Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Routinization of the Islamic State’s Global Enterprise

Senior Research Fellow, Program on Extremism at George Washington University
Associate Professor, U.S. Naval War College
Director of Research, Extrac
Iraqi fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi stand next to a wall bearing the Islamic State group flag as they enter the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iraqi fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi stand next to a wall bearing the Islamic State group flag as they enter the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2020, the Islamic State changed tack on its branding efforts. After years of focusing its global media efforts on the activities of its enterprise in Syria and Iraq, 1 last year saw the group shift focus onto its pursuits in Sub-Saharan Africa more than anywhere else. 2 To be sure, it published more attack reports about the activities of its core in the Middle East (581 in Syria and 981 in Iraq, to be precise), but the lion’s share of its photo and video propaganda was devoted to the exploits of provincial franchises in the Lake Chad Basin and the Greater Sahara and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique. 3 Given that it also claimed on average five times as many confirmed kills and casualties per attack in West and Central Africa as were reported from either Syria or Iraq, it would appear that the caliphate’s expanded presence in Africa is not just window dressing. 4

The role of the Islamic State’s central leadership in shaping activities in preexisting insurgencies from West Africa to East Asia is a subject of a healthy and worthwhile debate. Too often, the Islamic State’s claims to have established a global network of wilayat (literally, provinces) are taken uncritically. When the group says it has inaugurated a new province in a given country, the wilayah designation often ends up distorting said affiliate’s actual strategic trajectory and capabilities. For example, while its foothold in Nigeria is a well-established reality now, the situation is markedly less clear when it comes to its alleged activities in the DRC and Mozambique. 5 Indeed, while some level of linkage between militants in these states and the central bureaucratic authority of the Islamic State is undeniable—consider for one the steady stream of imagery and reporting emerging from the DRC via its closed communications network 6—many observers have called into question the extent to which it should actually be considered a part of the Islamic State. 7

It is increasingly clear that the lack of a coherent and consistent lens through which to understand the Islamic State’s transnational enterprise is undermining how scholars and practitioners alike are interpreting the significance of the group’s global agenda. Our purpose in this present study attempts to bring some nuance to the table, aiding our understanding of how the Islamic State conceptualizes—and then operationalizes—its international endeavors. We argue that the caliphate today is best understood as an adhocratic global insurgency—an irregularly managed collection of diverse, geographically dispersed militant groups competing to govern in suitable areas—the character of which is reflective of the ideological compulsion, strategic principles, and organizational traits that underpin the ambitions of its larger political project. In doing so, we demonstrate that its forays abroad are impacted by both top-down and bottom-up forces that can lead to synchronicities and tensions—both globally and at an affiliate level. Drawing on a spectrum of case studies, we address below what these mean for both the Islamic State’s core and its global wilayat.

A Globalized Insurgency

While the Islamic State movement’s penchant for global expansionism is a relatively new development in its decades-long history, it has always demonstrated a willingness to leverage transnational opportunities and networks.8 For example, in its nascency under the leadership of founder Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the group shifted its base from Afghanistan to Iraq, where it immediately attracted foreign fighters into its ranks and directed terror attacks in Jordan, Israel, and Turkey even before the 2006 establishment of its first “state,” the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).9

That being said, it was only when it was into its second decade under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that it extended its insurgency from Iraq into neighboring Syria, a move formalized in 2013 with the announcement that it was henceforth to be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).10 Nearly eight years on, its appetite for globalism has shown few signs of waning. Despite losing its first caliph and all territorial control in the intervening years, the Islamic State currently has an operational presence in at least twenty countries.11

At the heart of this quite extraordinary expansion have been both top-down and bottom-up forces—top-down as the Islamic State seeks to diffuse itself globally, and bottom-up as local groups pursue its backing and affiliation. The “jurisprudential” enabler for these forces was set out in 2014 with the declaration of its caliphate, which meant that Sunni Muslims the world over were “obliged” to join it. As then spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani stated:

“We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilafah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalifah Ibrahim and support him. The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilafah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.” 12

While this declaration was designed to—and, indeed, did—intensify those bottom-up dynamics, resulting in groups across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa seeking affiliation, it was as much as anything else a reflection of a belief within the Islamic State that expansionism was both ideologically obligatory, strategically necessary, and symbolically powerful.

