The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria (Wilayat al-Jazair), Libya (Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan), Sinai (Wilayat Sinai), Saudi Arabia (Wilayat al-Haramayn) and Yemen (Wilayat al-Yaman). It is likely that the Islamic State plans to pursue a similar approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan following its announcement of accepting pledges of allegiance from former members of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban to also try and “annex” territory there under the framework of a new wilayah called “Wilayat Khorasan.” On its face, this bold declaration of an expanding number of wilayat (provinces) resembles the announcements by al-Qaeda of creating numerous franchises in the mid-2000s. The Islamic State’s “wilayat” strategy differs in significant ways from al-Qaeda’s “franchise” strategy, however.
The academic literature has shed great light on the al-Qaeda franchising strategy. In a recent article Daniel Byman highlights a number of key factors within the al-Qaeda network regarding motivations for affiliation and franchising. Typically, affiliates joined up with al-Qaeda as a result of failure. Affiliation helped with financial support; offered a potential haven that could be exploited, along with access to new training, recruiting, publicity and military expertise; gave branding and publicity; and opened up personal networks from past foreign fighter mobilizations. It in turn helps al-Qaeda with mission fulfillment, remaining relevant, providing access to new logistics networks, and building a new group of hardened fighters.
But, Byman argues, those franchises often became as much a burden as an asset as local interests and views diverged with those of the parent organization. Leah Farrall argues that al-Qaeda increasingly came to view franchising “warily” in part due to its inability to always control its new partners such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as because of backlash from unsuccessful cooptation of organizations such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group or Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This is one of the reasons why, prior to Osama bin Laden’s death, the Somali jihadi group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen was not given franchise status. Bin Laden had apprehensions about the group’s utility due to past clan infighting and lack of unity. Following the death of bin Laden though, his replacement, Ayman al-Zawahiri, brought Shabab into the fold, but the results have been quite disastrous; Shabab has declined and also was in an internal feud between its foreign and local members. Will the Islamic State’s wilayat pose a similar burden?
There is one key difference between al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s model for expansion. Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach. This differs from al-Qaeda’s more muddled approach – it hoped a local franchise would conduct external operations, but many times franchises would instead focus on local battles or attempts at governance without a clear plan, as bin Laden had warned. Moreover, the Islamic State has had a simple media strategy for telegraphing what it is doing on the ground to show its supporters, potential recruits and enemies that it is in fact doing something. This accomplishes more, even if it appears that the Islamic State is doing more than it actually is, in comparison with al-Qaeda’s practice of waiting for a successful external operation to succeed and then claiming responsibility after the fact.
How is this strategy working? So far, Libya and the Sinai appear to be the locations with the most promise, though the Islamic State’s presence in these areas should not be overstated. It certainly does not command the amount of territorial control as its base in Mesopotamia. That said, the Islamic State’s wilayat in Libya and the Sinai are following the same methodology on the ground and in the media as the Islamic State’s wilayat have in Iraq and Syria.
By contrast, its wilayat in Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have yet to show any signs of activity. It is certainly possible that the Islamic State is playing a long game and preparing its soldiers and bureaucrats for future jihad, governance and dawa (propagation of Islam), but there are reasons to be skeptical as well. Following Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the expansion of the Islamic State in mid-November, its media apparatus took over the media departments of all the local wilayat outside of Mesopotamia. This highlights that, at least on the media level, the Islamic State is in full command and control.
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