The Islamic State’s actions are continuing globally, unfortunately illustrating the points made previously in “A Global Theatre of War” (23 Nov 2015), with the San Bernardino attacks in the U.S. on 2 December 2015 (BBC News, 7 Dec 2015) and the stabbing of three people in the tube station in London on 5 December 2015 (e.g. The Telegraph, 7 dec 2015). Meanwhile, and despite setbacks in Mesopotamia where the Islamic State is besieged in Ramadi, where it lost Sinjar to the Kurds and Yazidis, but immediately reopened a new route between Mosul and Raqqa, the Khilafah continues its strategy to call to new people, for example with the publication of a first Nasheed in Mandarin likely aimed at the Hui, Chinese Muslims, however unlikely the Hui as a group may appear to be susceptible to the Khilafah propaganda (Patrick Martin, “Control Map of Ramadi: December 9, 2015“, ISW; Stephen Kalin, “Sinjar aftermath highlights Islamic State resilience in Iraq“, Reuters, 7 Dec 2015; “New nashīd from The Islamic State: “Mujāhid”, 6 December 2015; Jihadology.net; Victoria Ho, Mashable, 9 Dec 2015; Brent Crane, “A Tale of Two Chinese Muslim Minorities“, The Diplomat, August 22, 2014). Indeed, the number of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq is estimated as having boomed between June 1014 and November 2015 (The Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters, Dec 2015), and this report does not consider fighters joining the Islamic State outside Mesopotamia, as indicated by the arrest in Tunisia of two French men trying to join the Islamic State in Libya (Reuters, 30 Nov 2015).
More than ever, a global strategy in the war against the Islamic State must be designed, considering all geographical theatres of war from local to global and their interactions. This article, part of the series singling out risks to a strategy that would only or mainly pay attention to one theatre of war and along one dimension, will illustrate the imperative need to consider the global geographical implantation of the Islamic State and its Khilafah by focusing on a specific case, the recent Islamic State’s “call to Somalia” and its answer, against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai, in Yemen, as well as in Libya.
As previously, this article is located at the strategic level and not at the current tactical and operational counter-terrorist level. It is thus not concerned with following specific individuals for police operations, but seeks to provide strategic elements that could orientate new strategies to face the Islamic State and its Khilafah, and, as a result, more efficient tactical and operational actions.
The Islamic State’s call to Somalia and its answer
In early October 2015 as the world had its eyes focused on the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria, the Islamic State published a series of videos from various wilayats’ psyops units focused on Somalia, which were calls to Al-Shabab units to abandon their allegiance to Al-Qaeda and instead pledge allegiance to Al-Baghdadi: on 1 Oct 2015 “From Sinai to Somalia – Wilāyat Sayna’” “Message to the Mujāhidīn in the Land of Somalia – Wilāyat Homs”, “Hear From Us Oh Mujāhid in Somalia – Wilāyat Nīnawā”; on 2 Oct 2015 “Message To Our Brothers In Somalia – Wilāyat Ḥaḍramawt”; on 3 Oct 2015 “From the Land of al-Shām to the Mujāhidīn in Somalia – Wilāyat al-Khayr”; and finally on 14 Oct 2015 “Message from the Mujāhidīn in West Africa to the Mujāhidīn in Somalia – Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah”.
These videos, followed on an earlier attempt at spreading to Somalia, as recorded though the 21 May 2015 video “Message to the Muslims in Somalia – Wilāyat al-Furāt”.
What was striking with the October messages was not only that they underlined the capability to carry out a combined psyops campaign across wilayats, and as far as Nigeria (note the timelag necessary to get Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah publish its video), but the insistence of the call to Al-Shabab units that were thus conveyed. As a result, we may hypothesise that getting Al-Shabab units in Somalia on board was and is a very important strategic goal for the Islamic State. Then, in Dabiq #12 (Al-Hayat Media Center, 18 Nov 2015), a long interview with a Somali fighter was published (“Interview with Abu Muharib as Sumali”, pp. 59-62), reinforcing the sentiment that getting Somalia and Al-Shabab units within the Khilafah was indeed very important.
The question is thus why is Somalia that crucial to the Islamic State.
It is all the more important to understand the reason for this importance, that the call was answered. Initially, one Al-Shabab unit, led by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qādir Mū ‘min, pledged Bay’a to Al-Baghadi according to an audio message published on 22 Oct 2015: ““Bay’ah From Him and a Group of Mujāhidīn of Somalia to the Caliph of the Muslims Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī”. It is only one group, of 27 fighters according to the video, but Christopher Anzalone in “From al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications” (29 October 2015, Jihadology.net) explains that the very role of Abd al-Qadir Mu’min as a preacher within the Al-Shabab groups makes it important, notably symbolically, yet without overstating this importance. Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s carried out its first attacks in semi autonomous Puntland, Northeast Somalia, at the end of November (VOA News, November 22, 2015; James Brandon, “Somali Islamic State supporters launch reported attack in Puntland“, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 23, 2 Dec 2015).
