Lately, the world has been shaken by large attacks carried out by the Islamic State. On 31 October 2015, Islamic State’s fighters destroyed a Russian plane over the Sinai: “According to our experts, on board an aircraft in flight, an improvised bomb exploded capacity of up to 1 kg of TNT, resulting in an explosion of the aircraft in the air, which explains the spread parts of the fuselage of the aircraft at a distance. We can definitely say that this is a terrorist act” stated officially Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service at a Security meeting held at the Kremlin (President of the Russian Federation website, “Meeting on the outcome of investigations into the causes of the Russian plane crash in the Sinai“, 17 Nov 2015). On 12 November, suicide attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed at least 41 people and wounded 181 (BBC News, 12 Nov and 13 Nov 2015). The attacks targeted a Hezbollah and thus Shi’a neighbourhood, but the official day of mourning decided by Lebanon (Ibid.) shows that it was first and foremost Lebanon and its people that were attacked. On 13 November 2015, nine Islamic State fighters (eight according to the Islamic State’s claim), with a still unknown number of supporting combattants (Les Echos, 19 Nov 2015) managed to attack Paris in 6 different places, killing 132 people and wounding 352, again civilians (BBC News, “Paris attacks: What happened on the night“, 16 Nov 2015; Europe 1, 15 Nov; France TV Info, 15 Nov 2015). Another potential attack was foiled by raid carried out by French police special units on 18 November (Les Echos, Ibid.). Meanwhile, starting 21 November 2015, Belgium is under imminent attack threat, and has had to reduce all activities to the minimum, police and army being deployed (BBC News live).
After these attacks, it is even more obvious than previously that the Islamic State fights globally. This global aspect of the Islamic State’s actions is what we shall focus upon now, in our series assessing potential risks and challenges linked to the operations and strategy, in Syria, of Russia and of the US-led coalition, most probably soon to be a united coalition, against the Islamic State and its Khilafah in Syria and in Iraq, following the unanimously adopted 20 November 2015 U.N. resolution. We saw previously that it was impossible to focus on Syria alone, and that one had to operate, with various means, at the level of Mesopotamia – as now finally acted by the U.N. resolution, and at the regional level. This post will suggest that, similarly, one also needs to integrate a global geographical level. First, we shall recall that the Islamic State and its Khilafah are inherently a global warrior polity, thus aiming at operating globally. Second we shall look at what we know of the capacity of the Islamic State to reach out globally, and underline dynamics operating between different components of this capability. Finally, we shall turn to the last element of the very capacity to act globally, the current scope of the Islamic State global imprint.
The Islamic State and its Khilafah, an inherently global warrior polity
The Islamic State is defining itself globally in both geographically based, but also ideologically grounded terms (H Lavoix, “The Islamic State psyops – Worlds War“, 19 Jan 2015 and “Ultimate War“, 9 Feb 2015, RTAS). As a result, it fights its war according to its own terms at a near global level to establish a worldwide Khilafah.
It is useful here to repeat that the Islamic State and the Khilafah are those attacking the rest of the world and that they are NOT defending themselves against an alleged aggression by the West, or by “Crusaders” or by a litany of enemies, indeed all those who do not subject to the Islamic State’s ideology and rule. Shockingly, some people have also started making this argument on media, notably in France, and one may wonder about their true aim for some, considering the war at work, while the more naive amongst them may easily become tools in the hands of other actors, spreading unfounded Islamist ideology in general, and more particularly Islamic State’s propaganda, as exemplified in Dabiq #12, published on 18 November 2015, and boasting about the latest attacks. The Islamic State even went further and took small parts of the arguments against the French intervention in Mali – and not Syria – by atheistic French philosopher Michel Onfray, interviewed for French TV channel BFMTV/ radio RMC by Jean-Jacques Bourdin (see interview of 24 May 2013 – part 12:00 – 14:50) in a psypops video “Faites exploser la France” (Make France explode) published on 22 November 2015 by Al-Barakah media, as a way to legitimise its false version of history. However cut and denatured the message of Onfray is, the Islamic State propagandists also question the whole coherence of someone denouncing all religions in the name of enlightenment on the one hand (mainly first part of the interview, ibid.), but, on the other hand, ignoring that Mali asked France for help in respect of international law, and who ends up appearing through his statements to support jihadis expansionist goal and their forced establishment of Shari’a in the name of non-interference, because everything is wrongly seen through the prism of an out-of-date struggle against a long time gone colonialism (second part interview, ibid.).
