May 27, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Many States of the Islamic State

• Despite a year of pressure on the group, the Islamic State has increased its operational capabilities outside of Iraq and Syria

• As of now, the Islamic State is made up of 30 self-proclaimed ‘wilayats’ (states or provinces), with lessening operational presence and influence the further away from Iraq and Syria

• Of the non-Iraqi or Syrian wilayats—three in Libya, two in Saudi Arabia, and one each in Sinai, Nigeria, Yemen, Algeria, and Khorasan in Pakistan and Afghanistan—only the ones in Libya and Nigeria hold and control territory; a key ingredient in the Islamic State model

• The Islamic State receives far more pledges of allegiance than it accepts, though it certainly claims credit for any attacks by supportive groups or individuals, such as one in Tunisia most recently.


Despite its name, the Islamic State isn’t a state but rather a self-proclaimed caliphate composed of both contiguous and non-contiguous states. In the year since the group took control of Mosul, Iraq, it has held on to its 20 Iraqi and Syrian states, or wilayats, and has proclaimed wilayats in seven other countries or regions. While many other extremist groups, ranging from India to the Philippines, have proclaimed their allegiance or bayat to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group has only publicly announced ten non-Iraqi or Syrian wilayats.

This reluctance to accept offers of bayat might seem incongruous with the group’s rush to claim credit for any and all attacks done by people with only an inspirational connection to the group. However, the imbalance between pledges and accepted pledges for official wilayats is part of the group’s strategic vision, to only claim something that won’t likely or easily be taken back. It’s somewhat acceptable to lose a city like Tikrit because the group won’t be pushed out of the surrounding Wilayat Salahuddin and can always return since conditions for its provincial eradication don’t exist.

Eight of the ten ‘foreign’ wilayats are in places where there is neither strong government control nor any reasonable expectations of such control. The remaining two (Wilayats Haramayn and the recently announced Najd) in Saudi Arabia, which does have strong government control, are exceptions to this rule given how important it is for the Islamic State to be seen operationally active in the kingdom. As highlighted in the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, all of the wilayats are focused on the internal, or ‘near’ enemy, trying to create and exploit conditions of chaos in order to establish their own presence. This is in direct contrast with the ‘affiliate’ model of al-Qaeda, which prioritized attacking the West, or the ‘far’ enemy, above all else.

Even with the caution towards proclaiming new wilayats, the ten existing ones vary wildly in terms of capabilities and presence. Libya’s three wilayats (Tarabulus, Fezzan, and Barqa) do hold and control at least some territory, and have established some level of Islamic State-esque governance. These groups have been consistently operationally active, with the most high-profile attack being the videotaped beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February 2015. The fighters and leaders of these Libyan groups were until recently fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and had returned home to establish wilayats among the growing chaos in the country.

The Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai is likewise quite lethal and active, though it doesn’t really hold ground so much as conduct sustained hit-and-run attacks on Egyptian security services and natural gas installations. It survives because the government has never really exerted sustained control over the area; knowing this, the Islamic State likely felt there was little risk in announcing a wilayat only to see it lost.

The recognized Algerian and Yemeni states (Wilayat al-Jazair and Wilayat al-Yemen) are far less cohesive and capable than the ones in Libya, particularly in Algeria where it must contend with a long-established rival al-Qaeda affiliate. The core of the Algerian wilayat is a group known as Jund al-Khalifah, which has claimed credit for the March attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia as well as yesterday’s lone-wolf attack on a Tunisian military barracks that killed seven soldiers.

Given the increased conflict and chaos in Yemen, the Yemeni group has a better chance of organizing and sustaining itself, even in the face of tribal infighting and a seriously capable al-Qaeda affiliate in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen’s history, the Sana’a mosque bombing in March that killed 142 people, was claimed by the Islamic State in Yemen. Again, because there is little-to-no chance the governments of Yemen or Algeria will be able to so fundamentally change the conditions on the ground as to effectively evict or eradicate the extremist groups, the Islamic State can feel comfortable proclaiming those as states. They might not be the successes along the lines of Raqqa, Mosul, or even Barqa, but they won’t be losses that would prove gravely harmful to the caliphate concept.

The highest profile addition is also the most removed from the central fighting core of the group: Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding countries. After its pledge of bayat was accepted in March, the group became known in the Islamic State as Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah, or The West African Wilayat. Since its acceptance, Boko Haram has faced a string of defeats by a coalition of neighboring countries. Still, even with its significant recent setbacks, conditions on the ground ensure the group’s survival and made it a safe group to welcome into the caliphate, even though the level at which the groups are communicating and coordinating is unclear.

The remaining wilayat, Khorasan, is based in Pakistan but has claims on neighboring Afghanistan and countries to the north. The group does have some operational capability along the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and U.S. officials acknowledge the group is recruiting in Afghanistan. However, the announcement of a wilayat in that region can be seen as more a propaganda move against al-Qaeda in the group's heartland than as a serious attempt to take significant territory. As with the other cases—excepting Saudi Arabia—neither the Pakistani nor Afghan government is taking control over the border regions anytime soon, allowing the wilayat to cohere and strengthen without fear of eradication and loss of an announced wilayat.

The Islamic State has chosen wisely in terms of establishing new provinces or states. Even as it faces pressure in one or several, the others can grow and strengthen. The group might lose cities, even hugely important ones such as Mosul or, one day, Raqqa, but its wilayats will likely remain and then try to expand once more.


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