The battle for the ISIS heartland in Iraq and Syria is far from complete and there is a more than strong chance that its existence as terrorist organisation and insurgency outside of the main cities will be a long one. The claim to a Caliphate, however, may be centered on the Sunni populated area that sprawls either side of the Iraq-Syria border but it is not wholly dependent on it. Akin to its formidable predecessor Al-Qaeda, ISIS is as much an idea as it is a material thing inhabiting a space in the Middle-East. The idea is one of the establishment of a Caliphate based on its extremist understanding of Islam and encompassing all of the Muslim world, regardless of what the rest of a diverse Muslim world and the rest of the peoples in it think of the idea. If this seems totalitarian in nature, then bear in mind that even the Al-Qaeda leadership has balked at what ISIS does and what it wants to be, and they can hardly be described as moderate in their own ideology. For ISIS, the Muslim world is the ‘near abroad’.
ISIS has struggled to maintain territory in this area of the world, a large one encompassing North Africa, the Middle-East, Central Asia, and Southern Asia. Its most viable province had been in Libya when they held the city of Sirte, until it was overrun by one of Libya’s competing factions. A province must have a unified leadership, accept ISIS’s version of Sharia law and have a plan to consolidate territory. There are many more of these struggling provinces, all based within conflict zones where governments struggle against local insurgents, often with Al-Qaeda or a group linked to them also present. An example is the Khorasan Province, which operates from its base in Afghanistan and has sent fighters to Syria. From a small set up of a reported 50 people and local recruitment it became strong enough to warrant the attention of the largest bomb in the US arsenal and, in a familiar pattern, has drawn the ire of the militaries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and also the Taliban.
Then there are the numerous affiliates, who act independently and claim attacks on behalf of ISIS. The most high-profile recent event was the occupation of the Philippine city of Marawi. The extent of ISIS’s involvement is unclear as there already a number of established insurgent groups in the area and in the Philippines, although a local radical-Islamist group, Maute, has pledged itself to the ISIS and there are reports of foreign fighters being involved in the fighting, which is ongoing. This is an example of the ability of ISIS to gain prominence in an already existing conflict situation through the affiliation of a local group and escalate the conflict situation. Through the commitment of a small number of men and the acceptance of an affiliation ISIS has become involved in another battle for a city. One at the easternmost point of the Muslim world and which has over 200,000 inhabitants.
The capabilities and successes of the provinces and affiliated groups are mixed, but they are a presence and they have the potential to make existing conflict situations far worse than they already are. One thing that does stand out is that while ISIS are able to establish themselves as provinces in short order they rapidly come into conflict with almost every other actor in the area, making even radical-Islamist groups such as the Taliban appear moderate in the process. Their ability to maintain the affiliates is dependent on the strength of their brand and the willingness of local groups, usually but not exclusively, smaller actors within an insurgent archipelago to continue to claim allegiance. The larger established groups, Boko Haram and al-Shabab are examples, are able to operate without the ISIS label and can claim their successes as their own if they so wish. The question now is to how much emphasis ISIS will put on the ‘near abroad’ and whether or not another organisation will supplant them as the primary radical-Islamist group. It will not, however, mean the end of ISIS as an organisation.
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Dr Carl Turner,