As was articulated in a contemporaneous Islamic State document entitled, Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State:

“External relations are the first foundation for building every nascent state, and they are among the foundations that show the strength and might of the state, and they should constitute for it, a general stance in everything that happens in the world with the people of Islam and be for it an external hand protecting its dealings.” 13

A “first foundation” for the state they may be, but the Islamic State faced a challenge in all this: to manage its expansion while ensuring that all prospective affiliates were ideologically aligned and strategically beneficial to its cause—something about which there has been a large amount of disagreement within the group’s own ranks in recent years.14 To this end, it established a suite of criteria that local groups needed to satisfy in order to be accepted as formal wilayat. These criteria at least nominally included public pledges of loyalty to the caliph (known as bay’at), approval of the group’s leadership by the Islamic State, consolidation of local factions under a single banner, healthy communications between the local leadership and the Islamic State core, and application of the Islamic State’s ‘aqidah (creed) and manhaj (methodology). 15

Its absolutist rhetoric notwithstanding, the Islamic State has inconsistently applied these criteria, a fact which it publicly acknowledged in 2014. 16 This has fueled internal tensions as certain provinces (like, for example, the now-defunct Wilayat al-Bahrayn) were accepted as affiliates. 17 Dissent spread at both a core and affiliate level. In Yemen, for example, local members of the Islamic State branch resisted what they saw as managerial overreach on the part of the core. 18

Clearly, balancing the ideological compulsion to expand with the need to ensure that local affiliates actually enhance capabilities rather than detract from them has been a challenge for the movement. In view of this, and regardless of the actual extent to which a given affiliate is living up to the Islamic State’s declared ambitions, there is at present only one standard for whether or not a group is deemed a provincial affiliate, and that is whether it has been officially declared one. As historical and strategic ebbs and flows in the Islamic State’s transnational activities attest, explicit designation generally indicates that some or all of the above-described criteria have been satisfied.

However, it remains the case that there is a great deal of flexibility as to what actually constitutes a wilayah. At one end of the spectrum, there are the mainly symbolic, largely inactive provinces like those in Algeria and Saudi Arabia. At the other end are provinces like those in Syria, Iraq, and West Africa that have achieved a state of territorial consolidation. In the middle are those that emerged as beneficiaries of a global restructuring effort implemented in 2018 (see below): the likes of Wilayat Sharq Asiyya (East Asia) and Wilayat al-Sumal (Somalia), both of which exhibit minimal evidence of direct intervention from the Islamic State’s core, though they remain operationally active and are regularly featured in official media output.

The Islamic State Adhocracy

To understand how this global diffusion and variance has come to be, it serves to assess the Islamic State’s affiliates on a case-by-case basis with consideration being given to: (i) the extent of centralized control and influence being exerted by the Islamic State’s core leadership over said affiliate, (ii) the specific types of activities being conducted by said affiliate in the name of the core and, (iii) the frequency with which said affiliate and its activities are being leveraged by the core for strategic and propaganda purposes.

Variation and/or blatant inconsistency across these three planes—things that would in any other context cause potentially existential challenges to a revolutionary political movement—are enabled by the adhocratic nature of the Islamic State. It is this same nature that has enabled it to transition from clandestine insurgency to bureaucratic proto-statehood and back to insurgency so seamlessly in recent years.

