February 24, 2015

ISIS: Islamic State’s Global Ambitions. ISIS No Longer A Regional Problem, Is Executing A Complex Strategy Across Three Geographic Rings

The Wall Street Journal
written by Jessica Lewis McFate And Harleen Gambhir
Sunday February 22, 2015

Last week’s Pentagon briefing outlined plans for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake Mosul from Islamic State, also known as ISIS. This strategy largely assumes that if ISIS is expelled from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, pushed out of Anbar province and degraded in Syria, the organization will collapse because its narrative of victory will be tarnished and its legitimacy as a “Caliphate” will end.

That may have been true some months ago. But ISIS has adapted more quickly than U.S. strategy has succeeded, and it is pursuing a deliberate strategy to offset its tactical losses in Iraq and Syria with territorial gains in the Mideast and globally.

ISIS’s often stated objective is to “remain and expand.” This is not a mere defensive measure to preserve its combat power from destruction. Nor is it a mere recruiting slogan designed to replace some 6,000 ISIS fighters that Washington estimates have been killed since U.S.-led coalition airstrikes began in August. As Ms. Gambhir concludes in her recent Institute for the Study of War “ISIS Global Intelligence Summary,” open-source reporting indicates that ISIS is executing a complex global strategy across three geographic rings.

What the intelligence summary calls the “Interior Ring” is at the center of the fighting and includes terrain the group is named for, specifically Iraq and al Sham—i.e., the Levantine states of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. The “Near Abroad Ring” includes the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, extending east to Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS has claimed auxiliary operations or established what it calls “governorates” across this region.

The “Far Abroad Ring” includes the rest of the world, specifically Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Here ISIS is most focused on nearby Europe, which it terms “Rome” as a reference to the Byzantine empire, the great power adversary in decline during the rise of the early Islamic caliphs. ISIS distinguishes between established Muslim lands and those that host Muslim diaspora communities, and it uses different but interlocking strategies in each ring to expand its influence.

ISIS’s primary mission on the Interior Ring is defending the current territories it controls in Iraq and Syria from counterattack and undermining neighboring states. ISIS has suffered heavy casualties, mainly due to airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies and the effectiveness of forces on the ground, including Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces, and Iraqi Shiite militias. ISIS has lost the Syrian border town of Kobani, but it has not relinquished its strongholds in the Syrian cities of Raqqa or Deir Ezzour. Most important, its goal is to maintain control over Mosul, a city with more than a million residents, Fallujah and large swaths of Iraq’s Anbar province, where it is still carrying out sophisticated attacks.

This defensive stance in Iraq is one component of a larger strategy to regain the initiative elsewhere. ISIS’s recent foray into Libya, and its hostage-taking and executions of Egyptians and Jordanians, are a clear attempt to provoke offensive operations in those countries, and as such have largely succeeded. The goal is to polarize domestic populations to deter participation in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. The longer-term goal is to cause multistate failure in the region that spreads from the Interior Ring.

The primary mission of ISIS in the Near Abroad is territorial expansion. ISIS recently announced so-called governorates in Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and “Khorasan,” the historic name for a region covering parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India. The list may soon include the Caucasus. Its strategy in the Near Abroad is to find organized local groups and seed them with resources and training to increase their combat effectiveness.

ISIS is also fostering relationships with local jihadist groups capable of conducting simultaneous, independent military operations, especially in Libya and Sinai. These satellite groups, such as the Islamic Youth Shura Council in Libya and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai, can shape local conditions and prepare the ground for ISIS’s future expansion. Elements from the al Qaeda affiliate in the Caucasus, for example, recently defected to ISIS in part because of its more effective military organization.

The primary mission of ISIS in the Far Abroad is disruption of the current political order through terrorism and cyberattacks. As Ms. Gambhir notes in her ISIS intelligence summary: “ISIS-supportive hacking groups intensified cyberattacks throughout January 2015, striking a range of military, journalist, charitable, and government targets. . . . More than 19,000 cyberattacks targeted French websites in the week after the Charlie Hebdo shooting.”

Once focused on recruiting radical Islamists in Europe and elsewhere to join the fight in Iraq and Syria, ISIS now also encourages them to remain at home to recruit others and launch local attacks, such as those in France and Denmark. These attacks are intended to polarize Western societies and deter strikes on the ISIS core ruling stronghold in Iraq and Syria. ISIS believes this polarization will lay the groundwork for an all-out war with the West when the time comes.

In short, ISIS has adapted to the U.S.-led coalition campaign in Iraq and Syria by rapidly building a regional and global network that it can use to recruit and attack. In this way, it may well be able to sustain its global terrorist campaign if it loses terrain in Iraq and Syria—perhaps even if it is driven out of that region.

Nevertheless, the sustained control of territory in Iraq and Syria is essential to the legitimacy of ISIS by the terms they have set for themselves. Defeating ISIS there will deal the organization a severe blow. It will not, however, end the threat from ISIS either in Mesopotamia and the Levant or around the world.

