Two weeks ago, the Islamic State’s Furqan Foundation released its first video in over a year. Entitled “Structure of the Khilafah,” this typically overproduced piece of propaganda dives deep into how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization operates.
There is much of interest in the video, but one aspect of it that stands out in particular is a portion that zooms in on the technicalities behind the Islamic State’s provinces, of which, the narrator asserts, there are 35: 19 in Iraq and Syria, and 16 elsewhere. Intriguingly, the video omits mention of Bahrain Province, which claimed an attack on a Shia mosque in Manama in October 2015, and Sahil Province, which was responsible for the attacks in Syria’s coastal cities in May 2016. It also fails to mention any of the areas from which the Islamic State has been forced to withdraw, like Idlib Province, as well as those within which it claims to be present but hasn’t established provincial affiliates in, like Somalia, Indonesia, Tunisia, and the Philippines.
The Furqan Foundation media team likely conceived of this video as a way to further fetishize the caliphate’s administrative arsenal and foster its cult of institutions. However, through it, they inadvertently draw attention to the fact that their organization’s momentum has dramatically slowed. Indeed, as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi has commented, the video presents its viewers with a glaring reminder that there has been no real geographical expansion since June 2015, when the Caucasus Province was ratified.
There are multiple reasons for why this might be, and none of them are straightforward. What’s apparent, though, is that the Islamic State’s expansion methodology seems to have changed: No longer is a simple loyalty announcement enough to prompt the caliphal leadership to upgrade an overseas organization from fan group to formalized province.
In no context is this strategic shift more evident than in the Philippines, a place that, as I wrote in May, looked like it was next in line to host a full-fledged Islamic State province. Indeed, on operational, territorial, leadership, and media levels, the evidence has long pointed towards an impending provincial status for its pro-Baghdadi jihadists. However, this status update never came and, off the back of it, a new, non-provincial expansion paradigm seems to have emerged.
It first became truly clear that the Islamic State was stalling in the archipelago state in June, when its media team released a video produced by “The Philippines” media office, entitled “The Solid Structure.” When considered in the broad context of the caliphate’s international outreach propaganda, it is fairly typical. Jihadist battalions are shown pledging allegiance to the Islamic State caliph, fierce battles are depicted, prominent martyrs are eulogized, and three Syrian soldiers are beheaded. It also features one of the Islamic State propagandists’ favorite tropes, foreign fighter declarations – in this case, an Indonesian, a Malaysian and a Filipino each call upon their countrymen to kill the kuffar, support the umma, and join the caliphate caravan.
Just like Furqan’s “Structure of the Khilafah,” one of the most striking things about this video is what it omits. Even though it features multiple allegiance pledges and seems to indicate that jihadists in the Philippines have the requisite infrastructure to once and for all upgrade their status, the propagandists painstakingly avoid any ambiguity as to whether or not they constitute a “province.” While it does confirm that the “soldiers of the caliphate” there now coalesce under one centrally appointed leader, Isnilon Hapilon, he is not spoken of as their wali (“provincial governor”). Instead, he is referred to as al-mujahid al-muwakkal li-qiyadat junud ad-dawla al-islamiyya f-il-filibin (“the mujahid authorized to lead the soldiers of the Islamic State in the Philippines”) and al-amir (“the emir”). What’s more, the word for province, wilaya, makes no appearance whatsoever. Instead, the Philippines is simply referred to as al-filibin, and spoken of as part of the ard al-jihad (“the land of the jihad”), not ard al-khilafa (“the land of the caliphate”).
Categorically, then, there was no announcement of, nor allusion to, a new province in this video. In any case, even if there was, it would not be ratified unless the declaration was received and accepted by al-Baghdadi or his chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.
This is not to say that the Islamic State’s first Philippines-branded video doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it might actually come to be seen as a landmark moment in the strategic history of the organization, a sign that fans of the organization can now gain access to its central circle of trust without needing to be an official province. Indeed, it seems that the caliphate’s media moguls are signaling to the world that being a member of the province club is no longer a prerequisite to being one of the Islamic State’s bona fide, officially recognized (and officially celebrated) affiliates.
Perhaps, this has come about because the caliphate’s leadership is reluctant to bite off more than it can chew. Perhaps, taking into account the lackluster performances of their overseas associates, al-Baghdadi’s tacticians have calculated that the logistical costs of adopting yet another new province outweigh the symbolic benefits.
Whether or not that’s the case, there certainly seems to have been a slow-burning paradigm shift in the way the caliphate model operates, of which the peculiar status of the Islamic State’s Filipino associates is just an initial manifestation. If their example is anything to go by, the low barriers to entry that previously characterized the Islamic State’s expansion strategy could prove to be a thing of the past.
To be sure, a more discerning approach to provincialization doesn’t mean that pro-Islamic State violence in places like Bangladesh, Somalia, and Indonesia will cease. Rather, these proto-provinces might just intensify their violent efforts hoping that, one day, they will be able to curry enough favor for the green wilaya light to be given.
Charlie Winter is a London-based terrorism researcher. His work focuses on outreach and innovation among terrorist organizations.