The Islamic State terrorist group has created at least six functioning armies outside its Iraq-Syria base that threaten governments in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, according to a new report to Congress.
Rather than shrinking, the Islamic State — also known as ISIL and ISIS — is metastasizing globally by attracting waves of henchmen in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan, the Congressional Research Service said in a June 14 report for lawmakers.
The fact that six irregular Islamic State armies are operating in three world regions, not to mention various cells in Europe and the U.S., is in contrast to the Obama administration’s generally upbeat reports on containing the violent group.
In another break from that positive White House message, CIA Director John Brennan told the Senate intelligence committee last week that, while the Islamic State has lost territory in Iraq and Syria, as well as thousands of fighters in those two countries, its ability to direct or inspire terrorist attacks remains robust.
“Our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” Mr. Brennan said.
The Islamic State’s ability to operate terrorist franchises across multiple regions presents formidable challenges to stretched U.S. forces now focused on the group’s Iraq-Syria base.
The six franchises singled out in the CRS report, “Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” are not simply cells but viable armies with training bases, air-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons, and hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters.
• The Islamic State in Egypt. Begun in 2014 in the Sinai Peninsula, the unit is attracting Bedouin Arabs, Palestinians from across the border and foreign fighters. Its soldiers have been photographed holding shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that could bring down a commercial airliner. The Sinai group may have more than 1,000 members, whose siren call is that one day its followers will invade Israel.
It claimed responsibility for bringing down Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai with a bomb disguised as a soda can, killing all 224 people onboard on Oct. 31, 2015.
• The Islamic State in Saudi Arabia. It has taken credit for a series of attacks since 2014, and calls on its followers to kill the kingdom’s clerics and security forces. A group fighter blew himself up in a Kuwait mosque last year, killing more than two dozen people. The Saudi government has arrested more than 1,600 Islamic State followers, a number that indicates the group’s message is resonating in a country that already practices a strict form of Sunni Islam.
“[Islamic State] leaders claim to have established a caliphate to which all pious Sunni Muslims owe allegiance, directly challenging the legitimacy of Saudi leaders who have long claimed a unique role as Sunni leaders and supporters of particular Salafist interpretations of Sunni Islam,” the CRS report says.
• The Islamic State in Libya. This is the terrorist group’s largest franchise, with as many as 6,000 fighters who threaten the shaky government in Tripoli. It controls large sections of territory, but is under pressure from government troops who have captured much of the coastal city of Sirte. Islamic State also faces attacks from other competing Islamic groups.
• The Islamic State in Nigeria. Also known as Boko Haram, this ultraviolent Sunni group has killed thousands of innocents and displaced more than 1 million people.
• The Islamic State-Khorasan Province. This Afghanistan branch seemed at first to be an annoyance. But as Islamic State has shown, it has an ability to attract followers bent on carrying out carnage. Hundreds of ex-Taliban have enlisted, and the Iraq-Syria base has provided financing.
Thought initially to comprise a few hundred, the group’s ranks have swelled to as many as 3,000. The U.S. command in Kabul, which generally ignored the affiliate for months, now is authorized to bomb Khorasan fighting positions that could directly threaten American troops.
• The Islamic State in Yemen. The group is capitalizing on the country’s chaos, as Iranian-backed rebels and various Sunni groups fight for control, by unleashing a series of attacks on Shiite mosques.
Robert Maginnis, author of the anti-jihad book “Never Submit,” said the U.S. allowed the Islamic State to become too large before beginning an air and ground campaign in 2014.
“The Obama administration’s slow response to the rise of ISIS gave the group the freedom to franchise across much of the globe,” Mr. Maginnis said. “Add to that the explosive effectiveness of ISIS’ very effective public relations arm, billions of dollars in its treasury and a large and easily manipulated young male Muslim population, and no wonder ISIS’ caliphate now includes six armies and perhaps hundreds of thousands of supporters across at least 13 countries and growing.”
He added: “Only the naive believe the ISIS threat is diminishing. Thankfully our CIA director is clearheaded enough to part with Obama’s misguided spin and confirm ISIS is a serious and growing threat to America’s homeland and our interests abroad.”
In his testimony June 16, the CIA’s Mr. Brennan provided one of the administration’s franker portraits of the Islamic State. Yes, it has lost territory, leaders and money. But it is still generating tens of millions of dollars and remains, he said, “a formidable, resilient and largely cohesive enemy, and we anticipate that the group will adjust its strategy and tactics in an effort to regain momentum.”
He spoke of its branches, such as the six singled out in the CRS report, that can “help preserve its capacity for terrorism, regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”
The Islamic State has showed that it can inspire attacks, for example, in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida. It can plan and direct attacks, such as the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris and the March 22 bombings in Brussels.
It is capitalizing on an increasing number of unstable territories, a result of the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
The CRS report said this combustion makes it difficult to adopt one strategy to stop the Islamic State.
“The interdependent nature of conflicts and political crises in Iraq, Syria, and other countries where the Islamic State operates complicates efforts to address and durably eliminate the threats posed by the group,” the report said.