Global Expansion of the Islamic State: Influences and Prospects
The global expansion of the Islamic State group has triggered strategic realignments and readjustments in international terrorism. The influence of the Islamic State now extends far beyond the territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria.
In 2016, the Islamic State carried out more tenacious global expansion, not only as a response to being endangered on the main battlefields in Syria and Iraq, but also out of its strategic ambitions. This has led to the multi-dimensional and cross-regional “spillover” effects and influences, and triggered the differentiation, reorganization and strategy adjustments of international terrorism. As the causes behind the rise of the Islamic State will be longstanding, the terrorist group will be difficult to be eliminated, and the international anti-terrorist fight will be a tough challenge.
The Global Expansion of the Islamic State Is a Result of Its Worsened Situation in Syria and Iraq, But Also Its Strategic Ambition
Since 2015, the status and influence of the Islamic State in international terrorism has grown, mainly because it has withstood continued air strikes from the coalition led by the United States since September 2014 in Iraq and Syria. This has demonstrated its strong ability to survive and fight, when many terrorist groups in Asia and Africa have been overwhelmed. Almost all violent terrorist groups admit that the United States is the only superpower in the world, with superior military power. But the Islamic State has been able to continue its fight against the Iraqi government forces and Kurdish and Shia militias despite the air strikes, making other
terrorist groups regard the Islamic State with special esteem. As the Islamic State posed a serious threat to Syria’s Bashar Assad regime, and in order to prevent the United States and its Western and regional allies from orchestrating regime change in Syria by force, Russia began “military actions against terrorism” on September 30, 2015 “upon the request of the Syrian government,” launching air strikes against all anti-government forces including the Islamic State. This has made the Islamic State face air strikes by both the United States and Russia at the same time. As of July 2016, the United States has launched 13,000 air raids against targets in Iraq, while the number for Russia in Syria is nearly 10,000. However, the Islamic State has refused to yield and continues to fight. This has resulted in many violent terrorist groups admiring the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the United States and the Iraqi government, and Russia and the Assad regime respectively assessed the situations on the two battlefields, believing that they could eradicate the major forces of the Islamic State, and possibly occupy big cities like Mosul and Ar-raqqah, and then score a watershed victory. Starting from June 2016, the Iraqi and Syrian government troops launched large-scale strikes in areas controlled by the Islamic State with the air support of the United States and Russia, aimed at occupying Mosul and Ar-raqqah. At this point, the Islamic State faces even more military pressures on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, as follows:
The territory it occupies has been reduced by half, and its room for maneuver on the battlefields has been significantly compressed. As of July 2016, the territory occupied by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq dropped sharply by 40 percent,1 seriously restricting the mobility and maneuverability of its major forces, and making it difficult to carry out 1 “Islamic State and the Crisis in Iraq and Syria in maps,” BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middleeast-27838034.
The deaths of a great number of commanders at various levels, as well as backbone fighters, have directly weakened the Islamic State’s tactical command, resulting in defeat again and again.
effective layered deployment from the outside to support its forces in the major towns it held. From both strategic and tactical perspectives, the Islamic State is in a passive position.
The deaths of a great number of commanders at various levels, as well as backbone fighters, have directly weakened the Islamic State’s tactical command, resulting in defeat again and again. Since the United States and Russia launched air strikes against it in Syria and Iraq (the Russian airstrikes are limited to Syria), the Islamic State has lost thousands of fighters, including several “capable” and “experienced” commanders at various levels, such as the jihad commander and Chief of Staff Abu Omar al-shishani. Although the command vacancies can be quickly filled on the battlefield, most of the new leaders are not of the same quality in terms of ability and experience. Therefore, the loss of “competent” commanders is one of the main reasons why the Islamic State is so passive now in the main battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
Fiscal deterioration has also seriously restricted its actions on the battlefield. The attacks of the United States and Russia have destroyed 80 percent of oil installations the Islamic State controlled in the territories of Iraq and Syria, including chain-wide damage to mining, refining, storage and transportation. Since the income of the Islamic State mainly comes from selling oil, the damage of most of the oil installations it had seized has seriously restricted the behavior and capacity of the Islamic State. From the beginning of 2016, the pay of officers and soldiers of the Islamic State has been cut by half, and Abu Bakr al-baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, has told his followers from the top to the grassroots levels “to prepare for a long time of hardship.” Due to the fiscal restraints, the number of Islamic State fighters has dropped significantly and IOUS have started to be used for the payment of “martyrs’ pensions.”2
A shortage of weapons and ammunition has made it hard for the Islamic State to fight large-scale actions. The airstrikes of the United 2 “Military Offensive Puts Economic Pressure on IS,” Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), July 14, 2016, http://www.rcssmideast.org/en/article/30876/military-offensive-puts-economic-pressure-on-is.
