Expert answers questions about ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s expansion


Interview conducted by Jaime Ortega.


Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

She is a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. She is a political scientist with expertise in jihadism, political violence, extremist violence, and terrorism, with a focus on Algeria.


1. ISIL has successfully expanded in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and as far as Afghanistan. Has ISIL expanded to other lesser known Muslims countries like Oman, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan or any other?  Is that a possibility?  

Well what is interesting in your question is the countries or location in which IS expended to. Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria are all examples of “failed states”. IS took advantage of the chaos in these countries to have a foothold and expend. Libya is a good example. The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 and the political chaos lead to the creation of a plethora of militias and terrorist groups that took advantage of the porousness of the borders to smuggle drugs, weapons, humans and so on.

This allowed them to gain money in order to support themselves and to expand their network in the Sahel region. The post-Gaddafi situation helped IS to mushroom and gain foothold in Libya. In countries like Algeria where there is a “strong state” and a merciless security mechanism, IS could not survive. The proof is that its Algerian offshoot, called “jund El Khilafa” that kidnapped French national Hervé Gourdel in the mountains of Kabilya, was eliminated less than three months after the killing. The group that replaced the first one was also eliminated in a few days. That shows that IS cannot survive in such an environment.

What we might witness is the creation of small cells that will declare allegiances to IS and will try to perform low scale/high impact attacks. However, an expansion of IS in countries such as Algeria is very hard to see. In addition, the makeup of the population can play a role, in Algeria for instance IS cannot play on the binary polarization Sunni/Shia because 99% of the population is Sunni. In short, I do believe that IS real power is not in its military capacities but in its capacities in the virtual sphere.

To discuss its capacities in Eurasia, it is the same situation, IS will try to take advantage of “weak states” and will capitalize on the local frustrations. For instance, in Afghanistan there is a group that called itself IS that is essentially composed of former disaffected Taliban that rebranded themselves to “galvanize” the youth and recruit more. In Tajikistan, a cell was discovered lately that was planning to attack the  internal affairs ministry.

What worries me more is the foreign fighter who went to Syria and will eventually come back in their motherland. To keep with the Tadjik example, there is today around 700 Tadjik fighters in Syria who are more likely to “import” “jihadism” to their country. This applies also to the Uzbeks who has participated in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have an extensive warfare knowledge. Therefore, there is a risk for this region for sure. The returnees can affect heavily the security of this region.

IS organization will try constantly with these cells to destabilize the central Asia because in its ideology it is its “duty” to target these communist “impious” states and to target Baku, Moscow and Tbilisi. What constitutes also a danger is the porousness of the borders especially for the countries that shares borders with Afghanistan.

In addition, one should note that the IS organization is not the only one that is attracting foreign fighter from this part of the world. Jabhat el nusra is also recruiting especially among the Chechen. It is possible that two organizations that are enemies in Syria and Iraq, decide – for the sake of the “cause” – to cooperate in the Caucasus region.

2. Not long after the ISIS massacre in Paris, Al-Qaeda attacked Mali. Are both groups competing for supremacy in the world? 

There is a competition between the two for the monopoly of jihadism. The biggest competition relies in their capacity to mobilize and galvanize, so recruiting and in their prestige. Al Qaida is not attracting as much people as it used to do and in this regard IS beats it. IS knows that its biggest arsenal is not the military one but the media and it made a very smart use of it. This is the first time in history that we see an organization mastering the media to that extent and that built such a powerful communication strategy. The latest attack in Bamako right after the Beirut and Paris attack shows this logic of rivalry.

However, the targets are very important in these attacks because by contrast to IS that attacked civilians and massacred them in both Beirut and Paris; the attack in Bamako was more “targeted” in a way. This is for Al Qaida the only way to show that they disapprove IS and its “takfiri” approach and they are different because they do not practice indiscriminate violence (at least not anymore). Al Qaida even in the Maghreb is trying to focus the fight against non-Muslims and they’ve been criticizing the IS as being “deviant organization and takfiri”.

IS is for the moment winning: we can see it only in its ability to mobilize even in territories as far as Europe and the US. IS has territories, army and a very sophisticated communication strategy that made Al Qaida a total “has been” in that regard. IS is a brand that is so well-known and “prestigious” that even groups as far as Boko Haram in Nigeria pledged allegiance to it. Now it is more “fashion” and “appealing” to fight under the banner of IS. However, Al Qaida has still a certain “aura”: it is after all the “mother” of IS and the organization that made the biggest terrorist attack against the West that is 9/11. Therefore, what we might see is the outburst of a deadly competition between the two in specific regions of the world for the monopoly of jihadism, hence more attacks and more victims.

3. Have Al-Shabab and Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda or ISIL? Why have they made that choice?

Yes as I said it above, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS and a faction of al Shabab declared allegiance to IS also in November 2015. Why? Because IS is a “fashionable  brand”, because IS organization is like any other brand (coca cola or MacDonald). Groups that nobody hear of or that are in need of a good publicity, use the IS franchise in order to boost their prestige, reputation, hence recruits and source of funding.  It is a stylish brand and organization that has terrorized the West and the Arab world but also has a territory, a flag, an anthem and currency (the golden Dinar), this is appealing for jihadist groups in need of recognition and prestige.

 4. Chechen, Bosnian and Kosovo fighters have been recruited to fight with different jihadist groups.  Why have Al-Qaeda and ISIS successfully drafted some many eastern European radicals? 

