The ISIS Cancer Spreads

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 3 2015 @ 7:27am

Jon Lee Anderson describes how the group made its way to Libya:

The Libyan ISIS affiliate had been developing for some time. Since 2011, hundreds of Libyans have travelled to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and have joined either Jabhat al-Nursra, the Al Qaeda affiliate there, or ISIS. Many of those fighters reportedly have returned to Libya since last summer, in order to establish an ISIS affiliate. … Recent attacks for which the group has claimed responsibility have included the abduction of a group of twenty Coptic Christian Egyptians, in the city of Sirte; the decapitation of several media activists in Derna; and, several weeks ago, the murder of ten soldiers at a remote desert outpost in Libya’s deep south.

He doubts the country’s militia-coalition government is up to the task. Meanwhile, ISIS has an affiliate in Egypt now as well:

An Islamic State affiliate also appears to be gaining momentum in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula by tapping into a vein of anger left over from the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president who was pushed aside in a popularly backed military coup in 2013. The group, which calls itself Province of Sinai, claimed responsibility for a coordinated assault against multiple Egyptian police and military targets Thursday night that killed at least 30 people.

According to Khalil al-Anani, the group’s growing influence on other Islamists is palpable:

The Islamic State is seizing the current moment to present itself as a role model for young Islamists around the globe, pushing them to adopt its ideology and emulate its tactics and strategy. The Islamic State hopes to become a hegemonic socio-religious force by capitalizing on the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the weakness of the Arab states and the decline of moderate Islamists. Its appeal reflects not only the young Islamists’ mistrust in other Islamist movements but also their admiration of the Islamic State’s boldness and capabilities. Despite its brutal and barbaric behavior, The Islamic State’s support is growing across the region from Yemen to Algeria.

Aaron Y. Yelin compares the ways ISIS and al-Qaeda are expanding:

Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.

This differs from al-Qaeda’s more muddled approach – it hoped a local franchise would conduct external operations, but many times franchises would instead focus on local battles or attempts at governance without a clear plan, as bin Laden had warned.

Moreover, the Islamic State has had a simple media strategy for telegraphing what it is doing on the ground to show its supporters, potential recruits and enemies that it is in fact doing something. This accomplishes more, even if it appears that the Islamic State is doing more than it actually is, in comparison with al-Qaeda’s practice of waiting for a successful external operation to succeed and then claiming responsibility after the fact.