States and Russia have also destroyed major arms and ammunition depots of the Islamic State, causing ammunition shortages for the major forces of the Islamic State, especially artillery shells of various calibers, seriously affecting its firepower. The military power of the Islamic State is clearly at a disadvantage, and they have to retreat while fighting. At present, the only way the Islamic State can get weapons and ammunition on the major battlefields is to defeat the government forces and immediately seize their weapons. After losing control of strategic points such as Des Moore in Syria and Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, the shortage of ammunition has become more serious.
Because of this, the top decision-makers of the Islamic State have made important strategic adjustments, including:
Taking global expansion as the fundamental way to address the battlefield crises. To this end, Abu Bakr al-baghdadi has called on all jihadists in the Islamic world to launch jihad in the countries where they live, rather than coming to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi has said that all Muslims accepting the “Islamic Caliphate”
should follow the orders of the “Caliph” (himself). He has stressed that as long as people bravely sacrifice themselves for Allah and the Prophet, they will have access to a glorious afterlife. He believes that all forms of jihad are of significance regardless of where they take place, because “the enemies of Islam are all over the world.” The jihadists can launch jihad alone or join the “nearest branch of the IS” to carry out “organized jihad” under the leadership of the branch. Whatever form it takes, he said, jihad is a demonstration of “awareness,” and can be seen by Allah and the Prophet. Baghdadi has noted that foreign jihad will strongly support the jihad directly led by the “Caliph” in Iraq and Syria.
Streamlining its forces in the main battlefields, while sending “redundant fighters” abroad. Given the sharp decline in its territory in Iraq and Syria, its shortage of weapons and ammunition and declining financial resources, the headquarters of the Islamic State has decided to reduce and reorganize its administrative institutions, and cut “surplus staff.” About 20,000 “elite fighters” are left in the main battlefields to deal with the airstrikes of the United States and Russia as well as the government forces of Iraq and Syria, while the rest are being sent to other “provinces” (wilayah) of the “Islamic Caliphate” to establish bases, mobilize, organize and launch jihad, so that the “enemies of Islam” will be unable to attend to everything.
Muslim migrants in Europe and the United States have been told to launch jihad where they are living, and jihadists who are European and American nationals have been sent back from Iraq and Syria to launch jihad in their home countries. The Islamic State headquarters has found that people in Europe and America are highly sensitive to the deterioration in the security situation. Attacks in Europe and America will prompt public calls for an end to their military operations in Iraq and Syria.
It should be noted that the global expansion of the Islamic State is not merely to ease pressures on the main battlefields. It is also a strategic initiative.
It should be noted that although the global expansion of the Islamic State has been to ease pressures on the main battlefields, it is also its strategic ambition, because to establish theocratic Islamic fundamentalist rule worldwide is the relentless pursuit and ultimate goal of the Islamic State. On June 29, 2014, in his declaration on the establishment of the “Caliphate,” Baghdadi broke the goal of the “Islamic Caliphate” into three phases: first, establish an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant region,3 including destroying Israel, overthrowing the secular authorities of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, as well as the Hamas authority in Gaza; second, to “transform the whole Islamic world,” by overthrowing all secular regimes and “traitor regimes,” and capture Mecca, establishing a permanent capital there; third, conquer the world, so that all infidels and atheists convert to Islam. Baghdadi stressed that the second and third phases do not have to be started only after the completion of the first phase of mission. Rather, in the first phase, they can do some “pavethe-way preparations,” especially global expansion and penetration into the United States and Europe. Therefore, the implementation of global expansion is a strategic initiative that the Islamic State will definitely carry out in the long run.
