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Is ISIS Winning Battle for Islamic Radicals’ Hearts and Minds?

Despite recent battlefield setbacks in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is gaining influence among small jihadist groups in North Africa and South Asia, raising concerns that its use of extreme tactics like mass executions and beheadings could spread to new arenas, U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts tell NBC News.

While al Qaeda apparently retains solid support among jihadist groups along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least five militant Islamic groups –- all of them either previous al Qaeda supporters or al Qaeda affiliates -- have over the past five months either pledged allegiance to ISIS or loudly praised its establishment of a self-declared “caliphate” stretching from southern Syria through northern Iraq:

  • On Nov. 10, Egypt's Ansar Beit al-Maqdis ("Supporters of the Holy House"), which reportedly has killed hundreds of people -- mostly Egyptian soldiers – on the Sinai Peninsula since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, pledged loyalty to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It also declared its stronghold part of the ISIS caliphate, calling it the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. The group has two wings, one in the Sinai and the other in the Nile Delta, the latter of which remains loyal to al Qaeda.
  • On Sept. 24, a little-known Algerian group, Jund al Khalifa ("Soldiers of the Caliphate"), executed a French mountain guide, Herve Gourdel. In announcing the killing, the group said it was heeding the orders of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani to kill Westerners "in any manner ... especially the spiteful and filthy French" because of France’s support for military action against its fighters. (Algeria last week announced it had killed three leaders of the group who had participated in the beheading.)
  • On Aug. 26, a small number of top Pakistani Taliban officials split from the central leadership and pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, calling themselves “The Pakistani Taliban- Jamaat Al-Ahrar” ("The Freedom Fighters Group"). A spokesman for the group publicly supported the Dec. 16 Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 145 people, including 132 children.
  • Two days earlier, on Aug.24, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram also declared a caliphate in territory it had seized in the country’s northern reaches, suggesting in a video that ISIS has served as its model. While the groups have not formally allied themselves to one another, they have issued statements of mutual support. For example, ISIS fighters in Syria referenced Boko's kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok when they announced they had captured and sold hundreds of Yazidi women in northern Iraq in the summer.
  • Earlier in the month, the Philippines-based Islamic terror groups Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) posted videos on YouTube in which their leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, though Philippine military officials told Agence France Presse there was no indication that either group was actively supporting al-Baghdadi’s group.

The U.S. counterterrorism community is divided over the extent to which the pledges of support for ISIS represent a broader philosophical shift away from al Qaeda among radical Islamic groups around the globe. There also have been reports of small jihadist groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border declaring allegiance to ISIS, but U.S. officials say they have not detected widespread defections within the al Qaeda stronghold.

Where Did ISIS Come From? 3:11

The U.S. officials, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said that the recent alliances have been largely "opportunistic.” ISIS is the "new, hot" entity that has captured the imagination of the most-radical elements of Islam, many of whom see the caliphate as an Islamic utopia, one official said.

But they concede that while U.S. military strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria have stalled the group’s early territorial gains -- and in some cases forced its forces to retreat -- they have not undercut support for the group’s extreme vision of Islam among radical Muslims. The New York Times on Monday quoted Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama, as saying that the spread of the group’s ideology beyond Iraq and Syria is “a huge area of concern.”

U.S. officials and experts interviewed by NBC News said that the smaller Islamist groups gain several things by aligning themselves with ISIS.

To begin with, the ISIS “brand” has proven popular with sympathetic Muslims around the globe. U.S. intelligence officials say that ISIS attracts the lion’s share of the roughly 1,000 foreign fighters who travel to Iraq and Syria each month, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in the Middle East and from England and France in Europe.

Michael Sheehan, a former U.S. counterterrorism official and now executive chairman of the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point, said that the smaller groups are essentially trying to ride on ISIS’ coattails, “attaching themselves to the leading force of the international jihadi movement in order to get more publicity and legitimacy for their adherents and fighters.”

U.S. officials say the smaller groups also are likely receiving financial or military support from ISIS.

“The various terrorist factions that are aligning with (ISIS) probably expect some sort of return on their pledges of allegiance – in the form of weapons, training, expertise or funding – and (ISIS) must know that it can’t count on ideological affinity alone for support," said one official. "(ISIS’) leaders have been very clear about their expansionary quest which inevitably will involve patronage and some financial outlays.”

Sheehan, also an NBC News terrorism consultant, said the addition of foreign affiliates to ISIS raises both near-term concerns that the sort of atrocities that it routinely commits could spread, as well as longer-term policy questions.

For example, he said, ISIS’ focus on local uprisings, as opposed to terrorist attacks on foreign soil, could pose “a different and perhaps more pernicious threat to our long-term security interests in the Islamic world.”

“The implications for U.S. policy (are) simple: In the short term, it represents a less direct and immediate threat to our homeland from groups that have a local focus. But it entails a much more serious threat to the stability of those fragile states that are susceptible to these incursions within their territory,” he said, mentioning Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen as being among the nations where the smaller groups could create their own “mini-caliphates.”

“Eventually we would be compelled to intervene in these mini-caliphate zones, delving us into other wars nobody wants to fight and risking an escalation of attacks against the homeland,” Sheehan said.

But Evan Kohlmann, a partner with the security firm Flashpoint Intelligence and also an NBC News counterterrorism analyst, cautions that it’s too early to say whether the recent alliances with ISIS signal widespread disaffection with embattled al Qaeda Central.

Terror Officials: ISIS, al-Qaeda One-Upmanship of Concern 1:49

"These breakaway factions are by no means the majority, and we aren't seeing a groundswell of defections from major al Qaeda branches (such as Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Somalia-based al-Shabab) to ISIS,” he said.

Kohlmann says al Qaeda, in part because of its success on 9-11, still retains its grip on most radicals in the region where current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri is believed to be hiding.

"Certainly, al Qaeda's forces in the AFPAK (Afghanistan-Pakistan border area) appear to be largely holding loyal to their commanders, and only a token number have formed competing ISIS units," said Kohlmann.

He also noted that the U.S. has reason to be wary of some claims of ISIS involvement. "In at least one case, local Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan may have been labeled by Afghan security forces as pro-ISIS merely to attract the full attention and tactical support of U.S. military assets," he said.

Whatever the current state of play between the two groups, it’s clear that both see the battle for the hearts and minds of Islamic radicals as do or die. In recent months, they have engaged in a running war of denigrating words aimed at wooing supporters of their rivals.

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Al-Zawahiri has criticized ISIS for spurring of brutal infighting among Islamic groups battling the Assad regime in Syria and demanded that it renounce its caliphate claim. He also has called on al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq to fight against the Shia-dominated government there.

Al-Baghdadi has refused and, in turn, has belittled al-Zawahri on multiple occasions.

The latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’ online propaganda magazine, published on Monday, criticized al-Zawahri, al Qaeda, its closest ally, AQAP, and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, saying all were "deviating" from "the truth" of the Quran. It further stated that al Qaeda was never the same after al-Zawahri and American propagandist Adam Gadahn took over.