Thus, let us recall, first, al-Baghdadi statement as he declared the Khilafah:
“Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty … Rush O Muslims to your state. It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims….”This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.” (transcript from al-Baghdadi audio recording in Damien McElory, “Rome will be conquered next, says leader of ‘Islamic State’”.The Telegraph, 1 July 2014) [my emphasis] .
This shows a clear expansionist goal, against which states and their populations, which do not want to live under the Khilafah’s rule have a right – and a duty – to fight. As we pointed out in “The Islamic State psyops – Worlds War” (19 Jan 2015, RTAS), we are here faced with the essence of war, a violent opposition of wills.
Let us give another example, from Dabiq #1 (one of the psyops products of the Islamic State, published by Al Hayat Media Center – see “The Islamic State Psyops – a framework“, 8 Dec 2014, RTAS), published as the Khilafah was declared, on 29 June 2014. There, on p. 6. we can read:
“A new era has arrived of might and dignity for the Muslims
Amirul-Mu’minin said: “Soon by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved…
They [the Muslims] have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.’ (Dabiq #1, 29 June 2014, Al Hayat Media Center, p.6)
Again, it is difficult to be clearer regarding the intentions of the Islamic State and its Khilafah. At the time, the Iraqi government, having lost part of its territory to a Blitz Krieg carried out by the Islamic State had just called for help the U.S., which was only starting consultations to see if a coalition could do something to help Iraq (Mushreq Abbas, Al Monitor, 13 June 2014). Even if the 2003 US -led aggression against Iraq is one of the initial causes of the current quagmire, as far as the current Islamic State and its Khilafah, as declared on 29 June 2014, are concerned, there is there no aggression from anyone, save the Islamic State.
This constant confusion between different wars, phenomena, processes, also promoted by the current Western fashion to use bad analogies instead of proper comparisons, as explained for example by John Stuart Mills (A System of Logic, 1843 see Wikipedia explanation), as well as by the bad habit to make anachronistic projections, only leads to one thing: it favours Islamists of all kinds and their propaganda and allow them to sow the doubt into the mind of the population, ultimately contributing to radicalization on the one hand, incapacity to defend oneself properly on the other.
Furthermore, as we also showed previously, war is inherent to the nature of this very Khilafah. From the Islamic State’s point of view, if something is foreign, then it is defined according to war and is an enemy (see for the detailed explanation “Ultimate War“). Meanwhile, in the Khilafah’s worldview, there is no such thing anymore as an easy difference between civilians and fighters: “The Islamic State is … made of warriors or combatants, not of civilians… Thus again, from the point of view of the Islamic State, there is no civilians among their foes, just combatants” (Ibid for a detailed explanation).
Although published later, i.e. after the U.S.-led coalition answered the Iraqi call for help, the animated map at the beginning of the infamous video “Although the disbelievers dislike it” (Al Furqan Media Foundation, 16 November 2014) showing the world conquered by the Islamic State, as portrayed below through the series of stills from the video, also leaves no doubt as to the true goal of the Islamic State and its Khilafah.
The Islamic State and its Khilafah have started the war. War is intrinsic to its nature, and, considering the Islamic State’s worldview, it is global, it may hit everyone and everywhere, according to capacities, of course.
