Jessica Lewis McFate
The ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria has shifted course since October 2014. ISIS lost control of three key strongholds in Iraq in November 2014, while Kurdish forces and the international coalition contested its control of Kobane. These losses have cost ISIS the initiative on some fronts, but ISIS continues to conduct offensives throughout its depth. As of December 14, 2014, ISIS is consolidating its core strength, attacking to close physical vulnerabilities, and posturing for new territorial gains. The raised intensity of the ground war in Iraq fixes ISIS to some extent, a condition which ISIS will likely try to reverse. ISIS’s strategic culture depends upon seizing and holding the initiative. If ISIS loses the initiative in battle, ISIS may attempt to regain it by other means, such as opening new fronts in Syria. ISIS may also decide to transform to a phased expansion beyond Sham.
This may explain why ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a statement on November 13, 2014 recognizing the fealty declarations of multiple jihadist groups worldwide. In addition to expanding the ISIS global network, Baghdadi declared five remote wilayats, or governorates, in locations he indicated had been carefully selected, namely Libya, Sinai, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. One might interpret this speech as a feint, designed to throw off the calculus of international players, or as hyperbole. But these declared ISIS wilayats may well showcase the future phases of ISIS’s campaign design and indicate how ISIS plans to seed the Caliphate in the midst of other states.
Ample historical evidence shows the ties between ISIS’s precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, and foreign fighter networks in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Before dismissing Baghdadi’s speech, it is worth resurrecting a historical artifact attesting the regional network of AQI. In 2007, a set of documents known as the Sinjar Records was released by the US Government, detailing the foreign fighter recruiting network of AQI in the 2006-2007 time period. Not only did the records contain a sample of over 600 foreign fighter profiles, but it also detailed their countries and cities of origin, their handlers, and their various paths into Syria on final approach into northern Iraq. The countries of origin for AQI’s original foreign fighters may contain an important clue to explain how modern day ISIS leaders regard the human geography of Libya, the Sinai, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. From their memory, and potentially through surviving human connections, ISIS may perceive opportunities to expand regionally into these locations.
This is not to say that ISIS is prepared to plant a flag in these locations now. ISIS initiatives in Saudi Arabia, Sinai, and Algeria would contend with strong state security near urban centers. Yemen is a counter-case, but also a location where AQAP likely possesses primary jihadist influence that would limit the expansion of ISIS. ISIS may cultivate these wilayats for purposes such as recruiting, transit, regional prospecting, and early preparation of the battlefield. Baghdadi articulated a specific intent for Saudi Arabia, instructing supporters to fight the Shi’a in the country and then the house of al-Saud, which is to be expected. The Caliphate will need a capital, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are likely aspirational endgames for ISIS. But ISIS will not necessarily deploy substantial combat power from Iraq and al-Sham to accomplish this. Rather, Baghdadi encouraged ISIS supporters to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” and Saudi Arabia is likely one such locale where ISIS will rely upon existing networks.
Libya, on the other hand, a flagship in the Mediterranean, may be a place where ISIS perceives ripe opportunities to expand its territory now. The Libyan state is on the cusp of defeat, and the ISIS presence is potentially much more pronounced. An ISIS-leaning Twitter account claimed that ISIS elements attacked the UAE and Egyptian Embassies in Libya on November 13, 2014. While this attribution is not firm, citizens of Derna separately reported the presence of ISIS-affiliated courts and religious police on November 27, 2014. U.S. GEN David Rodriguez, commander of AFRICOM stated on December 4, 2014 that ISIS has training camps in Libya. This is a harbinger of ISIS territorial control given the condition of looming state failure. Like Yemen, Libya plays host to multiple strands of jihadist affiliation, but among them is clearly ISIS. Libya was the second largest provider of foreign fighters through Sinjar in 2006-7 behind Saudi Arabia. Viewed in the context of the Sinjar records and recent events, it appears that the umbilical connecting ISIS to Libya is strongly sustained. Libya may therefore be the next front that ISIS opens to establish the initiative and increase its territory.
The declared ISIS wilayat in the Sinai appears to have different meaning. Egypt does not stand out in the Sinjar Records as a historical source of foreign fighters, but rather as a waypoint for Libyan fighters traveling to Syria. ISIS may regard Egypt as the physical fulcrum that links its future campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa. The Sinai is both a transit hub and a lesser governed territory surrounded on all sides by principal targets, including Israel and the Saudi Kingdom. ISIS may also desire a foothold in the Sinai in order to expand its attack zone radially from this position. ISIS is also likely acknowledging Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the jihadist group operating in the Sinai, for its declaration of fealty to ISIS by elevating it to wilayat status. Egypt is the birthplace of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, and ISIS also likely desires to compete with al-Qaeda’s influence over formerly undeclared groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. ISIS will likely work this relationship to promote its regional program over the specific objectives of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis constituents, who primarily desire to attack the Egyptian security establishment.
Current demographic trends exacerbate the linkages between ISIS and these former providers of foreign fighters, particularly in North Africa, where new studies claim that foreign fighter flows into Syria have metastasized in 2014. Additionally, the refugee populations from Syria and other Arab Spring states have settled throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The flow of people and materials across the region since 2012 will increase ISIS’s capability to seed itself in these areas through displaced human and smuggling networks. In light of that premise, it is unwise to assume that ISIS, international from its birth, cannot expand its operations regionally. But it is equally unwise to address this threat by increasing the strain upon refugee populations. Instead, it is best to re-evaluate ground conditions in places where ISIS declared wilayats and assess their utility to ISIS. It is important to look at the region the way that ISIS does in order to forecast its next moves. ISIS will choreograph its regional war in concert with its ground war in Iraq and Syria. For those designing defeat strategies for ISIS, it is important to fight the war that ISIS is fighting, not only the phase that ISIS began three years ago in Iraq and Syria.