Unlike al-Qaeda, which was always meant to operate on a global level, ISIS has been much more linked to its territory in Syria and Iraq. But that's now starting to change.
BEIRUT — ISIS is spreading beyond its "borders." For the first time, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State moved into action outside of its Middle East base. Last month's kidnapping and killing of French tourist Hervé Gourdel by Algerian disciples of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marks a turning point for an organization that until now was focused on creating a "state" astride the Levant and Mesopotamia.
"It’s the sign of a move from a regional strategy to a more global strategy," says Romain Caillet, a Beirut-based specialist in Islamist movements.
While al-Qaeda is an organization based on the nebula network model, with branches scattered across several continents, ISIS claims a strong territorial link. Before the gloomy beheading videos, aimed at terrifying Western populations, most of its efforts were dedicated to the more immediate necessity of reinforcing and expanding its hold in the Middle East.
The "Caliphate's" propagandists used to attack mostly Shia Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, such as Middle East Christians, as opposed to al-Qaeda, which made the United States its No. 1 enemy. It is the difference in method between a jihad choosing an enemy that is close, rather than one far away.
But the creation of an anti-ISIS coalition accelerated the change to both a rhetoric and action that is more global and anti-Western. In a long Internet diatribe posted Sept. 22, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani calls not only for the murder of citizens whose countries joined the coalition, "especially the spiteful and filthy French." The 42-minute audio urges the muwahidin (monotheists, meaning Sunni Muslims) of the whole Arab world to take part in the fight against the "crusaders" and the "rafidah," a pejorative way to describe Shia Muslims.
Adnani is especially proud of the many Sinai attacks carried out in the past few months against Egyptian security forces, which ISIS accuses of being "the guards of the Jews."
"Rig the roads with explosives for them," he said. "Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure."
This was a direct message to Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, the main organization behind these attacks in Egypt and which, though not necessarily linked to ISIS, is ideologically close to it. What's more, its fighters seem to be more and more inspired by al-Baghdadi's methods, as the beheading of four Egyptian civilians in August demonstrated. In the video of their execution, al-Maqdis accused them of "collaborating with the Mossad."
But ISIS is also speaking to the Libyans and Tunisians, urging them to follow in the footsteps of Egyptian jihadists. "What are you waiting for? Do you aspire to a life of humiliation and dishonor?"
The ISIS spokesman also reacted to the seizure of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa by Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shia insurgent group. "Unfortunately, the car bombs have not yet roasted their skin, nor have the explosive belts cut their joints," he said. "Is there nobody in Yemen who will take revenge for us on the Houthis?"
Again, it is likely that these words are intended to stir up Arabian Peninsula divisions inside al-Qaeda, the main jihadist organization in Yemen, which is still faithful to Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This has been successful with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now divided between pro and anti-ISIS.
"ISIS is under pressure in the Middle East," explains Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Center in Beirut. "It needs to widen the spectrum of its action beyond the region to preserve its impact."
It's not really a turning point, per se, but rather an evolution. "The confrontation with the West was inevitable," Khatib adds.
Romain Caillet concludes that "ISIS never hid its intentions to attack Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Sooner or later, the West would have had to defend its allies."