Welcome to the Post-Middle East ISIS
The Islamic State has a newly expanded geographic focus—and the results will be worse than the original.
On Monday, the Islamic State released a video of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi holding a meeting with three members in a traditional Arab home setting. It was Baghdadi’s first public appearance since he declared himself a caliph from the pulpit of an iconic 12th-century mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014.
The message of the video, however, was not just to show that Baghdadi was still alive; the group could have made that point without the risks involved in the production and release of a video at a time when the coalition led by the United States is still fully deployed in Iraq and Syria. The message, rather, was far more ambitious. Above all, it was an announcement of the group’s wider geographic ambitions.
Baghdadi’s appearance was in large part designed to inaugurate a new chapter in his organization’s life, in which it moves beyond its territorial loss in Iraq and Syria. In the video, Baghdadi bragged about new oaths of allegiance extended to him from jihadis in Mali, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. The video ends with footage showing Baghdadi being briefed about various foreign franchises, including a new one in Turkey.
The continuing loyalty of these remote affiliates to the Islamic State despite the collapse of the caliphate in Syria is a huge win for the organization. It shows that the Islamic State is poised to export the unique terrorism formula it perfected in Iraq a decade ago to a broader region, ranging from India to West Africa, as it shifts from governing as a caliphate to operating an insurgency. As one sign of its success, the group announced its first-ever attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and claimed the bombings in Sri Lanka last month.
This trend should not be surprising: It has been underway since 2016, when the tactics and rhetoric of the Islamic State’s regional affiliates increasingly resembled the central organization. In Sinai and Afghanistan, for example, regional branches started to emphasize an ideology focused on sectarian attacks, against Christians or Shiites, reflecting the group’s approach in Iraq since 2003. By dispatching long-standing operatives to lead or help run these branches, the Islamic State seems to have successfully molded them in its image. This has helped it to maintain control over these regional offshoots despite its tumultuous collapse in Iraq and Syria.
And in doing so, it has exported the specific jihadi brand it built in Iraq—known for its uncompromising, vicious, and sectarian strategy—even relative to that of al Qaeda and the Taliban. In Egypt, the group carried out numerous attacks targeting Coptic Egyptians over the past few years, and attacks against Shiites in Afghanistan feature prominently in the group’s operations there. In attacking Shiite civilians in Afghanistan and Yemen, Islamic State media outlets do not even add a reasoning for the killings. Being Shiite automatically makes one a legitimate target for the group, which is unusual even for other extremist jihadi groups.
From the Islamic State’s point of view, the strategy of heightening brutality and sectarianism was effective, allowing it to rise from its original defeat in Iraq in 2008. In Iraq, the group pit communities against each other, targeted places of worship, deterred locals from cooperating with the government, and hunted local rivals who could pose a threat to it in the future. By the time it captured one-third of Iraq in 2014, it had established itself as the only viable force capable of controlling the areas and fighting the government, almost uncontested on a local level.
In his remarks, Baghdadi refers to his group’s strategy for survival as a “war of attrition,” which also echoes the group’s propaganda since it started losing major strongholds three years ago. To understand where the Islamic State is heading next, it is important to pay a closer look to the long-game strategy that marked its original rise, not just the methods that came to be associated with the Islamic State in recent years, such as control of territory.
The Islamic State’s history of rising from the ashes in Iraq after 2008 shapes the organization’s thinking more than anything else, evident in the frequent references to that experience in its publications and statements for the past three years. The situation for the group today resembles that earlier period, only on a broader geographic scale—which is why it is trying to replicate the same blueprint, which enabled it to eradicate its rivals, entrench itself locally, and ultimately present itself as the last flag for those fighting a central government. In Iraq and Syria since 2016, the group reverted to old tactics of assassinating community leaders, buying locality, and planting sleeper cells to conduct underground operations not just to fight its enemies but also to empty the areas in which it operates of any potential rivals. These tactics were detailed in a plan published in online jihadi forums in December 2009.
The spread of global jihad under the Islamic State banner will likely prove both an opportunity and a burden for its affiliates, as it will distinguish them from other violent rivals but also alienate local communities. Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s plan to entrench itself locally throughout the broader region is arguably the most serious threat posed by the group today. The fact that its model evidently worked after the group’s defeat in 2008 makes it easier for the Islamic State to maintain the loyalty of many of its members and support networks and to persuade new recruits further afield to subscribe to its ideology.
Ultimately, Baghdadi’s video marks the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to capture Baghdadi and dismantle his organization. It demonstrates the health of both Baghdadi and his organization—refuting recent rumors that he was ailing—and allows them to boast about a major terrorist attack, their expansion to new places, and the recruitment of new members.
In this sense, the Islamic State is once again a step ahead of the U.S.-led coalition. Policymakers must recognize this nebulous aspect of the group’s growth if they are to prevent it from rising again. The organization has transitioned safely from controlling territory to its next phase of operation without fracture, and its ability to entrench itself locally throughout the region, as it did in Iraq after 2008, could lay the groundwork for another 2014 moment, except on a larger scale than just Iraq and Syria.