Strategic Effects of the Islamic State’s Global Expansion
Since the beginning of 2016, the global expansion of the Islamic State has been in full swing. The multi-directional, cross-regional “spillover” effects and strategic influences are conducive to the long-term survival and development of the Islamic State. The main features of this include:
The Islamic State has gained a firm foothold in North Africa, driving its expansion into West Africa and East Africa, triggering fears in the European Union. In North Africa, the Islamic State has declared that Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria are “provinces,” and appointed 3 “Levant” is a geographical concept. The region includes Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. The Arabians call this region “Mashriq.”
“governors” (Wāli). Among North African “provinces,” Baghdadi praised the provincial branch of Libya for having the “best performance,” and “most gratifying situation.” This is because: First, taking advantage of the civil war between the Tobruk parliament and the government of Tripoli it has quickly occupied many strategic points along the Libyan coast, including several ports. The access to convenient channels for getting in and out of the Mediterranean can help terrorists mix with refugees and enter Europe. Second, it has controlled many facilities for oil extraction, processing, storage and transportation, carried out transactions in the black market, and handed over most of its income to the headquarters of the Islamic State, which has effectively helped alleviate the financial problems of the whole organization. Third, it has expanded its fighters in an orderly way. As of March 2016, the major force in the provincial branch of Libya had reached more than 6,000 people, making it a “strong force” outside the main battlefield. It has advanced eastward to the region around Deurne, threatening the areas under the control of the Tobruk parliament, and westward to fortresses like Sirte and Misurata, fighting with the Tripoli government for control of the western coast. Despite the west line force’s loss of more than 2,000 people in the battle defending Sirte in June, it recruited nearly 1,000 new fighters in July.4
The expansion of the Islamic State in Libya has triggered panic in the European Union, particularly France, Belgium, Germany and Spain, and these countries have all begun to face more difficult choices. Both the ruling parties and the opposition parties have had intense internal policy debates and arguments with each other. Populist sayings have been used by various parties, centering around whether the limited diplomatic and military resources should continue to be invested in the airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or in increased involvement in counter-terrorist attacks in Libya, or in strengthening counter-terrorism 4 Trevor Timm, “The US Is Bombing Libya Again. It’s a Too-familiar Vicious Cycle,” The Guardian, August 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/02/us-bombing-libya-isis-strongholdsvicious-cycle.
in the European Union itself, including refugee interception and identity screening, monitoring of suspicious persons in Muslim immigrant communities, exchange of information on terrorism among member states, strengthening of external border controls, expansion of counterterrorist rapid response forces, and whether to launch identification legislation on the cross-border flows of EU citizens.
Since North Africa is closely associated with West Africa and East Africa geopolitically, and the Tobruk parliament and Tripoli government, which are at war with each other, have no ability to control the vast inland deserts of Libya, the provincial branch of Libya has established good relations with the major tribes of the Tuareg, a transnational ethnic group in North Africa and West Africa, so that the ideology of the Islamic State has spread to countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali, and Nigeria. In East Africa, the Islamic State regards Somalia as a strategic springboard. Following the establishment of its provincial branch in Somalia, the Islamic State began to expand its territory in 2016, focusing on the establishment of a number of support points on the southern bank of the Gulf of Aden, so that they can work with and support branches in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.
Based on Yemen, the Islamic State has steadily expanded in the Arabian Peninsula, containing the intervention of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the situation of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State opened up a new battlefield in Yemen in November 2014, a proactive move of Baghdadi. After October 2015, the Islamic State headquarters in Syria and Iraq faced unprecedented pressures, so Baghdadi ordered the official formation of the Yemeni and Saudi branches, and appointed an “Emir” to let “the fire of jihad burn the apostate Yemeni and Saudi regimes” as punishment for their support of US air strikes in Iraq and Syria.5 From 2016, based on the provinces of Hadhramaut and Abyan, the Yemeni branch extended to the province and city of Aden. In addition to a 5 Ali Ibrahim Al-moshki, “AQAP Announces Support for ISIL,” Yemen Times, August 19, 2014, http:// www.yementimes.com/en/1808/news/4216/aqap-announces-support-for-isil.htm.
number of car bomb attacks in the city of Aden, causing many police and civilian casualties, they also launched a sudden attack on the 111th infantry brigade, seizing a large quantity of arms and ammunition. Compared with the Yemeni branch, the Saudi branch is still in its infancy, but the momentum is strong, with a rapid rise in its influence. The main activities of the Saudi branch in 2016 include: placement of the jihadists coming back to Saudi Arabia from the main battlefields of Iraq and Syria and entrusting them with important tasks, using a variety of new media tools to recruit terrorists, posing death threats against Saudi intelligence and police officers, attacking the outposts of the Saudi national police guard, and launching terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques in eastern regions and Kuwaiti territories. These activities of the Saudi branch have triggered fears among the Saudi royal family. Some key royal members even called on the king and crown prince to “remain aloof” from the chaos in Syria and Iraq. The disagreement in the government of Kuwait is similar to that in Saudi Arabia.