Meanwhile the threat to the Al-Shabab seems to be serious enough to see the older group attacking fighters defecting to the Islamic State, at least thrice by 22 November (VOA News, Ibid). Those attacked included fighters from the Juba region, in the South of Somalia, which were then seen as pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi on a video published 7 December (New video message from a New Group From the Mujāhidīn in Somalia: “Bay’ah to the Caliph of the Muslims Ibrāhīm bin ‘Awād al-Ḥussaynī al-Qurayshī”, 7 Dec 2015, Jihadology.net).
Further, the Dabiq interview mentions in a footnote that
“This interview was held before the recent wave of bay’āt from various Shabāb groups and individuals to the Islamic State. Accordingly, the situation on the ground has changed significantly since then.” Dabiq #12, p. 59, fn 1.
Yet, we are in a psyops framework, thus is this note underlining the “recent wave of bay’a” trustworthy or not? Is the wave about two pledges or twenty or a rising number?
— TheMaghrebiNote (@MaghrebiNote) November 23, 2015
In the absence of complete certainty, for now, we must keep in mind the possibility of more Al-Shabab groups having joined or joining in the future the Islamic State and its Khilafah, and fighting both in Somalia, taking advantage of instability and war there, and elsewhere for the Islamic State.
Setting a strategic trap through Somalia
Beyond the number of groups and fighters joining the Khilafah, the tweet on Somalian fighters’ presence in Libya also helps us understanding better the strategic importance of Somali groups for the Islamic State: as an indication, it points to the importance of routes, movements and dynamics. Thus, the relevance of constituting affiliated groups in Somalia lies not only in the competition or war that is currently taking place between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as underlined by Anzalonen (ibid.), and which constitutes one of the three main inter-related dimensions along which the aims of the Islamic States are articulated (“Worlds War“, 16 January 2015). It lies not only either in the more general points made in the previous article, regarding the impact of successful attacks far away.
As most probably all players of Go (a Chinese and Japanese strategy game) would immediately see, the importance of creating a new front in Somalia for the Islamic State is also, and maybe foremost, in the very specific location of Somalia on the map of Africa with regard to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and to the routes existing across the northern part of Africa and the Sahel. This point will be made clearer with a map:
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden
If the Islamic State manages to gain some control over Somalia, then it potentially positions itself towards controlling – or more modestly disrupting – the Red Sea and its maritime traffic, as it has already a relatively strong position in the Sinai as well as a wilayat (however incomplete) in Yemen. The wilayat in Saudi Arabia is not considered here, as we estimate it, for now, as too weak to really count, but that could change, should no one see the strategic trap that the Islamic State is currently quietly potentially setting. The Islamic State, through Somalia, could, to the least try to harness piracy in the area (JM Valantin, Somali Piracy: a Model for Tomorrow’s Life in the Anthropocene? RTAS, 28 .
If the Islamic State controls, at worst, or disrupts, in a more positive hypothesis, the Red Sea, then the impacts for Egypt with the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean world, as well as for world trade are likely to be immense, as the Khilafah will “control” one of the main sea lanes of the world. Furthermore it is also oil trade that will be potentially impacted, because the Islamic State would then also directly threaten one of the eight chokepoints of the oil trade, Bab el Mandab (e.g. Jeremy Bender, “These 8 narrow chokepoints are critical to the world’s oil trade“, Business Insider UK, 1 April 2015).
Finally, having access to sea lanes and to the Gulf of Aden would allow the Islamic State to potentially reinforce routes to South Asia and Southeast Asia, other apparently far away areas where the Islamic State is active as we shall see with the next article. This would mean that the Islamic State would also develop a maritime strategy and related operations. Its capability to buy ships and the occurrence of such purchases should definitely be monitored, as it will be an indicator that this strategy is indeed being implemented.
