Neither Remaining Nor Expanding: The Islamic State’s Global Expansion Struggles
Judging from the Islamic State’s propaganda, it would appear the group is rapidly overtaking the Muslim world. The Islamic State has declared wilayats (provinces) in ten countries spanning from Nigeria to the Caucasus region. It has executed high-profile attacks in several otherwise stable countries, including Tunisia, Turkey, Kuwait, France, and the United States. The group has championed its victories and downplayed its defeats at every turn, portraying itself as a military behemoth destined to restore the caliphate to its former glory. In short, the Islamic State would like the world — and especially prospective recruits — to believe it is “remaining and expanding” (baqiya wa tatamaddad), a slogan that defines the group’s propaganda.
Yet in reality, between state security forces and rival jihadist groups, the Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq. Several of its nascent affiliates met decisive defeat. In some places, the Islamic State has been its own worst enemy, as personality clashes and disagreements over strategy created deep cleavages.
Confronted by this array of external and internal challenges, the Islamic State’s track record of territorial expansion in its “near abroad” has been uneven, to put it mildly. One wilayat that the Islamic State declared now exists only on paper. Many upstart splinter groups that broke away from existing jihadist organizations to pledge allegiance to the caliphate have fared poorly or ceased to exist altogether.
The Islamic State’s expansion struggles stand in contrast to the group’s “winner’s messaging” and threaten the perception of momentum that it works hard to maintain. Yet these stumbles have gone largely unnoticed by the international media. The Islamic State has done a masterful job of concealing its weaknesses, and many of the group’s defeats have taken place in far-flung and dangerous areas where journalists rarely tread. As the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid has noted, for the Islamic State, “objective reality doesn’t matter” because it is fighting “a propaganda war.” This article takes a step toward a more balanced view of the group’s expansion efforts by detailing several significant defeats in its near abroad.
Wilayat al-Jazair: The Islamic State’s Paper Province
The Islamic State experienced perhaps its greatest setback to date in Algeria, where hyper-vigilant security forces crushed its fledging affiliate.
Algeria initially seemed like a promising area of expansion for the Islamic State. In September 2014, approximately 30 militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) central zone announced that they were defecting from al-Qaeda and joining the Islamic State. Just weeks after the group adopted the name Jund al-Khilafah and joined the Islamic State, it released a video announcing that it had kidnapped Hervé Gourdel, a French mountain climber, and intended to kill him unless France stopped its air campaign in Iraq. (The video was released the same day that the Islamic State circulated a statement where spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on supporters to kill foreigners whose countries were involved in the military campaign against the group, “especially the spiteful and filthy French.”) Two days later, Jund al-Khilafah made good on its threat, releasing a video of Gourdel’s beheading.
The Frenchman’s beheading would be Jund al-Khilafah’s first and last hurrah. With this ostentatious and brutal display, the former al-Qaeda militants placed themselves squarely in the crosshairs of Algeria’s security forces. About a month after Jund al-Khilafah’s inception, Algerian security forces killed the group’s emir, Abdelmalik Gouri. The loss of a key leader, while rarely crippling for well-established jihadist groups, damaged Jund al-Khilafah while it was still building its network.
But the Algerian security forces’ next strike was even more paralyzing. In May 2015, Algerian soldiers killed at least 25 Islamic State militants in two days of raids in the mountains of northeastern Algeria, in an operation that left five of Jund al-Khilafah’s six commanders dead, including Abdullah Othman al-Asimi, who had been appointed to lead the group after Gouri’s death.
The May 2015 operation marked the effective end of the Islamic State’s first expansion experiment in Algeria. According to one news report, only six or seven Islamic State fighters remain from the original Jund al-Khilafah group, leaving it a paper tiger. The Islamic State should not be counted out in Algeria — the organization reportedly recently dispatched several Algerians to reestablish a cell there — but the group’s first attempt at expansion in the country was a dismal failure.
The Jihadist Threat to Islamic State Expansion
Though security forces quickly halted the Islamic State’s expansion into Algeria, rival jihadist groups have actually posed the biggest obstacle to the caliphate’s growth elsewhere in the world. In some countries, the Islamic State has succeeded in persuading rank-and-file militants and even occasionally entire jihadist groups to defect to its ranks. More often, the Islamic State has encountered stiff opposition from rival jihadists. The caliphate’s jihadist adversaries often have a strong ground network in place, giving them an advantage over the Islamic State. Frequently outnumbered, the Islamic State has suffered a series of devastating, albeit largely unnoticed, losses to jihadist groups in its near abroad.
