As jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) takes over vast stretches of Iraq and Syria, policymakers everywhere are wondering whether their countries are at risk.
One possible guide to gauging ISIS’s potential transnational threat is what happened the last time the group — or at least a former version of it — controlled major portions of Iraq. In an earlier incarnation, ISIS was Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise. Last year, ISIS’s increasing regional ambitions and generally uncontrollable nature earned it the distinction of becoming the first Al Qaeda affiliate to be expelled from the group’s global network. Eight years ago, it ruled huge sections of Iraq and led the fight against the U.S. military and the fledgling Iraqi government.
As the following chart from an August 2005 paper by Blake D. Ward for the United State Air Force’s Counterproliferation Center shows, Al Qaeda in Iraq and its leaders were on the fringes of a facilitation network that spread all the way to Spain and the western half of North Africa.
The terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Morocco in 2003, and Madrid in 2004, weren’t planned in Iraq, but they might not have happened as they did if it hadn’t been for Al Qaeda figures who helped carve out the group’s short-lived domain in Iraq’s Sunni areas.
Al Qaeda in Iraq appears on this map as the “Al-Zarqawi network” — the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the group’s most important organiser and commander. But the crucial spoke on this chart is Amer Al-Azizi. Zarqawi was Azizi’s “benefactor between the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid bombing.” He in turn had a close relationship with a Moroccan named Jamal Zougam, who is linked to both the Madrid and Casablanca bombings.
“Investigations to date have not established a hierarchical linkage between the mujaheddin,” Ward notes. “Instead a picture is forming of a family of separate groups with members who can interoperate between them.”
One of the greatest dangers from ISIS isn’t just that they will turn Iraqi and Syrian territory into a base for attacking neighbouring countries and the west. Rather, it’s that ISIS once again becomes part of a trans-continental jihadist “family” whose contacts, expertise, and connections culminate in acts of violence far beyond Iraq or Syria’s borders.
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