This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria (Wilayat al-Jazair), Libya (Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan), Sinai (Wilayat Sinai), Saudi Arabia (Wilayat al-Haramayn) and Yemen (Wilayat al-Yaman). It is likely that the Islamic State plans to pursue a similar approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan following its announcement of accepting pledges of allegiance from former members of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban to also try and “annex” territory there under the framework of a new wilayah called “Wilayat Khorasan.” On its face, this bold declaration of an expanding number of wilayat (provinces) resembles the announcements by al-Qaeda of creating numerous franchises in the mid-2000s. The Islamic State’s “wilayat” strategy differs in significant ways from al-Qaeda’s “franchise” strategy, however.
The academic literature has shed great light on the al-Qaeda franchising strategy. In a recent article Daniel Byman highlights a number of key factors within the al-Qaeda network regarding motivations for affiliation and franchising. Typically, affiliates joined up with al-Qaeda as a result of failure. Affiliation helped with financial support; offered a potential haven that could be exploited, along with access to new training, recruiting, publicity and military expertise; gave branding and publicity; and opened up personal networks from past foreign fighter mobilizations. It in turn helps al-Qaeda with mission fulfillment, remaining relevant, providing access to new logistics networks, and building a new group of hardened fighters.
But, Byman argues, those franchises often became as much a burden as an asset as local interests and views diverged with those of the parent organization. Leah Farrall argues that al-Qaeda increasingly came to view franchising “warily” in part due to its inability to always control its new partners such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as because of backlash from unsuccessful cooptation of organizations such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This is one of the reasons why, prior to Osama bin Laden’s death, the Somali jihadi group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen was not given franchise status. Bin Laden had apprehensions about the group’s utility due to past clan infighting and lack of unity. Following the death of bin Laden though, his replacement, Ayman al-Zawahiri, brought Shabab into the fold, but the results have been quite disastrous; Shabab has declined and also was in an internal feud between its foreign and local members. Will the Islamic State’s wilayat pose a similar burden?
There is one key difference between al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s model for expansion. Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach. This differs from al-Qaeda’s more muddled approach – it hoped a local franchise would conduct external operations, but many times franchises would instead focus on local battles or attempts at governance without a clear plan, as bin Laden had warned. Moreover, the Islamic State has had a simple media strategy for telegraphing what it is doing on the ground to show its supporters, potential recruits and enemies that it is in fact doing something. This accomplishes more, even if it appears that the Islamic State is doing more than it actually is, in comparison with al-Qaeda’s practice of waiting for a successful external operation to succeed and then claiming responsibility after the fact.
How is this strategy working? So far, Libya and the Sinai appear to be the locations with the most promise, though the Islamic State’s presence in these areas should not be overstated. It certainly does not command the amount of territorial control as its base in Mesopotamia. That said, the Islamic State’s wilayat in Libya and the Sinai are following the same methodology on the ground and in the media as the Islamic State’s wilayat have in Iraq and Syria.
By contrast, its wilayat in Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have yet to show any signs of activity. It is certainly possible that the Islamic State is playing a long game and preparing its soldiers and bureaucrats for future jihad, governance and dawa (propagation of Islam), but there are reasons to be skeptical as well. Following Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the expansion of the Islamic State in mid-November, its media apparatus took over the media departments of all the local wilayat outside of Mesopotamia. This highlights that, at least on the media level, the Islamic State is in full command and control.
In Algeria, there were some signs of action that have since petered off. The leader of Wilayat al-Jazair, Abd al-Malik Guri (Khalid Abu Sulayman) was killed by the Algerian military on Dec. 22. Further, while northern Algerian-based jihadis have certainly conducted attacks over the years, they have had a difficult time operating or conducting sustainable campaigns that have resulted in gaining territory. Moreover, there have been no signs that Wilayat al-Jazair has conducted any military operations since it beheaded the French tourist Hervé Gourdel on Sept. 24, which was prior to the Islamic State accepting the group into the fold. It has also not been involved in any type of governance or dawa activities.
