The events of the past week have created a lot of discussion about the Islamic State's expansion. First there was the March 18 armed assault at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that resulted in the deaths of 23 people, 20 of who were foreign tourists. Then there was the March 20 triple mosque bombing in Sanaa, Yemen, that resulted in at least 142 deaths. Finally, on March 23, there were rumors that a brigade of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters may be defecting to the Islamic State and that some al Shabaab members in Somalia also want to join the group.
These developments follow the announcement earlier this month that Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram has joined the Islamic State, as well as earlier announcements that jihadists in Pakistan, Algeria, Libya and Egypt have joined the group.
The seemingly rapid spread of the Islamic State has caused some concern, and to help understand the group's rise, we first need to understand its appeal.
The Draw of a New Brand
After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda became the leading global jihadist brand. Following al Qaeda's success — and a massive public relations success it was — a number of existing jihadist groups became al Qaeda franchises in an effort to benefit from its popular brand. These included Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad group in Iraq, which in 2004 became al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. After a series of name changes, the group would eventually break away from al Qaeda in 2014 to become the Islamic State.
Other organizations that adopted the al Qaeda brand include the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, which in 2006 became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and several smaller jihadist groups in Yemen that joined together in 2009 under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahayshi to become al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Adopting the al Qaeda brand was seen as a way to rejuvenate the existing jihadist groups by gaining the additional attention, funding and recruits that came with the al Qaeda name. In some places, the strategy worked. For example, foreign recruits and funding flowed into the Iraqi al Qaeda franchise following its entry into the al Qaeda constellation. Indeed, the franchise gained so much funding and manpower that it siphoned off resources from the al Qaeda core to the point where the core leadership had to ask al-Zarqawi for financial help in 2005. But in other places, the al Qaeda branding was simply ineffective; for example, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, which changed its name to Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, withered away.
As we have discussed for the past decade now, once the United States and its allies focused their power on al Qaeda, the group became severely degraded and its ability to launch attacks was heavily affected. As franchise groups in places such as Iraq grew in power and influence, the core struggled for relevance. This struggle was not only on the physical battlefield, but also on the ideological battlefield. There was a lot of ideological tension between the al Qaeda core and some of the new franchises. As early as 2005, this tension became visible from the interactions between core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi. There was also tension within the franchises, especially al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, over whether to continue following the al Qaeda ideology.
The al Qaeda core's influence had diminished so much that by mid-2013, the Islamic State felt it could defy al-Zawahiri. The group split from al Qaeda in January 2014 and declared the establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014.
One of the primary factors that contributed to al Qaeda's decline was the frustration that many jihadists felt over al Qaeda's empty claims and threats. The group repeatedly threatened to strike the United States with an attack more devastating than the ones on 9/11, generating a lot of excitement in the jihadist realm. However, as the years passed and al Qaeda was unable to deliver on its threats, the group increasingly became seen as hollow. Indeed, the al Qaeda core has not been able to strike the U.S. homeland since 2001.
Jihadists who were initially excited and energized by the thought of the United States and its European and Muslim allies being attacked and defeated became increasingly disaffected and dissatisfied with al Qaeda's ineffectiveness as the years dragged on. Osama bin Laden had become an iconic leader for his defiance of the Americans and their allies in addition to his boldness in attacking U.S. interests. Yet, before his death, rank-and-file jihadists had began criticizing him for being a coward who was hiding from the Americans rather than fighting on the front lines and leading the charge. Bin Laden's death and replacement by the irascible al-Zawahiri was also a critical event that undermined the morale of the global al Qaeda movement.
In just a little more than a decade, the group that had at first appeared to be an exciting new alternative to the older, ineffective and marginalized jihadist groups had gradually been reduced to the same state of irrelevancy as the former groups that had assumed the al Qaeda brand name.
This dynamic is very similar to what we have seen in other radical movements, including the white supremacist movement and the environmentalist and animal rights movement. Younger members of the movement become frustrated that the old guard is not doing anything, so they break off from the more mainstream groups to form more radical splinters. Generally these new radical groups learn that being an effective terrorist organization is not as easy as it would seem at first, especially when confronted by heavy pressure from law enforcement and security services. Eventually, the new splinters become moribund like their parent organizations, and the cycle starts again. It is easier for a group to criticize others for a lack of attacks than it is to plan and execute the attacks of its own.
The al Qaeda message was essentially, "If we continue these attacks, we will one day realize the caliphate" — and this became frustrating for many idealist jihadists. When the Islamic State came along with its message of, "The caliphate is here," it attracted many of those who were dissatisfied with al Qaeda's more gradual approach and its focus on striking the United States rather than local enemies. The Islamic State's initial battlefield successes in Iraq served as an additional multiplier to convince jihadists that it was the real deal and that the thing they had been waiting for had finally come. The jihadist grassroots were primed to accept the brash, uncompromising and apocalyptic message of the Islamic State.
