- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Islamic State terrorist army is collecting an increasing number of followers outside its home in Syria and Iraq in what is shaping up as a global enterprise to commit mass killings and destabilize governments.

In Libya alone, there are at least six Islamic State-aligned terrorist cells, according to a Feb. 18 report by the nonprofit Institute for the Study of War. On Egypt’s other flank, another Islamic State group showed it could carry out complex deadly attacks in the Sinai Peninsula.

Last month, the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, announced it had set up its terrorism shop on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and recruited leaders from the Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban.

Islamic State recruiting cells have sprung up in Morocco, Algeria and other North African states. Supporters are waving its black flag in a number of Muslim-majority countries.

“The bottom line: Are we seeing those guys expanding their territorial hold or are they falling back?” said former CIA analyst Larry Johnson. “It sure looks to me like they’re expanding.”

The Islamic State seems to be following the franchise system started in the 2000s by al Qaeda — and then multiplying it.

Al Qaeda expanded from the Pakistani tribal belts as its operators were hunted down and killed.

Today, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) stands as the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. A number of al Qaeda affiliates sprung up in North Africa and played a role in the deadly attacks on the American diplomatic post and CIA base in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

The Islamic State also is expanding into North Africa and the Middle East as its army is being pummeled by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in its conquered lands in Syria and Iraq.

Its most successful expansion to date is Libya, where it claims its own province. Eastern Libya is a hotbed of violent Muslim groups, several of which have pledged to the Islamic State and its cleric leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the killings of 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya and for a deadly attack on a hotel in Tripoli.

The Islamic State also won allegiance from a Sinai-based terrorist group, Sinai Province of the Islamic State, which last month carried out a series of attacks that killed at least 27 Egyptian soldiers.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq, said the 30,000-strong ISIL army is acting like a military force as it tries to “dissipate” pressure from months of coalition airstrikes.

“It has several alternatives — direct dissipation or indirect. They’re doing both,” said Mr. Dubik, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

The direct dissipation came in recent weeks as the Islamic State took more territory in Anbar province in western Iraq and launched attacks against the Kurdish peshmerga militias in northern Iraq.

“These have the added benefit of forcing the opponent — the Iraqi Security Forces and peshmerga — to divert attention, resources and time to responding to the ISIS attacks rather than preparing for their pending offensive,” Mr. Dubik said.

The indirect actions, he said, are groups allied with the Islamic State mounting attacks against Egyptian soldiers and the beheadings of Egyptian Christian migrant workers in Libya.

“They force opponents to use resources beyond one spot,” Mr. Dubik said. “They also have other potential ‘benefits.’ They reinforce ISIS’ global reach, create other places where the ISIS ideology may be attractive, and they demonstrate that ISIS, not al Qaeda, is the leader of the jihad.”

Mr. Johnson, the former CIA analyst, said the Obama administration still has not come to grips with the Islamic State’s power and objectives.

“It’s not a terrorist group. This is beyond terror,” he said. “Terrorism is the act of small, weak organizations that cannot confront other states militarily. These guys have become a de facto state.”

The Islamic State also has created a far-flung funding network, involving oil, ransoms and secret donors, that draws in millions of dollars.

“We’re fighting a full-up army, and we have yet to even wrap our minds around that,” Mr. Johnson said.

Harleen Gambhir, an Islamic State analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a Feb. 18 report that the Islamic State “is executing a complex global strategy across three geographic rings.”

The first ring is Syria, Iraq and the nearby states of Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

There, she said, it is “goading enemies into an offensive posture that may polarize domestic populations and set conditions for intensified regional conflict.”

The second ring involves the Islamic State’s outreach to Muslim groups in other Middle Eastern countries and in North Africa.

The third ring is Europe, where the Islamic State has recruited thousands of men to leave their Western homes to help commit mass murder in Syria and Iraq.

“ISIS is competing with al Qaeda for dominance on the global jihadist stage while creating redundancy for its military campaign inside of Iraq as it prepares to absorb new counterattacks,” Ms. Gambhir said.

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