The recruits are not only from Eastern Europe, they are from central Europe, the Caucasus region, the US and so on. The drivers are multidimensional and entangled. Every life story is unique. However, the main drivers can be: religious motivation, fighters claim to want to “glorify the word of God on earth” or to demonstrate “their love for God and the desire of raising the banner of Islam.” However, it is very hard to understand and authenticate their degree of faith. In my opinion, religion has less to do with their engagement. It more of ideological motivation: IS ideology that is based on binary polarization and a very Manichean vision but also absolutism, threat and hate is very powerful.

The different conflicts in the world are presented by IS as an ultimate evidence of the oppression of the Muslim Community. These people want to “make a difference” and to contribute to the glory of the Muslims by performing the “Hidjra” and fighting in the “name of Allah”. There is also philosophical motivations such as self-seeking:  many these men and even women (there is approximately 550 Western women in IS-held territories) joined Islamic State-held territories because they were in need of an identity or because their desire for status within their society was hindered or could not be achieved in Western societies. Joining IS, a jihadist group that is feared and respected by many is the means by which they intend to acquire “status”. Joining IS transformed what they perceived as a “purposeless life” to a life of devotion to the establishment of the Caliphate.

The jihadist organization gives them a “positive image” of themselves that their families and societies failed to give. Another motives is the desire to live in a “perfect community”: thanks to its powerful communication strategy, IS succeeded in depicting IS-held territories as “pure societies” in which social justice and equity are a reality. Once in IS-held territories, the individual forget about himself, he is a “born-again” and all what matters is the “brothers and sisters of the Caliphate”, it is the birth of the “we-feeling”. Finally, a driver that many researchers has forgotten about is the social connections. Families, friends and mentors as “sponsors’ integrator”.

Being related in one way or another to a person engaged in IS or convinced by IS ideology can indeed boost “predispositions” for joining the group. In other words, social connections are key to transforming one’s “predispositions” into action (such as in the cases of the Halane twins or the friends: Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Khadiza Sultana). The family ties also play an important role once in IS-held territories because they are an “antidote” to defections. Indeed, it is harder to leave an organization in which your brother, cousin or friend is.

5. Is there any other terrorist group outside of ISIS and Al-Qaeda that poses a high security threat for the West? Is there a group called Khorasan?

Well the name does not really matters because at the end of the day, it is an Al Qaida affiliate. This Khorasan group was created by Al Qaida and composed from top leaders of the group in Syria. The objective of the group is to attack the West and concentrate efforts on the West only. What is their strike force? No one can tell. However, what matters is the fact that it is an al Qaida affiliate and that they are going to focus their attacks on the West, so the security services should pay attention to them and not underestimate them as they did with IS since 2003.

6. After the assassination of Osama Bin laden led by US forces, the shift turned to eliminate Al-Baghdadi making Ayman Al-Zawahiri Al-Qaeda leader get less spotlight. Any recent news on Al-Zawahiri ?

Not that I know. However, I think it is a mistake not to pay enough attention to him because he was and remain the ideologue of Al Qaida. The US should focus on him and on the military commander of Al Qaida Khaled El Habib (who was declared dead but is not). Al Qaida is still present and capable to strike at any time.  

7. Some US Intelligence sources affirm Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain are secretly supporting ISIS. Is this true? Are they supporting Al-Qaeda?

It is very hard to check these claims.

8. Unlike the past, Al-Qaeda and ISIS now control swaths of territory; whereas, before they remained in the shadows fighting in secrecy.  They also control petroleum and sell it in the black market, not relying exclusively on foreign fundraisers to build their military infrastructure. Has that changed the outcome of the war against terror? Does Al-Qaeda also have their own way of supporting themselves without fundraisers? 

Al Qaida has its own way of financing itself. Al Qaida in the Maghreb for instance support itself by the kidnapping, smuggling and trafficking drogue, cigarettes, weapon and people (human traffic). The drogues for instance comes from Latin America to Niger and Mali and then it goes to Europe through Morocco. It is hard to give numbers but it is a very lucrative activity. The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 exacerbate the situation on the borders that are very poorly controlled.

9. Despite Russia’s military strength, can Russia really stop jihadist in Syria considering the Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan?

I do not think that fighting IS from 30,000 feet is the solution anyway. I believe that as long as the international community (that is only 10 countries) is not capable of finding a realistic political solution to the Syrian problem, IS will remain. In addition, we need to work on the ground, not by sending ground troops but by helping the local population fight IS and by providing an alternative: an alternative for IS idea but also an alternative for IS “governance”.

10. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are currently drafting tens of thousands of children to fight a future jihad against the west. It looks as if the west after decades trying to contain radical Islam, has not just failed, but helped to create a larger menace that will not stop at anything. What holds the future?


Again, to contain radical Islamism and salafi-jihadism we need to give people an alternative; we need to have a counter-narrative to convince them because it is a war of ideas. It is a war of propaganda and IS is a 2.0 jihadist group that is mastering and winning this war. IS capacities lies more on the virtual sphere than on the ground. Military solutions are not enough; they can help but are not going to solve the problem. The Arab world is experiencing major changes and military answer will only bring back the country of the Arab spring to the previous situation of dictatorship.

Each country has its own complex political landscape and we need to consider that when drafting recommendations and solution. We need to work with the civil society and not against it. Reform the educational system in both the MENA but also in the West in order to offer youth a real perspective so they will not chose a “jihadist career”. The west and countries like France for instance need to review their system of integration toward the emigrant population and include these second and third generation (especially those coming from North African countries) into the political and social life of their countries so they will have a sense of belonging and a “positive identity” thanks to which they will feel like genuine citizens and not second zone ones.  

Today there is two lost generations: the children who are going to evolve in IS held territories and whose mothers and fathers are IS followers and the entire generation of Syrian who is now in camps around Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and so on and who is a lost generation cause they have no future and are the targets of extremist groups that want to recruit them into jihadist organizations.

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