One of the clearest cautionary tales for organizations considering defection to the Islamic State is the implosion of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a well-established jihadist group composed of several hundred militants based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With a predominantly Central Asian membership, the IMU had close ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda dating back to the 1990s. But after the Islamic State expanded into Afghanistan, the IMU switched its loyalties and joined the budding caliphate.
The decision to break with the Taliban proved costly. Shortly after the IMU pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the Taliban launched an offensive against its erstwhile ally. Many IMU members, including emir Usman Ghazi, decided to seek out a safe haven in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, where Mullah Dadullah led a Taliban splinter faction that maintained a tactical military alliance with the IMU. In November 2015, the Taliban carried out a second operation against the IMU and Dadullah that rapidly overwhelmed these outgunned adversaries. Dadullah and dozens of his family members were killed, as were over 100 IMU fighters. Usman Ghazi was apparently killed or captured by the Taliban, though his exact fate remains unknown.
The IMU’s precipitous collapse was remarkable, especially considering that the group had been part of the militant landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a couple of decades. An IMU supporter reporting on the group’s destruction on Twitter acknowledged this when he remarked: “What America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours.”
While established jihadist groups that realign themselves with the Islamic State can at least draw on an existing network to defend themselves, smaller contingents that defect to the Islamic State often lack the strength to fend off retribution from the organizations they’ve splintered from. The case of al-Murabitun, a militant group that operates in the Sahel and Maghreb, illustrates the challenges that pro-Islamic State sympathizers have faced when defecting from al-Qaeda-linked groups. Al-Murabitun was formed in 2013, when Mokhtar Belmokhtar — an Algerian jihadist who left AQIM in 2012 to establish his own brigade — joined forces with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Despite his breakup with AQIM, Belmokhtar remains firmly aligned with al-Qaeda in its competition with the Islamic State.
But despite Belmokhtar’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, several key leaders from the unaffiliated MUJAO contingent drifted into the Islamic State’s orbit. In May 2015, al-Murabitun spokesman Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a MUJAO member, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. He incurred Belmokhtar’s wrath by speaking not just for his own faction, but seemingly taking an oath of bayat (fealty) on behalf of the entire al-Murabitun organization.
Sahraoui’s announcement ushered in a turbulent period within al-Murabitun. Belmokhtar immediately issued a statement rejecting this realignment, and then went on the offensive against Sahraoui and his fellow Islamic State devotees. In June 2015, clashes erupted between Sahraoui’s forces and al-Qaeda groups in northern Mali, leaving Sahraoui badly wounded and over a dozen of his men dead. The same month, al-Murabitun released a statement appointing Belmokhtar the new emir of the group and reaffirming al-Murabitun’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda. Finally, in December 2015, AQIM released a statement following the attack on Bamako’s Radisson Blu Hotel proclaiming that al-Murabitun had rejoined AQIM.
This chain of events shows that Belmokhtar and his contingent of al-Qaeda loyalists came out on top in the internal struggle within al-Murabitun. While Sahraoui’s fate remains unclear, his attempt to move al-Murabitun into the Islamic State camp was obviously quite costly for his faction.
In Somalia, dominant al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab has likewise inhibited the Islamic State’s attempts at establishing a foothold. The Islamic State initially tried to persuade the entire leadership of al-Shabaab to defect, but that initiative failed. The Islamic State then shifted to appealing to al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers and mid-level commanders to establish pro-Islamic State splinter groups, but al-Shabaab’s leadership ruthlessly cracked down on Islamic State sympathizers in the group’s ranks. In a November 2015 radio broadcast, an al-Shabaab commander said that the group “will not tolerate the acts of saboteurs,” and vowed to “cut the throat” of any Islamic State supporters within the movement.
Al-Shabaab has deployed its intelligence and security wing, the amniyat, to arrest or kill Islamic State supporters in a purge as vicious as it is far-reaching. In June 2015, al-Qaeda supporters on Twitter reported that al-Shabaab had arrested a spy who was trying to generate support for the Islamic State. In October 2015, Somali media outlets reported that al-Shabaab had detained as many as 30 pro-Islamic State militants, some of whom were accused of disseminating pro-Islamic State leaflets. Other pro-Islamic State militants fled al-Shabaab-controlled territory. In late 2015, two al-Shabaab militants believed to be Islamic State sympathizers turned themselves in to Somali security forces to avoid the crackdown. One al-Shabaab commander explained that Islamic State supporters within al-Shabaab preferred “to fall into the enemy’s hands instead of meeting death in the hands of brothers,” referring to the amniyat.
