The Strong Horse

11.16.14 3:08 PM ET

Murder Vids Help ISIS Lure More Monsters

Brutal beheading videos attract young militants to ISIS. But the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has struggled to recruit established jihadists.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, has claimed to have beheaded yet another Western hostage, along with more than a dozen captured Syrian soldiers. In a newly-released video, a henchman for the group stands over what appears to be the severed head of Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger turned aid worker who was kidnapped in Syria in late 2013.

From the Islamic State’s perspective, such videos serve multiple purposes. They are meant to intimidate the organization’s enemies in the West and elsewhere, show defiance in the face of opposition, and to convince other jihadists that Baghdadi’s state is the strong horse. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s rival, long ago determined that graphic beheading videos do more harm than good for the jihadists’ cause, as they turn off more prospective supporters than they earn. But the Islamic State has clearly come to the opposite conclusion, cornering the market on savagery. 

There is no doubt that the Islamic State’s ranks have swelled over the past year. Young recruits, in particular, have been attracted to the organization’s brazen violence. But Baghdadi has had much less success in attracting the allegiance of established jihadist organizations, many of which remain openly loyal to al Qaeda.

At first blush, Baghdadi had a big day on Nov. 10. Jihadists from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen all swore allegiance to Baghdadi in what was intended to be a show of global support for the self-appointed caliph. The Islamic State has been attempting to win the support of jihadists at the expense of al Qaeda, so the messages were widely heralded by Baghdadi’s boosters. Indeed, the group highlighted the oaths of allegiance in today's beheading video.

Baghdadi accepted the various loyalty oaths three days later in an audio message released on Nov. 13. The Islamic State leader’s speech served multiple purposes. It demonstrated that he was alive, contradicting thinly-sourced claims that he had been killed in airstrikes earlier in the month. And it gave Baghdadi the opportunity to praise his new minions, blessing them as his official representatives.

Baghdadi offered “glad tidings” as he trumpeted “the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of al Haramain [meaning Saudi Arabia] and Yemen, and to Egypt, Libya and Algeria.” Baghdadi accepted “the bayat (oath of allegiance) from those who gave us bayat in those lands” and pronounced “the nullification” of all other jihadist “groups therein.” He also announced the creation of “new wilayah [provinces] for the Islamic State” in all five countries, adding that the group would appoint “wali [provincial leaders] for them.” All jihadists in these areas, and indeed all Muslims, must now obey the Islamic State’s official representatives, according to Baghdadi and his supporters.

Of course, the Islamic State doesn’t really have provinces stretching from North Africa through the heart of Arabia. But how strong is Baghdadi’s network in all five countries? The short answer is: We don’t really know.

In three of the five countries—Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen—the jihadists who swore loyalty oaths to Baghdadi were anonymous. And they don’t represent any well-established terrorist organizations either.

For instance, the Islamic State has failed, thus far, to garner the allegiance of Ansar al Sharia Libya, which is notorious for its role in the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi and remains one of the most powerful jihadist organizations in eastern Libya. None of Ansar al Sharia’s allies in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the Islamist coalition fighting General Khalifa Haftar’s forces for control of territory, pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. The Islamic State has supporters in Libya, particularly among the jihadist youth. But other groups are still, by all outward appearances, more entrenched.

Similarly, the messages from Saudi Arabia and Yemen were attributed generically to the “mujahideen” in both countries. Baghdadi and his supporters have attempted, and failed, to woo al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on multiple occasions.

AQAP, which is headquartered in Yemen, is the strongest jihadist group in the heart of Arabia. Some have assumed that the only person keeping AQAP loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri is Nasir al Wuhayshi, a protégé of Osama bin Laden who serves as both AQAP’s leader and as al Qaeda’s global general manager. There is no basis for this assumption. There are al Qaeda loyalists throughout AQAP’s chain-of-command.

A few AQAP ideologues have been quite vocal in their support for the Islamic State, but there was an interesting twist in this part of the story this past week.