Adhocracies are structurally fluid organizations in which “interacting project teams” work towards a shared purpose and/or identity.19 The fluidity that characterizes an adhocracy results in it being adaptive to strategic conditions—at times being more hierarchical and bureaucratic while at others more informal and network-like—with a core team of specialists driving its overall direction and collaboration through a series of decentralized decision-making mechanisms.20

It is a version of these essential adhocratic traits that have held the key to the survival of the Islamic State in recent years. These traits have allowed it to project an image of a movement far more coherent and monolithic than it is in reality. ‘Abdulnasir Qardash, a senior Islamic State leader detained in 2019, indicated as much in a 2020 interview in which he stated that the Islamic State’s relationship with most of its branches beyond Iraq and Syria is largely based on nothing more than the oath of allegiance, propaganda, and finances.21 In other words, while it projects an image of a unified and monolithic caliphate spreading globally, all that coheres most of its composite parts is a pledge to its caliph and a stated commitment to applying its ‘aqidah and manhaj.22 This loose adhocratic character has meant that the Islamic State has been able to be both highly adaptable and innovative in how it has responded to constantly changing (and usually souring) strategic conditions in recent years.

Importantly, while resilient, adhocratic organizations are also prone to weaknesses. Generally, they rely on communication technologies and the deployment of specialist personnel to synchronize efforts and agendas. For that reason, breakdowns in communication can have serious repercussions for strategic and operational coherence as well as group coherence. Such issues have surfaced time and again in the history of the Islamic State, including during its early years as ISI.23

Moreover, adhocracies are at heightened risk of mistiming organizational transition towards more formal or informal structures, and this too can act as a catalyst for network fraying. This dynamic is arguably evidenced in the Islamic State’s rush to declare a caliphate and establish a full-spectrum bureaucratic “system of control” across Syria and Iraq in 2014, only to see it decimated, materially speaking, in a few short years. However they have manifested in practice, these adhocratic forces have contributed to growing dissent and extremism within the ranks of the Islamic State in recent years.24

How Globalism Benefits the Core

Having set out the ideological premises behind its expansionism as well as the adhocratic character that enables it, it is now time to turn to what, practically speaking, ‘affiliation’ means for both the Islamic State as a centralized organization and the various franchises that are in its orbit.

For a group like the Islamic State, the benefits of declaring the establishment of a new wilayah are in many ways self-evident. Being perceived to have a robust and continually expanding global network, especially in this post-territorial phase vis-a-vis the “caliphate,” is existentially important. When, in 2017, its territories in Iraq and Syria were well on their way to being liberated, it had to double down on reimagining and rebranding itself as an archipelagic insurgency rather than one that was reliant on success in the Middle East, as had hitherto been the case.25 The first major sign of this new reality came in July 2018, when the group altered the terms of reference for its network of global affiliates. Iraq and Syria, which had previously consisted of 22 individual wilayat, were reframed as just two individual provinces—Wilayat al-‘Iraq and Wilayat al-Sham, or Iraq Province and Levant Province—with 22 active minatiq (“areas”).26 Moreover, its supporters in Southeast Asia were referred to for the first time as Wilayat Sharq Asiyya, or East Asia Province, with Somalia soon following suit.27

This shift was not just a rhetorical turn. Rather, it was the point at which the Islamic State backed away from the idea of having a contiguous proto-state spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria, at least for the time being. This is not to say that it was entering a “post-caliphate” world—contrary to some claims, the Islamic State cannot and will never undeclare its caliphate. Rather, it is merely to suggest that it had internally conceded that it had neither the capacity nor the need to pin its brand to the Middle East in the same way that it had in the fifteen years up to 2018. It was a change which had the effect of framing the Islamic State’s Iraqi and Syrian branches as just that—branches. Essentially, they were demoted; their overall status in the global caliphate project altered in such a way that they were now “just” part of its global network.

