ISIS's Growing Caliphate: Profiles of Affiliates
By Bardia Rahmani and Andrea Tanco
During its first two years, the Islamic State cultivated sympathizers from more than 40 organizations in dozens of countries. By early 2016, it had formally embraced groups in eight countries that, together, have another 15,000 fighters beyond its ranks in Syria and Iraq. ISIS referred to its affiliates as semi-independent wilayats, or “provinces”—pockets of territory, varying in size—that expanded its geographic reach and strategic depth.
ISIS’s growing variety of affiliates highlights the group’s complexity and global reach. Its expansion, beyond the so-called caliphate that covers about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria, presents a major challenge for international efforts to defeat the group.
ISIS appears to model its wilayats, or provinces, on the administrative systems of the Ottoman Empire and Abbasid Dynasty, although their provinces were contiguous and shared a single government. In early 2016, ISIS provinces varied greatly in power and influence. The strongest affiliates were in Egypt and Libya. Other affiliates, such as those in Yemen, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, posed a substantial threat to the stability of the regions in which they were located. ISIS branches in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and the North Caucasus still lacked the strength to gain or hold territory.
Rather than build new provinces from the ground up, ISIS has typically coopted existing jihadist organizations. Groups initially contacted ISIS leadership and presented military and organizational plans of action, then pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS leadership accepted the oaths, publicly acknowledged the province, and either appointed a new leader or endorsed an existing one. The new provinces typically received training, funding, and foreign fighters, as well as a polished media presence. In return, ISIS expanded its global reach and deepened its strategic resilience. The following are profiles of ISIS provinces beyond Iraq and Syria.
Names of Affiliates: Cyrenaica Province, Fezzan Province, and Tripolitania Province
Strength: 5,000-6,500 fighters loyal to ISIS
Reach: ISIS has a stronghold in the town of Sirte. The group controls large swathes of territory along the coastline around the town, including an airfield, power plants, and a number of towns. Independent chapters are also active in al Baydam, Derna, Benghazi, and al Khums.
- Jan. 28, 2015: Attacked the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli, killing nine people, including five foreigners.
- Feb. 15, 2015:Released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptian hostages on a beach in Libya.
- Jan. 4-21, 2016: Launched a series of attacks against oil storage tanks in Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, burning over 4 million barrels of oil and creating an “environmental catastrophe,” according to Libya’s National Oil Corporation.
- Jan. 7, 2016.Detonated a truck bomb near a police training college in Zliten, Libya, killing 60 policemen and wounding 200 people.
Background: In early 2014, a group of 300 Libyans who had fought for ISIS in Syria and Iraq returned to Libya. They founded a new organization called the Islamic Youth Shura Council. Centered in Derna, the group bolstered its ranks with local fighters from other Libyan armed factions. On Oct. 5, 2014, the Islamic Youth Shura Council pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi accepted the pledge on Nov. 13, 2014 and declared three provinces in Libya: Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the south, and Tripolitania in the west.
The Cyrenaica Province has focused on establishing a foothold in Benghazi and Derna. The Fezzan Province has primarily attacked in the south – in January 2015, it claimed responsibility for an attack on a Libyan army checkpoint in Sokhna that killed 16 people. And the Tripolitania Province succeeded in seizing former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in early 2015. While around 70 percent of ISIS fighters in Sirte are foreigners, the group has attracted defectors from Libyan al Qaeda-linked factions such as Ansar al Sharia, as well as former Qaddafi supporters. In 2015, ISIS tightened its grip on Sirte and the oil-rich surrounding area. But it lost ground in Derna and Benghazi.
The group has forged alliances with more powerful jihadist groups such as Derna-based Ansar al Sharia and the Tarek Ibn Zayad Brigade, an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It faces stiff opposition from both Libya’s recently-established unity government and the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, a rival coalition of Islamist groups.
