Do All Those ISIS “Pledges of Allegiance” Mean Anything at All?
ISIS, it seems, is everywhere.
Its supporters hand out leaflets in London’s main shopping street, the extremist group enjoys more support in France than President Francois Hollande and it seduces Colorado schoolgirls online, promising them husbands and homes. Jordanian men march through the streets pleading for ISIS rule, 6,000 fighters a month sign up to the cause in Syria and obscure militants in the Philippines have pledged their allegiance.
As a global bogeyman, it seems unstoppable. However, its omnipotence may be overstated.
Amid the jihadi battle for hearts and minds, ISIS already must cope with some formidable challenges. It faces hostility and competition from other radicals, and much of the support it has received is only lukewarm. Many small groups are using its name simply to piggyback their way to 15 minutes of jihadi fame.
“Jihadist groups want to back a winner, and it is not necessarily clear whether ISIS will be a global phenomenon or a local success,” says Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank.
He says ISIS has “not really succeeded” in replacing Al Qaeda as the dominant terror group in jihadi heartlands such as Yemen or Somalia.
It is unclear what will happen in Pakistan, and there are plenty of other Islamic groups who would like to see ISIS defeated. ISIS has received only the partial backing of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which seeks to overthrow the Algerian government, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which concentrates its efforts largely on Saudi Arabia.
The latter may seem like a major alliance forming, but Joshi says the established Al Qaeda groups are hedging their bets. If ISIS is successful, then Al Qaeda has powerful allies; if not, Al Qaeda can pick the bones of a here-today-gone-tomorrow radical group and reassert its dominance.
Al Qaeda, says Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is “playing the middle.”
Another Al Qaeda offshoot, the Nusra Front, is not even doing that. It has warned ISIS that it sees itself as the main jihadi group fighting in Syria, and a power struggle seems to be emerging between the two as they compete for land against each other.
Al Qaeda is simply acting in the same way as almost every political organization before it and partially cozying up to ISIS out of “self-interest,” says Joshi.
Elsewhere, Watts says, gauging how powerful ISIS is really becoming “depends on the location.” In the West, “whatever group is being talked about the most” will get support, says Watts, “and ISIS is being talked about the most at the moment.”
And not just in the West.
In the Philippines, jihadi groups such as BIFF appear to be aligning themselves with ISIS to promote their own cause. They’re not necessarily flying the flag because they want to be part of any caliphate or because they are a large and powerful group, but so they can raise their own profile and exert greater power against other Muslim groups in their battle against the Manila state.
And Joshi questions how widespread support is among such diverse groups who have backed ISIS in places such as Mali, Indonesia, Morocco or India. ISIS’ cause is fashionable mostly among impressionable young men.
“It only takes one person to fly a flag,” he says. An up-and-coming jihadi group in Libya is among the most recent to fly the flag and claim allegiance, for example, but ISIS leadership has yet to comment in any way on the offshoot group.
“ISIS is a regional organization with global ambitions,” says Watts, who is less dismissive of its ambitions across the Maghreb region.
He points to one place where ISIS’ ambitions are being realized—North Africa. The group is exploiting deep pools of disenchantment among the local population and taking advantage of power vacuums left by the ouster of detested old regimes. “It is very serious. There is significant support in Libya and Tunisia,” says Watts.
There is a loose coalition of ISIS allies at present, and no more. ISIS faces considerable challenges as it continues to seek to establish itself. But the trouble with that is that things can fall out of fashion. ISIS could soon find itself replaced.
Key to its longevity is how it can fund franchise operations around the globe, if it really aspires to have a global reach, adds Joshi.
ISIS is well-funded, but its operation is fairly concentrated at present. The more ISIS takes on in countries outside its current sphere of influence, the more its finances will be tested.
It has managed to make astonishing advances across Syria and Iraq, stirring fury and fear in the West, but in doing so ISIS has become a concern for some other jihadi groups.