This move tied the Islamic State—both operationally and in terms of its overall branding—more to the global adhocratic aspects of its insurgency than to its ‘conventional’ core in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, it marked the internationalization proper of the movement, a concerted effort to dislodge the idea that it was a Syrian-Iraqi insurgency first and a global network second. To be sure, this did not mean that Syria and Iraq were no longer critically important territories to it. However, its symbolic reliance on them as foundational components of its strategic vision was radically altered.

Considered through this lens, on the “Islamic State core” side of the equation, expansionism should always be understood, at least in part, as an experiment in narrative-led warfare. By declaring wilayat the world over, it has been staking a claim to new territories, showing itself not just to be remaining in the wake of its setbacks in Syria and Iraq, but to be continually expanding as well. Of course, the strategic dividends to international expansion are not only symbolic. The core’s tremendous investment in outlying provinces has brought numerous other benefits that extend well beyond its global competition with Islamist rivals. As was described in detail in the group’s weekly al-Naba’ newsletter in 2019, by promoting its refined techniques of guerrilla warfare—i.e., subversion, assassination, and terrorism—across several continents simultaneously, it has been able to apply its insurgent creed, methodology, and doctrine at a global level.28 This means that it has been able to work to degrade its adversaries in a range of places all at once.

The globalization of the Islamic State helps the group build strategic depth and manage risk through its affiliates. By pushing simultaneously on multiple fronts with asymmetric nikayah (irritation) and more conventional sawlat (complex assaults), it has tested the capabilities of the Global Coalition and its local allies from West Africa to East Asia. At the same time that the Islamic State core is poised to capitalize on the drawdown of military pressure in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing and synchronous activities of the affiliates increase the likelihood that at any given point, some affiliate somewhere is enjoying operational success, possibly tying down Western counterterrorism resources in the process. Affiliate operations and the attendant communications from the core around such operational successes are thus a force-multiplier for the Islamic State.29 The ability to carve out areas of influence in various parts of the globe also becomes an important source of revenue generation for each local branch, with the goal of becoming self-sustaining or, better yet, generating revenue for the core entity.30

How the Core Supports the Wilayat

Insurgencies are often supported by foreign proxies, even ideologically dissimilar ones. Sometimes, this relationship benefits the insurgency as a whole; in other instances, it hinders it. In the present context, it is clear that the Islamic State’s prospects have benefited from its adoption of a hands-on approach to globalism, something that stands somewhat in contrast to the experience of its rival al-Qaeda, which is known for its light-touch guidance of affiliates.31 This management is executed by its “offshore operations management network” and its office of Remote Province Administration and is supervised directly by the Delegated Commission of the Islamic State, which runs all day-to-day activities of the organization.32

Principal-agent difficulties—essentially conflicts in priorities between leader and led—are common in all affiliate relationships, particularly when political objectives are not strictly aligned between sponsor and client.33 This is an area in which the Islamic State has excelled in its franchise model, because it treats each new geographic context as a unique strategic environment, one into which it can transmit, but not transplant, valuable experience from past or contemporaneous campaigns elsewhere. Some of this pragmatism has backfired in spectacular fashion, as discussed in the following section. Nonetheless, the group has been aware of its own past failures and the limits of remote management in a business (terrorism and insurgency) that requires exquisite amounts of local political and cultural acumen.34

At the heart of its expeditionary approach has been the transmission of a well-traveled and ever-evolving insurgency doctrine (i.e., a set of commonly held military practices). This is exemplified in politico-military documents like the Fallujah Memorandum of 2009, which was an attempt by Islamic State officials to identify their failure to co-exist with Iraq’s Sunni tribes and fellow Islamist rebels in Iraq in 2006–07, as well as in lessons learned from the early mismanagement of the first franchising effort in Syria in 2011–13.35 Receiving access to this now-mature doctrine is one of the primary benefits that prospective franchises receive in return for their association with the Islamic State. The early Islamic State movement’s near defeat of the U.S. military in Anbar province in 2006 and its later military conquests in Iraq and Syria in 2013–14 give it plenty of credibility when preaching its doctrine—and affiliates without such a track record are listening. 36