On Nov. 14, 2015, a U.S. airstrike killed Abu Nabil, also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, an Iraqi national and the top ISIS commander in Libya. In early 2016, ISIS leadership in Syria sent a Mauritanian national named Abu Omar to take charge of ISIS forces in Sirte, set up an Islamic court and tax system, and prepare a possible refuge for ISIS commanders under attack in Iraq and Syria.
Names of affiliates: Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai), formerly known as Ansar Beit al Maqdis
Strength: 500 – 1,000 fighters
Reach: The group is primarily active in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate, with its stronghold in the town of Jabal Halal. It maintains cells in South Sinai, Cairo, Dakahlia, Matrouh, Qalyubia, and Ismailia.
- July 2015:Carried out multiple attacks on security checkpoints in northern Sinai, killing 21 Egyptian soldiers. At least 100 ISIS members were also killed in the clashes.
- July 16, 2015:Destroyed an Egyptian frigate with a guided missile.
- Oct. 31, 2015: Claimed responsibility for bombing Russia-bound Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 passengers.
Background: Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM) emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The uprising created a security vacuum in which Egyptian extremists, former Palestinian militants, and disaffected Bedouins to united to carry out attacks. The hardline Islamist group stepped up its attacks on the Egyptian government after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013, emerging as the most powerful militant group in Egypt.
On Nov. 10, 2014, ABM pledged allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to Sinai Province. The decision reportedly created a rift within the organization, with many of its cells in the Nile Valley defecting to pro-al Qaeda offshoots. The Sinai Province has maintained a rocky relationship with these groups. It has at times accused them of apostasy, but has also occasionally called for reconciliation.
Ahmed Salam Mabruk is one of the group’s senior leaders, though his exact role is unclear. A former operative of al Gama’a al Islamiya, another Egyptian jihadist group, he was imprisoned by Egyptian authorities in 1999 and released in 2012. Abu Osama al Masry, an Egyptian cleric, is often described as Sinai Province’s spiritual leader. Shadi al Menaie, a 26-year-old former smuggler from a prominent Sinai family, is one of the group’s military leaders.
Sinai Province has received funding and sophisticated weaponry from ISIS. It is reportedly one of the most effective ISIS branches, given its small fighting force and the large number of casualties it inflicts.
Names of Affiliates: Yemen Province (Wilayat al Yemen), divided into eight smaller provinces
Reach: ISIS operates in ten of Yemen’s 21 governorates. It has declared eight provinces in Yemen, naming them after existing governorates. Wilayat Sanaa is active in the capital city. Wilayat Aden, Wilayat Lahij, Wilayat Green Brigade (Ibb and Taiz), and Wilayat al Bayda are active in the south. Wilayat Shabwah, Wilayat Ataq, and Wilayat Hadramawt are active in the east. None of the provinces have attempted to govern.
- Mar. 20, 2015:Detonated suicide vests in two Shia mosques, killing 137 people and wounding at least 357 in the worst terrorist attack in Yemeni history. The attack was ISIS’s first major operation in Yemen, timed to coincide with the declaration of Wilayat Sanaa.
- Apr. 30, 2015: Released a video showing the beheading of 15 Yemeni soldiers.
- Sept. 2, 2015: Detonated two suicide bombs in Sanaa, killing at least 28 people.
- Dec. 6, 2015: Claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed Jaafar Saad, the governor of Aden, and six of his bodyguards.
Background: ISIS first established a presence in Yemen in November 2014, when Baghdadi accepted a pledge of allegiance from Yemen’s ISIS supporters. The Houthis – a Zaydi Shiite group – seized the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and drove out the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. ISIS took advantage of the instability. In January 2015, ISIS supporters expanded their ranks and conducted their first attacks.
The top commander of ISIS in Yemen is known as Abu Bilal al Harbi; his real name is Nasser al Ghaydani. Al Harbi is a Saudi national and a scholar of Islamic law. His main responsibility is to recruit fighters and accept pledges of allegiance on behalf of ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is unclear how much direct control al Harbi exerts over the Yemeni wilayats, which reportedly operate independently.
