Islamic State's apparent expansion may be deceptive

Islamic State franchise is growing, but experts doubt the group oversees affiliates' grisly deeds

Herve Gourdel loved nothing more than to explore rugged peaks, journeys that over the decades had taken him from his native France to Nepal, Jordan, Morocco — and finally to Algeria, where in September the 55-year-old mountaineer was abducted and beheaded.

Gourdel's executioners were with a group of Islamist militants calling themselves Soldiers of the Caliphate. The little-known group had seized on a way to grab headlines around the world: asserting that his grisly death had been carried out in the name of Islamic State.

Across a swath of North Africa and beyond, militant groups are rebranding themselves as local affiliates of the Sunni Muslim extremist group that controls a large, scythe-shaped section of Syria and Iraq. One of the world's most bloodthirsty and attention-getting terrorist organizations appears to be expanding.

In the six months since Gourdel's decapitation, declarations of allegiance to Islamic State have hopscotched over thousands of miles, from Egypt's rugged and restive Sinai Peninsula, to heretofore islands of relative calm such as Tunisia, to the chaotic battlegrounds of Libya, Yemen, northern Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Like an accelerating drumbeat, the deeds of groups purporting to be linked to Islamic State have mounted, each seemingly designed to exact a toll more cruel than the last: the bombing of a luxury hotel in Libya's capital, Tripoli; the dumping of headless corpses of supposed spies in lonely stretches of the Sinai Desert; impoverished Egyptian Christian laborers in Libya forced to their knees on a Mediterranean beach to have their heads hacked off on video; the slaughter last month of foreign museum-goers in Tunisia; and two days later, a pair of mosque bombings in Yemen's capital, Sana, that ranked among the country's deadliest attacks in modern memory.

But many intelligence officials and academic experts are skeptical that the parade of gore represents a leap in the degree of command and control being exerted across the region by the group's leadership in Syria and Iraq.

"Considering the scale of what [Islamic State] is facing in Syria and Iraq, I find it really hard to believe that the central leadership is actually coordinating operations in multiple countries," said Charles Lister, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center who studies the group.

Some evidence points instead to looser arrangements that nonetheless carry significant benefits for Islamic State and its professed offshoots.

Under such informal pacts, opportunistic but relatively obscure militant groups can make themselves appear to be far more powerful players in their chosen arena of conflict, while the media-savvy Islamic State can depict itself as having dramatically widened its geographic spread, an assertion that fits neatly with the group's grandiose claim that its "caliphate" is destined to hold sway across the Muslim world, while also diverting attention from its struggle to hang on to territory seized in Iraq and Syria.

The claim to have restored the caliphate, a form of Islamic rule that ended with the Ottoman Empire, is a direct challenge to Al Qaeda, which disavowed its former ally last year essentially for failing to follow orders. Al Qaeda leaders continue to advocate a more gradual approach to the goal of establishing an Islamic state and have denounced attacks they view as too extreme, including the bloody suicide bombings at two Shiite Muslim mosques in Sana. In Syria, there has been fighting between Islamic State and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Although Islamic State does not appear to be expending many resources on supporting its allies, the countries involved face a new peril, not only from Islamic State-inspired attacks, but also from hardened fighters returning home from the battlefields in Syria, Iraq and now Libya. The gunmen who carried out the attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis had trained in Libya, government officials say.

In the recent spate of attacks, the claims of responsibility and pledges of loyalty have been strikingly similar in language and tone, as if adhering to an exacting script. Using one of the group's favored media, Twitter, supporters have distributed audio messages from fighters vowing slavish fealty to Islamic State's self-proclaimed ruler, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.

In November, for example, a four-minute audio from the "mujahideen of Yemen" was posted with a corresponding Arabic transcript, which implored, "Command us, O caliph of the Muslims. … We are your army in Yemen. Perhaps God will cause you to hear what would please your eye."

There are inconsistencies, however, that speak to the degree of closeness — or distance — between Islamic State's leadership and its affiliates. One of the group's hallmarks has been slick video productions depicting its atrocities. In Libya, the February execution of 21 men, all but one of them Egyptian Coptic Christians, outside the Islamic State stronghold of Derna was rendered in sickening cinematic detail; in contrast, the video of Gourdel's killing was more like a grisly version of a home movie.