The Islamic State has created “Wilayah Khorasan” and established a command post in Afghanistan, effectively threatening stability in South Asia and Central Asia. In a “nation-founding speech” on June 29, 2014, Baghdadi declared that he would set up the province of Khorasan (Wilayah Khorasan), covering Iran, Central Asia, South Asia and China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The geopolitical divide is far beyond the historical concept of “Khorasan,” highlighting Baghdadi’s ambitions. In early 2015, Baghdadi dispatched from Syria and Iraq a small number of commanders and Islamic jurists to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Fergana Valley in Central Asia to prepare for the establishment of “Khorasan Province.” Hafiz Saeed Khan was appointed “governor” and Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim “deputy governor.”6 As of July 2016, the Khorasan branch had made progress under the leadership of the Afghanistan command post:
First, through military and diplomatic struggles, the Islamic State has 6 U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Terrorist Organization Designation of ISIL - Khorasan (ISIL-K),” http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/01/251237.htm.
reached a verbal agreement of “mutual coexistence and accommodation” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has generally stabilized their relations and created a secure environment for the development of the Islamic State in the country. When the leader of “Khorasan Province” first entered Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban asked them to follow him. His refusal led to multiple armed conflicts between them. In March 2016, the two sides fought large-scale military battles in the provinces of Helmand, Kunar and Nangarhar. With the Afghan Taliban suffering heavy casualties, it no longer dared to challenge the Islamic State like before. In May, the two sides started peace talks, and reached a verbal agreement of “mutual coexistence and accommodation,” mainly including mutual noninterference in each other’s goals, no recruitment of each other’s fighters, mutual respect and “going one’s own way.”7 7 “Hafiz Saeed Also in Charge of ISIS Attacks in Afghanistan, Says Afghan Govt,” https://in.news.yahoo. com/hafiz-saeed-charge-isis-attacks-afghanistan-says-afghan-124036054.html.
Second, the Islamic State has established bases in Helmand, Kunar and Nangarhar, and controlled these provinces’ drug trafficking and smuggling of cultural relics. At the same time, it has started imposing a tax (Zakāt) to “get immediate money from where they are,” and has thus secured stable income.
Third, the Islamic State has formed “localized” armed forces, and embraced an “opportunity period” for long-term development. After the senior leaders of “Khorasan Province” such as Hafiz Saeed Khan entered Afghanistan, they implemented the orders of Baghdadi concerning “localized development.” They have recruited followers in the Pashtun ethnic group, offered them income and “martyrs’ pensions” far higher than those given by Afghan Taliban, which is both highly attractive to unemployed young people and to Taliban fighters that feel they are being “unfairly treated.” According to the estimates of the Afghan government and the United States troops in Afghanistan, the number of Islamic State armed men is between 1,700 and 3,000.
Fourth, the Islamic State has shown its muscle in front of all extremist and terrorist forces, taken advantage of its resources to fight against its enemies, and created favorable conditions for its next moves. In February 2016, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-i-islam and Jamaat-ulahrar set up a temporary alliance with the “Khorasan Province” of the Islamic State. In response, some foreign-based Pakistani Taliban groups announced “allegiance” to Baghdadi.8
Fifth, the Islamic State established a secret liaison station in the Fergana Valley to coordinate “jihad in Central Asia,” build a network of people in the religious circle to carry out media propaganda and attract followers, and implement small-scale terrorist attacks. On June 5, 2016, the Islamic State Khorasan provincial branch attacked the Aktobe weapons store, stealing weapons and ammunition, and then attacked the nearby barracks, killing three soldiers and six civilians. On July 17, the Khorasan 8 Tom Hussain, “ISIL’S South Asia branch threatens Pakistan,” The National, February 1, 2015, http:// www.thenational.ae/world/south-asia/isils-south-asia-branch-threatens-pakistan.
provincial branch attacked a police station in Almaty, killing five and injuring seven. Kazakhstan has raised its national security alert level to “yellow,” and that of Almaty and Aktobe to “red.”
