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.
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. 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.[b]
As of July 2016, the Islamic State officially claimed 39 govern orates,[c] 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 (Sayna’); 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.[d]
The Islamic State’s governorates can be divided into three types: statelets, insurgencies, and terrorist organizations. For the purposes of this article, a statelet is a governorate that monopolizes violence in some territory, levies taxes, imposes law, and provides public services. It functions like a government even if it is not recognized 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 organization 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. (As of this writing, the group’s hold on Sirte is rapidly weakening.) The Gharb Ifriqiyyah Governorate, aka 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 prioritized 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 and Alienating Jihadis
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-Qa`ida. For example, the Islamic State in Libya lost its first base in Darna because it antagonized other jihadist groups that supported al-Qa`ida. The governorates in Yemen have struggled to remain relevant against the vastly more powerful al-Qa`ida 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 signaled 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 organization 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 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, and considered them to be provinces that belonged to them,” he stated.
In Algeria, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) blunted the Islamic State’s recruitment drive by denouncing it and carrying out high-profile attacks there. The Taliban, which the Islamic State 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 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-Qa`ida. Whereas al-Qa`ida is willing to overlook doctrinal differences for the sake of alliance-building, the Islamic State is less so. And because the group styles itself 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 preexisting 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-Qa`ida’s Caucasus Emirate. The governor of the Caucasus Governorate, Abu Muhammad al-Qadari (aka Rustam Asildarov), previously commanded the Dagestan Governorate, a subset of al-Qa`ida’s Caucasus Emirate.[e] 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 supported the Islamic State for a variety of reasons. Some 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 reestablishment of the caliphate. A senior religious leader in AQAP praised al-Baghdadi for declaring the 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-Qa`ida, it castigated its former commanders for not declaring all Shi`a 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 Shi`a Houthis and AQAP was not doing enough to kill Shi`a 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.[f]
Although the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida 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-Qa`ida, that brought down a Russian passenger airliner in response to Russia’s escalation in Syria. The Islamic State, not al-Qa`ida, has inspired or directed dozens of lethal attacks in the West recently.
The Islamic State is not ideologically required 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-Qa`ida Central for that task. The Islamic State has also acknowledged that it can sign truces with “infidel” states.[g] 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 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.
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-Qa`ida, 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 organization would have to stop demanding that other groups recognize 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.
a As Brynjar Lia has argued, doctrinaire jihadist groups have trouble building alliances because they make enemies on all sides. As a consequence, they are unable to build the popular fronts necessary to achieve their political objectives. Brynjar Lia, “Jihadi Strategists and Doctrinarians,” in Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (eds.) Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010), p. 130. Although the author does not agree that a popular front is necessary for jihadis to achieve their goals, failing to prioritize enemies is certainly detrimental to any state-building enterprise.
b Each governorate has its own governor (wali). If the governorate is the only one in a region, it reports directly to the Islamic State’s leaders in Syria and Iraq. If it is one of several in a region, it may answer to an emir, as they have in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
c “Officially claimed” means they were mentioned in the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine or in its official Arabic attack reports. In July, the Islamic State issued a video with an organizational chart of the caliphate that listed 35 governorates. Missing were the governorates of Idlib (“The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men,” Dabiq, issue 10, p. 54), Sahil (Islamic State attack announcement, May 23, 2016, https://justpaste.it/16-8-1437), Junub Baghdad (“Islamic State Operations,” Dabiq, issue 14, p. 24), and al-Bahrayn (“’Da’esh Wilayat al-Bahrain’ yatabanna hujoom al-Husseiniyya al-Haydariyya sharq al-Sa’udiyya,” Mir’a al-Bahrain, October 17, 2015). The chart gives the name Liwa’ al-Akhdar as a governorate in Yemen but does not mention Lahij governorate, which is sometimes mentioned by Islamic State supporters (@ASI_FI, Twitter, March 23, 2015).
d On the anniversary of the June 29th announcement of the caliphate, the Islamic State issued an infographic on Twitter, “Two Years Since Announcing the Caliphate,” detailing the organization’s reach.
e Al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State both use the term governorate to designate subdivisions of their states. For al-Qa`ida, governorates are part of emirates or individual states. For the Islamic State, there are no individual states; all are provinces of the caliphate.