Capacity to reach out abroad
The overall capacity to carry out relatively small yet painful and disruptive, commandos-like or guerrillas operations abroad, considering our previous analysis of the structure of the Islamic State (see “The Calif and Legitimacy“; “Means of Violence“; “Money, Wealth and Taxes“) does not seem to be questionable. Further studies, published since July, confirm our earlier analysis (e.g. Thomas Hegghammer, Petter Nesser, “Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West”; Aymenn al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 9, No 4 (2015); Aymenn Al-Tamimi, Pundicity). The Islamic State and its Khilafah have as available resources what is provided by its state-building: fighters, money – thus capacity to buy weapons and to deploy), legitimacy and influence.
Furthermore, its recruitment of “foreign fighters”, a fundamental aspect of its ideological existence, as the Islamic State is meant to be “the land of all Muslims” – all those who qualify as Muslims, from the point of view of the Islamic State, i.e. Salafis – gives the Islamic State and its Khilafah a supplementary advantage to carry out operations abroad, as feared by states from which these fighters originate (e.g. H Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops – The Foreign Fighters’ Threat“, 2 March 2015, RTAS), as exemplified below, with the example of the 13 November Paris attacks.
The importance and capacity to carry out attacks abroad would be translated in the state structure of the Islamic State and its Khilafah. According to recent interviews by Reuters (Mariam Karouny, “Insight – Islamic State takes war to its foes after battlefield setbacks“, 15 Nov 2015), orders for foreign attacks would come directly from Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the spokesperson for the Islamic State, which is coherent with the various calls to fight also by Al-Adnani, published on the internet, we have used as material in previous articles. For example, Al-Adnani would have issued a call to strike abroad (at least France, Lebanon, Turkey) in September 2015: “he sent a written order to all sectors and security brigades to start moving, including in Lebanon and Turkey” (Karouny, ibid.). The initial decision thus comes from the highest governmental level of the Islamic State and its Khilafah.
Then, it would seem that a “foreign operations” division exists within the Islamic State military apparatus (we may wonder if it corresponds to the “foreign fighters” “department” as identified by US treasury sources – see “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Means of Violence“, 15 June 2015). Always according to Karouny (ibid.), a Jordanian national would head the foreign operations division, and “‘mastermind(s) these operations, get(s) in touch with the followers and supporters there, guide them in training and operations and targets,’ said a jihadi source close to the group”.
The possibility to enter relatively easily in Europe, especially thanks to the migrant crisis, is likely to also have played a role in the timing of the order and it its execution. The (false) Syrian passport found by a suicide bomber in Paris and registered as migrant in Greece in early October (Reuters, 14 Nov 2015) is an indication of this possibility. The “dormant cells” that would also have been set up throughout countries previously (Karouny, Ibid.) could then be activated and organised, for example, by better trained fighters sent back to the territory where the operation must take place (and where they could mix easily considering their origin, while using their personal network), as seems to be the case with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, also known as Abu Umar al-Baljiki (BBC News, 18 Nov 2015; Les Echos, ibid.). These “dormant cells” may be nothing else that elements, even individuals, wanting to join the Islamic State and in contact with Islamic State’s fighters through web-based or more classical social networks.
The result of the French prosecution enquiry – which will certainly remain classified – should also allow the states fighting against the Islamic State to improve their understanding of the Islamic State’s military apparatus. However, as people have been arrested, the Islamic State system may also learned the lessons from its failures and successes and adapt and change as a consequence.
We are faced with a deadly spiral and with a conundrum. The more powerful, strong and efficient the Islamic State appears, notably by its capacity to reach out globally and to strike powerful enemies, the more influence it wins, and the more attractive it appears to its potential followers, thus enhancing its recruitment and mobilising power. Furthermore, the attacks are couched in religious terms. The Islamic State explains its victories religiously, which, again, allows him to reinforce its legitimacy – including compared to similar actors such as Al-Qaeda against which it competes for supremacy (note that the timing of the attack against Bamako Blue Radisson hotel by Al Qaeda linked Al Mourabitoun with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM could also be linked to this competition for legitimacy between the two groups, e.g. New York Times, 21 Nov 2015). Perceived religious victory and supremacy can be turned into more followers, indeed believers. In turn, getting more followers, means more mobilised fighters, which can be used for both the Islamic State’s state-building project and the enlargement and reinforcement of the scope of its reach, through ribats as we shall explain below.