Responding to these affiliates’ demands (albeit to varying degrees), the Islamic State’s military and political leaders offer training and technical advice to diffuse components of the archipelagic caliphate and invest resources in their peripheries, combining a coherent, centralized playbook with the flexibility they enjoy as adhocratic bureaucrats. This model is similar to the advisory activities of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, not to mention the U.S. military’s concept of unconventional warfare, both of which involve the deployment of trained advisor teams to improve local partner performance in both peacetime and combat conditions.37

Based on the available evidence—which, it should be noted, is fairly scant—these expeditionary activities manifest in three main ways: (i) remote support for the furthest-flung wilayat, (ii) in-theater advice in conflict zones, and (iii) direct integration of veteran foreign jihadists into local ranks.38

An example of the first type of expansionist activity can be seen in the Philippines. The Maute-Hapilon group—a sub-faction of the Abu Sayyaf group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014—received remote strategic and tactical directives both before and during the siege of Marawi in Mindanao in 2017, including best practices for urban defense as well as extensive remote support for media production and editing.39 However, although jihadists from neighboring Asian states were counted among the Maute-Hapilon ranks, no one from Iraq or Syria actually travelled to assist the group directly.40

By contrast, in Nigeria, the Islamic State’s interventions were initially very limited but were destined to become more sophisticated beginning in 2015. Islamic State cadres began by providing the group externally known as “Boko Haram” (Jamaat Ahlussunnah lid-Dawa wal Jihad), which pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and became Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya in the spring of that year, with remote advice using encrypted internet communication technologies. This advice largely related to religious jurisprudence issues, which Boko Haram officials eagerly sought due to a dearth of trained imams in the affiliate. The Islamic State then progressed by dispatching, per Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group, a small team of advisors to enhance their new supporters’ martial skills. This training was centralized in a secure location in the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria’s Borno state, although defectors noted that the advisors also accompanied them into combat to assess their tactics, which were described as so counterproductive as to be “like suicide.” These same defectors said that they were then retrained in small unit maneuvers (vice frontal assaults), anti-aircraft skills, and maneuvering with armored vehicles. Advisors helped improve local media operator skills and the operational security practices of key leaders while also facilitating bi-monthly financial transfers by courier and other means. 41

The third mechanism of expansion—the integration of experienced jihadists into local ranks—is rarer than the other two. Some scholars, such as Antonio Giustozzi, report that the Islamic State core in Syria and Iraq sent hundreds of advisors, including some top-level officials, into Afghanistan in 2015–16 to support Wilayat Khurasan. However, the absence of Syrians or Iraqis killed or captured in the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan to date makes this claim unsupportable at present. There is considerably more evidence that between 2012 and 2014 the Islamic State proactively dispatched foreign fighters from Central and South Asia that it had trained and indoctrinated in Iraq and Syria back to their home countries to merge with fragments of local jihadi groups, forming the nucleus of Wilayat Khurasan’s initial cadre.42

Perhaps the clearest instance of the Islamic State plugging experienced cadres into a local insurgency to improve performance was the appointment of Abu Nabil al-Anbari as “delegated leader” of the Libyan provinces in 2014. Prior to his appointment, Anbari was a military commander in Iraq and wali of a province there, Wilayat Salah al-Din. His eulogy, published in 2016, reads:

Then, after the [Islamic State] considered expanding to Libya, it dispatched its knight and shining sword Abul-Mughirah [a.k.a Abu Nabil al-Anbari and other kunyas], in order to establish the edifice of the Caliphate there, and the nucleus of the army of those to conquer Rome and Europe. He went there and placed the corners and foundations. Then he marched with his soldiers with all firmness and constancy to expand left and right, that the religion should be wholly of God.43

Short of evidence emerging of this happening elsewhere, the imposition of an experienced commander on a developing wilayah might be the exception to the rule rather than evidence of the rule itself. The Libya episode nevertheless speaks to the Islamic State’s flexible and innovative experimentation with global expansionism.

