The Power of Affiliates: Which Islamic State Franchise Could Become the Most Capable?


Oct 9, 2018

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017

Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 8, 2018.

With the Islamic State's caliphate in ruins, one of its affiliates could grow to become even more deadly and operationally capable than the core organization was during its peak in 2015. With ISIS franchise groups and affiliates across the globe, there is no shortage of contenders to supplant ISIS as the world's most dangerous terrorist group.

Many factors could fuel the rise of a new Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot, including the relative weakness of the security forces in the area where the terrorists are operating, so it is difficult to discern which affiliate could become the next major threat. Additionally, measuring the threat will require an intimate understanding of an affiliates' capabilities, the degree to which safe haven and sanctuary are available, and the relative ease with which the group can replenish its resources.

The emergence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) provides a blueprint for how the next dominant Islamic State faction could rise up. AQAP came about nearly a decade after core Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, was driven from Afghanistan and forced to endure years of an aggressive and relentless counterterrorism campaign waged by the United States. AQAP formed following a merger of Al Qaeda's Saudi and Yemeni networks in 2009. Several years later, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was elevated to general manager of Al Qaeda, and AQAP used member ties to core Al Qaeda leadership as a recruiting tool to persuade jihadists to join its ranks.

Of Al Qaeda's roughly half-dozen affiliates, AQAP emerged to become the group most determined to strike the West. When core Al Qaeda went years without being able to pull off a spectacular attack against the West, AQAP managed several “near misses” against U.S. airlines, including the notorious underwear bomber plot in 2009 and another plot against cargo planes with explosive-laden printer cartridges onboard in 2010. AQAP was considered such a high-level threat that former CIA director David Petraeus once referred to the group's master bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, as “the world's most dangerous man.” Al-Asiri was reportedly killed in a drone strike in Yemen this past August.

Another important aspect of the success of AQAP has been the continued evolution of jihadist propaganda and media outreach, due in large part to the emergence of American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who developed a global following among jihadists before his death in 2011. One of his followers included Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist who communicated with Awlaki via email for over a year before going on a shooting rampage and killing thirteen at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. Awlaki's influence lives on via the Internet, inspiring new generations of terrorists to strike out against the West. Several of the most prominent perpetrators of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil—the Boston marathon bombers, the San Bernardino attackers, and Ahmad Rahmani, who launched attacks in New York and New Jersey—all consumed jihadist propaganda featuring Awlaki.…

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Colin P. Clarke is an adjunct senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a think tank focused on research, analysis, and strategic dialogue related to global security issues and emergent threats.

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