The door to Africa through routes and networks
Meanwhile, the control of the Red Sea – even if imperfect – may also enhance the capability of the Islamic State to move men and materials between the Mesopotamian theatre of war and African ones, such as Libya. The excellent 2015 map made by the Norwegian Center for Global Analysis (NGCA) below better depicts the potential routes and how they can be used as the Islamic State enters Somalia (NCGA and Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, Libya: Criminal economies and terrorist financing in the trans-Sahara, May 2015):
To fully understand the importance of these movements, we should point out that Libya or rather the three wilayats the Islamic State created in November 2014 – Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan – are a part of the Khilafah (see for Aaron Zelin, Business Insider UK, 14 Nov 2014; H Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat“, 4 May 2015) and that the Islamic State wages a war there. As explained previously, it was thus logical to expect that the Islamic State would use Libya in various mutually reinforcing ways, from being a corner-stone of its African strategy to being a fall back option should the pressure on Mesopotamia increase. Libya could then become even more than previously a new center of influence and war for the Islamic State.**
According to David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt “ISIS’ Grip on Libyan City Gives It a Fallback Option” (NYT, 28 Nov 2015), this is indeed what appears to be happening. Fortunately, at the same time, Libya also starts being remembered as crucial by actors fighting the Khilafah, as shown by the recent exchanges between Egyptian President El-Sisi and French President Hollande on “the importance of fighting extremists in Libya” (Ahram Online, November 30, 2015), by the killing of Islamic State Iraqi leader in Libya Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi aka Abu Nabil by a U.S. airstrike on 13 Nov 2015 on Derna’s south-east suburb of Fattayah (DoD release NR-436-15, 14 Nov 2015 and DoD News, 7 Dec 2015, Phil Stewart, Reuters, 14 Nov 2015), or by the reconnaissance French flights over Syrte on 20 and 21 November (Le Figaro, 4 Dec 2015). The December 2015 last chance efforts by international actors to see a peace agreement signed between the two Libyan rival governments also participate from this dynamics (Reuters, 13 Dec 2015; Jon Mitchell, “Scenarios for the Future of Libya: Towards Peace?” (1), (2), (3), RTAS, June & Sept 2015). Actors are probably now more sensitive to the related warning delivered by the United Nations at the end of September 2015 (“Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to paragraph 13 of Security Council resolution 2214 (2015) concerning the terrorism threat in Libya posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Ansar al Charia, and all other Al-Qaida associates” – pdf, “Libya Ripe for Further Exploitation by Extremist Militant Groups, Chair of Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Tells Security Council“, 7544th Meeting (PM), Security Council, 27 Oct 2015).
Then, if we consider Libya (and its three wilayats), Somalia (and the corresponding ribat), the Sinai (and its wilayat), and Nigeria (and its wilayat) together, as well as the terrestrial routes existing throughout Africa, we can see how these areas, although distant, are connected by smuggling and trafficking routes and how they can reinforce each other. Notably, with Somalia, the Islamic State works towards controlling most of the main entry points of these trafficking networks to Africa, which would ensure it obtains the strongest influence and thus power. Furthermore, the various areas where the Islamic State is enhancing its presence being thus linked, the resilience of each area is increased. As a result, this well constructed network will make it even more difficult to fight one area without considering the others.
Applying knowledge of networks to military and comprehensive operations there and making sure the capacity to do so is available may be crucial to efficiently fight the Islamic State nexus. Notably, it is imperative not to forget a crucial node – Somalia – because we are used to think in terms of ill-adapted categories such as countries alone, or “regions” – e.g. the Sahel, North Africa, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, etc. – more or less inherited from the colonial period (Francophone Africa versus Anglophone Africa) and which have been reproduced in institutional terms, creating extremely dangerous silos, all the more so when dealing with an enemy such as the Islamic State.
The impact such a strategic trap, once fully set, would have is such that it cannot be neglected, even if we may only be in the early stages of its implementation. On the contrary, all means should be deployed to make sure the trap never comes to be. As we saw throughout the Somalian case, it is not possible to fight the Islamic State in Mesopotamia without also considering what is happening in Africa, and, as started being outlined, Asia must also be integrated strategically. We shall turn to Asian cases in the next article.
* Ribat: the a-geographical potentially shifting “borders” of the Khilafah, or where it is carrying the fight, in various, more or less intense ways as seen when studying its worldview in “Worlds War” and “Ultimate War“, building notably on Magnus Ranstorp‘s explanation: ribatmeans “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).
** This moving and fluctuating use of centres of power compared with the static and entrenched idea of a capital city and fixed territory is a notion that is deeply alien to the current modern order and to those who live inside it, including analysts. However, is it not a historical novelty and everything being equal it is not without resembling what Tambiah described for pre-modern Southeast Asia and aptly termed “the galactic polity” (Stanley Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Featured image: from the Islamic State video “From the Land of al-Shām to the Mujāhidīn in Somalia – Wilāyat al-Khayr”, 3 October 2015.
About the author: Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.