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ISIS’s Global Campaign Remains Intact

Image courtesy of Surian Soosay/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study War on 12 July 2017.

ISIS’s first attack in Iran punctuated two stark realities: the group’s annual Ramadan campaign is alive while the US-led anti-ISIS campaign is on a path to failure. ISIS surges attacks every year during Ramadan in order to gain or increase momentum in its global campaign to maintain its declared caliphate, expand across the Muslim world, and win an apocalyptic war with the West. ISIS has conducted successful attacks in three new countries this year – the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Iran – and will likely pull off more before the Muslim holy month is over. The jihadist group has sustained a global insurgency despite the considerable military pressure it faces in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has been waging its global campaign in four separate “rings” since 2014. First, ISIS is defending and attempting to remain in and expand its territorial control in its “core terrain” in Syria and Iraq. Second, ISIS seeks to weaken the Middle East’s power centers of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Third, ISIS is expanding in other Muslim majority countries through attack networks and, when possible, ground operations. Fourth, ISIS is conducting spectacular attacks in the non-Muslim majority world, or the “far abroad,” in order to polarize those communities and radicalize their minority Muslim populations. ISIS’s Ramadan surges set conditions in these rings, varying its main effort based on its circumstances and the capabilities in Iraq and Syria and of its networks abroad.

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The Islamic State’s Internal Rifts and Social Media Ban

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This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) on 21 June 2017.

An important part of the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq was due at least in part to its creative use of social media tools to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. The group’s well-documented social media skills have attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the fight. As documented by the CTC weeks before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the caliphate in Mosul, the Islamic State propaganda machine also served a critical role in psychological operations during the group’s blitzkrieg advance into northwestern Iraq in June of 2014.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the group has issued an official ban on social media for all of its soldiers. In a document (see below) produced by the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee a few weeks ago and disseminated via Islamic State distribution channels more recently, the group’s order to all of its soldiers stated: “effective from the date of this notification, using social networking sites is entirely and completely forbidden. Whoever violates this exposes himself to questioning and accountability.” The order was published by the group in both Arabic and English.

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Can Military Might Alone Defeat al-Shabaab?

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This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 21 March 2017.

Developing a “security pact” to tackle insurgent jihadists al-Shabaab, who continue to stifle state-building efforts, is one of the key agenda items at the upcoming high-level conference on Somalia scheduled for May this year in London. This complex challenge first depends on identifying what makes al-Shabaab such a resilient movement. Despite some success on the battlefield, this is an understanding that has largely escaped Somalia’s various security forces—and their international supporters—until now.

Donors such as the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Somalia’s security services, including 1.8 billion euros pledged in September 2013 as part of the “New Deal Compact.” Yet al-Shabaab remains a potent force throughout most of the country. The London conference thus presents an opportunity to develop security architecture—and associated justice mechanisms—more in line with previous political progress in Somalia.

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ISIS in Africa: Implications from Syria and Iraq

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This article was originally published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) on 17 March 2017.

At the end of 2016, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), announced that the group had “expanded and shifted some of our command, media, and wealth to Africa.” ISIS’s Dabiq magazine referred to the regions of Africa that were part of its “caliphate”: “the region that includes Sudan, Chad, and Egypt has been named the caliphate province of Alkinaana; the region that includes Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda as the province of Habasha; the North African region encompassing Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, and Mauritania as Maghreb, the province of the caliphate.” Leaving aside the mismatched ethno-linguistic groupings included in each of these “provinces,” ISIS’s interest in establishing a presence in Africa has long been a part of its vision for a global caliphate.

Battlefield setbacks in ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria since 2015, however, raise questions of what impact this will have for ISIS’s African aspirations. A useful starting point in considering this question is to recognize that the threat from violent Islamist groups in Africa is not monolithic but is comprised of a variety of distinct entities. For the most part, these groups are geographically concentrated and focused on local territorial or political objectives. Specifically, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has identified 5 major categories of militant Islamists groups in Africa. In order of lethality on the continent, these include Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, ISIS-linked groups in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Sinai-focused groups.

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The Polarizing Effect of Islamic State Aggression on the Global Jihadist Movement

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This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center on 27 July 2016.

The Islamic State will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonizes 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 preexisting 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[a] or international foes to check its advances. 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.

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