Islamic State: Adding Franchises, Not Capabilities

5 MINS READMar 12, 2015 | 09:07 GMT
A Boko Haram flag flies over an abandoned command post in Gamboru after Chadian troops drove out the militants Feb. 4.
A Boko Haram flag flies over an abandoned command post in Gamboru after Chadian troops drove out the militants Feb. 4.

Fears of an expanding Islamic State have again emerged, though perhaps unnecessarily. On March 7, Nigeria's Boko Haram militant group formally pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in a video purportedly released by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. Reports emerged simultaneously that Somalia-based al Shabaab is now divided over whether to align with the Islamic State or remain loyal to al Qaeda. The Islamic State will likely next formally acknowledge Boko Haram's pledge through a prominent spokesman, as it has done in the past with similar realignments.

Boko Haram's move has provoked a great deal of international concern that the Islamic State is extending its global reach, but that would be an exaggeration. The Boko Haram announcement — and other recent pledges — neither increases the Islamic State's capabilities within its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria nor directly increases the threat of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram is a grassroots Islamist militant group based in northeast Nigeria and predominantly active in that area. The group has employed both terrorist and insurgent tactics to achieve its objective. Twice Boko Haram has shifted to conventional tactics and attempted to take and hold territory within Nigeria — similar to the Islamic State's attempt to carve out a caliphate in the Middle East. The group's attempts were temporary, however, and were contained entirely within northeast Nigeria. A Nigerian military counteroffensive rebuffed the first of these attempts in 2013. Another attempt began in August 2014 and is also steadily eroding under a similar counteroffensive.

In both cases, the group enjoyed initial success and gained territory. These successes primarily stemmed from the failures of the Nigerian government and military and less from militant capabilities. Now that the government has mustered the political will to support the military, it is inevitable that Boko Haram will lose some of its earlier gains and be forced to amend its behavior once again. Nigeria's neighbors have also advanced on Boko Haram, with the militaries of Niger, Cameroon and Chad clamping down on cross-border mobility and even making minor incursions into Nigeria itself.

Prestige, Not Expansion

The timing of Boko Haram's push to grab territory in Nigeria coincided with the Islamic State breakout last year in Iraq. While it cannot be determined that the Islamic State influenced Boko Haram's decision directly, Boko Haram has been employing Islamic State tactics. For example, the Nigerian group has started to include elements within its video and other propaganda that are drawn from material produced by the Islamic State. Boko Haram has also followed the Islamic State in its tactics of kidnapping and enslaving women and girls, carrying out beheadings and declaring other Muslims to be apostates.

The Islamic State's successful push from Syria into Iraq enabled it to declare a caliphate and gave it unprecedented international attention and prominence. Its notoriety has led other groups to emulate the Islamic State, some issuing pledges of allegiance known as "bayat." On the surface it would appear that the Islamic State has managed to franchise worldwide and is growing as a threat. This is simply not true. The group is not issuing new nodes that augment the militant landscape. Instead the groups that are issuing bayat resemble Boko Haram: They are all already established and have in fact been active for years. Any person or group can raise a flag or spray paint pro-Islamic State slogans on walls but that does not mean the Islamic State itself is expanding.

These local moves enhance the Islamic State's prestige and boost public relations but add nothing more than that. Neither is it analogous to al Qaeda's earlier push for global reach. It never took control of territory but operated from a country controlled by a host jihadist regime, the Taliban. Al Qaeda was more focused on attacking U.S. or Western interests than the Islamic State, and al Qaeda's push for global reach was a different form of transnationalism. Islamic State allegiances instead represent a fracturing of the jihadist landscape between groups aligned with the Islamic State and al Qaeda rather than a real expansion. In many places, the Islamic State is actually fighting other jihadists.

Franchise Limitations

Al Shabaab — also contemplating realignment with the Islamic State — faces a similarly difficult tactical situation. The Somali government, its Western backers and African Union forces have put the militant group on the defensive and made strategic gains. Al Shabaab has also had difficulty recruiting foreigners, especially after its former leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, purged foreign jihadists when some opposed him.

A potential shift toward the Islamic State might allow al Shabaab to secure foreign recruits in the same manner as its former pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda — or so the group hopes. Al Shabaab leaders might also believe that the Islamic State could provide access to other resources that have become harder to secure since the group's loss of strategic assets such as the Kismayo port. Al Shabaab does, however, have several limitations that shifting toward the Islamic State is unlikely to change. In fact, the internal rifts over its alignment may weaken it.

There has been little evidence thus far that groups now aligned with the Islamic State enjoy increased access to resources, intelligence, institutional expertise or coordination on any tangible operational level. Neither are there signs of any increase in real capability for either franchise groups or for the Islamic State itself. The Islamic State's Libya franchise is the most closely connected to the Islamic State core. Many Libyan fighters returned from fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and have personal links with the core that resemble those between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Still, Libyan militants define their objectives according to the local Libyan context, not the regionwide Islamic State agenda. Ideological affiliations will not change until manpower, money, institutional knowledge or broad effective coordination flow become more apparent.

The Disconnect

On top of these disconnects, the Islamic State faces its own constraints in meaningfully interfacing with its franchises. It is under heavy financial and military pressure and must focus on maintaining its territory. It cannot easily augment other groups elsewhere by allocating manpower or funding. Even were it to help its affiliates, the Islamic State has not shown the same capability in terrorist tradecraft and has not been able to project its terrorist capability transnationally to the level that al Qaeda has done.

The Islamic State's real strength is in fighting irregular and maneuver warfare. Any substantial push from the Islamic State to support other groups in the future would serve only to add to these groups' insurgent capability rather than their terrorist capability, and the two things are quite distinct. Instead, the flurry of realignments with the Islamic State is unlikely to substantially augment the core or the new franchises.

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