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What Does the Islamic State’s Organisational Restructuring Tell Us?

03 Jun 2019
Short Read by Colin P. Clarke

Over the course of recent weeks, the Islamic State (IS) announced that it had established a new province in India, the wilayah of Hind, after attacks on security forces in the Kashmir region. IS has also been responsible for an uptick of attacks in Pakistan under the auspices of the wilayah of Pakistan. The attacks in Pakistan, both of which took place in Quetta, were directed against the Pakistani police and another against the Taliban. Until recently, most of the Islamic State’s activity in South Asia has been claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province, its affiliate in Afghanistan.

The real question on the minds of policymakers and counterterrorism officials is: do these recent actions constitute organisational restructuring, or do they suggest a more profound shift in strategy, tactics, and worldview?

For some time now, it has been inaccurate to describe IS in monolithic terms. In the post-Caliphate phase, it is no longer appropriate to speak of one centre of gravity since there are multiple wilayahs, each with growing capabilities of their own. These affiliates are able to take advantage of local developments, seeking to exploit opportunities provided by growing instability, weak governance, and sectarianism. The panoply of global conflicts guarantee that IS will continue to find safe haven, especially where Muslims are engaged in civil wars or insurgencies, and are perceived to be under siege. By inserting itself into conflicts that are both seminal and highly symbolic, such as the disputed territory of Kashmir, IS could further burnish its image as the true defender of Islamist rebels committed to defending Muslims.

It appears that IS is moving towards greater decentralisation in some regions, including South Asia. This is happening at the same time that the group is consolidating its presence in Iraq and Syria, where the group it is still trying to rebound from the loss of the territorial Caliphate. The Islamic State’s online newspaper al-Naba recently published an instruction manual detailing how smaller cells of fighters can continue to wage low-level conflicts and conduct guerrilla warfare. The manual offers instructions on sniper attacks, ambushes, and conducting reconnaissance of the enemy.

Hedging Its Bets

Just like a multinational corporation, IS is expanding operations in some areas, while downsizing and streamlining capabilities in other parts of the organisation. Even if the decentralisation of IS provinces is not accompanied by a concomitant shift in the distribution of resources to these nascent franchise groups, including manpower and weaponry, what is clear is that IS is hedging its bets by dispersing organisational affiliates across the globe.

Through adopting a restructuring in different regions, with strategies tailored to local circumstances, IS is hoping to enjoy several benefits.

Attacks like the Easter Massacre in Sri Lanka serve the Islamic State by keeping it in the headlines and improving group morale by displaying the capability to launch spectacular attacks. The Sri Lanka attacks also demonstrate that IS can partner with low-profile groups, as it apparently did with National Tawheed Jamaath.

The restructuring could also help IS take advantage of instability in other countries, while it simultaneously prepares its media apparatus to exploit an increase in attacks in areas where the group previously had little or no presence.

The blueprint for start-up success as a terrorist organisation – evidenced in Iraq and North Africa – is now widely known. After gaining a foothold in a failed state or ungoverned region, the group seeks to latch on to a marginalised ethnic or religious group, exploit local grievances, and lend guidance, resources, expertise, and manpower to the fight. It is not difficult to imagine the Islamic State replicating this formula in any number of places, from Libya to Afghanistan and West Africa. These countries and regions are awash in weapons, and plagued by poor security forces and a weak rule of law, making them the ideal candidates for splinter groups seeking to regenerate and exploit new bases of operations, if they choose to relocate abroad.

The move to decentralise could also be a deliberate decision by IS leadership to improve the group’s chances for survival, moving to a hybrid structure to ensure that the attenuation of one franchise does not immediately lead to the downfall of another. This is, in effect, an effort to build in redundancy and distribute risk as a means of preparing the organisation for the disruptive shocks that accompany restructuring—especially when this change was forced by pressure applied by an external entity and not something that grew directly from organisational success.

Nevertheless, this strategy demonstrates remarkable agility. It is true that non-state actors have an advantage over cumbersome and bureaucratic nation-states when it comes to adaptation and transformation, but for IS in particular, the shift to a more decentralised organisation goes against what the group’s brand was long built around—the control of territory and the declaration of a physical Caliphate to which its supporters could travel and help defend.

So, shifting to a different type of terrorist organisation – one which is less about building a state and is, instead, connected by the sinew of regional conflicts and local insurgencies – is not without significant risks. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who recently made an appearance on video for the first time in five years, could lose control of the affiliates much as Osama bin Laden once did with al-Qaeda’s franchise groups. Previous attempts to rule with an iron fist resulted in an internal coup attempt against Baghdadi in September 2018, which was ultimately put down after a firefight lasting several days.

Baghdadi has never been a micro-manager, although he has taken a close interest in shaping the franchises in the Islamic State’s image. By dispatching members of IS’ leadership cadre to establish new cells, the group was able to ensure that regional affiliates closely resembled the parent organisation in the Levant, both in terms of style and substance. If Baghdadi is killed, or if the group attempts to expand too fast and without strong enough links to trusted operatives on the ground, IS' ability to maintain close control over its franchises would be a major challenge.

