After losing territory in Iraq and Syria, the group's affiliates have been recalibrating with renewed vigour in other countries, writes Hassan Hassan
ISIS has stepped up its campaigns in Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan. The coalition fighting it should be worried
Last week, ISIS instructed its followers to “migrate” to the Yemeni province of Al Bayda. The move represents the first time the transnational extremist group has explicitly directed its members to travel to a specific destination since it began to lose ground in Iraq and Syria.
The call was made in a video that ISIS circulated on social media and, more importantly, distributed in areas still under its control in Syria. Also, unlike propaganda materials with minor significance, the group promoted the video through teaser banners ahead of the release, later followed by footage of distribution to fighters on the ground.
The development has a broader significance than the group’s presence in Yemen. It also relates to how ISIS seeks to re-energise its affiliates across the region after the near-territorial demise in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, this policy involved efforts by ISIS to recalibrate and define its tactics in places like Sinai and Afghanistan.
Since ISIS’s defeat in Mosul and Raqqa, there was a question about where the remaining militants would go next. At least until the group absorbs the shock of its territorial collapse, Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Syria, became untenable as places where militants could move and operate with ease.
The situation was worse in Iraq, where the American-led coalition tended to focus. This made Syria, where ISIS still has pockets of control, a preferable hiding place for militants and their families. In such areas, ISIS militants from Iraq and other countries represent a high percentage among the remaining fighters in Syrian towns.
At the same time, the dispersing of the group in Iraq and Syria meant that alternative sanctuaries would be necessary amid the military momentum and full deployment of the US-led coalition. In places like Sinai and Afghanistan, ISIS did not control large areas as it did in Syria and Iraq but it did maintain a steady insurgency for years.
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The ability to operate in such places over the years provides ISIS with an interim solution for militants fleeing the pressure in Iraq and Syria. In other words, ISIS militants will seek to find temporary refuge in familiar battlefields until the situation in Iraq and Syria takes a steady rhythm. That is not a long-term solution for the group as it still considers Iraq and Syria its priority.
Branches like those in Afghanistan, Egypt and Yemen are essential at a critical time of the organisation’s existence. They provide ISIS with the propaganda presence to maintain its transitional brand after its losses in Iraq and Syria, including versus its rival Al Qaeda.
They also provide it with familiar sanctuaries to dispatch operatives who might not be able to hide in core countries, where they are more aggressively chased by local and international forces. Activity also ensures continued loyalty of its remote factions, especially in light of its diminished presence in Iraq and Syria.
Increased attention from ISIS’s central leadership to its foreign affiliates has also led to recalibration of the propaganda and strategy of those branches. In Afghanistan, for instance, the group appears to have consistently focused on three main messages, namely on sectarianism, on targeting the Taliban and then fighting the US and the government in Kabul.
Its focus on sectarianism there increasingly reflects the ideology of the group in Iraq, whose acts against Shia civilians were criticised by Al Qaeda even before the two were separated. The Afghan affiliate merely refers to such victims as “Shia” without providing a label or justification, such as identifying them as government associates or collaborators.
Similarly, its franchise in Sinai also increased its propaganda against Hamas and Sufis as its unambiguous enemies. In January, the Sinai branch went further than usual in its views of Hamas. It labelled Hamas’s founder Ahmad Yassin an apostate. Yassin, who was killed by an Israeli missile in 2004, commands the respect of extremists and many people in the region. The move by ISIS was a controversial view among extremists but aligns with its messaging in such cases and was undoubtedly shaped by the group’s central leadership.
As senior or battle-hardened members move from Iraq and Syria to other branches, new changes to the way its affiliates conduct themselves are to be expected. Even while these affiliates were regarded as significant parts of ISIS’s expansion since 2014, Iraq and Syria continued to get most of the group’s attention.
In the coming months, these affiliates will become even more important for ISIS and will subsequently be closely managed and shaped by the central leadership. Additionally, as noted in The National previously, the reverse migration and the close attention to affiliates could replenish them and create new extremist hotspots in the region.
The call for members to travel to Yemen comes in this context. ISIS sees an opportunity to benefit from the conflict and increase its presence there, touting itself as an enemy of the Houthis, Al Qaeda and the Yemeni government all at once. No such explicit call was made elsewhere, even though there were reports of former fighters in Iraq and Syria traveling to places like Afghanistan and Sinai.
These trends might look benign for countries fighting ISIS but they are not. Some of the group’s foreign affiliates have clearly re-energised in recent months and weeks. With ISIS paying more attention to them, the anti-ISIS coalition should do the same.
Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC