A series of Islamic State (IS) announcements of new provinces it controls in recent weeks has renewed debate over the group’s possible resurgence after its self-proclaimed caliphate fell, with some analysts warning an increasingly decentralized IS could recover and spread its tentacles to other parts of the world.
During his first appearance last April after five years, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a new video was seen handling documents about the group's global affiliates, including newly found provinces in Turkey and Central Africa.
In the 18-minute video by IS’ media wing al-Furqan, al-Baghdadi also welcomed new joiners from Burkina Faso, Mali and Sri Lanka.
Since its leader’s reappearance, IS has announced new “wilayats” or provinces, and has rearranged its existing ones ranging from different areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.
Last week, IS in a new video claimed a new province in Turkey. The five-minute long video showed a group of militants pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi and asking potential sympathizers in Turkey to join the group.
Dogu Eroglu, a Turkey-based investigative journalist and expert on IS, said the video message is an effort by IS to remobilize hundreds of Turkish citizens who have returned home after partaking in conflicts in neighboring Syria.
“Starting from 2017, after the Raqqa operation of the Global Coalition to defeat IS, many people fled to Turkey, and among those, most of them had fought with IS for many years,” Eroglu told VOA. “The announcement could be a call to them.”
When Islamic State in mid-2014 announced its so-called caliphate, thousands of people traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight along its ranks. The group, through its media organizations al-Furqan and Dabiq, released in detail how it formed new “wilayats” or provinces. In each province, IS said, local jihadists should agree to implement the group’s military and governance strategy before pledging allegiance to the caliph, al-Baghdadi.
On July 2016, al-Furqan released a video titled "The Structure of the Caliphate," in which the group claimed it had 35 “wilyats” or provinces, with 16 wilayats in Iraq and Syria, and the remaining elsewhere.
The group now holds no territory in Iraq and Syria, but continues to remain a serious insurgent group in those so-called wilayats, according to Sarhang Hamasaeed, the director of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
“They continue to stage attacks in form of explosive devices, attack security convoys, and they set up checkpoints in some places,” Hamasaeed told VOA, adding the group dependents on taxation and extortion to collect revenues.
Hamasaeed said the group’s insurgents have been particularly active in Iraq's Nineveh, Kirkuk, Saladin, and Diyala provinces where both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region claim ownership. Disputes between the two governments over the land, combined with the diversity of its ethno-religious population, has allowed IS to flourish.
Experts say IS, as an adaptive organization, continues to exploit community grievances and looks at other areas with ethnic and religious conflict as potential hotbeds.
Said Nazeer, Pakistan-based defense analyst and retired brigadier, said the group has used a conflict between the government in Punjab and Baloch ethnics to establish a foothold in the Balochistan province of southwest Pakistan. Similarly, the group is utilizing a land dispute between India and Pakistan to establish itself in Kashmir.
“Overall, Pakistan has contained Islamic State through operations, social media and keeping an eye on Kashmiri militants who may be recruited by [IS],” he said, adding “currently there are some 500 IS operatives in Pakistan’s jails.”
In May, IS announced through its news agency Amaq that it had created provinces in India and Pakistan. The announcement served as a restructuring of its "Khorasan province," which was founded in 2015 to cover operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Jammu and Kashmir, and parts of Iran.
Anees ur Rehman, a journalist in Afghanistan, said the IS break up of its Khorasan province shows the group is willing to adapt to new realities.
“IS attempted to spread Wahabism through very violent means, through a Khorasan province that connected Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But that vision of the caliphate proved unacceptable in Afghanistan where most Afghans follow Imam Abu Hanifa,” Rehman said, noting different sects and schools in Islamic countries.
The group at the peak of its power refused to recognize modern state boundaries, calling them a fabrication made by the West to keep Muslim nations divided.
South East Asia
In South East Asia, where IS claims East Asia province for its operations particularly in Philippines, the group is using isolated deadly attacks to remain relevant and drive recruitment, according to experts.
Elliot Brennan, a research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, told VOA that, unlike the past when IS fighters were concentrated in an identified geographic area of southern Philippines, the group now scatters its fighters throughout the region as a new strategy.
IS affiliates Maute and Abu Sayyaf were removed from south Philippines’s Marawi in October 2017 after five months of deadly battle. Jihadists linked to IS have since claimed several deadly attacks, including January’s Jolo Cathedral bombing in southwestern Philippines that left 20 people dead and April Easter Sunday attacks on churches in Sri Lanka that killed 259.
“Fighters from the Marawi siege scattered and pose a more dispersed threat today and are harder to counter as a result,” Brennan told VOA, adding that Southeast Asian countries have failed to prevent IS’ reorganization attempt.
“The overall counter-terrorism approach in parts of Southeast Asia has been unhelpful. More needs to be done to understand and address the drivers of extremism rather than just post-facto and often heavy-handed counter-terrorism campaigns that often alienate local communities and actually drive recruitment.”
Similarly, in Africa, where IS has established decentralized provinces in Egypt, Libya, Sahel and the Greater Sahara, the group is spreading its fighters in vast deserts that are difficult to secure, said Thomas Abi-Hanna, a security analyst with Stratfor in Austin, Texas.
“Each Islamic State branch is operationally independent and there is little to no direct connections between the branches, aside from the Islamic State name,” Abi-Hanna told VOA.
He said the group tries to remain relevant by conducting high profile attacks and kidnappings to gain more local and international attention. It also disseminates propaganda through various channels to claim attacks, promote its brand and show its fighters in action throughout the region.
IS last April for the first time claimed an attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo through its new province of Central Africa. The attack in Bovata, near the town of Beni, reportedly killed at least two soldiers and a civilian and injured several others.
“While some branches may both benefit from extended smuggling and trafficking networks (Example: branches in Mali and Libya may benefit from the same arms trafficking network through the Sahel), the groups do not coordinate attacks or kidnappings,” said Abi-Hanna, adding that IS’s several branches in Africa remain effective by localizing their attention.
Randall Rogan, a terrorism expert at the Wake Forest University in North Carolina, charged that IS’s recent announcement of new provinces and restructuring of others indicate the group has long-term plans.
“The IS messaging should be taken very seriously,” Rogan told VOA “Although IS has lost physical territory, the virulent Islamist ideology that informs IS and its adherents continues to resonate with many disenfranchised radicalized individuals in the Muslim community and beyond.”