Meanwhile, being able to strike globally also opens new fronts to which the Islamic State’s enemy must attend, and for which resources are spent. Opening new fronts which are solid enough has other potential consequences: it may relax a grip building up, for example, in Mesopotamia, while contributing to lower the importance of Mesopotamia within the whole Khilafah. The latter, in case of important victory by the international coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would allow sending fighters to other wilayats and conducting the same war from there. True enough, the emphasis given to the location of Dabiq in Syria in the ideological lore of the Islamic State would forbid to completely discard Mesopotamia in general, Syria in particular. However, the Islamic State is nimble and smart enough in its capacity to develop psyops messages to manage quickly and even preventively to craft new messages that would then, for example, promote the need to free Dabiq from all enemies, referring to the “last battle before the conquest of Constantinople” as done, for example, in Dabiq #1: 4 or Dabiq #4: 33. The setback would then be explained as a trial sent by Allah to test faith. This is where the conundrum lies, as we shall also stress below, a stronger Islamic State is likely to favour global attacks, but a weaker Islamic State is as likely to also favour global attacks.
Meanwhile, and we shall see more in detail with the next article, opening new fronts may also link up with other unsettled and difficult situations, thus contributing to destabilise entire zones. The resulting rising chaos will then favour the Islamic State, which can not only penetrate further these zones, but also, notably through its violence and its organisation, contribute to give them a modicum of stability, but under its rule and according to its ways, as was observed in Syria (see “Money, Wealth and Taxes“, 13 July 2015)
Knowing that new fronts may be opened in numerous areas, if this implies a heavy monitoring and surveillance, also forces the Islamic State’s enemies to divert resources towards this activity. Failure to do so properly enhances the odds to see victorious attacks, which brings us back to the danger of the deadly spiral, as explained previously.
This is not to say that nothing can be done and that we are doomed, on the contrary, as the Islamic State’s action also generate strong reactions. We notably witness support of those attacked and changes of policies towards better adapted ones (e.g. The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly 229 – 19 November 2015, gathering instances of articles evidencing support, as well as the still difficult path towards uniting diplomatically the various efforts against the Islamic State). Yet, it is necessary to emphasise that we must, to win, seriously consider the Islamic State and its Khilafah. Diminishing an enemy may have a role to play in propaganda; it should not, however, lead policy and strategy. Incidentally, we should here point out – and this would warrant longer and more in-depth analysis – that propaganda or counter-propaganda in this very war involves increasingly complex problems, considering the nature of the war and the current information environment: both together, de facto, implicate civilians and thus the need to help them develop a full awareness of the war, which, in turn, contradicts the use of propaganda.
If the importance of the existence of the Khilafah’s state-building in Mesopotamia should not be underestimated, as explained above, and as now pointed out by most serious analysts, who finally overcame the “terrorist group” bias (e.g. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants“, The National Interest, March 2015), the Islamic State and its Khilafah’s global outlook should be neither forgotten nor underestimated. The Islamic State is not any state similar to a modern state, it is a new kind of polity which must also be global to succeed. The existence of the Khilafah’s wilayats outside geographical Mesopotamia is furthermore an indication that state-building and global reach also meet and intersect.
Considering these interactions, the larger the scope of the Islamic State, the more likely it is to reinforce itself, especially if these potential dynamics are ignored.
The current global imprint of the Islamic State
The power of the Islamic State’s imprint varies but, nonetheless, as we just show, its scope must be considered in its entirety. We can currently summarise it with the following map (click on links for the latest available map (January 2016) and for a detailed map for Yemen).
