A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq June 23, 2014. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS/MOSUL-ISLAMIC STATE REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

March 11, 2022

Is ISIS in crisis?

Originally published in AEIdeas

The Islamic State finally revealed the name of its new leader — Abu al Hassan al Hashimi al Qurayshi — 42 days after its late leader, Abu Ibrahim, killed himself during a US raid in northwestern Syria on February 3. The Islamic State has never gone this long without a named successor. Four weeks was the longest gap previously, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s successor was named a mere four days after his death in October 2019. The delay signals possible weaknesses in the Islamic State’s senior leadership and operations in Iraq and Syria but not its global network, which has proven to be insulated from the core’s fate.

The Islamic State has been slowly rebuilding in Iraq and Syria after the collapse of its physical caliphate in 2019. It had launched a brazen attack on a prison in Hasakah, Syria, to free detained members, adding hundreds to its force of up to 10,000 fighters shortly before the raid targeting Abu Ibrahim. But local security forces have limited the Islamic State to a rural insurgency. And the October 2021 capture of the Islamic State’s finance chief, privy to the organization’s inner workings, has put the senior leaders at risk. The February 2022 deaths of Abu Ibrahim and Islamic State spokesman Abu Hamza may have compounded challenges for an organization already in disarray.

What the Islamic State said — and did not say — in its appointment of Abu al Hassan as its new “caliph” exposes ongoing concerns over operational security but also resilience to decapitation strikes. The newly named spokesman, Abu Umar al Muhajir, eulogized his late leader, Abu Ibrahim, alongside Abu Hamza, the late spokesman who had served as the group’s public face since October 2019. Abu Ibrahim never once spoke to his followers. Yet they followed him devoutly. The Islamic State stuck to this pattern in naming his successor, revealing little about Abu al Hassan’s identity other than Abu Ibrahim personally named him as successor. The detail that Abu al Hassan has already received bayat, pledges of allegiance, and accepted them, is crucial, showing a smooth transition and internal cohesion.

The leaders of the Islamic State’s various branches are expected to recognize Abu al Hassan as caliph. They all pledged allegiance to Abu Ibrahim after Baghdadi’s death, forgoing an opportunity to break from the Islamic State had they only joined for money or prestige. Certainly, the routing of the physical caliphate and diminishing of its funds by the time of Baghdadi’s death eliminated any notion that the Islamic State was marching to glory or had riches to share. How quickly the branches pledge will almost certainly reflect more on their strength — and their own sense of security — rather than their degree of loyalty to the Islamic State.

The Islamic State’s branches have strengthened even as the core faltered in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) — its largest African branch — beat out its rival in 2021 and is taking control of large swaths of northeastern Nigeria, including taxing and policing locals. In the Sahel, the group is embedding itself in smuggling networks that reach from the Gulf of Guinea to the Mediterranean. In East Africa, it has gained a foothold in a spreading insurgency in Mozambique and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, facilitating a spike of bombings in Uganda’s capital. A network running through South Africa has helped finance this growth. Outside of Africa, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province has surged to challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan and will retain a haven even as the Taliban seeks to crush it.

Regional hubs have been slower to develop, inhibiting the formation of stronger ties between individual African branches and the core. The branches themselves have little direct contact with the Islamic State’s senior leaders. For example, the Al Karrar office, co-located with the small branch in Somalia, coordinates the Islamic State’s activities in East and Central Africa and serves as the connection back to the core. A similar office, Al Furqan, connects ISWAP to the core. African groups maintain much of their autonomy, however, while the core provides material support or additional training and guidance that has helped professionalize operations. This system, replicated in Afghanistan, too, has kept the branches from developing dependencies on the core for their operations even as it has limited the core’s ability to benefit strategically from its global network.

What this means is the Islamic State globally remains strong. Pressure brought to bear against the group in Iraq and Syria has weakened that part of the organization and limited the global leadership’s ability to influence and direct the global network, even to coordinate terror attacks from its branches. But in no way have counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Syria reduced the threat of the Islamic State in Africa, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Those branches are thriving. And easing counterterrorism pressure makes it only the more likely they will flourish — with or without the Islamic State’s caliph.