As it faces an increasing campaign by the international coalition assembled against it, ISIL is beginning to demonstrate a new means of menacing the region and the world. It is spreading its tentacles by winning pledges of allegiance from armed extremist groups far from its base of operations in Syria and Iraq.
In recent weeks, ISIL claimed responsibility for ghastly atrocities in far-flung areas. The massacre of at least 20 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis has been claimed by ISIL. Until now, the most dangerous group in Tunisia has been the Oqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, which operates in areas adjacent to the Algerian border. It is aligned with Al Qaeda, and has concentrated its attacks on Tunisian security services, the military and politicians.
The Chaambi Mountains attack, in July 2014, was the deadliest single incident in recent Tunisian history until the Bardo museum massacre. Sixty members of the Brigade ambushed two Tunisian military checkpoints, killing 15 soldiers.
The other major terrorist group operating in Tunisia in recent years has been Ansar Al Sharia. Increasingly radicalised since the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the group was finally labelled a terrorist organisation by the government in August 2013. It has been responsible for urban terrorism such as attacks on the US embassy and an art exhibit in 2012, and the assassinations of secular leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013, respectively.
Whoever was responsible for the massacre at the Bardo Museum, it seems unlikely that it was an expression of integrated ISIL command and control. Instead, it appears that the museum attack was conducted by an existing terrorist group in Tunisia, now operating under ISIL’s black banner.
The whole point of ISIL’s cynical manoeuvre of declaring itself to be a caliphate, and its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, to be the new caliph, was an attempt to assert authority. ISIL isn’t trying to win the hearts and minds of the general public. It knows it can’t do that. Instead, it is trying to win recruits and adherents among the radical fringe of violence extremists.
This is usually understood to involve recruiting foreign fighters. But as ISIL has come under increasing military, political and financial pressure from the coalition, the focus has begun to involve winning pledges of allegiance from existing violent radicals who “rebrand” themselves as ISIL.
This is meant to give the group the appearance of expansion, in order to offset the fact that it appears to be contained in Syria and slowly rolled back in Iraq. But it suddenly showed up in Libya, where last month it released a video purporting to show a gang of ISIL assassins beheading 21 Coptic Egyptian hostages on a Mediterranean beach.
ISIL has also claimed responsibility for two suicide bomb attacks at mosques used by Houthi militants during Friday prayers in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. They killed more than 140 people, including scores of children. The attack positions ISIL in Yemen, as it has tried to do in Syria and Iraq, to falsely pose as the defenders of the Sunni Muslim community against sectarian rivals.
The attack in Tunisia appears to be driven by local considerations, particularly insofar as it targeted foreign tourists and the economically crucial local tourism industry. The murder of the Egyptian hostages in Libya similarly seems to reflect, and have been inspired by, more local North African dynamics. Motivations appear unimportant. What counts is attaching the brand to spectacular acts of violence in new areas, and creating the impression that ISIL is an organisation on the move and on the rise.
It may be, at least in a certain level, a somewhat confused mess arising from the looseness of affiliations and lack of coherence regarding agendas, priorities and expectations. But it would appear that, increasingly, local fighters and militant organisations in many parts of the Arab world and beyond are finding irresistible the ISIL offer of instant rebranding by pledging allegiance.
The spectre of an organisation that could actually unite far-flung and disparate violent and radical extremists across the Muslim world constitutes an unprecedented potential new threat.
In that context, perhaps the most alarming of the recent new affiliates to ISIL is the reported pledge of allegiance supposedly issued by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in early March. To all appearances, Boko Haram has almost nothing in common with ISIL apart from violent and reductionist Sunni extremism. Indeed, its agenda appears deeply rooted in Nigeria’s complex colonial and postcolonial history. And, in the end, perhaps Shekau’s purported “bay’ah” to Al Baghdadi will prove purely rhetorical and practically meaningless.
But if, over time, ISIL could evolve from this kind of free-floating branding opportunity to a loose but structured system of affiliation drawing together many, if not most, radical and violent Islamists, that would be calamitous. Such an entity need not, and probably never could, become a centralised and integrated organisation.
But even a highly decentralised conglomeration would present a new set of security and political nightmares to the international community and, especially, mainstream Muslim societies.
Such a scenario is highly unlikely, of course. But it is the latest wrinkle in ISIL’s game plan against humanity.