The Islamic State provides diverse training to its wilayat. Experience on the lethal and conventional battlefields of Iraq and Syria have earned its trainers experience handling highly sophisticated equipment that most affiliates can only dream of. Beyond imparting knowledge on how to use, maintain, and employ such weaponry, Islamic State advisors work to adapt affiliates to the group’s highly developed structure and administrative practices.44 The Islamic State’s integration of jurisprudence and creed down to platoon-level units not only increases the ideological indoctrination of foot soldiers but also assists in the management of ghanimah and fay (war spoils and confiscations), important revenue streams that are carefully managed to avoid corruption and abuse.45 The Islamic State ran its own leadership academy for small unit leaders in Mosul in 2015–16, and it likely pushes this type of instruction to the wilayat.46 Finally, Islamic State experimentation with special operations—namely the raid in Haditha, Iraq in 2012 and the Abu Ghraib prison break in 2013—has undoubtedly filtered down to the external provinces, as demonstrated in the Khurasan province.47 While the impact of former Ba’athists within the core group has often been exaggerated, the disciplined influence of deliberate planning and execution demonstrated in these special operations can likely be attributed to former Ba’athist military officers in the now-defunct Diwan al-Jund (Department of Soldiers).48

In many ways, it is unsurprising that the Islamic State has adopted this framework of unconventional, adhocratic expansionism. After all, many Islamic State leaders have their roots in a vanguard of trained militants that gained combat experience in other parts of the world before eventually ending up in Iraq and integrating with its local Salafi underground.49

Core-Wilayat Tension

The push-pull dynamics between the central organization and its affiliates produce frictions, some of which can prove fatal for the relationship. The Islamic State lost a franchise due to strategic and methodological differences and historically had a contentious relationship with its own parent organization, al-Qaeda. During its first franchising attempt in 2012, then-Islamic State emir (leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent his deputy Abu Ali al-Anbari into Syria to monitor its Syrian startup, Jabhat al-Nusra. Anbari’s scathing review to his boss set into motion the split between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra—and the more consequential schism between Islamic State and al-Qaeda. From these experiences, the Islamic State’s leadership identified the need for a more directive relationship between the hub and the periphery of its organization.50 Yet this has not prevented commonplace friction between the core and the affiliates. We see friction develop in three sensitive areas: the selection and mentorship of leaders, the correction of methodological errors, and strategic direction.

Leadership management is important for any organization, and the Islamic State’s own history of managing and transitioning leaders at all levels has been a general strength for the group. There are notable exceptions, however. Jabhat al-Nusra’s charismatic leader Mohammad al-Jolani represents an interesting paradox. He is an example of the talented leaders which the Islamic State seems to produce, yet his rupture with the group represents an early error in which a leader was appointed who did not share the central leadership’s vision. The Islamic State’s recruitment of Boko Haram to become the West Africa province and the subsequent demotion of its charismatic leader, Abubakar Shekau, lies at the root of a splintering of the West African group into two distinct factions that both still pledge allegiance to Islamic State.51 In Yemen, Afghanistan, and Mindanao, the Islamic State has failed to impart its successful leadership management doctrine. This has had the effect of undermining the legitimacy and stability of those franchises struggling from a rapid turnover of leaders due to poor selection and security practices.52

Second only to leadership considerations, imparting the Islamic State’s manhaj is key to eliminating the “say-do” gap between its ideology and global practice, a key tenet of the group’s propaganda philosophy.53 While the Khurasan province broadly appears to imitate the central hub in its attacks on the Shi’a Hazara minority and urban assassination campaigns—most recently targeting female media workers—others have been reluctant to adopt Islamic State norms.54 Foucher’s recent report on the West Africa province indicates that in addition to rejecting leadership management from afar, Boko Haram commanders ignored religious edicts on eliminating child soldiers and female suicide bombers as regular combatants. The group also failed to establish a standing army (as opposed to using haphazard militias), contra the advice of Islamic State trainers.55

