ISIS Now Has a Network of Military Affiliates in 11 Countries Around the World

Photo: Saood Rehman/EPA

ISIS is now well known for its widespread appeal to individual jihadis around the world. As the New York Times noted on Friday, “the black standard of the Islamic State has been popping up all over” in Pakistan lately. But beyond the lower-stakes demonstrations of popular sympathy, about a dozen militant organizations in nine countries (in addition to Iraq and Syria) have made formal pledges of support to the group, making them, in a very real sense, part of ISIS’s fighting force. Think of them as ISIS’s self-appointed foreign bases.

Veryan Khan, the editorial director of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, explained the process to Intelligencer. Support for ISIS among other radical groups, she said, manifests in one or more of three ways. At the most basic level, members of a group can show support for ISIS ideology by sporting the group’s flags and logo. Groups that are more committed can pledge loyalty to ISIS, which Khan describes as a symbolic statement that doesn’t really confer any type of formal alliance. The most committed make a formal declaration of bay’ah, or allegiance, and become official allies. (Such pledges were historically given to caliphs.) What shape, exactly, these alliances take can vary, in part based on the distance between Baghdadi and central leadership in the group. However, groups “don’t have to fall into the top category to be strong supporters,” Khan cautioned.

TRAC has identified at least 12 groups outside Iraq and Syria that have made a formal pledge of allegiance to ISIS and Baghdadi. (There may be more who have done so without publicizing such an agreement.) While some of them are large, established groups, others are comparatively new and unknown. In most cases, precise membership numbers are not available.

Here is a country-by-country look at ISIS’s expanding network of partner groups.

On Monday, Taliban splinter group Jundallah joined a handful of other Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan affliliates that have already pledged allegiance to ISIS. “[ISIS] are our brothers, whatever plan they have we will support them,” a Jundallah spokesman said. Taliban leadership has historic ties to central Al Qaeda leaders, and so a pledge of allegiance to ISIS is a strong sign that Al Qaeda is losing support. ISIS has also gained support from other Pakistani militants like Tehreek-e-Khilafat, a Taliban-linked group that became its first Pakistani supporter in July, and Jamaat al-Ahrar, a significant group that split from the TTP in August.

Islamic terrorist groups are particularly active in Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, and the most well-known of them is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, with about 1,000 militants. The group pledged allegiance to ISIS and Baghdadi in November because, the New York Times reports, they hope such a partnership will give them more resources and weapons to fight the more secular leadership in Cairo. (Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was deposed and replaced by a military leader, but even the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn’t have been enough for the group.) “To our people in Egypt, what are you waiting for after the violation of your dignity?” the group said in an audio statement that promised to “obey” Baghdadi. “When will you take out your swords to face your enemies?” After pledging allegiance, they also changed their name from one meaning Supporters of the Holy House to Wilayat Sinai — the province of Sinai. Baghdadi specifically mentioned this group in an audio statement released last week, further raising their profile.

Like the Pakistani groups, the Algeria-based Soldiers of the Caliphate, also known as Jund al-Khilafa, had ties to central Al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Soldiers were a splinter group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and formally pledged their allegiance to ISIS in mid-September. “You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you,” leader Gouri Abdelmalek, a.k.a. Khaled Abu Suleimane, said in a statement. “[AQIM] has deviated from the true path.” Less than two weeks after pledging allegiance, the caliphate Soldiers beheaded French citizen Hervé Gourdel after France participated in airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq. For Khan, this action makes the Soldiers more significant than many of the other groups who’ve pledged allegiance. “The caliphate soldiers have actually beheaded on the Islamic State’s behalf,” she says.

A relatively new and unknown group of radicals took over the coastal Libyan city of Derna back in April. The organization, which calls itself the Islamic Youth Shura Council, was founded earlier this year. While, like many groups, it initially allied itself with Al Qaeda, IYSC quickly switched allegiances to ISIS in June. “It is incumbent on us to support this oppressed Islamic State that is taken as an enemy by those near and those far, among the infidels or the hypocrites, or those with dead souls alike,” its statement read. In October, IYSC declared that Derna was now an outpost of the ISIS caliphate known as Wilayat Derna. This is one of the few ISIS outposts that actually controls physical area, and, Khan worries, the group’s influence may spread inland because of the country’s ongoing political instability.

Abu Sayyaf
, a Philippines-based group dedicated to carving out an Islamic province in the country, pledged allegiance to ISIS over the summer. (It may have had vague ties with Al Qaeda at some point in the preceding decades.) “We pledge to obey [Baghdadi] on anything which our heart’s desire or not and to value him more than anyone else,” Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon read in a YouTube video. “We will not take any emir other than him unless we see in him any obvious act of disbelief that could be questioned by Allah in the hereafter.” The group subsequently kidnapped two German hostages, who they threatened to behead if Germany didn’t pay a ransom and denounce actions against ISIS. The pair was later released, reportedly after the militants received about $5 million in ransom.

Not much is known about Gaza’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group, except that the organization is believed to have fired some rockets into Israel during this summer’s war and is believed to have recently pledged allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to al-Dawla al-Islamiyya — the Islamic State.

In Lebanon, Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade is a Sunni militant group fighting against Shia influence. It has engaged in violent struggle against Shia groups, particularly against Hezbollah, and also took responsibility for the 2013 bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. It gave bay’ah to ISIS at the end of June, writing on Twitter: “With utmost honour and pride, we announce our allegiance to the jihadist Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the Caliph for Muslims.” (Hezbollah, its Lebanese rival, has also been engaged in the Syrian conflict, fighting ISIS and ther rebel groups on Bashar al-Assad’s behalf.)

Abu Bakar Bashir, the incarcerated leader of the Java-based Ashorut Tauhid movement, pledged allegiance to ISIS from his jail cell in mid-July. (Bashir is serving a 15-year sentence for running a jihadi training camp.) The group broke off from a larger terror organization known as Jemaah Islamiyah and has taken responsibility for church bombings and the like in Indonesia. Not everyone in his organization agreed with Bashir’s decision, though, and top leaders as well as some of Bashir’s own sons left to form a different organization. 

A youth militant movement called Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad is ISIS’s main affiliate in Jordan. The group began as a branch of the country’s salafist movement and now makes up the majority of its members. It denounced Al Qaeda leaders in July, adding that it is “the right and duty of all to support [ISIS].” It is believed to have several thousand members.

ISIS Now Has Military Allies in 11 Countries