With the amniyat bearing down on Islamic State supporters, the group’s widely publicized campaign of expansion into Somalia has been largely unsuccessful. The caliphate’s biggest splash there came in October 2015, when Abdulqadir Mumin, an al-Shabaab religious official based in the Puntland region, pledged allegiance to the caliphate on behalf of a group of fighters. Yet Mumin’s faction consisted of fewer than 100 militants, with one news outlet reporting that it was comprised of just 20 individuals — a fraction of al-Shabaab’s total fighting force in the Puntland region. And though Puntland is geographically removed from al-Shabaab’s largest strongholds, the group has already begun hunting for Mumin and his supporters. Clashes erupted between al-Shabaab and Islamic State factions in Puntland in late December 2015, raising questions about the likely longevity of Mumin’s undermanned contingent. Despite several small elements in southern and central Somalia pledging allegiance to the Islamic State since Mumin’s statement, the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a foothold in Somalia have been largely thwarted by vigilant al-Shabaab militants.
Though Libya is rightly considered the Islamic State’s most promising outpost outside of Syria and Iraq, it has also witnessed one of the Islamic State’s most embarrassing defeats. In June 2015, a patchwork of armed groups and several al-Qaeda-linked factions ousted the Islamic State from the eastern city of Derna. The Islamic State’s collapse in Derna is even more instructive because Islamic State had established a sizable ground network there and even convinced prominent media outlets that it completely controlled the city.
There were signs in the early months of Islamic State operations in Derna that its path to expansion in the city would be fraught with obstacles. In the spring of 2014, several hundred members of the al-Battar battalion — a competent Islamic State military unit composed of North Africans — redeployed from Syria to Derna, where they set up a group known as the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In October 2014, IYSC formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, a move poorly received by several other armed groups in Derna. The Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, a hardline Islamist militia with deep roots in the city, immediately responded with a competing statement saying it would never pledge allegiance to any power outside Libya.
The rivalry escalated. In December 2014, several militant factions, including the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia in Derna, announced the establishment of the Derna Mujahedin Shura Council, which pointedly excluded the Islamic State. The Derna Mujahedin Shura Council was ostensibly created to unite Derna’s various armed factions against Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the armed forces for one of Libya’s two rival parliaments. But the Council also served a dual purpose of opposing the Islamic State, and it clashed with the IYSC throughout early 2015.
Tensions between the Derna Mujahedin Shura Council and IYSC came to a head in June 2015 after IYSC killed two leading members of the Council, including its leader, Salim Derbi. This prompted the Council to launch a full-scale offensive against IYSC that exposed the Islamic State’s vulnerabilities in Derna. Within two weeks, Islamic State forces were driven from Derna, and the remaining pro-Islamic State fighters were left to regroup in the city’s southern suburbs. While the Islamic State repeatedly vowed to retake Derna in the months following its ouster, it was never able to mount a resurgence there. Instead, in December 2015, Islamic State militants besieged by Derna Mujahedin Shura Council forces requested safe passage out of the area, a plea that amounted to an admission of the Islamic State’s defeat in the city. While some Islamic State militants remain on the outskirts of Derna, they are no longer strategically relevant at this point.
The Islamic State’s Dirty Laundry
Though both security forces and fellow militants have beset the Islamic State, some of the greatest challenges to the group’s campaign of global expansion come from within. Personality clashes and disagreements about strategy and religious methodology have caused significant fissures. In places where the group’s network remains embryonic, infighting and fragmentation can be cataclysmic, as the group lacks the organizational cohesion and resiliency to mend ties and rebound from defections.
Nowhere have the Islamic State’s internal schisms been more pronounced than Yemen, where intra-organizational tensions have constrained its ability to capitalize on the country’s anarchic conditions. Tensions within the Islamic State’s Yemen affiliate exploded into public in December 2015, when 70 Islamic State members and several senior leaders released a statement on Twitter announcing that they were defecting from the group’s local governor (wali). The statement did not renounce the Islamic State as an organization; in fact, it began with a renewed pledge of allegiance to its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the defectors explained that their former wali had committed several sharia violations by dismissing fighters who had brought a lawsuit against the Islamic State’s military commander in Yemen and failing to provide sufficient resources to militants in Hadramawt Province. The group also accused the wali of committing “injustice against the weak” and expelling foreign fighters.
This statement opened the floodgates and revealed the extent of discontent within the Islamic State’s ranks in Yemen. Immediately after the statement’s release, another Islamic State defector from Yemen released an article on Twitter outlining his own reasons for leaving the group, and called on the 70 defectors to renounce their pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi entirely. Al-Qaeda sought to further fuel the flames of discord. One al-Qaeda supporter, Muhammad bin Farhan al-Maliki, released a statement arguing that the mass defection showed that the Islamic State did not follow the “Prophet’s methodology.” Maliki predicted that this defection would be the “first storm” in a wave of coming defections from the Islamic State.