Many people have expressed surprise that the atrocities committed by the Islamic State have not alienated more jihadists. This is because the transcendent purpose of the Islamic State is so powerful that it overrides any qualms about how it is to be achieved. To quote leadership guru Simon Sinek, "People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe." The Islamic State is pursuing a "why" that has a very powerful appeal to grassroots jihadists around the globe. Its barbaric actions prove that its members are true believers who do not care about any consequences or repercussions.
This is a very powerful force that has an incredible pull — especially on the marginalized individuals who tend to flock to cults, gangs and radical groups. We are seeing this pull not only in the young aspiring fighters and brides that are traveling to Syria, but also in the grassroots jihadists who are practicing leaderless resistance and conducting attacks in other places. However, while the appeal is powerful, it is only powerful for a very limited segment of people. The Islamic State's brutality and attacks on other Muslims have alienated many of their intended audience.
The jihadist grassroots were primed to accept the brash, uncompromising and apocalyptic message of the Islamic State.
Impact of the Appeal
One impact of the Islamic State's appeal that goes beyond branding is that certain groups, such as Boko Haram before it actually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in August, are attempting to copy its method of operations. This has included kidnapping large numbers of girls, attacking Muslims declared to be apostates and declaring an Islamic Caliphate after seizing a large piece of territory. Recent suicide bombings of mosques by Islamic State supporters in Yemen also appear to have been influenced by the Islamic State's actions in Iraq and Syria. Such attacks are a way of differentiating Islamic State followers from al Qaeda adherents.
The Islamic State also has shown a mastery of social media that eclipses al Qaeda's. This social media activity, along with the group's dramatic progress in mid-2014, has attracted funding and foreign volunteers. It has also helped motivate a number of grassroots terrorists to conduct attacks in the West. It remains to be seen if the surge in grassroots attacks in recent months is a temporary phenomenon or if it will be sustainable.
It is important to understand that not even a year has passed since the Islamic State declared the establishment of its caliphate. The shine is only now beginning to wear off as the group, which promotes itself as an inexorable force blessed by Allah, experiences significant and repeated defeats on the battlefield. Its leaders will attempt to deflect some of these defeats through apocalyptic ideology that claims the group will suffer heavy losses until a small core of true believers is led by the Prophet Isa, which is Arabic for Jesus, in a final battle at Dabiq in Syria, where they will finally defeat the "crusader forces" led by the Antichrist.
This justification may convince some of the most-hardcore idealists, but it will probably not be accepted globally. The others will become disenchanted once they realize the Islamic State will not be able to deliver on its promises. There have been many reports of foreign fighters being executed for attempting to leave the Islamic State and return home, so disillusionment may be starting to take root and spread through the ranks of the group's fighters. Such executions will even serve to further the spread of disenchantment.
When considering the impact of the Islamic State's appeal, it is also important to keep in mind that in every instance outside of Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State has claimed to have established a new franchise — what they refer to as a "wilayat," or province — that new group has sprung up in areas where jihadists were already active. Indeed, Tunisia, where the Bardo Museum attack happened last week, has been plagued by a jihadist problem for quite some time now, and the Tunisian authorities have been fighting a counterinsurgency against the jihadist Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia in the mountainous Kasserine province near the Algerian border since 2012. (Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and the Tunisian government believes the group was responsible for the Bardo attack.) We have written repeatedly about the danger jihadists pose to Tunisia and were not surprised they carried out an attack in Tunis. The only real surprise was that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack instead of another group.
In most cases, pre-existing organizations or splinters of a jihadist organization are rebranding themselves as Islamic State franchises rather than new groups forming to claim the name. There are numerous examples of this: Jund al-Khalifa in Algeria (a splinter from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb); the Sinai faction of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt; Boko Haram; some elements of the Pakistani Taliban; the Dagestani faction of the Caucasus Emirates; and a faction of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
As we noted above, radical groups have a natural tendency to fracture, especially after they have proved themselves ineffective in making progress toward their stated goals. However, the Islamic State's emergence and its success in Iraq have dramatically accelerated this process. Moreover, the Islamic State's scathing and repeated public attacks on al Qaeda's leadership will make it very difficult to gloss over the differences and reconsolidate the jihadist movement unless the Islamic State can do so by force, which is not likely, given the constraints the group faces.
Jihadist groups' tendency to splinter means that, rather than adding to the jihadist realm, the Islamic State is siphoning off former al Qaeda jihadists or picking up jihadists al Qaeda did not want or who did not like al Qaeda. In many places such as Syria, Pakistan and Libya, these Islamic State franchise groups have even engaged in combat against other jihadists. This means that as jihadist groups splinter and weaken, and as jihadists kill other jihadists, the global jihadist movement will experience a net loss rather than a victory.