There have also not been any formal military or governance activities carried out by the Islamic State’s wilayat in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. The Saudi government claims the Islamic State was involved in an attack that killed several Shiites in al-Ahsa on Nov. 3 and Islamic State supporters claimed responsibility for an attempted assassination of a Danish businessman through a drive-by shooting on a highway in Riyadh on Nov. 22. The Saudis have a history of dealing with insurgency against al-Qaeda on its territory from 2002-06 so are ready for any fight if the Islamic State attempts to start a campaign there.
As for Yemen, AQAP is the strongest jihadi presence and took major issue with Baghdadi’s announcement of creating a wilayah in Yemen. On Nov. 19, AQAP’s top sharia official, Harith al-Nazari, released a video rejecting the Islamic State’s claims and calling for the dissolution of all groups so as to pledge baya (religiously binding oath of allegiance), stating: “We reject the call to split the ranks of the mujahid groups” and “export[ing] the fighting and discord [in Syria] to other fronts.” As a result, although there are indeed some supporters of the Islamic State in Yemen, they have yet to show any sign of activity. It is possible that the jihadi dynamics in Yemen might change after the Houthi coup, but unless the Islamic State is able to take the reins of the AQAP apparatus from the inside, it has an uphill battle due to AQAP’s roots going back a decade. Therefore, it is unclear how the Islamic State hopes and plans to operate in those environments.
This leaves the Sinai and Libya as the primary models for the Islamic State’s expansion. In the first six weeks since Baghdadi’s announcement, it appeared that the Islamic State in Sinai was continuing to operate in a similar manner to how its predecessor in name Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was acting by conducting attacks against the Egyptian military as well as gas pipelines. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been small signs of an expanded program including elements of Islamic State governance present elsewhere. For example, on Jan. 2, Wilayat Sinai burned marijuana after detaining drug traffickers and on Jan. 7 it distributed funds to residents of Rafah after the Egyptian military demolished their homes to create a buffer zone near the border with Gaza.
On top of these inchoate steps, similar to the promotion of Syria and Iraq as lands of opportunity for locals and locations for foreign fighters, the Islamic State has pushed similar narratives regarding the Sinai. When Baghdadi made his November announcement he stated that “we ask every individual amongst them to join the closest wilayah to him, and to hear and obey the wali [governor] appointed by us for it.” This further push illustrates the seriousness of this endeavor for the Islamic State. First, on Dec. 1, its semi-official media agencies al-Battar and al-Jabhah al-Ialamiyyah released the pamphlet “Come to the Sinai to Elevate the Foundations of Your State,” by Abu Musab al-Gharib, which echoes Baghdadi’s call. Further, on Jan. 16 the Islamic State’s official anashid (religiously-sanctioned a capella music) and Quranic recitation outlet Ajnad released a nashid titled “The Land of Sinai,” exhorting fighters and wannabe recruits to go forth. The Islamic State also has highlighted how it has scuttled gas deals, killed spies and built a foundation for tawhid(pure monotheism). Most recently, on Jan. 21, it released an ideological video, but it was not a stern lecture like those posted by al-Qaeda-styled groups. The video showed individuals in Wilayat Sinai hanging out together around a campfire, showing the life of a mujahid and the camaraderie involved, imbuing a particular ascetic for future members who join up.
Moving west, the Islamic State’s activities and operations are even more sophisticated and closer to how it operates in Syria and Iraq, though on a smaller scale. Libya has the most potential to replicate the Islamic State’s model in Mesopotamia if things go right for it. Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, based in Derna and the named used prior to the Islamic State’s formal acceptance of its baya, was already involved in a variety of military, governance and dawa activities. Though in reality it only truly controls some neighborhoods in Derna, the activities have only increased and the Islamic State now also operates in Benghazi, Sirte, and Tripoli, and has created the self-styled Wilayat al-Barqah in the east, Wilayat al-Tarabulus in the west, and Wilayat al-Fizan in the south. There are also some signs that the Islamic State has siphoned off some of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya’s members, which could help accelerate its rise similar to how the Islamic State absorbed defecting Jabhat al-Nusra members in Syria.