A number of small and medium-sized terrorist groups have declared their “allegiance” to Baghdadi, and implemented their own terrorist attacks, forming cross-regional “spillover effects.” As of July 2016, terrorist groups in more than 10 countries have declared their “allegiance” to Baghdadi, including Ansar Bait al-maqdis in Egypt’s Sinai, the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf armed force, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, several branches of the Somali Youth Party, Yemen’s Jama’at Ansar al-shari’a, Libya’s Jama’at Ansar al-shari’a, and foreignbased groups of the “Islamic movement of Uzbekistan,” etc. To demonstrate their allegiance to Baghdadi, these groups launched a series of violent terrorist attacks, for example, the Somali Youth Party carried out mass killings on the campus of Kenya’s Moi University, and Al-mourabitoun in West Africa organized a terrorist attack on a hotel in Mali.
The Islamic State has simultaneously carried out both organized and “lone wolf” terror attacks, and launched major attacks in the heart of Europe, producing an ineffective response from the core EU countries and greatly constraining the overseas military actions of the European Union members. The frequency and casualties of the terrorist attacks in Europe in 2016 has been unprecedented. For instance, on March 22, Zaventem Airport and a subway station in Brussels witnessed synchronized attacks that killed 31 and injured more than 300. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks. On July 14, an Islamic State follower drove a vehicle into a crowd in the French city of Nice killing 80 and wounding 50. In the same month, four terrorist attacks took place in Germany, one after another, three of which were launched by Islamic State
A number of small and medium-sized terrorist groups have declared their “allegiance” to Baghdadi, and implemented their own terrorist attacks, forming cross-regional “spillover effects.”
supporters. According to the characteristics of the attacks, the Islamic State headquarters no longer needs to send orders to terrorists. Jihadists living in Europe, permanently or not, can carry out attacks themselves. To respond to the terrorist threat, France has extended its state of national emergency four times, and Germany has introduced nine security plans to counter terrorism. The waves of terrorist attacks have caused splits in society and the rise of right-wing extremist ideology.
Prospects for the Islamic State’s Global Expansion
The Islamic State has carried out unyielding global expansion under the military pressure of the international community, which has not only coordinated with its headquarters in the fight against the United States and Russia, forming the “spillover effects” in Asia, Africa and Europe, but also triggered the differentiation, reorganization and strategy adjustment of international terrorism, as follows:
The Islamic State has competed with the headquarters of al-qaeda for the ideological leadership of global terrorism, and the influence of the Islamic State has surpassed that of al-qaeda. This trend appeared at the beginning of the rise of the Islamic State. In his Declaration of the Founding of the Islamic Caliphate, Baghdadi accused al-qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-zawahiri of resting on the “achievement of 9/11.” In addition to talking big, al-qaeda basically did nothing in terms of Islamic jihad, Baghdadi declared. Baghdadi announced that with the establishment of the “Islamic caliphate,” he, as the “caliph,” was leading all pious Muslims to fight for the world’s “conversion to Islam.”9 At the same time, al-zawahiri, head of al-qaeda, has made several speeches, criticizing the political and religious actions of the Islamic State under the authoritarian Baghdadi, which he said are “too bloody and brutal,” and damage the image and moral ground of Islamic jihad, and lead
pious Muslims astray. He rebuked Baghdadi for “distorting Islamic doctrines.” Al-zawahri warned all jihadists that they should not be cheated by Baghdadi, and that the right way was to unite under the flag of al-qaeda.10 Faced with this situation, terrorist groups of all sizes in the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus have begun choosing sides. As a result, most terrorist groups have chosen to stand with the Islamic State. There are four main reasons for this: First, the Islamic State’s propaganda that Baghdadi is descended from the immediate family of the Prophet Mohammed has been effective. Second, the “jihad performance” of the Islamic State has been better than al-qaeda and its branches. Third, the Islamic State has been able to withstand the air strikes of the United States and Russia while eradicating a large number of Iraqi government forces, which has been greatly admired by many terrorist groups. Fourth, the payments and “martyrs’ pensions” given by the Islamic State to its followers are more than those given by al-qaeda and its branches.
