When The Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of the Islamic State’s Affiliates
Panic over which future Islamic State affiliate should be of chief concern rises each day as the Islamic State loses turf in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters flee. This panic should be muted, though, as all Islamic State affiliates are not created equal. A scary jihad map from al Qaeda last decade looks remarkably similar to a scary Islamic State map today. The names change but the places largely remain the same. Much like al Qaeda affiliates eight years ago after jihadi battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled, only a few Islamic State affiliates will grow while many others wane. Anticipating which Islamic State affiliates will rise and fall in the coming years requires a deeper examination of the current construct of each affiliate, the bonds that bring affiliates closer to the Islamic State, the convergent and divergent interests between headquarters and the affiliates, and a long-term outlook for each region. Examining these factors across 16 current or potential affiliate regions paints a dire picture for the Islamic State as an enduring cohesive global terrorist organization. Its strongest current affiliates in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from local rivals and rising counterterrorism pressure. For the Islamic State to endure beyond Iraq and Syria, its options are few and depend more on its ability to self-finance than any other factor.
All Affiliates Are Not Created Equal
Islamic State affiliates; referred to by the group as wilayats (provinces), like their al Qaeda parallels come in different shapes and sizes. Will McCants, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ISIS Apocalypse, characterizes Islamic State affiliates in three ways:
- Statelet — a governate that holds territory and operates like a state
- Insurgency — a governate that occupies territory, but cannot always hold it, and is unwilling or unable to perform the functions of a state
- Terrorist Organization — a governate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely
As an example, the Islamic State’s three wilayats in Libya represent statelets, its Boko Haram affiliate in Nigeria represents an insurgency, and its wilayats in Saudi Arabia only qualify as terrorist organizations. This affiliate landscape is dynamic; the status of all affiliates remains in flux. The Islamic State’s strongest affiliate in Libya sustained losses just this week. To illustrate the different types of affiliates currently composing the Islamic State brand, I’ve assessed each affiliate and its current status in a chart below (Figure 1). In some cases, regions host terrorist groups pledged to the Islamic State that have not been designated formally as wilayats. I describe these areas that produce high numbers of foreign fighters or suffer large amounts of Islamic State-inspired violence as “Horizon Wilayats” that may emerge over time as official provinces.
The Bonds That Bind
Three years ago, counterterrorism debates ignited over a rumored conference call in which Ayman al-Zawahiri presided over a global gathering of al Qaeda affiliates. News of this communications session initially sparked the familiar chirp of pundits: al Qaeda is growing stronger, it’s winning, it’s on the march. But this terrorist communication was confused for commitment and allegiance at a time when al Qaeda’s network instead began to crumble. Bonds were not strengthening, but breaking. Affiliate pledges and communications provide only weak indicators of terrorist collaboration. The stronger bonds that bind terrorists together and suggest true coordination between a headquarters are physical, not merely virtual.
Similarly, today’s Islamic State social media propagation across a wide range of affiliates has been interpreted as a strong sign of its growing network. Electronic communication and sharing suggest coordination, but represents only one of the softer, weaker bonds surfacing in the open source. Pledging bay’at (allegiance) to the Islamic State proves the most obvious indicator, but the speed and nature in which Islamic State Central confirms bay’at tells more about the relationship. Following allegiance, collaborative social media work naturally occurs, but the specifics can be telling. Some affiliates broadcast in lockstep with headquarters, while others, either lacking routine communication with headquarters or sufficient technical production capability, broadcast only sporadically.
True allegiance, whether to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, occurs when terrorists physically collaborate on battlefields. Those affiliates closer to the head shed in Syria and Iraq naturally build tighter relationships with leadership. As seen with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the first affiliates to rebrand as al Qaeda last decade, failed digital communication and collaboration with al Qaeda Central (AQC) in Pakistan during the group’s surge in 2012 likely contributing to the group’s decline. Affiliates in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia have always struggled to get equal attention as compared to those more proximate to the bosses. Beyond social media posts, affiliates best emulating the headquarters will duplicate their administrative governance documents. Islamic State wilayats in Libya and Yemen have duplicated governance policies closely mirroring law in Syria and Iraq. Physical relationships always prove the most telling. Countries with large volumes of foreign fighters surfacing in Syria and Iraq will have more and stronger connections with the Islamic State over the long term. Affiliates enjoying tighter relationships with headquarters will also receive investments in money and men to help sustain or grow their emirate and generate high profile attacks.
