How worried should neighbouring states be about the Islamic State’s expansionist rhetoric?
The familiar slogan of the Islamic State, baqiyya wa tatamaddad (“remaining and expanding”), is indicative of the group’s aggressive, expansionist outlook. The self-proclaimed caliphate, which demands the allegiance of all Muslims, should first encompass the entire Muslim world and should eventually subsume the whole world under its dominion. This ideal has been circulated among members and supporters since the group’s founding, when it called itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In those days, its ambitions were etched clearly on its flag, with graphics of the globe under the group’s banner. As ISI expanded into Syria, it renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
As ISIS/ISIL, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine, along with Syria, were (and still are) in the group’s sights. Today, under the IS formulation, it is taken for granted that the group will seek continuous expansion at any cost. However, in reality, IS’s overall approach to the region beyond its current bases of operation and control in Iraq and Syria is circumscribed by certain constraints and calculations.
Of greatest concern is IS’s strategy in Lebanon and Jordan, two countries mentioned in the IS recruitment video released by its Al Hayat Media Center as places to which IS fighters will go if their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, orders them to do so. Both Lebanon and Jordan are known to harbour domestic elements that support IS.
Lebanon’s problems with IS are tied to the broader issue of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War and of rebels crossing over into Syria by way of the porous border areas in Qalamoun. Pro-IS sentiment appears to be primarily based in the northern city of Tripoli, a long-standing hotspot of Sunni radicalism. IS’s military capacity to expand into Lebanon, however, remains limited for now. Its main entry point would be through the Damascus province. Here, IS’s presence is much smaller than that in the north and east of Syria, where IS has focused on building up and consolidating its control of territory. In fact, the IS presence in the Damascus province is quite disconnected from the organisation elsewhere, because IS fighters in the area have cooperated with rebels from a range of factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and Jaysh al-Islam, with whom the IS incursion into Arsal in Lebanon was undoubtedly coordinated. However, the coordination in Qalamoun between IS and other rebels may now be in doubt: a recent unity statement calling for enemies to be fought and sharia to be applied came from JAN and other rebel groups but excluded IS.
In Jordan, recent months have seen occasional and small pro-IS demonstrations in the southern locality of Ma’an. The Jordanian daily, Al Ghad, reported that the majority of members of the country’s Salafi-jihadi movement have shifted their alliance from JAN to IS. This suggests that support for IS is growing, albeit slowly. The group still maintains an interest in extorting toll fees from vehicles carrying goods entering into Iraq’s Anbar province, close to the Jordanian border. IS has total control over Anbar’s far western areas of Rutba (near the Jordanian and Syrian borders), Al-Qa’im (on the border with Syria), Rawa, and Anah. The other main entry route for IS to expand militarily into Jordan would be through the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda, neither of which has a known IS presence. In fact, since the JAN-IS dispute, militants in both areas are believed to be loyal only to JAN.
Turning to the north, IS’s intentions in Turkey have been the subject of much debate. Despite longstanding concerns in Turkish policy circles over alleged IS plots and threats to launch an attack in Turkey, there is no concrete evidence of either. Statements were circulated under ISIS’s name in the Turkish media in 2013, but they have all turned out to be unskilled forgeries. Some controversy has also surrounded a supposed ISIS video from March 2014 that threatened an attack if Turkish troops did not withdraw from the site of the tomb of Suleyman Shah, on the grounds that the tomb was within ISIS territory. But the video is of dubious authenticity and the apparent threat was not followed up.
At present, it is clear that IS understands that any deliberate attack on Turkish territory would not be in its interest: an attack would risk pushing Turkey into a direct military intervention in Syria, which would open up too many military fronts for the group to manage. Furthermore, it should be remembered that one factor behind IS’s success has been its ability to profit from local Sunni discontent with the central governments of Iraq and Syria within the hyper-sectarian atmospheres of both countries. In Turkey, there is no such environment to exploit.
As long as the border is not completely shut off, IS depends on Turkish territory for smuggling routes through which it can access the black market. This enables it to purchase goods (for example, basic commodities, including food and drink) with which to engage in outreach to locals within its territory in Syria. It also sells the oil that it extracts from the fields it controls in eastern Syria. This remains the case even as Turkey has taken greater measures to stop the inflow into Syria of potential foreign fighter recruits for IS. To assist in opposing IS, Turkey has provided support to rival rebel groups, particularly ones under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) such as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
IS intends to target two areas in the wider region and IS-linked activity poses a security threat in both places. The first of these is Israel-Palestine. Ideologically, the notion of the conquest of Jerusalem (Bayt al-Maqdis/al-Quds) is important in IS rhetoric. One billboard in Hasakah province (back when the group was called ISIS) read: “We fight in Iraq and Al-Sham and our eyes are on Bayt al-Maqdis” (a slogan that is also used by JAN).
However, the real threat lies to the south, in the Gaza-Sinai area. An identifiable IS network exists here, in the form of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, which distributes propaganda material in Gaza for IS. This IS network has acted as a feeder group for IS’s Gazan contingent of fighters in the Iraq-Syria arena. The network has expanded after the pledge of allegiance from the better-known group active in the area, Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, now renamed “Sinai Province”. Salafi-jihadi groups that oppose the Hamas government in Gaza have been expanding their influence for some time. In five to ten years, they may have the capacity to overthrow the government, which would pose an even greater security threat to Israel and Egypt.
The second area of concern is Saudi Arabia, whose government has been a key backer of FSA-banner forces opposed to IS, including Harakat Hazm in the north, the Southern Front in the south, and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. Because of this, it is not uncommon for IS circles to refer to Saudi Arabia as the “kingdom of taghut” (idolatry or oppression). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has not pledged allegiance to IS, but elements sympathetic to IS do exist in AQAP. That there are also IS supporters in Saudi Arabia more generally is reflected in the disproportionate number of Saudi fighters within the group’s ranks.
Reports suggest that IS may be trying to set up terrorist cells within Saudi Arabia, and IS could find Saudi Arabia a convenient target for strategic reasons. IS knows full well that Saudi Arabia would not send troops to Iraq or Syria. And IS could exploit opportunities in Saudi Arabia – such as oil smuggling or the like – to sustain itself in economic terms. The threat to Saudi Arabia is reinforced by IS’s formal acknowledgement of pledges of allegiance of unknown size from within Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen.
Linked to the acknowledgement of pledges of allegiance from abroad is the appearance of “Islamic State provinces” in eastern Libya and Tripoli. The emergence of the trappings of a state in the Libyan city of Derna (including “Islamic police” and “Islamic courts”) points to a possible link with the IS Libyan contingent inside Iraq and Syria, Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi. However, it is far from clear that the IS presence can expand much beyond Derna. It must compete with long-established jihadi networks in Libya (most notably the Ansar al-Sharia movement) and faces heavy resistance from the Tobruq-based government forces.
Last but not least, it is worth examining IS’s perception of Iran, which it derides as the “Safavid” power in the region that sustains the central “Safavid” government in Baghdad. Despite its rhetoric, IS, unlike al-Qaeda, does not seem to have any networks or assets in Iran that would enable it to strike at Tehran. Thus, expansion into Iran is off limits for the near future at least.
In assessing IS and its regional strategy, each country must be considered on a case-by-case basis. If IS were to take over the entirety of Iraq and Syria, then all neighbouring countries would face the prospect of invasion. But this outcome seems extremely improbable. IS’s main priorities are still to expand within Iraq and Syria and to consolidate its military and economic power in both countries at the expense of pro-government forces and insurgent rivals. A much more legitimate concern is that IS supporters – not formally tied to the group – might heed IS spokesman Mohammad al-Adnani’s call to target Americans and other Western citizens by any means necessary and might strike within Western countries and those Arab states that are assisting the United States in its airstrikes on IS positions.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a a researcher on jihadi groups with a focus on developments in Syria and Iraq.
This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.