BEIRUT, Lebanon – ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still very much alive after premature reports of his death, announcing that a number of provinces in Arab countries have declared their loyalty to his Islamic caliphate.
Sources say the new annexations will only create a more complex threat environment for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Baghdadi’s rare public announcement is the first time there has been any official acknowledgement of such annexations since ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, took over parts of Syria and Iraq some six months ago and declared the creation of a caliphate.
“Whether Western governments want to admit it or not, the reality is that the Islamic State has expanded in a non-contiguous manner outside its base and now has authority over satellite groups and small amounts of territory outside Iraq and the Levant,” said Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute.
“The Islamic State’s ability to expand its reach and its writ will depend on how successful this now-formalized annexation model proves to be,” Zelin said. “For now, and perhaps for the long term, this means the U.S.-led coalition will have to deal with a more complex threat environment.”
In his announcement, Baghdadi said he has accepted bayah – an oath of allegiance to a leader – from jihadi groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and the Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, the Majis Shura Shabab al-Islam in Libya and the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai.
His declaration officially ends the separate identification of the groups by their own name and “the announcement of new wilayat (provinces) of the Islamic State and the appointment of wulat (governors) for them,” according to Baghdadi.
The announcement suggests the groups have sufficient control over their territories, although it is unconfirmed if yet unidentified jihadist groups in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Algeria have similar control.
The provinces in Libya and Sinai could follow the same economic model of sustainability ISIS has pursued in Iraq and Syria over the past few years, Zelin said.
“If they have not done so already,” Zelin said, “the Libyan and Sinai groups are prime candidates for fully grafting their jihadist networks onto the traditional criminal enterprise networks that have been used for trafficking, smuggling and other black market activities over the years.”
In his announcement, Baghdadi also called for overt military attacks against Shiites, with primary targets to be in the Wilayat al-Haramayn, or the province of the Two Holy Places, meaning Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and Wilayat Yemen against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis.
After that, Baghdadi said the next priority in military targeting by ISIS would be the Saudi royal family and then the “crusaders,” or Western powers.
Baghdadi formally clarified how ISIS “perceives its enemies and its most immediate threat,” Zelin said, “while also illustrating its differences from al-Qaida, an organization that has historically given precedent to fighting the ‘crusaders’ first.”
Since ISIS intends to target the Shiites first in Saudi Arabia, Baghdadi may have intentions of going after his real target there, the rich oil fields of the Saudi kingdom, which happen to be in a Shiite-controlled province.
Similarly, in Yemen, the Houthis have taken over the government there, neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has committed troops to eliminate them.
However, if Baghdadi is successful in having ISIS establish a firm holding in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he not only would control valuable oil fields but also much of the Arabian Peninsula.
Already, the jihadi group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has sworn allegiance to Baghdadi.
Baghdadi’s declaration will test ISIS influence and level of command and control over areas outside its own base in Syria and Iraq.
“Whatever happens,” Zelin said, “Baghdadi’s message highlights his desire to continue projecting power in new areas. The Islamic State is staying true to its slogan of ‘remaining and expanding,’ in part to show the anti-ISIS coalition that while it may not have the same battlefield momentum it had this summer, it is still controlling territory in Iraq and Syria.”