attacks, such as the massacre in Sousse, have helped IS live up to its slogan of “remaining and expanding”; conveniently diverting attention from the group’s losses not only in Syria and Iraq but farther afield. IS fighters in Libya were kicked out of Derna by rival jihadists, and are now trying to assert themselves in Sirte. Boko Haram used to control an area the size of Belgium until a February offensive pushed it out of almost all its territory.
And expansion can be a weakness. Al-Qaeda found it was undermined by franchises that had their own aims. Islamic State in Iraq, the progenitor of IS that subsequently broke from al-Qaeda, was even more brutal, ruining attempts to woo Muslim hearts and minds. IS appears not to worry that people might think it too extreme, but it does not want to appear weak. If its affiliates cannot hold territory, they undermine the group’s raison d’être. And for now, it looks like they cannot.