The black to white rectangles symbolise the various wilayats as declared by the Islamic State, the darker the colour, the stronger the state power through administrative imprint (see “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat” for an explanation). Considering the need to show the entirety of the map of the word, detailed wilayats for Mesopotamia are here only shown symbolically, the proper detailed map can be found in the previous article of this series, “From Syria to the region“. All these wilayats are also at war, which is not, in the case of the Islamic State an evidence of weakness or illegitimacy as, as seen, war is fully embedded in its ideology. Thus, a wilayat also indicates that various attacks and fighting are likely to take place in its areas. No supplementary symbol to indicate such violence is thus added to the map.
In red, we have the various points of “ribat” to use an Islamic State terminology, i.e. the a-geographical potentially shifting “borders” of the Khilafah, or where it is carrying the fight, in various, more or less intense ways as we saw when studying its worldview in “Worlds War” and “Ultimate War“, building notably on Magnus Ranstorp‘s explanation: ribat means “placing oneself at the frontlines where Islam was [is] under siege” (Statement 31 December 2003, using Bin-laden’s mentor Azzam book Caravan of Martyrs).
We consider here that a point of ribat is opened when al-Baghdadi has accepted the allegiance (bay’a – e.g. Joas Wagemakers, “The Concept of Bay‘a in the Islamic State’s Ideology”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 9, No 4, 2015) pledged by groups (e.g. Indonesia – see forthcoming article for more; Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or IMU, e.g. Edward Lemon, “IMU Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State“, 1 August 2015, Eurasianet.org – note it is not clear if IMU’s bay’a has been accepted or not); when active and aggressive psyops products are published and spread, aiming at recruiting fighters for the current wilayats or/and at killing the Islamic State’s self-declared enemies on the territory where the point of ribat is opened, whether attacks have taken place or not (e.g. France and Belgium, Lebanon, the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, Chinese Xinjiang, Somalia, Russia, U.S., Canada, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago) and when such attacks have taken place and been claimed, sometimes as extensions of the operations of non-Mesopotamian wilayats (e.g. Bangladesh; Tunisia – links to Libyan wilayats; Egypt – links to Sinai wilayat; the lake Chad region – links to Wilayat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah; Denmark), or have been stopped in time and declared by local authorities as linked to the Islamic State (e.g. Morocco). For attacks themselves, a useful, complete and up-to-date list can be found on the New York Times website (Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins and Tom Giratikanon, “ISIS attacks around the world” – the map is not always up-to date compared with the list, as shown by Bangladesh, at the time of writing).
Consequently, considering the worldview of the Islamic state, its capacity to reach out globally and the current scope of its reach, as well as the way these elements interact and reinforce each others, the answer to defeat the Islamic State should be designed with these terms in mind and with the same scope. This does not mean not carrying out operations according to local conditions, on the contrary, but this demands making sure that the larger as well as global theatres of war are also considered. Local and national operations should ideally always be designed and carried out with the other levels of interventions in mind.
Failure to do so, even in the case of a complete success on the Syrian and Iraqi front, assuming this is possible without considering the larger theatre of war, could leave the world either with the same problem as explained above, or, in an apparently better case scenario, with rampaging armed groups or dispersed armed fighters that would have the potential to sow instability in very various areas. It would also leave pockets of discontent, including religiously-based and extremist groups, which would go underground and could then re-emerge later, possibly transformed, maybe in a worse guise. This is certainly the lesson that should be learned from the now long war waged on the world by salafis-jihadis and that started with Al Qaeda, or from Al-Shabaab in Somalia according to Clint Watts (“What Paris taught us about the Islamic State”, War on the Rocks, 16 Nov 2015).
With the next article, we shall illustrate the need to think globally a strategy against the Islamic State, by focusing on Southeast and South Asia, as well as on the recent Islamic State’s “call to Somalia” and its answer, in conjunction with the Islamic State’s presence in the Sahel, the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa.