Panic over which future Islamic State affiliate should be of chief concern rises each day as the Islamic State loses turf in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters flee. This panic should be muted, though, as all Islamic State affiliates are not created equal. A scary jihad map from al Qaeda last decade looks remarkably similar to a scary Islamic State map today. The names change but the places largely remain the same. Much like al Qaeda affiliates eight years ago after jihadi battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled, only a few Islamic State affiliates will grow while many others wane. Anticipating which Islamic State affiliates will rise and fall in the coming years requires a deeper examination of the current construct of each affiliate, the bonds that bring affiliates closer to the Islamic State, the convergent and divergent interests between headquarters and the affiliates, and a long-term outlook for each region. Examining these factors across 16 current or potential affiliate regions paints a dire picture for the Islamic State as an enduring cohesive global terrorist organization. Its strongest current affiliates in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from local rivals and rising counterterrorism pressure. For the Islamic State to endure beyond Iraq and Syria, its options are few and depend more on its ability to self-finance than any other factor.
All Affiliates Are Not Created Equal
Islamic State affiliates; referred to by the group as wilayats (provinces), like their al Qaeda parallels come in different shapes and sizes. Will McCants, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ISIS Apocalypse, characterizes Islamic State affiliates in three ways:
Statelet — a governate that holds territory and operates like a state
Insurgency — a governate that occupies territory, but cannot always hold it, and is unwilling or unable to perform the functions of a state
Terrorist Organization — a governate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely
As an example, the Islamic State’s three wilayats in Libya represent statelets, its Boko Haram affiliate in Nigeria represents an insurgency, and its wilayats in Saudi Arabia only qualify as terrorist organizations. This affiliate landscape is dynamic; the status of all affiliates remains in flux. The Islamic State’s strongest affiliate in Libya sustained losses just this week. To illustrate the different types of affiliates currently composing the Islamic State brand, I’ve assessed each affiliate and its current status in…