Today we have a guest post from Tricia Bacon—Assistant Professor at American University's School of Public Affairs, former senior foreign affairs officer in the U.S. Department of State, and author of the new book Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances. In her book, Bacon demonstrates that when terrorist groups seek allies to obtain new skills, knowledge, or capacities for resource acquisition and mobilization, only a few groups have the ability to provide needed training, safe haven, infrastructure, or cachet. Consequently, these select few emerge as preferable partners and become hubs around which other groups cluster. Here, she parlays her research, experience, and expertise to explore the role that alliances play in the current status of the Islamic State (popularly known as "ISIS").
The Islamic State has experienced a number of significant losses since its peak in 2014. In late 2017, the Iraqi Government declared the end of the war against the Islamic State, and the United States-led coalition declared 98% of the group’s territory recaptured. Some of the foreign fighters who joined the group died and many more fled. While its caliphate project crumbled under military force, the group is far from defeated. Under pressure, it has shifted to engaging in more terrorist attacks, such as targeting diners breaking their Ramadan fast at a café in Baghdad with suicide bombers earlier this month.
The group has been on the brink of defeat before. It has recovered from setbacks in the past in large part because many of the conditions and grievances that spurred its rise remain unaddressed in Syria and Iraq. Overall, the region remains unstable and ripe for exploitation by terrorist groups, including a revival of the Islamic State.
This time the Islamic State has another important resource it can turn to rebuild: an alliance network. In the wake of the group’s stunning battlefield successes and its declaration of a so-called caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State publicly anointed allies in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and the Sinai of Egypt as wilayats, meaning provinces. These partners, either largely unknown prior to this point or struggling with losses, pledged bayat, or loyalty, to the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Upon al-Baghdadi’s acknowledgement of their pledges, they were then re-named as Islamic State provinces in their respective countries. The Islamic State’s allies quickly garnered both stature in jihadist circles and attention from counterterrorism officials.
The Islamic State’s alliance acquisitions were far from over. Over the next few years, the Islamic State acquired allies in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
And now those allies provide the Islamic State a way to show that it is still viable, despite its losses. They offer a destination for fleeing foreign fighters and a way for the group to continue terrorizing its foes. The Islamic State in the Khorasan has conducted a series of major attacks in Kabul and ignited greater sectarian violence in Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s ally in the Philippines seized the city of Mindanao, setting off a battle that lasted for months and killed hundreds. In the Islamic State’s publication, Amaq, the group claimed responsibility for its ally in Yemen’s attack on a counterterrorism base in Aden earlier this year.
These outcomes are consistent with scholarship on the consequences of terrorist alliances. Terrorist groups with allies tend to conduct more lethal attacks and are more likely to seek weapons of mass destruction. Allied groups are more capable of surviving losses, even the death of their leader. Groups with multiple allies survive for longer and can survive losses.
Moreover, terrorist alliances themselves have proven surprisingly resilient. None of the Islamic State’s allies have abandoned their partner, despite its losses. Though disrupting terrorist alliances has been a counterterrorism objective since 2003, the United States has had little success severing ties between allied terrorist groups. Given the role of alliances in shaping the terrorist threat, preventing and damaging terrorist alliances needs to be a counterterrorism priority. Doing so will be key to genuinely defeating the Islamic State.