The global reach of ISIL

An article in the Guardian, containing excerpts from David Kilcullen’s new book, examines the international reach and scope of ISIL.  It’s far from just a Syria/Iraq problem.  Here’s an extract.

By mid-2015, Isis had been established in separate provinces in Libya, as well as in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt’s Sinai desert, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan–Pakistan (Khorasan), Nigeria, and the Caucasus.

There were also numerous Isis wilayat within the core Isis territory in Syria–Iraq, acting as administrative subdivisions of the Islamic State.

Despite a superficial similarity to the Al Qaida (AQ) “franchises” that still existed in some of the same areas, Isis wilayat were different in concept and purpose.

AQ’s franchises were guerrilla or terror groups operating in their own way, in their own region, furthering their own interests but as part of a global insurgent strategy – a confederation of independent groups, united not by a parent political entity, but by the informal AQ “aggregation” model that disaggregation was designed to destroy.

By contrast, Isis wilayat were more like overseas provinces of an empire, or colonial possessions of a nation state, pursuing the parent state’s interest even at the expense of their own agenda. The term wilayat (meaning governorate, province, or authority) was used under the Ottoman Empire and older caliphates to describe provinces, each with a governor (wali) exercising day-today authority under the suzerainty of the caliph.

This isn’t the only way the word can be used – wilayat also means “authority” in Shi’ism and Sufism, for example – but this is the sense in which Isis understands it. Isis wilayat were formal territorial, legal and political entities within the caliphate, with defined borders and populations, administered by governors appointed or approved by Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, governing in line with Isis policy, and conducting operations within a well defined set of strategic guidelines.

As of late 2015, the wilayat also acted as catchment areas for flows of fighters trying to join Isis but unable to make it all the way to Syria or Iraq, as rally points for recruits wanting to bring Isis to their own countries, or for fighters returning from Syria-Iraq. Most importantly, they were bridgeheads-in-depth – outposts behind enemy lines that distracted Isis adversaries from the main fight in Syria-Iraq, diverted resources that might otherwise have been used against the caliphate, and mounted attacks to support Isis offensives or relieve pressure on its defences.

. . .

Sousse was the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Tunisian history. It brought Isis huge gain for tiny input – at a cost of one attacker, one rifle and four magazines of ammunition, Isis had established itself in Tunisia, out-competed its rival AQIM, and retaliated against a country (Britain) that was attacking it in Iraq.

The low-cost, high-impact method exploited electronic connectivity to achieve a bang-for-the-buck far in excess of either traditional expeditionary terrorism or the evolved guerrilla terrorism of the post-9/11 era. And Sousse was only one of three Isis attacks that day, which included a beheading and bombing at a US-owned factory near Lyon in France, and a suicide bombing at a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait that killed twenty-seven and wounded 227. Isis claimed all three incidents, while supporters crowed about the triple attacks – which they dubbed “Black Friday” – on social media.

Coming three days after Isis spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had called for worldwide attacks during Ramadan, Black Friday seemed to signal an expansion of Isis reach, and the extension of its operations and propaganda to the global stage.

What was impressive was not that Isis could coordinate simultaneous attacks in multiple countries – indeed, there’s no evidence that the attacks were formally synchronised or coordinated in that way. Rather, the attacks showed that Isis had perfected leaderless resistance, remote radicalisation and guerrilla-style terrorism to the point where a central organisation no longer even needed to coordinate such attacks: the caliphate spokesman could simply issue a public call, and the Internationale and the wilayat structure would act without further direction.

There’s more at the link.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

I highly recommend reading the entire article, as well as Mr. Kilcullen’s book, ‘Blood Year‘.

It’s the clearest analysis I’ve yet seen of how ISIL was able to spread so far, so fast in the last couple of years.  It also explains the threat of terrorism we face here in the USA – a threat that I fear far too many people are not taking sufficiently seriously.



  1. Few in either party take it seriously. And, we must have open borders so we can have cheap labor.

    I think we may already have a good many ISIS cells in the US and they are just waiting for the word to stand to.

  2. ISIS does present a threat to the US, but it's not a particularly serious threat nor is it currently a high priority for ISIS to do so. That can be seen through the actual number and type of attacks that have been perpetrated on the US. San Bernadino, etc. are examples of individuals who have taken inspiration from ISIS, not examples of attacks organized, planned, or funded by ISIS.

    If ISIS was really pursuing a serious strategy of domestic US terror, we would be seeing a lot of attacks, and we would be seeing far more effective ones. Nobody can seriously defend an opinion that ISIS has made that a goal. Any one of us could cause more havoc that ISIS has if we wanted to. Just think of the DC snipers a few years back and what impact they had with very little effort or investment.

    Could ISIS become a serious threat? Absolutely. However, we do face actual existential threats in the US right now, the biggest of which is our unsustainable government spending. Most of our time, effort, and energies should be spent on the things that will destroy us if left unchecked, not the things that might damage us at some point in the future if they decide they want to. We should pay attention to ISIS, but it should not be our focus.

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