ISIS has attracted fighters from Yemen’s tribes and defectors from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP, which remains the dominant jihadist group in the country, has condemned ISIS’s attacks as indiscriminate and has criticized the group on social media. ISIS conducts regular attacks on government forces and Houthi rebels. ISIS has also targeted Zaydi civilians in an attempt to ignite a sectarian conflict in Yemen.
Names of affiliates: West Africa Province (Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah), Boko Haram, People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad
Size: Around 15,000 fighters
- August 2011: Claimed responsibility for suicide car bombing attack at the United Nations compound in Abuja, killing 21 people and wounding at least 70.
- Apr. 14, 2014: Abducted more than 250 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok in northern Nigeria.
- Feb. 26, 2014:Shot and burned to death 59 male students in a boarding school in Yobe state, in northeast Nigeria.
- Jan. 37, 2015: Conducted a series of mass killings in Baga, near Nigeria’s border with Chad; More than 2,000 civilians were killed, most of whome were children, women and elderly people.
- Sept. 21, 2015:Carried out a series of coordinated bombing attacks in northern Nigeria, killing more than 100 people.
Background: The hardline jihadist group People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram by its enemies, emerged in 2002 in northern Nigeria. It was founded by Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim cleric who condemned any cultural and political activity associated with Western influence. Under Yusuf’s leadership, the group sought to establish an Islamic State in Nigeria non-violently.
The group remained generally non-violent until 2009, when a series of disagreements between local police and members of the group escalated. After clashes erupted, security forces brutally suppressed the group and killed its leader. After Yusuf’s death, Boko Haram went underground. But it resurfaced in 2010 – this time under the leadership of Yusuf’s former deputy, Abubakar Shekau. Since then, Boko Haram has aimed for the establishment of an Islamic State in Nigeria through violence, directly targeting the Nigerian state and intensifying its attacks against civilians.
In 2013, the U.S. government designated Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization with links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2014, however, Shekau posted an audio message online declaring the group’s allegiance to ISIS. The group then upgraded its media operations and took advantage of ISIS media platforms to spread its message. Boko Haram is believed to be the deadliest terrorist group in the world, responsible for almost 6,664 deaths in 2014.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Names of affiliates: Khorasan Province (Wilayah Khorasan)
Reach: In mid-2015, ISIS fighters established a foothold in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, where they seized control of six of its 21 districts. ISIS banners have also been spotted in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including the southern province of Helmand and the Uzbek-dominated northern provinces of Faryab and Sar-e Pol. The group has executed isolated, small-scale attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area.
- June 13, 2015: Killed Mir Ahmed Gul, the Afghan Taliban leader of Nangarhar province.
- June 18, 2015: Released a video showing the execution of two Afghan soldiers.
- Sept. 29, 2015: Captured and raided an Afghan National Army barracks in Nangarhar province.
Background: In September 2014, ISIS leadership in Raqqa reached out to Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), a Pakistan-based branch of the Taliban known for its hardline views. On Jan. 10, 2015, after a months-long propaganda and recruitment campaign in Afghanistan, six top TTP leaders released a video pledging support to ISIS. On Jan. 26, 2015, ISIS accepted the pledge and announced the creation of the Khorasan Province. Hafize Saeed Khan, a former TTP commander who broke with the group after a leadership dispute, was appointed its leader.
The TTP and other Afghan Taliban fighters have defected to the Khorasan Province, which they perceive as better funded and ideologically purer than the Taliban. Afghan security sources believe that up to 10 percent of Taliban fighters sympathize with ISIS. In August 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an Afghan militant group based in the majority-Uzbek north, pledged allegiance to the Khorasan Province. According to a 2015 U.N. report, 70 foreign fighters have arrived in Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria.
ISIS-backed groups have mostly targeted Afghan military forces. But in the border province of Nangarhar, the Khorasan Province has fought the Taliban for control of poppy fields.