Beyond the military fighting the Islamic State is doing in Derna and Benghazi, as well as its military parades in Sirte and an attack in Wilayat al-Fizan, it has also claimed to have executed two Tunisian journalists (though this has since been disputed by Tunisia’s ambassador in Libya), kidnapped 21 Christian Egyptians, and conducted an attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. In terms of governance types of activities, the Islamic State in Libya has primarily only focused on cultural symbolism. For example, it has conducted a number of hisbah (accountability) patrols in markets in Derna and Sirte making sure they are sharia-compliant and are not selling rotten or spoiled food, taking away stores selling hookahs since they view smoking tobacco as against Islam, and telling stores to stop selling their products when it is time for daily prayers. The Islamic State in Libya has also conducted some dawa activities, the largest was the forum “The Caliphate Upon the Manhaj [methodology] of the Prophet” on Nov. 25. It has also provided aid to the poor and needy and given gifts and sweets to children in Benghazi. The Islamic State now is attempting to impose regulations on locals within the health industry, specifically those in pharmacies.
On top of this, unlike the other wilayat there are clear signs that there is a foreign fighter presence in Libya. This is not to the same extent as in Syria or Iraq, but the fact that there are foreigners there illustrates the theaters appeal. Although the Islamic State’s official presence in Libya did not begin until November, jihadi foreign fighters have been coming into Libya since 2012 when Algerians from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb began to make it another base of operations and a safe haven. There have also been a number of foreigners that have been members of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya in part due to the relationship and connections with its sister organization in Tunisia as well as its training for individuals to go fight abroad in Syria.
Most confirmed foreign fighters have come from surrounding countries to Libya, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan. Though there have also been cases of Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters, as well as rumors of Palestinians and Syrians. It is difficult to know the total number of foreign fighters since some have left for other fights in Syria or the Sinai after receiving training or returned home to carry out attacks in Egypt or Tunisia. It is believed though that Tunisians make up the highest percentage of foreign fighters in Libya and that up to 20 percent of the jihadi fighters in Libya are of foreign origin.
Another sign of the importance and emphasis the Islamic State is placing on foreign fighter involvement in Libya is that its official media apparatus is beginning to announce martyrdom notices, as it has done in Iraq and Syria. Since it began two weeks ago, it has announced 10 cases, including six Tunisians, two Egyptians, one Saudi and one Sudanese all who died in the battles of Benghazi. Further, to encourage more emigration, the Islamic State released a story about how one Saudi fighter, Abd al-Hamid al-Qasimi, traveled to Libya to embark on the building of the “caliphate” in Wilayat Tarabulus. More importantly, and in line with the Islamic State’s media methodologies in Mesopotamia, it released a video message on Jan. 20 from two ethnic-Tuareg members of the Islamic State in Wilayat Tarbulus calling for individuals and jihadis in Azawad (a term used by some locals as a name for northern Mali) to pledge baya to Baghdadi and make hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State in Libya. One of the men, Abu Umar al-Tawrigi, stated: “I call my Tuareg brothers to migrate to the Islamic State and that they give baya to emir al-muminin [leader of the faithful] Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi.” Dozens of similar videos have come from the Islamic State’s foreign fighters based in Syria, from Bosnians to Canadians to French to Indonesians to Moldovans, among others that have produced videos in a similar vein.
The Islamic State does therefore seem to be attempting to follow the same tactics and strategies on the ground in Libya (and to a lesser extent in the Sinai) as it has already done in Iraq and Syria. There is still a long way to go before either is consolidated in terms of territorial control or full monopoly on governance and security. Libya has the highest likelihood of success since there is no state, though there are limitations too since there is a multi-polar devolution of a variety of armed actors. The Islamic State will likely have more problems in the Sinai since the actors are stuck between two strong military states in Egypt and Israel as well as a Hamas-led Gaza government that fears the jihadis’ threat to its legitimacy. That said, if the Egyptian government continues to operate in a brazen manner militarily it will create new local recruits that could sustain the Islamic State in north Sinai. How this all ends is impossible to predict, but as of now, the Islamic State has indeed set itself up on a limited base in the Sinai and has established a growing movement in Libya more than two months following the announcement of its expansion.
Aaron Y. Zelin is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. He is the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Rena and Sami David Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. He is also the founder of the widely-cited website Jihadology.net.