According to the National Defense Strategy released by the Pentagon in January, “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Thomas Joscelyn does not disagree. He cautions, however, that Islamic State (IS)—despite suffering major territorial losses in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past two years—is far from vanquished. Neither is al-Qaeda, which in many places waits in the wings to recruit IS fighters who have survived the organization’s defeats. Joscelyn writes:
Consider the situation in Egypt. In November 2014, an al-Qaeda-linked group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore its fealty to the IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group was then rebranded Wilayat Sinai, or the Sinai Province (of the caliphate), and pledged to fight for the caliphate’s cause. Wilayat Sinai remains a security threat to the Egyptian state. Its members blew up a Russian airliner in October 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.
The bombing was the jihadists’ first successful attack on commercial aviation since the 9/11 hijackings. Wilayat Sinai has assassinated Egyptian officials, harassed locals, and conducted a series of bombings against mosques, tribesmen, and Christians. At times, the IS branch has been strong enough to capture Egyptian checkpoints and overrun security facilities. IS also spawned a terror network in mainland Egypt that has dispatched suicide bombers to strike Coptic churches, including on Palm Sunday last year.
The Sinai jihadists are so fierce that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s men haven’t been able to contain them on their own. Earlier this month, the New York Times confirmed a thinly veiled secret—Israel has been helping the Egyptians hunt down IS leaders and commanders in the northern part of the Sinai since 2015. Despite this assistance from Israel’s expert terror-hunters, Wilayat Sinai hasn’t been eradicated. . . .
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, IS loyalists fight their foes nearly every day. . . . Some claim that outfits such as Wilayat Khorasan [as its major Afghan branch is called] have merely adopted the caliphate brand and lack meaningful connections to Baghdadi’s enterprise. This is not so. The U.S. military has discovered connective tissue. General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has explained that . . . the first head of Wilayat Khorasan “went through the application process” and the group has received “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support” from IS [in Syria]. . . . [Meanwhile], the Taliban, [which remains closely linked to al-Qaeda], contest or control more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts.
Joscelyn also mentions the two groups’ presence throughout Africa, as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.