Names of affiliates: Wilayah Najd, Wilayat Haramayn, Wilayat Hijaz
Reach: Wilayat Najd is reportedly based in central Saudi Arabia, and has carried out attacks in the Eastern Province and Kuwait.
- May 22, 2015:Bombed the Shiite Imam Ali mosque in al Qadeeh – the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia – killing 21 people and leaving more than 120 wounded.
- June 26, 2014:Bombed a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, killing 27 people and wounding more than 200.
Background: Najd Province, or Wilayat Najd, emerged in November 2014 when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced new provinces in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. There have also been reports of other Saudi groups acting on behalf of ISIS, including Wilayat al Haramayn and Wilayat Hijaz.
The number of Saudi nationals traveling to Syria to join Islamist militant groups fell after a 2014 royal decree ordering long prison terms for anyone who attempted to do so. In response to the royal decree, al Baghdadi urged Saudis not to travel to Syria or Iraq, but instead to remain at home and fight on behalf of Wilayat Najd to bring down the House of Saud.
The leadership and the total number of supporters of Wilayat Najd remains uncertain. But the group has claimed responsibility for two coordinated suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Kuwait. By targeting Shiite mosques, Wilayat Najd aims to exacerbate sectarian tensions and expand its network of supporters inside the Kingdom. Saudi officials have arrested more than 1,600 people suspected of supporting ISIS.
Names of affiliates: Algeria Province (Wilayat al Jaza’ir), also known as Soldiers of the Caliphate (Jund al Khilafah)
Reach: The group has been active east of Algiers, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also has a presence.
- Sept. 21, 2014: Kidnapped and beheaded French citizen Herve Gourdel near Akbil, southeast of Algiers.
Background: On Sept. 14, 2014, a jihadist group known as Jund al Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) split from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and pledged allegiance to ISIS. Less than two weeks later, the group conducted its first attack by kidnapping and beheading French citizen Herve Gourdel in retaliation for France’s intervention in Iraq.
In November 2014, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi recognized the establishment of the Algerian Province in a public release. But the group experienced a severe setback in December 2014, after its leader Abd al Malik Guri (also known as Khalid Abu Sulayman) was killed in an ambush by Algerian military forces. In May 2015, Algerian military forces killed at least 22 ISIS militants in a surprise attack in Bouira, east of Algiers. In July 2015, ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria issued a statement calling for expanded activities in Algeria. But as of February 2016, the group had not claimed any attacks other than Gourdel’s beheading.
Names of affiliates: Caucasus Province (Wilayat Qawqaz)
Reach: Operates in Russia’s North Caucasus between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The group has subdivisions in four provinces: Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.
- Sept. 2, 2015: In its first official attack, claimed responsibility for an assault on a Russian army barracks in southern Dagestan. Casualties could not be independently verified.
- Dec. 31, 2015: Attacked tourists at a UNESCO world heritage site in Derbent, Dagestan, killing a Russian security agent and injuring 10 people.
Background: In 2007, jihadist insurgents in the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus region dissolved the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, an unrecognized secessionist government founded in 1991, and established the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC). Between 2010 and 2014, Russian forces killed a number of top IEC commanders, setting off leadership disputes and sowing frustration among the rank-and-file. Starting in November 2014, mid-level commanders began defecting from IEC and pledging support to ISIS. In a Russian-language audio statement released in June 2015, four of IEC’s six divisions publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS.
On June 23, 2015, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani accepted the pledge of allegiance and announced the creation of a province in the North Caucasus. The former leader of IEC’s Dagestan division, Rustam Asildarov, also known as Abu Mohammad al Qadari, assumed leadership of the province. IEC and al Qaeda have condemned the ISIS affiliate and nominally compete with the group. But observers have described ISIS as having the upper hand in the struggle for primacy in the North Caucasus. While IEC had as many as 15,000 fighters at its peak, it is unknown how many defected to ISIS.
Photo credits: ISIS flag by Leopoldo Christie via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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