How Many “ISIS-Affiliated” Groups Are Really ISIS? Does It Matter?

Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia: ISIS Is Spreading, and Spreading Fast

Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia: ISIS Is Spreading, and Spreading Fast

The Slatest
Your News Companion
Feb. 17 2015 3:11 PM

How Many “ISIS-Affiliated” Groups Are Really ISIS? Does It Matter?

457943136-islamic-state-black-flag-flies-neasr-the-syrian-town-of
An ISIS flag flies near the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 27, 2014.

Photo by Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images

Egypt carried out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya over the weekend in response to a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. The strikes are Egypt’s most high-profile attack against the group yet, and also a sign that the global conflict with ISIS is spreading beyond the central battlefield in Iraq and Syria. In Libya the group has been gaining clout for some time and now controls the city of Derna, near the Egyptian border. Here are some other places ISIS is believed to be making inroads:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs. 

Egypt: Before the Libya strikes, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s government had been battling ISIS-linked militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The local affiliate, known as Province of Sinai, killed 32 people in an attack on soldiers and police in January.

Advertisement

Algeria: Jund al-Khilafa, a splinter group of al-Qaida’s North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, declared allegiance to ISIS last fall. The group made international headlines with the beheading of a French hiker in September.

Jordan: Support for ISIS is believed to be strong in parts of southern Jordan, and the country, which shares borders with both Iraq and Syria, is a leading contributor of fighters to the Syrian civil war. But ISIS may have miscalculated with the burning of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, which enraged even some of its sympathizers.  

Lebanon: ISIS doesn’t hold any territory in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of the population. But the group has been blamed for a number of terrorist attacks in the country and has threatened more.  

Yemen: Yemeni officials say the group has thrown its hat into that country’s volatile conflict, competing with the still more dominant al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Advertisement

Saudi Arabia: While many blame Saudi funding for facilitating ISIS’s early rise, a charge the government rejects, the kingdom has also been threatened by the group. Saudi Arabia claimed to break up a local ISIS cell last summer

Afghanistan/Pakistan: Several former Taliban commanders have pledged their allegiance to ISIS, and this month, the U.S. military carried out its first strike against one of them in Afghanistan. A number of members of the Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban  have defected to a new ISIS-affiliate as well.

Former Soviet Union: A number of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Russians from the Caucasus are believed to be fighting for ISIS. A group of Tajik militants fighting for influence in the Fergana Valley, long a hotbed of Islamist militant activity, have declared their allegiance to ISIS, as have some fighters in the North Caucasus.

Southeast Asia: Authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia say local radical groups planning attacks there have pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Advertisement

And beyond: ISIS sympathizers have carried out attacks in Canada, Australia, and most seriously in France, though in all of these cases, the attackers were most likely sympathizers acting on their own rather than under specific orders from the group. Alleged ISIS cells have been busted by authorities in Belgium, Spain, and Germany. At least 100 Chinese citizens are thought to be fighting for ISIS, raising concerns that the group could operate in that country’s already restive Xinjiang region. One of the group’s leading online propagandists turned out to be in India. But while a significant majority of Americans are concerned that the group is active in the United States, there’s been little evidence of such activity so far.      

As always, there’s a definitional problem when it comes to figuring out what is and isn’t ISIS. With the possible exception of its new Libyan affiliate, none of the groups outside Iraq and Syria actually controls any territory. The Islamic State is also believed to have lower criteria for membership in the franchise than its rivals in al-Qaida, who were more concerned about diluting their core brand.

Groups and individuals are often deemed “ISIS-affiliated” in the media simply because they say they are. Even then, it’s not always clear. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has stated his support for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but even some ISIS supporters are confused about whether the two organizations are actually affiliated or just simpatico. 

This might seem like hair-splitting but it’s really of the utmost importance considering that President Obama is asking for authority, without geographic limitation, to use force against ISIS as well as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside” it. It’s not 100 percent clear which groups that language would apply to, but it’s definitely clear that the list is growing.