Why the Islamic State’s expansion matters

By capitalizing on civil strife and fractured societies, ISIS’ expansion into Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, leaves little doubt that the prospects for the group’s long-term viability have increased.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has now established enclaves in Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and the expansions seem permanent. ISIS’ appearance as a viable contender within these theaters should come as no surprise, but it should serve as an alarming development in the group’s survival capabilities. With each combat theater experiencing (or on the cusp of) civil war and harboring competing Islamist groups, they are fertile ground for ISIS’ seeds of discord and violence.

Building off the Arab Spring’s concomitantly unprecedented successes and dismal outcomes, ISIS has carved a foothold into the minds of the downtrodden and war weary in the Middle East and North Africa region. The self-declared caliphate has shown its adroitness at manipulating convoluted regional and tribal political systems where multiple actors vie for the role of representing the marginalized as proficiently as any established Arab political party or dictator. Perhaps this adroitness should be attributed to their brutality in stifling challenges to their dominance. Or perhaps it’s ISIS’ unrelenting narrative slowly winning over those jaded with Western-led initiatives to stabilize and develop Iraq. Likely it’s a mixture of both, with the allure of promised stability and inclusion outweighing the reality that resisting the expansion of ISIS rule would result in death or enslavement.

In Libya, ISIS currently only controls a small amount of territory, but the importance of that non-contiguous territory is significant. Through the local militant Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia (noted for its role in the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, and its April 2015 pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) the city of Derna is fully under the control of ISIS. Long a contributor of radicals to foreign battlefields, Derna purportedly contributed more foreign fighters to ISIS’s predecessor (al Qaeda in Iraq), than any other city in the Middle East, giving al-Baghdadi’s caliphate a stronger foothold within Libya and significantly expanding its administrative control outside of Syria and Iraq. While the extent of the administrative connection to ISIS core (to borrow terminology from its contemporary al Qaeda) is not fully known or understood, the territorial claim signals a dramatic uptick in organizational capabilities.

The consolidation of Derna showcased the strategy that ISIS is using to establish its non-contiguous territorial claims— enter, exploit divisions, consolidate control and create a fault-tolerant presence. This approach provides ISIS a much-needed level of appeal within the various local Islamist factions. As the many rival factions in a theater seek to consolidate a victory over the others, ISIS makes inroads by co-opting beleaguered and jaded Islamist factions predisposed toward their extremist ideology. ISIS’ strategy of splitting the field of adversaries into an internecine quagmire makes its ideology and mythos nearly impossible to eradicate as it outpaces any military containment policies employed by the Western and Arab coalitions in Syria and Iraq. This is the essence of establishing a fault-tolerant presence.

In Iraq, playing off the sectarian fears of Baghdad’s Tehran and Shia militia partnership, as well as former Prime Minister Maliki’s marginalization of Sunnis, ISIS was able to capitalize on vacillating Sunni tribal action (helped along by assassinations of key leaders of the first Awakening) as the U.S. hoped to rekindle the magic of the Anbar Awakening.

ISIS’ first fault-tolerant presence was its foothold in Syria where it successfully built on captured territory in the turmoil of the Syrian civil war and split the field by arbitrarily attacking both rebels and the Assad regime. Now, in Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen, ISIS is using the same approach to split the field between warring factions and stoking tensions between their regional benefactors.

The group’s reach is rapidly outpacing American-led containment tactics already employed in Iraq and Syria, adding to the baseline fear of the organization’s expansion. The use of exceptionally sleek videography in broadcasting the graphic executions and threats to attack abroad make countering the group’s narrative ever more difficult. Through this adept marketing of its spectacular methods of execution, ISIS hopes to spur a simultaneous reaction of military force to legitimize their claims of Islamic victimhood at the hands of apostates and the West, and the withdrawal of Western actors out of fear that they will become victims themselves. With either result, ISIS can claim a victory to draw on more recruits and solidify gains.

With U.S. efforts on the ground virtually non-existent in Libya, Yemen and winding down in Afghanistan, openings are being exposed for ISIS to force its way into regional and local conflicts with fairly little resistance. As the Libyan civil war has become a regional proxy war that promises a glut of bounty (i.e., weaponry and oil infrastructure) for an expansionist and hybrid organization like ISIS, the significance of a pseudo forward operating base for ISIS in Libya is that it exposes the soft underbelly of Europe to the classic threat of a terrorist organization — fear. It is inevitable that an increase of ISIS’s regional attacks and a military push on Raqqa will push ever more migrants into the Mediterranean’s temperamental waters to reach the safety of Europe’s southern shores,. And in the aftermath of the Paris and Brussels attacks, this surge of migrants will only heighten any existing fears of attack in Europe.

Furthermore, the strategy of expanding into these conflicts sets the ground for acceptance of Abu Bakr’s ideological calls to defend the caliphate’s territorial holdings outside Raqqa and Mosul. Holding territory is an essential aspect to ISIS’ fault-tolerant grand strategy. As predicated on a tenant within their ideology that a caliphate must have tangible territory from which to govern, if they do not hold territory, they cannot be legitimate. Holding onto gains of territorial expansion within Libya, Yemen and potentially Afghanistan creates the fault-tolerant presence needed for ISIS to withstand an unlikely eradication in its Mesopotamian heartland. With a growing global military consensus on the need to combat the spread of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, non-contiguous holdings become ever more integral to the group’s propaganda and long term survival.

As in Iraq and Syria, with each move and counter move made abroad, ISIS seems to outsmart and outgain its peers and rivals. The insertion of ISIS into the equation of the Libyan and Yemeni civil wars, and now Afghanistan’s embattled society, seems to only point to a long and drawn out global battle against the millenarian proto-state. ISIS will seek to exploit every diplomatic and political wrinkle with violence in order to push its own legitimacy on the varying populaces it seeks to dominate. The bottom line is that ISIS’ fault-tolerant presence in Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan will make solving an already convoluted situation significantly more complex.

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