Risks to Expansion

The more the group’s longstanding leadership is attrited, the fewer links there will be between the core and its periphery over time. This can lead to the adoption of distinct cultures by affiliates, and perhaps result in a situation similar to what happened with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who was brazen enough to directly challenge the oversight of the al-Qaeda core. By dismissing advice by both bin Laden and Zawahiri on how to fight in Iraq, Zarqawi set the stage for AQI’s path from organisational affiliate to a vanguard in its own right.

Indeed, looking back at the evolution of al-Qaeda could be instructive for mapping the Islamic State’s potential next moves. Throughout the early to mid-2000s, al-Qaeda expanded to Saudi Arabia (2003), Iraq (2004), Algeria (2006), and Yemen (2007). It formed franchises in Somalia (2010), Syria (2012), and an affiliate in South Asia through al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (2014). Al-Qaeda’s expansion occurred in two specific ways – either implementing “in-house” expansion through establishing an affiliate group on its own, as it did in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or merging with existing jihadist groups in exchange for an official pledge of allegiance from the group to al-Qaeda.

The fight against IS is entering a critical stage, with much of the group’s future related to its command and control apparatus. Ominously, there is the possibility that the strongest affiliates could push back against the organisation’s command and control apparatus, and that such affiliates could subsequently evolve to eclipse the core—with regard to operational capabilities, but also in terms of reputation and notoriety.

This has happened in the past, as both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Iraq evolved into highly capable franchise groups in their own right, while al-Qaeda core in Pakistan reverted to survival mode, seeking to operate clandestinely to avoid an aggressive counterterrorism strategy by the US. Accordingly, Washington relied on a relentless campaign of drone strikes to disrupt al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan while keeping the group's leadership off balance and in hiding, making it more difficult to plot new attacks or direct affiliate groups operating in different parts of the world.

For IS, one wonders whether the recent rapid expansion will ultimately be folly, with the group committing the cardinal sin of focusing on quantity over quality. The expansion is represented by a proliferation of new relationships and connections to groups previously outside the reach of IS, including in Sub-Saharan Africa. It also comes in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of IS’ territorial caliphate, perhaps as an attempt to overcompensate for the loss of its proto-state.

An obvious consequence of its current organisational restructuring is the possibility of overextension. Where IS has moved quickly to claim growing links with terrorists operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, it remains unclear exactly how strong these ties are. By claiming connections with an array of groups in every corner of the globe, IS risks diluting its brand. Worse, it could lose control of its narrative, as parochial groups with local agendas pursue their own primary objectives which may contradict what IS sees as in line with its own strategic vision.

There are also risks inherent in adopting the IS moniker. The obvious benefits are an elevated status and a potential influx of resources, at least initially, but by affiliating with the Islamic State, local or regional terrorist groups also risk being targeted by Western counter-terrorism forces, including the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, and other elite special operations forces that maintain global reach. These entities will continue to counter al-Qaeda and IS affiliates even as the West shifts resources more broadly to focus on great power competition with nation-states like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

In many ways, this is the downside of the Islamic State’s erstwhile success. The Caliphate presented an attractive target for Western counter-terrorism forces and now that its state has been smashed, IS is moving to a far more decentralised model to survive. The organisation is betting that its propaganda and ideology will be major components of its revival phase, connecting followers and supporters throughout the globe who champion IS attacks online, while proselytising and recruiting the next generation of militants. Future advancements in encryption and other emerging technologies will ensure that like-minded individuals will be able to remain connected online, radicalising homegrown violent extremists in their countries of origin while also forging new relationships with aspiring jihadists.

There are clear comparisons between IS expansion and how al-Qaeda transformed in the years after its primary sanctuary in Afghanistan was removed. However, this does not mean that the Islamic State will necessarily suffer a similar fate, even as some of the same challenges apply. From the start, even as it maintained its headquarters in Raqqa and was building a state in the heart of the Levant, IS was always an outward looking organisation. It encouraged members to travel from throughout the world, as tens of thousands of foreign fighters from all around the world traveled to join the group in Iraq and Syria.

Al-Qaeda too boasted an international cadre of battle-hardened jihadis, but IS welcomed more foreigners from more countries, and its broad-based appeal throughout small pockets of the Internet provided the group with a virtual advantage that dwarfs what al-Qaeda’s online footprint looked like in both magnitude and sophistication. Many analysts believe that the Islamic State’s virtual caliphate will underpin the group’s strategy as it transitions to an organisation no longer wholly reliant on holding territory.

Now that the Caliphate has been crushed, the global jihadist movement may return to its peripatetic past, one mainly characterised by infighting amongst militant groups and travel to new battlefields. The pendulum is now swinging away from a globally coordinated effort by centralised terrorist organisations, and back to a focus on local and regional conflicts, which will vary in context and conditions.

And, even in fragmented and atomised form, these groups present a threat, especially if the Islamic State's ideology persists and successfully convinces a new generation of Muslims that a caliphate is an attainable and desirable objective, and that the means to this end will include the relentless pursuit of never-ending global jihad.