Year in review 2015: How ISIL is gaining in its global reach
In 2014, ISIL shocked the world as it cemented control in eastern Syria and western Iraq through lightning military victories, institution building and an ability to inspire fear among its enemies and those living under its control.
Some might call this the period of its expansion, but that year was just the foundation. The expansion came in 2015 when ISIL revealed an ability to move beyond declared borders through the propagation of affiliates and the use of large-scale attacks in distant lands.
The November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and the October 31 downing of a Russian charter flight over the Sinai Peninsula that left 224 dead are the most far-reaching attacks that ISIL has claimed beyond its heartland. But while those were moments that revealed ISIL’s larger ambitions, the organisation has long been building up affiliates and territorial gains, to less international attention, as it moves into the next phase of its evolution.
Today, ISIL affiliates hold swathes of territory in countries in Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia. In many areas where the group does not control territory, the organisation is believed to operate cells that can be used in attacks, as was seen in Paris.
Amid the chaos of Yemen’s civil war, ISIL affiliates have also been able to establish a foothold in the country. While the country’s most powerful forces – the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the troops loyal to president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, backed by a regional coalition that includes UAE soldiers – have been fighting one another, ISIL’s local affiliates have grown.
While many of ISIL’s attacks in Yemen have been directed at Shiites, such as a bombing of a Sanaa mosque that killed 130 people in March – the group has also attacked UAE forces and claims to maintain territory in Southern Yemen, an area where extremist groups have a long history of operating. Rival Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) remains Yemen’s most powerful extremist group, but it has been weathered by years of conflict.
In the Sinai, Egyptian security forces have been unable to dislodge ISIL’s local affiliate. The group has killed dozens of Egypt’s security forces and civilians this year and has carried out high-profile attacks, including hitting an Egyptian naval vessel with a guided missile in July.
In finally forcing out foreign tourists, and with them, money crucial to the Egyptian economy, ISIL’s affiliate has succeeded where years of post-revolution instability and previous bombing campaigns on beach resorts have failed.
In a fractured Libya, ISIL has been able capture cities and long stretches of land along the coast.
Its expansion went largely unnoticed in a country that had fallen away from the international spotlight, except when the extremists broadcast executions of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians.
In Afghanistan, ISIL has moved in to fill power vacuums, usurping the Taliban in parts of the countryside. In villages under its control, it has started showing foundations of the same institution building it executed in Syria and Iraq, extracting taxes and running schools. In September, the United Nations said ISIL was active in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
In distant Nigeria, Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance to ISIL, transforming into the State of West Africa.
And beyond these examples, ISIL has declared chapters in Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Pakistan.
ISIL’s offshoots appear to vary wildly in their operations and capabilities. While in some areas they hold territory and operate openly, in other declared chapters such as in Saudi Arabia, operations remain underground.
While ISIL’s central command often applauds distant attacks, it remains unknown whether strikes such as the claimed attack on the Russian airliner or attacks on mosques in Yemen are ordered and coordinated by ISIL’s brass in Iraq and Syria, or whether they are born independently in the field. Egypt, meanwhile, insists it still has no evidence of terrorism in the downing of the Russian airliner.
While decentralisation allows ISIL to widen its territorial spread and appear more threatening, it also presents potential risks if commanders in faraway lands start acting on their own, off-script.
In the case of Al Qaeda, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi proved to be an insubordinate, yet widely respected commander in Iraq, pushing for sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites instead of fighting the United States and its allies. Al Zarqawi’s independent streak eventually laid the groundwork for the formation of ISIL as we know it today, but caused schisms for Al Qaeda.
While some of ISIL’s affiliates appear to be a conglomeration of remnants of other militant groups and like-minded individuals who started their chapters from scratch, others, such as Boko Haram, arrive under ISIL’s umbrella as fully formed organisations with their own histories and command structures.
It remains to be seen how independent the individual commanders of ISIL affiliates will be.
More immediately, the development of affiliates abroad complicates the international strategy to defeat ISIL, which still leans on striking at its heartland to force the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the organisation’s two major cities. Capturing those two cities and leaving ISIL without its capitals in Iraq and Syria would be a severe blow to the group and could signal its demise in those countries, but with well-developed affiliates across the globe, it would not be the decapitation strike it may have been a year or so ago.
The growth of ISIL’s affiliates has also shown potential recruits that reaching the so-called caliphate is no longer as critical as it once was. While the self-proclaimed caliphate remains ISIL’s “jewel”, the focus on building its strength elsewhere means that the pull for recruits to stay closer to home will be stronger.
The move to attacks on western targets as was seen in Paris could inspire sympathetic potential recruits in the West to simply carry out attacks in the name of ISIL, without first-hand indoctrination.
On December 2, just weeks after the Paris attacks, a US citizen and his Pakistani wife shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik had never waged jihad abroad or fought alongside ISIL in the group’s territory.
Instead, the apparently ordinary couple stockpiled legally purchased firearms in their home and posted an oath of allegiance to ISIL on Malik’s Facebook page as their deadly plot got underway. And so, without expending its own time, resources or manpower, ISIL was able to claim a propaganda victory over the deaths of 14 Americans in a mid-sized city, the name of which most people had never heard before.
Josh Wood is a foreign correspondent at The National