Above all, the movement of headquarters’ leaders from Syria and Iraq to an affiliate signals strategic calculation effectively done only through an in-person meeting. Drone strikes outside of Pakstan, Iraq and Syria or surprising Delta Force raids provide some of the only open source clues of affiliate connections to those outside of government intelligence circles. During al Qaeda’s move to affiliates, key operatives were unsuccessfully dispatched to capitalize on the Arab Spring and secreted into the Khorasan Group among Jabhat al-Nusra. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) dispatched envoys to al Shabaab, providing some of the first overt signs of the Somali group’s official connection to al Qaeda. The recent U.S. airstrike killing an Iraqi stationed in Libya, Abu Nabil, suggests the Islamic State now follows a similar pattern.
The Converging and Diverging Interests Of Terrorist Affiliates
Beyond the strength of bonds that bring militants together, a deeper examination of the converging and diverging interests between the Islamic State and its blossoming affiliates will signal which battlefields show promise beyond Syria and Iraq. Those affiliates expanding the brand and providing the group future options will be favored over those former al Qaeda affiliates reaching for the Islamic State’s fame.
The Islamic State accrues straightforward benefits accepting affiliates. After declaring a caliphate, receiving bay’at pledges from global affiliates became a signature way for the Islamic State to demonstrate its rise over its former overlords in al Qaeda. The Islamic State orchestrated the first pledges for maximum propaganda value by pulling in support from former al Qaeda strongholds such as Algeria and Afghanistan. Affiliates have also become a vehicle for achieving success with minimal effort. The Sinai wilayat downed a Russian airliner, providing the Islamic State brand effortless success and increased media content and distribution benefiting both parties. Depending on the environment, a good wilayat can provide potential financial support over the longer term, an expanded set of recruits to join the ranks in Syria, and may even serve as a future safe haven for the Islamic State should its current caliphate evaporate. Both Yemen and Syria served this purpose for al Qaeda over the last decade as its leaders expired in Pakistan. The Islamic State also benefits if affiliates can provide access to specialized skills, equipment, and even targets (such as Westerners). Most importantly, a good affiliate will energize global supporters. Al Qaeda’s affiliates over the last decade demonstrated that Arab affiliates closer to the ideological heartland inspire global supporters in ways African and Asian affiliates sprinkled around the periphery cannot.
From the affiliate’s perspective, pledging to the Islamic State brings a mixture of self-interests, some of which may be more of detriment than benefit to the headquarters. Those first affiliates pledging to the Islamic State largely consisted of breakaway al Qaeda middle managers frustrated by local lack of progress who sought promotion. Frustrated, relatively unknown background players formed wilayats in Afghanistan and Algeria to directly challenge longtime al Qaeda strongholds. Hardliners and violent young bucks broke from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to form a Yemeni wilayat. These new affiliates benefited by connecting to the Islamic State, whose unprecedented media machine amplified its new local group. Should they fail, these new Islamic State upstarts could retreat to a safe haven in Syria and Iraq.
Breakaway faction interests in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Yemen do not hurt headquarters like those long-lasting terror groups who glom onto Islamic State fame while offering little to the global brand. As seen with al Shabaab, which clung to a merger with al Qaeda after its fortunes waned in 2012, some affiliates jump to the Islamic State to reinvigorate their dying efforts. Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi, now the Islamic State’s Sinai wilayat, likely serves as a similar example. Naturally, resource-strapped affiliates may seek out the Islamic State for money and resources, draining the headquarters’ coffers. Today, many selfish Islamic State affiliates, particularly those in Nigeria and Southeast Asia, have clamored for the Islamic State to allow them to keep local manpower at home and possibly incentivize global fighters to relocate as the war in Syria and Iraq declines.