The Islamic State adopted a characteristically pugnacious response to the defections. Abu Ubaydah Abd-al-Hakim, a veteran Iraqi jihadist and member of the Islamic State’s sharia council, condemned the defectors for defying their wali. Hakim said the wali was doing the work of Baghdadi, and exhorted the men to rejoin the Islamic State’s Yemen branch.
The Islamic State’s warning did little to curb the flood of defecting Yemeni jihadists. On December 24, over 30 militants, including three senior officials, released a statement declaring that they would no longer obey the Islamic State’s wali in Yemen. Several days later, a former Islamic State sharia official in Yemen released a 30-minute video outlining numerous transgressions committed by the group, even comparing the Islamic State’s operations in Yemen to the “work of children who have not reached puberty and who have not participated in any jihadist work.” Days after this damning testimony was released, another 24 militants announced that they were breaking away from the Islamic State’s Yemen leadership.
This wave of defections and publicly aired grievances suggests that the Islamic State’s organization in Yemen may be crumbling. At least one hundred fighters have defected from the Yemen affiliate since mid-December 2015, a striking number considering that the Islamic State is believed to have fewer than a thousand fighters in the whole country. Rather than replacing the controversial wali to stave off a mass exodus, the Islamic State’s central leadership stuck with its man and threatened those who defied his authority.
While the discord in Yemen is the most extreme case, Islamic State wilayats elsewhere in its near abroad have also experienced unrest. In October 2015, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and one of the leading Islamic State officials in Afghanistan, announced in a statement that he would no longer obey Hafiz Saeed Khan, the wali of Wilayat Khorasan (the Islamic State province encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan). However, Muslim Dost specified that he remained loyal to the Islamic State. Muslim Dost’s grievances with Saeed Khan related to the latter’s proclivity for using brutality against civilian populations, an approach that “insulted the Afghan people.” Saeed Khan’s decision to kill ten Afghan villagers by “detonating explosives on which he forced them to sit” particularly angered Muslim Dost. Strategic disagreements were also a factor: New York University political scientist Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan specialist, writes that Muslim Dost preferred to fight the Pakistani army, while Saeed Khan was focused on expanding the Islamic State’s territory in Afghanistan.
The Islamic State’s Soft Underbelly
Of course, the Islamic State has also experienced significant successes in its expansion efforts. Its most consequential stronghold is the Libyan city of Sirte. The Islamic State now commands approximately 6,500 militants in Sirte and other hotspots in Libya, which has become a destination for foreign fighters from across Africa. The Islamic State’s leadership has also dispatched several high-level figures, including Abu Ali al-Anbari, to Sirte, suggesting that the group is becoming increasingly serious about building out its stronghold there. Meanwhile, the group’s Egypt-based Wilayat Sinai has withstood repeated offensives by the Egyptian security forces, and achieved a major propaganda coup when it downed a Russian airliner flying over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015. Nobody should doubt that the group is dangerous outside of Syria and Iraq, as it has been able to sustain a torrid pace of serious terrorist attacks.
But these successes do not diminish the fact that the group has stumbled or even fallen flat in almost every country where it has tried to establish a new wilayat. The group’s failures as it tries to expand beyond Syria and Iraq could cast doubt on its entire global caliphate project. The Islamic State’s setbacks in its near abroad could also create the perception that the Islamic State is weak, challenging the group’s winner’s narrative.
At a time when the international community is floundering about for ways to undermine the Islamic State’s propaganda machine, highlighting these defeats may be one of the most effective and impregnable counter-messaging strategies. Unlike counter-messaging that relies on subjective arguments, content that highlights the Islamic State’s expansion struggles is evidence-based and very difficult for the Islamic State and its supporters to dispute. Thus, state and non-state actors involved in combating the Islamic State’s online propaganda machine should draw attention to the group’s recent defeats, juxtaposing them against the Islamic State’s claims of omnipresence.
But there is a darker side to the Islamic State’s recent defeats outside Syria and Iraq. As this article illustrates, al-Qaeda has repeatedly rebuffed the Islamic State’s advances, consolidating its territorial control and strengthening its organizational cohesion in the process. Indeed, while the Islamic State continues to dominate international headlines, al-Qaeda is quietly building its global network and preparing itself for the eventual collapse of the “caliphate.” We should not forget this, even as we continue to degrade the Islamic State.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of Valens Global, a consulting firm that focuses on the challenges posed by violent non-state actors. Nathaniel Barr is the research manager at Valens Global.