The ISIS cancer has metastasized, as the al Qaeda cancer did before it. The two are now competing to see which can kill more people faster. It is past time to recognize the scale, scope and magnitude of the enemies America and its allies face and develop clearly stated global, regional and local strategies to fight them.

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Gatestone Institute
written by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
July 2, 2014
"[F]ear Allah as he should be feared and do not die except as Muslims.... Go forth, O mujahidin in the path of Allah. Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death.... for the dunyā [worldly life] will come to an end, and the hereafter will last forever." — Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Baghdadi, Caliph, "The Islamic State" [aka ISIS]
Marking the beginning of Ramadan, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of "the Islamic State" (formerly ISIS: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and declared Caliph Ibrahim, released a new audio message addressed to the Muslim world.

The new speech is most notable for being forthright about Baghdadi's message on the global nature of the Islamic State's struggle. Baghdadi touched on issues regarding the persecution of Muslims in Burma and the Philippines as well as the French restrictions on the wearing of the veil, and he responded to accusations that the Islamic State engages in 'irhab [terrorism].
I have to chime in. When Islamist decry "persecution of Muslims", that is a flat out lie. They view anyone who resist Islamist establishing their sharia law in a non-Muslim nation as hostile. Muslims in those countries he mentions have destroyed ANCIENT Buddhist temples and lands and have slaughtered Buddhist and non-Muslims in those countries. This is no different than when Islamic have the nerve to call actual terror attacks "protest". The truth is... the civilized free world is being persecuted by Islamist who are the main cause of misery in this world. (emphasis mine)
Ominously, Baghdadi concluded his speech with aspirations for the Islamic State's conquest of "Rome" and the whole world. Such emphasis on the transnational nature of the Islamic State's project corroborates Baghdadi's projection of himself as the caliph and sole representative of Islamic rule on earth to whom all Muslims must pledge allegiance.

While these explicit proclamations, however, may come across as new in the Islamic State's messaging, the reality is that emphasis on worldwide ambitions has actually been a part of the group's propaganda since at least last summer when it was still known as ISIS. This distinguished ISIS early on from its al-Qa'ida competitor Jabhat al-Nusra, which prefers a more gradualist approach of "hearts and minds" as advocated by jihadist thinker Abu Mus'ab al-Suri. This approach aims to have locals first become accustomed to the norms of Shari'a law, with ambitions for a global Caliphate not expressed openly except in unofficial videos primarily put out by members of Jabhat al-Nusra's foreign contingent.

Only more recently, in response to the dispute with ISIS, has Jabhat al-Nusra in any of its official media outlets explicitly affirmed the Caliphate ambition, specifically in Shari'a official Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir's interview featured this year by al-Basira media (an outlet set up by Jabhat al-Nusra to counter ISIS).

In contrast, in a video released by ISIS' media wing al-Furqan Media in August 2013, an elderly native Syrian fighter for ISIS, who had participated in the ISIS-led takeover of Mannagh airbase in Aleppo province, affirmed that jihad is farḍ ul-ayn [an obligation on every individual Muslim] and that it is necessary for an "Islamic state" to be established "over the entire world," beginning with victory in Bilad ash-Sham [Syria]. Also within the realm of official media, one of ISIS' early slogans was "the promised project of the Caliphate," featured on a billboard ISIS erected in the northern Aleppo town of Azaz, bordering Turkey, after seizing control of it from a rival group -- Northern Storm -- in September.

Elsewhere, one could observe long-standing ISIS billboards in Syria carrying statements like "Together we cultivate the tree of the Caliphate" and "a Caliphate pleasing to the Lord is better than democracy pleasing to the West." Besides these explicit affirmations, Baghdadi was projecting himself as a de facto caliph, taking the names of "al-Qurayshi" (indicating descent from Muhammad's tribe) and "al-Husseyni" (to indicate lineage from Muhammad's family), enhancing legitimacy to claims of being a caliph.

The reference to Rome in Baghdadi's latest message might seem odd at first sight too, but that has also been part of Baghdadi's de facto caliph image for months, as was apparent in his imposition of the dhimmi [second-class, "tolerated" non-Muslim residents] pact on Christians in Raqqa in March. Dhimmi status, in traditional theology as expounded in the Umdat al-Salik manual, is to be imposed by a caliph. ISIS' official Raqqa province news feed expressed hope that "tomorrow" (not literally, but at some point in the future) the dhimmi pact would be imposed in Rome.

While no one expects the vast majority of Muslims worldwide to migrate to Baghdadi's state, or caliphate, in Iraq and Syria to build up from there to take over the whole world, the question does arise of what implications there are for Baghdadi's project and how it plays out on the ground. The first implication is that these most explicit affirmations yet send a clear message to the other insurgent groups in Iraq in particular that there is no room for power-sharing, significantly increasing the prospect of wider fighting with groups like the Ba'athist Naqshbandi Army and the Islamic Army of Iraq, both of which have previously fought with ISIS' predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

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