A surge in attacks claimed by Islamic State fighters in nations beyond Syria and Iraq is prompting concern among U.S. intelligence officials, who say the pattern fits into the extremist group’s ambition to grow a network of affiliates, or “provinces,” from North Africa to Asia.
While debate outside the government rages over the extent to which attacks in Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were ordered by the Islamic State’s core leaders in Syria and Iraq, some U.S. officials believe the uptick in affiliate strikes has a clear strategic purpose.
“Announcements of new affiliates outside Iraq and Syria in recent months underscore the group’s ambitions,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the evolving nature of the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“Such announcements are often accompanied or followed by attack claims,” the official told The Washington Times. “There’s no doubt that such tactics would look to establish an affiliate’s credibility by the pace of attacks or high-profile targets.”
The Islamic State is a Sunni Salafist group. While some of the recent attacks by far-flung affiliates have targeted Western travelers and government interests, others have aimed to shed the blood of Shiite Muslims living in Sunni-majority nations beyond Syria and Iraq.
Suicide bombings on May 22 and May 24 that killed dozens at Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia — as well as a June 26 suicide bombing that killed at least 24 people and injured hundreds at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City — stand as examples.
But attacks in Tunisia and Egypt have been different. On June 26, gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State killed 38 people, most of them British tourists, at a beachside hotel in Tunisia, and a July 11 car bombing that killed one person and wounded nine others targeted the Italian Consulate in Cairo.
What remains unclear is whether such targets, as well as the planning for the attacks, were directed by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or operatives in his inner circle in Syria and Iraq.
“There’s a lot of debate about this,” said Clint Watts, a senior fellow with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Is it an inspired attack, a network attack? Was it local militants who did it on their own, or is it a directed attack where Baghdadi says to one of the affiliates, ‘Hit this target in your country?’
“My belief is most of these attacks in the Middle East and North Africa are being carried out by local militants,” Mr. Watts said.
Although they may be aligned with the central Islamic State brand, “they don’t need Baghdadi to tell them to go out and do an attack,” he added. “They pick the targets and the attacks make the ISIS aggregate look bigger than it is.”
It’s a distinction that other analysts describe as essential to understanding the ongoing evolution of the global jihadi threat, because Islamic State relations with aligned militants beyond Syria and Iraq differ from the manner in which Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda core managed its ties with affiliates around the world.
“Bin Laden’s al Qaeda was very keen to keep some level of control over the kinds of attacks that were being carried out by its affiliates and the targets that were selected,” said William McCants, a researcher at The Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of the forthcoming book “The ISIS Apocalypse.”
“The Islamic State’s main operation in Syria and Iraq is much more permissive to affiliates,” said Mr. McCants, who believes the distinction has big implications for “the U.S. intelligence community and how the U.S. and its allies respond to ISIS affiliates.”
“If you see these attacks by the affiliates as part of a master plan that’s being directed by the Islamic State, you’d see the fight against the affiliates as part of the larger fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “But if you see these attacks as driven by local jihadist concerns, then you would adopt a different approach. You might not prioritize a fight against the Islamic State in North Africa right now, for example.”
Looking to Egypt
The Obama administration appears to be divided on the issue.
Where intelligence sources suggest collusion between al-Baghdadi’s main operation and Islamic State affiliates, the White House has appeared reluctant to authorize military force against the group beyond Syria and Iraq.
Instead, U.S. officials have pushed local partners to fight Islamic State affiliates in their own nations while ramping up American engagement in Syria and Iraq.
The administration announced Monday that the U.S. military is expanding its combat role inside Syria to include the deployment of armed drones from an air base in Turkey. Officials said the aim is to defend moderate rebel groups in Syria against attacks from the Islamic State and any other hostile force in the nation, including troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With regard to the fight against Islamic State affiliates in North Africa, the administration appears increasingly eager to encourage Egypt to take the lead.
Egyptian fighter jets bombed Islamic State targets in neighboring Libya in February — in retaliation for the group’s beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
There is evidence that the Obama administration may support Egypt in such operations against the Islamic State.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who visited Cairo over the weekend, touted the delivery of F-16s to the Egyptian military, saying the fighter jets are “essential in the fight against terrorism.”
A senior State Department official said that in meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Mr. Kerry “reiterated the commitment of the United States to assisting the Egyptian people in their efforts to stem the spread of ISIL in the region.”
Mr. McCants, meanwhile, said U.S. officials may be wise to avoid being drawn directly into the fight against Islamic State affiliates in North Africa.
“I think we have to desegregate these different groups and not just buy into Islamic State propaganda that they are all part of the same fight,” he said. “My worry is that the way ISIS propaganda presents the affiliates as being in a united front is going to give confidence to policymakers in Congress that we need to take on ISIS on all these fronts simultaneously.
“To me, that’s the danger in buying into the IS propaganda,” he said. “I think we’d spread ourselves too thin. Some of these fights are important right now, and we have to pick and choose our battles, and I believe the administration is trying to do that.”
Whether it will work remains to be seen.
Mr. Watts believes that if the Islamic State is crushed or fails in Syria and Iraq, it will lead to a splintering of the global affiliates.
“But that doesn’t mean the violence will go down,” he said, adding that the rising number of affiliate attacks suggests that control over the affiliates already is limited.
“If you squeeze Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Watts said, “you’re going to see an even greater number of attacks.”