Helia Ighani is the assistant director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action.
Since the self-proclaimed Islamic State captured territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, their network of affiliated groups has grown significantly. The Islamic State—known previously as al-Qaeda in Iraq—was disavowed from al-Qaeda in 2014 for its divergent philosophy and brutal tactics. Pre-existing terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, increasing the number of fighters to anywhere from twenty thousand to two hundred thousand in Iraq and Syria alone. Now, nearly thirty-five terrorist groups have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State’s affiliates have been deemed “provinces”, and their locations range from West Africa to Pakistan. Affiliates in three countries in particular—Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria—chose the Islamic State over al-Qaeda. Now, the United States has to consider how to effectively “degrade and ultimately destroy” an entire network with a more effective recruiting campaign, particularly targeting potential “lone wolf” terrorists, rather than just core-Islamic State. So outside of Iraq and Syria, what is the United States really up against? Here’s an overview of the three biggest “provinces” of the Islamic State.
Islamic State Libya
Since Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011, Libya has descended into chaos and civil war as various political factions and militias vie for power, one of which is Islamic State Libya. There are up to five thousand Islamic State fighters in Libya, many of whom were trained in Iraq and Syria.
After the overthrowing Qaddafi, many rebels went to fight along the Free Syrian Army and Nusra Front in Syria. There, fighters established the Battar Brigade and pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. Upon returning to Libya in 2014, they formed the Islamic Youth Shura Council, pledging allegiance to Baghdadi and establishing the Islamic State presence in Libya.
The Islamic State Libya’s first known attack on foreigners was at a luxury hotel in the capital, Tripoli, in January 2015. Soon after, they captured international attention with the grizzly execution of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians, and then thirty Ethiopian Christians in April. Other than targeting non-Muslims, the Islamic State has also challenged other extremist groups active in Libya.
The biggest showdown so far took place in Derna—the first city outside of Iraq and Syria in which the Islamic State has established a significant presence. In June, Islamic State fighters clashed with the Mujahideen Shura Council, killing two of its senior commanders and countless others. The Islamic State continues to be at odds with other Islamist and revolutionary groups, including Ansar al Sharia Libya and its allies in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, and the revolutionary Misrata militias in western Libya. It has also been challenged by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Sinai Province (or Wilayat Sinai, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis)
Though Sinai Province, or Wilayat Sinai, was more aligned with al-Qaeda’s ideology, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and changed its name from Ansar Beit al-Maghdas. The group is estimated to have between one thousand and fifteen hundred fighters. There have been some instances of divisions within the Sinai Province group, as some of its members pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda rather than the Islamic State.
Terrorists groups have had a presence in the Sinai Peninsula for decades. Wilayat Sinai, then-titled Ansar Beit al-Maghdas, came into existence in January 2011 after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and expanded rapidly after President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in July 2013. Attacks have multiplied since the group declared its allegiance to the Islamic State, extending its insurgency from the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo and launching frequent bomb attacks on security officials and civilians. Sinai Province is also claiming responsibility for the recent Russian airplane crash in the Sinai Peninsula, in retaliation for Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict against the Islamic State.
Unlike Libya, where there is no effective government, Egypt has enacted a major counterterrorism campaign to root out militants, particularly in the Sinai. The group has mostly targeted Egyptian security forces and civilians since the 2013 Egyptian coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, carrying out suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations, and beheadings. It went as far as attacking and destroying an Egyptian vessel in July 2015. Sinai Province has expanded beyond the Sinai Peninsula and Cairo to Egypt’s Western Desert—a popular tourist area geographically closer to Libya.
Boko Haram (or “Islamic State’s West Africa Province”)
The largest affiliate of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, pledged allegiance in March 2015. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, rebranded the group of an estimated fifteen thousand members as the West Africa Province of the Islamic State, but the group is still often referred to as Boko Haram.
Founded in 2002, initially in opposition to Western education, Boko Haram—meaning “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, spoken throughout the region—slowly evolved into the largest insurgent group in West Africa. Boko Haram had alleged links to al-Qaeda before joining the Islamic State.
As a result, the Islamic State’s territory in Nigeria spans an estimated twenty thousand square miles—an area nearly the size of Croatia. The Boko Haram insurgency is mostly contained to northeastern Nigeria, having taken over parts of the Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. It is also spilling over into neighboring countries, including an exacerbation of the refugee influx and an increase in terrorist attacks over the border. According to UN estimates, around 2.3 million Nigerians have been displaced since May 2013, with a quarter of a million of them fleeing to Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in February 2015, he has sought to uproot Boko Haram from the northeast. The United States also recently pledged $45 million military aid package to fight Boko Haram and deployed three hundred U.S. troops to Cameroon to help with air reconnaissance operations, along with the preexisting African Union-led campaign to fight the insurgency.
Boko Haram’s unity with the Islamic State poses a particularly unique threat, as it has the most estimated fighters and controls the largest amount of territory.