Factors Driving Future Islamic State Growth
The Islamic State’s headquarters, should it crack under coalition pressure over the next year, will face a similar dilemma as al Qaeda did during the Pakistani drone siege of 2009 to 2011: Where should they move to survive and thrive? Regardless of the bonds and ainterests that help describe the relationship between the Islamic State and its affiliates, three factors will largely influence where the Islamic State seeks a new homeland. First, the Islamic State proved able to break away from al Qaeda largely because it was self-financed. Moving forward, those affiliates able to generate their own revenue will have a significant advantage in the post-caliphate era. Second, as seen by post-Bin Laden al Qaeda’s failed emirates in Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, affiliates facing less counterterrorism pressure in the near term will have a greater chance of surviving over the longer term. Third, affiliates in many countries face a range of jihadi competitors. Wilayats with less competition will likely prove more fruitful for the Islamic State as they can conserve resources by avoiding battle with their former al Qaeda brothers.
The chart below evaluates 27 factors noted in the above discussion weighted and compared across 16 affiliate regions. Factors were informed by open source indicators I populated, foreign fighter data discussed in “Beyond Syria and Iraq, The Islamic State’s HR Files Illuminate Dangerous Trends,” and a comparison of expert judgments. I relied on the godfather of Islamic State administration, Aymen al-Tamimi, to understand where governance practices were being shared, used the work of Charlie Winter, J.M. Berger, and Aaron Zelin to assess social media collaboration, and leaned on Will McCants for comparing affiliate constructs. The horizontal axis assesses perceived bonds between affiliates and the headquarters. The vertical axis depicts the degree to which an affiliate’s interests converge with that of the Islamic State. Arrows show the affiliate’s future outlook, either positive or negative depending on potential revenue, counterterrorism pressure, and jihadi competition.
Three clusters of affiliates naturally arose after evaluation of more than two dozen factors. Those affiliates with the tightest bonds and convergent interests with Islamic State headquarters (upper right quadrant of Figure 1 “al Qaeda Rivals”) represent locations with long histories of jihadi violence and were some of the first to pledge to the Islamic State and challenge al Qaeda. The outlook for “al Qaeda Rivals” seems dim as they struggle against a combination of challenges: local jihadi competitors, international counterterrorism efforts, intense state opposition, and financial challenges. The Islamic State’s most promising affiliate in Libya suffered a serious setback this week losing their prized port of Sirte.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, several “Bandwagon” affiliates offer a better outlook since they face fewer local rivals, weaker counterterrorism pressure, better ability to self-finance. Yet Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, and Nigeria have the weakest bonds with the Islamic State. Comparatively few foreign fighters from these locales have traveled to Syria. Disloyal al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram and the Somali splinter emerging for the Islamic State often pursue wanton violence that ultimately proves detrimental to the greater brand. Invigorated Indonesian and Filipino terror groups, now Islamic State devotees, show little difference from their al Qaeda-supporting forms of a decade ago. All of these affiliates pledge to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda to bolster their own image and keep their troops at home. Finally, these “Bandwagon” affiliates have never drawn significant global support and would likely be the least preferred travel destinations of most surviving Islamic State foreign fighters, who for the most part will differ ethnically from these peripheral groups.
In between the “al Qaeda Rivals” and “Bandwagon” affiliates are “Morphing” existing and future affiliates. Those “Morphing” include two affiliates from historical jihadi conflict zones on the decline. Russians from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State in Syria largely because their efforts were crushed at home. AQIM splinters joining the Islamic State immediately after declaration of the caliphate have largely been routed by the Algerian government and outpaced by their previous AQIM overlords.
Emerging areas may provide possible alternatives with greater viability compared to traditional affiliates. Islamic State-inspired violence has sprung up in Bangladesh; though the outlook there appears positive for jihadis, the country lacks tight linkages with Syria and Iraq. Central Asia provided a significant uptick in foreign fighters to Syria, and jihadi-inspired violence hit Kazakhstan this week. Meanwhile, Lebanon not only produces a high rate of foreign fighters to Syria, but also offers an easy transit point from Syria.