There is inevitably a mix of synchronicities and tensions at play in core-wilayat dynamics, making it difficult at times to gauge the relative importance of top-down directives as opposed to bottom-up decisions by the local franchise. The 2017 Marawi Siege in the southern Philippines is a pertinent example. Reports allege that the Islamic State directed its affiliate to capture Marawi as the caliphate was collapsing in Iraq and Syria. This would seem, through a transnational lens, as beneficial to the Islamic State but potentially devastating to a newly cohered Filipino affiliate whose plan to seize and hold a major city in the face of well-trained state security forces seemed foolhardy.56 Yet, from a local perspective, the view is very different. The Marawi siege is often seen by locals as an attempt by a new rebel group that was exploiting the Islamic State’s brand to derail a national peace process that was, at the time, hanging in the balance. The siege also offered a way for this new group to demonstrate that it could overcome traditional ethnic, factional, and rural-urban divides to devastating effect.57 The Marawi siege ultimately had the opposite effect in that it strengthened the resolve of the Philippines government and its historical adversary, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to ensure the peace agreement succeeded. The ultimate failure of the siege notwithstanding, the Marawi incident should remind us to consider potential local explanations for affiliate behavior even when such behavior appears at first glance to simply advance broader Islamic State objectives at the expense of local affiliates.


In 2001, in the aftermath of the U.S. onslaught on Afghanistan and the immense material losses faced by both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, jihadist military trainer and theorist Abu Musab al-Suri wrote a manifesto, “Call to Global Islamic Resistance,” as a sober reflection that attacking the United States as Bin Laden had was “strategic stupidity.”58 Suri advocated instead for a decentralized dispersion of networks in the face of overwhelming U.S. military power.59 The Islamic State, which openly criticized al-Suri’s tome in its Dabiq magazine, believes that by attacking everywhere, it is assured of success somewhere.60

At the heart of the Islamic State’s transnational enterprise are three key exports: its brand, its ideology, and its methodology. Local affiliates, in theory, need to demonstrate their willingness to champion all three in order to be formally accepted. In return, the Islamic State offers varying degrees of support—anything from amplifying the activities of the local group to global audiences via its much-vaunted propaganda units to providing material and operational assistance. As this study has highlighted, the Islamic State’s execution of this assistance varies widely across its transnational affiliates. In reality, being one of its wilayat can mean lots of things. Consider that, years ago, it declared a wilayah in Kuwait (Wilayat al-Bahrayn) that has been entirely inactive aside from one suicide attack committed the day it was declared.61 Contrast that with the labyrinthine civil-military administrative network that spanned much of Libya’s coastline (Wilayat Tarablus and Barqah) for much of 2014 to 2016, and which at one point was tipped to rival the caliphal heartlands in Iraq and Syria.62

For its part, the Islamic State seeks two principal benefits from expansion: one is operational, and one is propagandistic. On the operational side of things, establishing new outposts around the world has made the group more resilient and thus better able to weather the storm of territorial collapse in Iraq and Syria. Through its global networks, especially those based in Africa, it has been able to remain active in pursuing its caliphate agenda and capable of inflicting pain on its adversaries. To be sure, its jihad in Syria and Iraq is far from over, but it is able to sustain itself at a lower intensity than would otherwise be required on account of the rest of its international roster.

Connectedly, on the propagandistic side of things, through global expansionism, the movement writ large is able to show itself to be continually on the offensive, a perception that is critical if it is to keep up the centrifugal force of its brand and maintain organizational cohesion. It is for this reason in particular—the fact that the Islamic State reaps enormous symbolic dividends by boasting of its wilayat —that we must understand its globalism with a critical eye.