Al-qaeda is faced with development bottlenecks, and it is unable to lead and control its branches in an effective manner. Since the United States launched the war in Afghanistan in 2001, al-qaeda has been unable to recover and expand. On May 1, 2011, Bin Laden was killed by United States special force, which greatly damaged the effectiveness of the alqaeda headquarters. After Zawahri took over al-qaeda, the downward trend has not been reversed despite his several years of efforts. The main reasons for this are as follows: First, as the headquarters of al-qaeda has no self-administered “territories,” it can only live under the roof of others and seek asylum with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So its expansion must be agreed by them. Second, there have been conflicts between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and al-qaeda has been unable to serve as a mediator. Third, as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State,
al-nusra Front and Army of Islam are rising in Syria and Iraq, they have taken the “donations” of al-qaeda’s traditional sponsors away from it, resulting in the al-qaeda headquarters feeling financial constraints that make it unable to finance large-scale terrorist activities. Fourth, in recent years, the number of fighters directly under the leadership of al-qaeda headquarters has dropped significantly due to war deaths, disability, illness, cold and hunger, greatly reducing its terrorist activities. Therefore, it is hard for the group to seize weapons and logistical supplies by fighting, leading to aged weapons, shrinking combat strength, reduced political influence and ineffective propaganda.
In February 2014, al-zawahri’s failed arbitration of the dispute between the Islamic State and al-nusra Front was a watershed moment, after which the al-qaeda headquarters’ religious and political authority was doubted by its Arabian Peninsula, Maghreb, Sinai and Somalia branches. Out of their own need for survival, the above branches have reached “understandings” with the Islamic State branches in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Somalia, respecting each other’s interest demands and “spheres of influence.” This is completely different from the al-qaeda headquarters’ destroyed relationship with the Islamic State, revealing the reality that the al-qaeda headquarters can no longer effectively lead its branches.
Out of their need for survival, some terrorist groups have been trying to please both the Islamic State and al-qaeda, becoming resources they compete for. The Islamic State and al-qaeda have set up bases in many countries. Within their “spheres of influence,” there are other medium and small terrorist groups. Despite the superiority of the Islamic State and alqaeda in terms of strength and influence, and their similarity with other groups in terms of ideology and values, these medium and small-sized terrorist groups are unwilling to be bound to the war machine of either of
Various terrorist groups have adjusted their strategies to adapt to the changing environment for their survival and development.
them. They even have to guard against the possibility of being swallowed up by them. To give priority to their own political goals, and to avoid trouble as a result of offending the Islamic State or al-qaeda, these groups have explored approaches to survival under “jihad hegemony,” including exporting some of their best fighters to the Islamic State or al-qaeda, paying a “jihad tax” on a regular basis, cooperating with the Islamic State and al-qaeda in battles or implementing tactical coordination, flattering the leaders of the Islamic State and al-qaeda, and under pressure making some of their foreign-based branches join the Islamic State or al-qaeda. For example, the “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” and “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” which are active between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have both exported “military officers” to al-qaeda. And after the Islamic State set up a command post in the two countries and recruited armed men, they expressed their “reverence and admiration” for the Islamic State through an online video, and mobilized some terrorists to go to Syria to join the Islamic State. To take another example, as branches of al-qaeda and the IS competed to seek “Somalian local development,” the Somali Youth Party coordinated some of its branches to serve the Islamic State, while its main force stayed loyal to the Somalian branch of al-qaeda. At the same time, out of the need to compete for “spheres of influence,” the two groups have introduced package measures to draw small and medium groups over to their side.
