Since the Islamic State declared the establishment of the caliphate June 29, I have been asked frequently about the group's appeal outside of its immediate area of operations and its ability to attract other jihadists. When we see crises flare up such as the current one in Yemen, people ask: Is there an Islamic State affiliate that can take advantage of this?
Because of such concerns, it seemed appropriate to take some time to examine the Islamic State's ability to spread.
Factors in the Rise of the Islamic State
When considering the Islamic State's ability to metastasize beyond its core area, we must first look at its ideology, its methodology and the environment that produced it. The Islamic State (like its predecessor organizations) is rooted in the Iraq conflict and is a product of that conflict. Although Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the organization Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad in Afghanistan, the group never amounted to much there. It was only when he relocated to Iraq following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that the group really found success in recruiting and on the battlefield.
Unlike the educated men from wealthy families who formed al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi is a former Jordanian street thug who was radicalized while in prison. His group's hubris, brutality and embrace of sectarianism all trace their roots back to his influence and guidance.
This brutal sectarianism was well suited for Iraq (and later for Syria) and took root in the de-Baathification programs following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was also fostered by the atrocities that Shiite militias committed against innocent Sunnis. De-Baathification helped Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, and later al Qaeda in Iraq, attract many Sunni fighters who were former Iraqi officers and gain support from Iraq's powerful Sunni tribes.
While the tribal support was diminished during the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni sheikhs always maintained a healthy fear and skepticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's sectarian bent. Because of this, the Sunni tribal sheikhs permitted a weakened Islamic State in Iraq to survive in case it was ever needed again as a tool with which to confront the al-Maliki government.
Even during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Shiite militias committed numerous atrocities against Sunnis, who were often abducted, tortured and murdered. But following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Shiite militias' violence was joined by the sectarian policies of the al-Maliki government intended to marginalize Sunnis and undercut their power in Iraq. For example, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a very influential Sunni politician, was charged with murder and forced to flee Baghdad for Iraqi Kurdistan and eventually Turkey. The al-Maliki government also stopped its payments to the Sunni Awakening Forces and reneged on agreements to integrate thousands of its members into the Iraqi armed forces, leaving many of these men unemployed with no means of supporting their families. Such measures helped what was then the Islamic State in Iraq in its efforts to regain power and momentum.
The highly sectarian Syrian civil war also proved fortunate for the resurgent Islamic State in Iraq. A good number of Syrian Sunnis had been involved with the Islamic State in Iraq since the beginning, and the many years of experience they gained fighting coalition forces in Iraq permitted the group's Syrian surrogate, Jabhat al-Nusra, to emerge as an effective fighting force. Jabhat al-Nusra's professionalism, sectarian rhetoric and brutality allowed it to quickly attract not only Syrian rebels but also a substantial portion of the foreign fighters flocking to Syria. The Syrian-led Jabhat al-Nusra later split with the Islamic State of Iraq when the Iraqi leaders of the latter group attempted to directly integrate the Syrian fighters in their renamed group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. When al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sided with Jabhat al Nusra in the dispute, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ignored his admonishment and split with al Qaeda.
Frictions and Limited Cooperation
The spectacle of al-Zawahiri's criticism of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was nothing new. The group's ideology was never all that closely aligned with al Qaeda's, and there is documentation from as far back as 2005 that al-Zawahiri criticized al-Zarqawi because his group was highly sectarian and exceedingly brutal. Al-Zawahiri noted that al-Zarqawi's policies were alienating many Muslims against the group. The degree of this alienation became readily apparent in the 2007 Anbar Awakening.
The group has gained some traction among Lebanese Sunnis, with many Sunnis in Tripoli openly supporting the Islamic State. However, outside of the highly sectarian environment in the Levant, the group's attempts to assume leadership of the global jihad since its declaration of the caliphate in June have failed. Not only have al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the Islamic State's leadership, but prominent jihadist ideologues like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi have publicly criticized the group.
One reason for this lack of support is that the leaders of jihadist groups in places like Yemen, Pakistan and Algeria view the Islamic State as a threat — to their leadership of the global jihad and in the competition for limited resources such as men, funding and weapons. Many jihadist leaders are jealous of the way that geography has permitted their counterparts in Iraq and Syria to monopolize the financial largesse of wealthy Muslim donors in the Gulf and elsewhere. Iraq and Syria were the seats of previous Islamic caliphates and are seen as being at the heart of the Muslim world — places like Pakistan and Yemen are not.
Even current al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri, who is sheltering in the area along the Afghan-Pakistani border, recognized this when he laid out his vision for the global progression of the jihadist movement. In a 2005 letter to al-Zarqawi, he wrote: "It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world." He wrote that the first step in such a plan was to expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage was to establish an emirate and expand it into a larger caliphate. The third stage was to attack the countries surrounding Iraq, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan, bringing them into the caliphate. The fourth step was to use the combined power of the caliphate to attack Israel. Although the Islamic State has split with al-Zawahiri's al Qaeda core leadership, they are progressing along the trajectory he laid out.
A second factor keeping the leaders of other jihadist groups from joining the Islamic State is the group's sectarian focus and its propensity to attack other jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and other rebel groups in Syria. Multiple jihadist groups operate in places like Pakistan and the Sahel region of Africa, but they have been far less combative than the Islamic State.
Third, most other jihadist leaders are repulsed by the Islamic State's brutal imposition of Sharia and believe that they have a more sophisticated view of Islamic governance than the Islamic State. This difference was clear in al-Zawahiri's letter to al-Zarqawi and in more recent letters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Other letters from Droukdel to his subordinates in Mali after they had taken control of a large portion of northern Mali also urged tolerance and warned against the type of strict and sudden enforcement of Sharia the Islamic State is known for.
The Islamic State's Appeal
Grassroots jihadists have been the Islamic State's main source of public support since before the declaration of the caliphate. Individual grassroots jihadists from around the world have flocked to Iraq and Syria to fight, and grassroots networks have been set up in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East to send men, funds and weapons to support the Islamic State. Jihadists in Libya and Tunisia have been especially active in these support networks in terms of sending men (and weapons from Libya), but they have not yet overtly declared loyalty to the Islamic State.
In Indonesia, Abu Bakar Bashir, the former leader of the now-defunct Jemaah Islamiyah, declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but Bashir is in prison and marginalized. Even his own sons have repudiated him (and by extension the Islamic State) and have broken off to form a new radical Islamist group in Indonesia. There have also been reports of a grassroots group in Malaysia that allegedly was discussing the launch of terrorist activity there, but this group appears to have been more aspirational than operational at the time of its members' arrests.
Given the well-publicized battlefield successes that the Islamic State achieved in July, it is quite remarkable that the group did not garner more support from other jihadist groups. We believe that with the United States and other outside countries taking action against the Islamic State in Iraq (perhaps to be followed by attacks against their infrastructure in Syria), the group is due to suffer setbacks on the battlefield. This will diminish the Islamic State's appeal to other jihadist groups whose interest might have been piqued by its successes.