Al Qaeda affiliates may have a marginally better outlook than the Islamic State
The Islamic State’s options for reconstituting in an affiliate appear bleak, should it need to scale back in Syria and Iraq. All of its fountains of support across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face stiff local competition or mounting counterterrorism pressure. More importantly, the Islamic State’s vaunted caliphate-funding model may quickly become the group’s lynchpin if it moves from state to affiliate and from conventional army to insurgency and terrorism. With no turf to govern, there will be no spoils to take, necessitating a shift to donations and black market operations. The Islamic State has employed off-putting violence, alienating many potential donors. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, always measured its violence in part to prevent the loss of its core financial donors. Al Qaeda’s approach endures to this day, as seen by Qatari kingpins powering the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. Over time, Islamic State affiliates will struggle under competition because no affiliate, at present, seems to govern on sufficient scale to replenish this funding stream, and their type of violence will be unlikely to attract committed donors. Islamic State affiliates will be dependent on black market spoils that often turn local populaces against terrorists in ways more legitimate taxes and donations do not.
What to look for as the caliphate crumbles?
Financial outflows from Syria and Iraq, the dispatching of Iraqi Islamic State envoys, and the emigration of foreign fighters (already underway) will provide the most illustrative signals of the post-Islamic State terrorism landscape. The most indicative data will come from the roughly 15% of Islamic State foreign fighter survivors I estimate will be unable or unwilling to return home. These “floating” fighters lacking roots to a homeland affiliate will be inclined to choose the most promising global affiliates for safe havens. As noted last week, Europeans will be the most important tell and will be inclined to mix with those of similar ethnicity and language. For example, French and Belgian foreign fighters may be better suited for North Africa or Lebanon.
Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese fighters will be another important contingent to watch should they choose to resettle with an Asian group known for attracting foreign fighters, such as the Khorasan wilayat or possibly more likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In the coming months, some Islamic State affiliates will decline and be absorbed by other affiliates in a natural process of consolidation and reconstitution. As an example, recent news suggests Sinai wilayat members may already be relocating to Libya. Ideological leaders represent the bishops of the Islamic State chessboard, and their movement from the caliphate will confirm the game is up. Keep an eye on their travel. If they choose to leave Syria and Iraq, they will be the last to go and will only move to the safest of affiliates — those most amenable to continuing the Islamic State’s vision for governance.
Having controlled territory to this point, the Islamic State has been able to stockpile cash, although coalition airstrikes have recently taken quite a toll on this reserve. In preparation for a move or to survive in general, the Islamic State will increasingly transfer funds to other locations. Analysts should watch for increased hawala transfers from the Levant to affiliates, increased money laundering through black market connections in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, and even financial sheltering via social media applications and digital currencies leveraging the Islamic State’s global network of supporters.
Lastly, of all locations, Lebanon may be the most important to watch. A fragile state close to Syria, Lebanon is producing high rates of foreign fighters, faces floods of refugees, lacks a strong international counterterrorism presence, faces constant sectarian strife, and sits proximate to every jihadi’s common enemy, Israel. Lebanon, moreso than any other country, seems an ideal opportunity for the Islamic State should the caliphate end. Much like the American withdrawal from Iraq six years ago, the Islamic State’s demise, when it comes, won’t spell the end of jihad — just the close of a chapter and the start of a new one somewhere else.
Clint Watts is a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
“Authors Note For Analysts: A three dimensional weighted ranking system was used to create the affiliate assessment chart in Figure 1. Factors were calculated using statistical trend data when available, open source metrics computed by the author over time and comparative perspectives of experts. Readers can use this Excel tool to calculate their own affiliate assessment with their own data if they like. Columns in yellow will be better assessed by those in government. For defense contractors that often try to duplicate my methodologies after I do presentations to the government, I’ll make it easy for you this time, ‘You’re Welcome!”