Baghdadi is believed to have dispatched prominent emissaries to negotiate some of the pledges he has received. After securing the defection of Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a celebrated figure in militant circles who helped recruit the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, Baghdadi sent him to court the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, said Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA officer who is director of the Brookings Intelligence Project in Washington. One of the most effective of the Islamist groups confronting the Egyptian military in the Sinai Peninsula, its declaration of fealty and decision to rebrand itself as Sinai Province was a major coup for Islamic State.

Other pledges have come from groups that were not previously known, suggesting that some fighters may be glomming onto the Islamic State brand to promote themselves.

Although Islamic State may appear to be following the model established by Al Qaeda, there are differences in how the groups approach franchise building.

Al Qaeda built its network with the goal of attacking the West.

"You don't need to control territory for that, you just need a safe haven," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies the groups' online communications. "Islamic State is focused on territorial control and governing."

That makes Nigeria's Boko Haram group a natural ally. Boko Haram's efforts to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria predate the declaration of a caliphate by Baghdadi, to whom the group pledged allegiance last month. In terms of brutality, Boko Haram equals and may have even inspired Islamic State, said J. Peter Pham, an expert on the group at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. Islamic State, he noted, invoked the Nigerian militants' abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls, who were forced into marriage and slavery, as justification for the treatment of Yazidi women and girls abducted in Iraq.

The conflicts in Yemen and Libya — which involve a tangle of antagonists, a virtually nonfunctioning central government, huge amounts of unsecured weaponry and the flight of Western institutions — are providing Islamic State with the conditions in which it best flourishes: chaos and armed groups that are too busy fighting one another to notice the Sunni group's encroaching presence. Although the footprint of Islamic State-affiliated groups in the countries is relatively limited, especially in Yemen, both offer major prizes for an aspiring state: Libya's oil wealth and Yemen's position next to key shipping lanes.

The group's declaration in January of a franchise in "Khorasan," an area that comprises parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of surrounding countries, signaled its desire to expand operations into Central and South Asia, the first time it had set its sights beyond the Arab world.

Small groups of fighters there have declared allegiance to Baghdadi, but Afghan and Pakistani officials describe them mainly as disgruntled former members of the more established Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not militants trained or sent by Islamic State.

"There are definitely some Talibs who have decided to join Daesh," said Abdul Salam Rahimi, chief of staff to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. But he said the group "is not yet in a state to take action" on its own in the region.

The man appointed as the governor of "Khorasan," Hafiz Saeed Khan, is a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. He broke with the TTP after being passed over for the role of leader and pledged loyalty to Islamic State in late 2014. He has since attracted several top commanders to his side.

Khan's men reportedly have sought haven in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, putting them in direct conflict with the Afghan Taliban and its well-established network of fighters and political figures. Already, the two groups have reportedly clashed in other eastern Afghan provinces.

Islamic State's "declaration of a move into 'Khorasan' may have been over-hasty," Borhan Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group, wrote in a recent commentary. "Afghanistan and Pakistan are a long way from the group's heartland and it may have miscalculated its appeal."

Government officials in Europe believe that a number of recent plots and attacks there were also inspired by Islamic State, including a deadly hostage standoff at a kosher market in Paris and a pair of shootings in Copenhagen. Islamic State leaders have urged Westerners who can't join the fight in Syria to launch attacks in their own countries. But experts say there is no evidence that the group is looking to set up franchises outside the Muslim world.

The growing Islamic State brand has worried the remnants of Al Qaeda, who late last year announced the formation of a new franchise in the Indian subcontinent in what analysts say was a bid to reassert influence over holy war in the region.

Within months of Gourdel's killing, the Algerian army said it had killed the leader of Islamic State's local affiliate, Abdelmalek Gouri, and a number of his followers. The rumor in Algeria is that Al Qaeda's North Africa branch told the army where to find them.

Yet, Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri has been notably silent about his rivals.

"It's almost like they're beyond contempt," Riedel said. "My estimate of that, having studied him a long time, is that he figures they'll run out of gas on their own — or even better, the Americans will find Mr. Baghdadi and take care of him."

King reported from Cairo, Bengali from Mumbai, India, and Zavis from Los Angeles. With reporting from Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Abuja, Nigeria, and special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Baghdad, Amro Hassan in Berlin, Zaid al-Alayaa in Sana, Yemen, and Ali M. Latifi in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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