f The contrast also benefits the “moderate” jihadist groups because it helps them to present themselves to the public as the reasonable alternative to the zealots. Thus, al-Qa`ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has decried the Islamic State’s tactical and legal excesses to position his group as the moderate jihadist alternative, and al-Qa`ida affiliates in Syria and Yemen have repeatedly drawn contrasts between their behavior and that of the Islamic State. At least in Syria, the strategy has paid off; many in the mainstream opposition to President Assad view al-Qa`ida’s affiliate al-Nusra as a respectable member.
g The Islamic State believes it has more latitude to sign truces with non-Muslim states than Muslim states. “The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal,” Dabiq, issue 13, p. 43.
1 “Wilayat Khurasan and the Bay’at from Qawqaz,” Dabiq, issue 7, p. 35.
2 The Islamic State, “Remaining and Expanding,” Dabiq, issue 5, p. 24.
3 Rami Musa, “Al-Qaida-linked militants attack IS affiliate in Libya,” Associated Press, June 10, 2015.
4 Rene Slama, ”Saudis turn a blind eye as Qaeda gains ground in Yemen,” Yahoo News, August 24, 2015; Asa Fitch and Saleh al Batati, “ISIS Fails to Gain Much Traction in Yemen,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2016; Katherine Zimmerman, “Exploring ISIS in Yemen,” AEI Critical Threats, July 24, 2015.
5 Paul Cruickshank, “Al Qaeda in Yemen rebukes ISIS,” CNN, November 21, 2014.
6 Nathaniel Barr, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Deception: The Islamic State’s Expansion Efforts in Algeria,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 13, 2015.
7 “A Fatwa for Khurasan,” Dabiq, issue 10.
9 Islamuddin Sajid, “Hafiz Saeed Khan: The former Taliban warlord taking Isis to India and Pakistan,” International Business Times, January 19, 2015; Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition,“ Long War Journal, October 18, 2014.
10 Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim, and Eric Schmitt, “Islamic State Gains Strength in Yemen, Challenging Al Qaeda,” New York Times, December 14, 2015.
11 Thomas Joscelyn, “New leader of Islamic Caucasus Emirate killed by Russian forces,” Long War Journal, August 11, 2015.
12 “Algeria’s al-Qaeda defectors join IS group,” Al Jazeera, September 14, 2014.
13 Aaron Y. Zelin, “New statement from al-Qa’idah in the Islamic Maghrib: “About the Rumor of the Allegiance of Katibat al-Ansar to the ‘State Organization’,” Jihadology, September 5, 2015; Aaron Y. Zelin, “New audio message from Katibat al-Ansar: “Statement from the Mujahidin: Bay’ah to the Caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Joining The Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Jaza’ir,” Jihadology, September 5, 2015; “AQIM Division Pledges Allegiance to IS Leader Baghdadi in Video,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 22, 2015.
14 “IS Releases Pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from “Skikda Battalion” in Algeria,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 9, 2015; Aaron Y. Zelin, “New audio message from Sarayyah al-Ghuraba’: “Bay’ah of the Mujahidin in the City of Qusantinah (Constantine) To the Caliph of the Muslims Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Joining The Islamic State’s Wilayat al-Jaza’ir,” Jihadology, July 25, 2015.
15 Hekmatullah Azamy and James Weir, “Islamic State and Jihadi Realignments in Khorasan,” Diplomat, May 8, 2015.
16 “Gulf of Aden Security Review – June 30, 2014,” AEI Critical Threats, June 30, 2014.
17 Thomas Joscelyn, “ISIS spokesman blames Zawahiri for infighting in Syria,” Long War Journal, May 12, 2014; “The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal,” Dabiq, issue 13, pp. 32-45.
18 Almosawa, Fahim, and Schmitt.
19 Hakim Al Masmari and Asa Fitch, “Yemen Division of Islamic State Claims Suicide Bomb Attacks That Killed Scores,” Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2015.
20 Muhammad Akbar Notezai, “What Next for the Afghanistan Peace Talks?” Diplomat, August 5, 2015.
21 “France to boost regional forces battling Boko Haram,” Agence France-Presse, March 12, 2015.
About the Author
William McCants directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at The Brookings Institution and is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. He is a former fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center. Follow @will_mccants