Expanding the ISIS Brand

An Iraqi soldier looks at a wall painted in the colours of the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, in the village of Argoob, Iraq, January 6, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

The existing ISIS franchise groups are dangerous, already proving themselves a lethal and destabilizing force in the areas they operate. But where might the next Islamic State franchise group emerge?

The Islamic State’s caliphate has collapsed, although leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still at large, and the group still claims as many as ten thousand loyalists in Iraq and Syria. And yet even as the core group, once headquartered in Raqqa, Syria, continues its demise, the Islamic State seeks to expand elsewhere, boasting active affiliates or franchise organizations in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Russia. ISIS has also made inroads into southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines.

As the conflict in Iraq and Syria further ebbs, the United States and its allies are surveying the globe in an attempt to anticipate where future threats might develop. By looking at how other terrorist groups have expanded in the past, lessons may be learned about how and why these groups seek new affiliates.

The franchising model of terrorism is rare, and more a feature relevant to the global jihadist movement. To discern how ISIS might continue to expand in this way, it makes sense to trace Al Qaeda’s trajectory, which followed a similar pattern of expansion throughout the 2000s.

Al Qaeda sought to expand its organization into new geographic locations following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, which was followed by a decade-long American counterterrorism offensive relying on drone strikes and special operations forces. Al Qaeda’s first franchise group was established in Saudi Arabia in 2003, followed by affiliates in Iraq (2004), Algeria (2006), Yemen (2007), Somalia (2010) and Syria (2012). As Al Qaeda expert Barak Mendelsohn details, the group expanded in two ways—establishing its own branch via “in-house” expansion, as it did in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or merging with existing terrorist groups, as it did in Iraq, Algeria and Somalia.

Terrorist groups seek new affiliates for a variety of reasons, including to expand in scale and scope; to take advantage of and harness local expertise; to foster and diffuse innovative tactics, techniques and procedures; and to increase the group’s legitimacy where it might otherwise be viewed skeptically as a foreign entity.

Expanding into new theaters can make a terrorist group seem more powerful than it actually is, as the organization lays claim to each and every attack on security forces in far-flung locales from North Africa to South Asia. While Al Qaeda central sought to attack U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan, its affiliates conducted attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia, Algeria and elsewhere, giving the impression that Al Qaeda was able to launch strikes across the globe at will, even where these attacks did little to further the objectives of the core organization. A prime example of this occurred with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s seeming unwillingness or inability to adopt a less parochial strategy.

Franchising also allows terrorist groups to gain local expertise. By merging with al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda moved into an area of the world where it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Arab fighters to navigate complex tribal dynamics and clan disputes. Working with and through al-Shabaab mitigated this challenge and facilitated Al Qaeda’s expansion throughout the Horn of Africa.

Expansion also helps terrorist groups cultivate innovation, evidenced by Al Qaeda’s expansion into Yemen through Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), where it capitalized on the bombmaking expertise of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, whom former CIA director David Petraeus recently labeled “the world’s most dangerous man.” When core Al Qaeda went years without being able to pull off a spectacular attack against the West, AQAP managed several “near misses” against U.S. airliners, including the notorious underwear-bomber plot and another plot against cargo planes with explosive-laden printer cartridges onboard.

Finally, expansion allowed Al Qaeda to increase its legitimacy in conflict zones. In Syria, Al Qaeda’s affiliate has engaged in the provision of local services, including water and electricity, while also working to support local bakeries and control market prices of basic foodstuffs in an effort to prove it is concerned with everyday issues important to Syrians.

However, affiliation does not always yield a net positive result. Cumbersome and unanticipated burdens are often associated with such alliances.