The State of the Islamic State

The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has upped this ante this month, conducting a series of attacks in a number of Arab countries. While the operations in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen pursue the organization’s goal of destabilizing the region, the ISIS escalation also means to display its strength for its supporters. It aims to demonstrate that despite the losses in Iraq, its caliphate is still capable of expanding. These attacks suggest that the organization’s priorities remain focused on the Middle East.

The creation of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq has given the terror organization unequaled leverage, allowing it to recruit internationally and build strong credibility within its supporters’ rank and file. Continuous expansion of this caliphate is an essential part of the ISIS narrative. However, in recent months the organization has witnessed several losses. More than 1000 of its fighters were killed in its offensive on Kobani, launched in September last year. Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, speaking at this month’s Sulaimani Forum organized by the American University in Iraq, noted that ISIS lost an estimated 25 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria. In Mosul, interviewed Iraqi activists say that support to the organization—while still strong—has nonetheless waned. Kurdish peshmerga forces repelled the ISIS offensive in Kirkuk, advanced in disputed areas, taking control of Qadisia, Yarmook, and Shahid, along with ten other villages. Coalition strikes totaling 2,320 in March have also hindered the ISIS expansion. Ari Harsin, a Kurdish MP engaged in the war against ISIS acknowledged in an interview that the military capability of the organization appear “to have diminished,” citing militant casualties and defections among some of its cadres as contributing factors.

The erosion of ISIS’s military capability has tarnished the organization’s victorious narrative. To offset its losses, ISIS militants have launched a two-pronged offensive in western Syria in the rural areas east of Homs and Hama. It has also bolstered its presence in regions that it considers as its natural sphere of influence, including other countries across the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, ISIS forces in Libya have increasingly clashed with Libya Dawn force: ISIS rocket attack recently killed five militiamen in Sirte and the organization claimed responsibility for a double suicide car bombing that killed at least seven soldiers in Benghazi. ISIS also conducted two suicide bombings targeting Houthis mosques in Yemen and claimed responsibility for the Bardo Museum terrorist attack in Tunisia.

The expansion of ISIS in Libya has been defended by prominent ISIS supporter Abou Arhim al-Liby who uploaded a short essay, translated by the Quilliam Foundation as “Libya: The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State.” It states that the organization sees an opportunity in the country fragmented by the ongoing power struggle. In recent months, media reports indicate the establishment of a training camp situated just 27.9 miles from the Tunisian border and an increase of 5000 fighters into Libya.

ISIS philosophy has so far centered on the management of savagery, stated in an eponymous book by Abou Bakr Naji, which recommends extending terrorists organizations’ control in areas where chaos prevails by providing good governance in order to achieve tamekeen (consolidation). Similar to its approach in Syria and Iraq, ISIS hopes to establish another “fortified house” (diyar al-tamkeen) in Libya, a fortress from which it can expand its activities into other countries. This preoccupation has been underlined by Abou Arhim who mentions the “strategic geographic” location of Libya. He adds, “Libya, by the will of God, is the key to Egypt, the key to Tunisia, Sudan, Mali, Algeria and Niger too. It is the anchor from which Africa and the Islamic Maghreb can be reached.”

However, ISIS strategy in Tunisia and Yemen has been more like that of al-Qaeda’s classical jihad al-nikaya, which relies on the use of local cells conducting terrorist operations across the country to undermine stability. Tunisia holds the largest foreign ISIS contingent with about 3000 militants fighting alongside the organization in Iraq and Syria, of which 500 are believed to have returned home. In Yemen, the organization seems to have adhered to Zarqawi’s strategy of sectarian-centered bombings, aimed at polarizing a country that has witnessed rising religious and regional tensions between Shia Houthis and the central government of Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Besides increased activity in Arab countries, the ISIS discourse toward the West has also escalated. In February, an ISIS video threatened “the nation signed with the blood of the cross” (Italy) and warned that the group, in Libya, was just “south of Rome.” This proximity of the organization to the West was also noted in Abou Arhim’s document who remarked that Libya’s coastline “looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat.” This comes four months after the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq ran a cover photo of the militant group’s flag flying above the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican with the headline, “The failed crusade.” In March, the organization also called on its “brothers in America” to murder US military personal.

While the threat of lone wolf operations by ISIS in Western countries certainly poses a growing threat, the organization does not willing or capable of conducting operations there. Amedy Coulibably, a perpetrator of the Chalie Hebdo attack in Paris, had no formal ties with ISIS, as apparent in the interview with his wife Hayat Bomediane that appeared in an ISIS publication. Other attacks, such as the ones conducted by Michael Zehaf Bilbau in Ottawa and the hostage takeover of Haron Monis in Australia, have also been lone wolf operations. In the absence of established networks in Western countries, the primary mission of ISIS in the so-called “Far Abroad” regions will remain for now the work of “munassirin (supporters) who do not formally adhere to the organization,” in words of Jordanian Salafi jihadist leader Abou Sayaf.

ISIS remains highly dynamic, constantly shifting to adapt to highly fluid realities across the Middle East, but still somewhat limited—whether by chance or by design—to the volatile region. So long as ISIS can grow and gain momentum, it will focus its resources on countries where it can consolidate power and territory—namely Syria, Iraq, and possibly Libya. However, the more pressure placed on the organization’s Levant home base, the more it will revert to cell-based terrorist operations in Arab countries. ISIS might attempt a global terrorist campaign if the US-led anti-ISIS coalition drives the organization’s leadership and its foreign fighters of Iraq and Syria.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. She is a French-Lebanese journalist and based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami. This article is based on research recently conducted in Iraq and Jordan.

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Image: Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants, November 24, 2014. (Reuters)