While the world focuses on the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, western intelligence agencies are privately more concerned about ISIS’ growing global reach. Beyond the ISIS inspired attacks within the West, organizations across the Islamic World have begun to pledge allegiance to the Caliphate. For every week that Baghdadi commands control of Northwestern Iraq and Eastern Syria, ISIS’ gains legitimacy within the global Jihadi community. As these groups begin to recognize ISIS as the leader of the global Jihadi movement, ISIS will not only grow in stature, but also will face the difficult task of bringing these groups under the Islamic State umbrella while not losing legitimacy as these groups act with little justification from Islamic texts.
Last October, Ansar Beit al-Magdi became the most prominent group to pledge allegiance to ISIS; it is now the most prominent terrorist organization in Egypt, controlling neighborhoods along the Gaza border and executing successful attacks throughout the Sinai. In May, the Nigerian terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which made headlines last spring for abducting over one thousand Nigerian women, pledged allegiance to ISIS. ISIS’ legitimacy has been achieved by careful justification of brutal action through the verses of the Qu’ran and Hadith. Organizations like Boko Haram may diminish this legitimacy due to their gross negligence of the teaching in Sunni Islam’s 6 Hadiths or the Qur’an. Managing the balance between recruiting and maintaining its legitimacy as a Caliphate is a growing development that will trouble ISIS leaders in the near future. ISIS will have to find shrewd avenues of distancing itself from groups like Boko Haram while still maintaining their support.
To date, thirty-five organizations have pledged allegiance to ISIS, including mid-sized organizations in Libya and Algeria as well as organizations as far east as the Philippines and Indonesia. It is difficult to judge ISIS’ ability or success in controlling or providing logistical support to these organizations. Intelligence officials assert that groups like the ISIS Libyan affiliate have needed the support of a big name organization like ISIS to boost their waning status within their own community. ISIS could see great economic benefits by controlling its new Libyan affiliate, which, in turn, controls the important port city, Surt. Libya has the ninth largest oil reserves in the world. Earlier this week, the Libyan affiliate shelled a residential neighborhood, killing 17 innocent civilians. This will not sit well with Gulf backers and Baghdadi’s media organization should not expect any shortage of these sorts of attacks as more groups join their ranks.
Support of powerful Al-Qaeda backed allies, like Al-Shabaab in East Africa, is yet to occur despite encouragement from ISIS officials. One reason for this is that these more established groups view the Caliphate as a new and less established development. Additionally, Al-Qaeda has maintained the support of many organizations with a more scholarly approach to Jihad. The Jordanian Jihadist theorist, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most respected thinkers within the Jihadist community, has consistently condemned the Islamic State for brutal tactics that he feels detract from the Jihadist community’s long term legitimacy and ability to attract less violent Jihadists. As long as Maqdisi continues to condemn ISIS, it will fall short of its growth ambitions.
When ISIS announced itself as the new Caliphate of the Islamic World in June 2014, it also laid out its geographic ambitions. ISIS hopes to one-day control territory equal to the greatest Caliphates of the middle ages. A map shows the new Caliphate expanding its empire from Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa and Austria to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is to be determined whether ISIS is able to manage this sort of global reach.