Mamoon Hatem has been the Islamic State’s most zealous supporter within AQAP. Hatem frequently uses his Twitter feed, which has been suspended multiple times, to sing the Islamic State’s praises. Hatem encouraged Baghdadi to proclaim himself the new caliph even before the Islamic State’s caliphate announcement in late June. Before this past week, it was reasonable to assume that Hatem may break away from AQAP to form his own branch of the Islamic State.

That is still a possibility. Curiously, however, Hatem refused to endorse the group of unknown “mujahideen” in Yemen who swore allegiance to Baghdadi on Nov. 10. In a series of more than 20 tweets, Hatem admitted that he tried to get AQAP to switch allegiances from Zawahiri to Baghdadi. But Hatem explained that he failed for a number of reasons. And he said that the pro-Islamic State message out of Yemen would only exacerbate the many difficulties AQAP currently faces inside the country. This was no time to jump ship, Hatem argued, given that AQAP is hunted by the U.S. while also embroiled in a vicious fight against the Houthis, Shiite rebels who have barnstormed throughout the country.

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Hatem said he still wants the Islamic State to expand the territory under its control, including to parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But he doesn’t want Baghdadi to do so in a way that further divides the jihadists. Hatem said the men loyal to Baghdadi inside Yemen include “students,” but offered few other details. Hatem’s tweets indicate that, once again, the Islamic State is attracting the jihadist youth while failing to secure the loyalty of more seasoned fighters.

As a result, we know next to nothing about the jihadists in Saudi Arabia and Yemen who now claim to take orders from Baghdadi. The Islamic State may have cadres of fighters in both countries, but no one can publicly identify them at this point and there is no reason to believe they are nearly as strong as al Qaeda.  

We do know something about the Islamic State’s adherents in Algeria, as they first swore allegiance to Baghdadi well before their announcement on Nov. 10. They are veteran jihadists who have defected from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). When they first came out in support of Baghdadi earlier this year, they identified themselves as AQIM’s “central division,” a little-known faction within AQIM. They now call themselves Jund al Khalifa, a name that is intended to explicitly connect them to Baghdadi’s caliphate. Jund al Khalifa has already beheaded a French hostage in service of the Islamic State’s cause, but there is no way of telling how many fighters are under its control.

The announcement out of Egypt was the most significant, as it came from a faction of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), otherwise known as Ansar Jerusalem. No jihadist group in Egypt is more prolific than ABM, which has been responsible for dozens of attacks against members of the Egyptian military and security services, Sinai tribesmen, Israelis, and others. Oddly, however, the ABM jihadist who pledged to obey Baghdadi was not identified in his message. Neither his alias, nor his role within ABM, was given. Credible accounts, including one by The New York Times, point to divisions within ABM. The Sinai faction of ABM has been itching to join the Islamic State since earlier this year, but their Nile Valley counterparts remain loyal to al Qaeda. Thus, at least part of ABM remains in al Qaeda’s corner.

This is not to suggest that the Islamic State’s gains in the Sinai should be dismissed. It is likely that Baghdadi has officially gained the allegiance of a number of fighters. The Islamic State’s influence in the Sinai has long been clear. Both Egyptian officials and ABM leaders have said that the group has been working with the Sinai jihadists for months, thereby increasing their operational capacity. And a video released on Nov. 14 portrays ABM as the Islamic State’s new province in the Sinai.

In the days and weeks that follow, we will likely learn more about the jihadists who now represent the Islamic State in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Baghdadi emphasized in his message on Nov. 13 that his organization now has provinces in each of these five countries. And because his caliphate has spread into those nations, Baghdadi argues, existing jihadist organizations have been nullified.

The logical implication of Baghdadi’s argument is that the official branches of al Qaeda—such as AQAP in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as AQIM in Algeria and Libya—are now illegitimate if they do not submit to the caliphate’s claimed authority. This makes it incumbent upon the Islamic State’s leadership to demonstrate that their network’s presence in these nations is meaningful, and goes beyond audio messages from unknown figures.

The Islamic State’s international network is real. It remains to be seen just how strong it really is. With more videos released like today’s, young jihadists will continue to flock to Baghdadi’s cause. While a smattering of established jihadists around the globe have backed Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s base of support is found in new recruits. That is, Baghdadi’s followers are predominately hotheads, young men and women who are emboldened by horrific beheadings.