Various terrorist groups have adjusted strategies to adapt to the changing environment for their survival and development. This round of strategic adjustment has been caused by multiple factors: the turmoil in West Asia and North Africa has left some countries in disorder, with new and old conflicts mixed and unaddressed, which has provided terrorism with enough time, favorable places and social basis for their development; airstrikes of the United States and Russia in Syria and Iraq have brought various terrorist groups under severe military pressure, forcing them to adjust their strategies; countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan have intensified their anti-terrorist moves, but also exposed their
security vulnerabilities; economic, social, ethnic and religious conflicts in some countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia have been heating up, providing space for the rise of terrorism. From a comprehensive perspective, the environment for the survival and development of terrorism is generally relaxed and intense in some local areas. In this context, the strategic adjustment of international terrorism has been demonstrated as follows:
First, learning from each other’s “theoretical innovations” to guide “Islamic jihad.” Although the relationship between the two flagship groups of international terrorism (the Islamic State and al-qaeda headquarters) has been completely ruined, and small and medium-sized terrorist groups have also stolen talents from one another, different “jihad theories” have not only witnessed innovations, but also complemented each other. These theories are well-received by various terrorist groups: distinction of friend and enemy, violent resistance, proactive attacks, spiritual deterrence, avoidance of the enemy’s main force and striking at their weak points, eternal jihad, phased jihad, jihad bound to win, and an Islamic pure society. These theories serve as ideological basis for various terrorist groups to make their own strategies, and have been proved “right” and effective by their terrorist practice. From the perspective of strategic orientation, major terrorist groups all give priority to the consolidation of main battlefields and global expansion, including the Islamic State, al-qaeda headquarters and its branches, the Somalia Youth Party, and Boko Haram.
Second, imitating one another’s terror attack tactics. The terrorist groups of various sizes worldwide do not belong to state actors in the sense of international law. Because of their lack of military hard power and mobilization abilities, they are not able to launch regular wars against state actors. However, their targets are state actors and their citizens. This has determined that the terrorist attacks and their measures against state actors and their citizens must be “asymmetric.”out of considerations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of terrorist attacks, the
Islamic State, al-qaeda headquarters and its branches, as well as small and medium-sized terrorist groups worldwide are all learning and imitating each other’s, contributing to some shared principles, such as avoiding fights with regular armies and special operations forces, choosing peopleintensive locations such as sports venues, transportation hubs, concerts, bars, squares, clubs, mosques, schools, shopping malls and hospitals, taking civilians as “soft targets,” simultaneous attacks in different locations, and promoting “localization” of attacks through serial shootings, car bombs, suicide bombers, jet hijackings and bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, hijacking passenger buses, poisoning sources of drinking water, destroying power facilities, and exploding gas pipelines. Besides, they also encourage “lone wolf ” actions, spread the network effects through multi-media methods, promote the jihad ideology through the internet and recruit jihadist on a global basis, and encourage brainwashed young people to launch jihad where they live.
Third, learning from the money-making strategies of the Islamic State. The sustainability of terrorist groups worldwide is determined by whether they have funds. Due to different environments for survival and development, the financial capabilities of terrorist groups vary widely. It is globally recognized that the Islamic State has strong financial power, and other terrorist groups are keen to learn from it. For example, based on the natural resources endowment of the “jihad region,” Nigeria’s Boko Haram has started to sell oil. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Haqqani Network are involved in the drug trade. Groups such as Hizb ut-tahrir in the Fergana Valley have organized the trade in cultural relics. As another example, the Chechen Islamic Emirate, the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf armed forces, and Libya’s Jama’at Ansar al-shari’a have continued to raise “Islamic taxes” in the regions
The differentiation, reorganization and strategy adjustment of international terrorism will help the longterm global expansion of the Islamic State.
under their control, so as to support their terrorist attacks.
Such differentiation, reorganization and strategy adjustment of international terrorism will help the long-term global expansion of the Islamic State. The Islamic State will be a long-lasting historical phenomenon, and the international community will be fighting a chronic war with terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. The reasons are: First, the economic, social, ethnic and religious (including sectarian) conflicts of developing countries in Asia and Africa will exist for a long time, which will be taken advantage of by the Islamic State and become its reason for survival and social basis. Second, the United States still regards terrorist groups such as the Islamic State as major forces with which to overthrow the Assad regime, and is thus reluctant to wipe them out. Third, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are attempting to take advantage of the Islamic State and other groups to serve their own geopolitical interests. Fourth, many countries dare not fight against terrorism for fear of being attacked. Fifth, “double standards” have restricted international antiterrorist activities.
In order to realize the highest goal and avoid the collapse of its core leadership, the decision-makers led by Baghdadi have been thinking about giving up Ar-raqqah and Mosul and changing the Islamic State’s capital. Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia are all their alternatives. Should the Islamic State change capital and project its elite forces worldwide, the international fight against terrorism will face new challenges and tests.
Yemenis inspect the site of a suicide bombing targeting a recruitment center in the southern port city of Aden on Aug. 29, 2016.
At least 84 people were killed and dozens more injured as a truck rammed into crowd in Nice in southern France on July 14, 2016. The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the attack.