Recent terror attacks in the West have stoked fears of ISIS’ influence around the world. But we should put the group’s global presence in context.
While the degrees of association with ISIS vary, recent attacks in Western countries have ignited fears over the group’s influence and presence spreading around the globe. The coordinated attacks in Paris, the San Bernardino shooting, and the knife-wielding man seeking vengeance for Syria at a London Tube station all affirm that these fears are not without substance. However, to assume that these acts point to ISIS establishing itself across the world as it has in Iraq and Syria gives the extremist group too much credit.
Claims that ISIS is rampantly eating up vast stretches of territory are not only inaccurate, but also reckless. The rise in Islamophobia in the US and Europe following the Paris attacks has almost certainly been fuelled by the scaremongering that ISIS is slowly gaining a foothold in the West, raising suspicions and distrust between Muslims and non-Muslims. But the real crux of ISIS’ growth is not its territorial pursuits, rather its unrivalled opportunism.
We need to understand and contextualise ISIS’ presence in different parts of the world. The group is not an overnight sensation, sprouting franchises at will. If it were simply a matter of will, then surely ISIS would have already tried to penetrate further beyond the territories it controls.
From its very beginnings as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, the precursor to the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) made up of a cluster of jihadi groups, the group operated within the Iraq conflict to establish itself. ISIS’ modus operandi has hardly changed since then. Whether in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, or indeed any other part of the world, ISIS thrives on instability and is constantly looking to exploit opportunities. Existing conflict zones are fertile territory for ISIS, but why?
Conflicts provide cover for extremist groups to organise and mobilise. They serve as a diversion for the government and security apparatus, sapping time, energy, and resources. Crucially, conflicts allow emerging extremist groups to offer people an alternative. ISIS has demonstrated this approach not only in the areas where it has territorial claims, but also in ’emerging markets’ – regions where the group is hedging its bets on potential civil conflict.
ISIS’s presence in Syria is a case in point. The group first began in Iraq, an incarnation of al-Qaeda that sought to establish a caliphate in the country. The foray into Syria was not so much a part of the ‘original plan,’ rather an exploitation of the power vacuum left by the civil war. With the Assad government and a plethora of opposition groups battling each other, ISI soon pounced and became ISIS.
Sinai Province, ISIS’ affiliate in Egypt, has existed since 2011 under the name of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM). Attacks by the group only really took off after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, with ABM declaring Egyptian security personnel apostates and launching a campaign against them. There have been longstanding tensions in the Sinai region between the state and the Bedouin population, who account for many of ABM’s militants. The upsurge in violence that began in 2013, before the group formally joined ISIS, has primarily focused on police and army targets.
ISIS has slowly been making inroads in Afghanistan, too. The instability in the country’s outlying regions, coupled with the limited control of the government and the fragmentation of the Taliban following the death of former leader Mullah Omar, have provided ISIS with a perfect window. Rather than swathes of territory falling into the hands of ‘Khorasan Province,’ ISIS’ Afghan affiliate, pockets of unhappy former Taliban militants have simply switched loyalties.
This pattern of ISIS capitalising on domestic fragility and instability can be seen across territories where the group operates. The conflict in Yemen and the continued power struggle in Libya are further examples. ISIS has also been looking to exploit the longstanding insurgencies in Nigeria and Somalia, as well as existing groups in Chechnya, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Recent ISIS propaganda shows that the group is also actively trying to make inroads in China and Bangladesh. These countries have no existing conflict per se; but they do have tensions between Islamist groups and the state. Meanwhile, the group has been trying to exploit the news cycle. Recent issues of the ISIS’ English-language magazine, Dabiq, have drawn on the refugee crisis in Europe and racial tensions in America to encourage new recruits.
The fact that certain groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS does not meant that ISIS has the same territorial control around the globe as it does in Iraq and Syria. The militant group has demonstrated its guile in exploiting and manipulating civil conflicts to further its own gains, as well as absorbing longstanding jihadi groups into its fold.
The threat posed by ISIS is real. We should not be too quick to credit the group with a global takeover of the jihadi scene, however. While Syria and Iraq are certainly ISIS’ mainstay, the raising of the group’s black standard in distant lands should be understood in the context of existing conflicts and tensions. There is also another danger. If we focus too much on ISIS’ apparent territorial gains, we risk drawing attention away from the threat of ISIS-inspired terrorism in areas it does not claim to control. As we saw recently in Paris, San Bernardino, and London, this is indeed a great risk.