Jeff Seldin – Voice of America
The reign of new Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi is getting a boost, thanks to the apparent endorsement of one of the terror group's more influential affiliates.
IS media officials Tuesday released photos of fighters with IS-Khorasan, the affiliate in Afghanistan, giving bay'ah (oath of allegiance) to Qurashi.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist communications, the series of 16 photos appears to show several groups of fighters, from different locations, carrying IS banners and raising their fists or their guns as they pledge their loyalty.
"Their message seems to be that it's business as usual and that nothing has changed except for their leader," said Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, another company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists.
"They want to show they can mobilize and fast, and that the caliphate is still there," he said.
IS-Khorasan has been of the most resilient of the IS affiliates, surviving repeated attempts by U.S. and Afghan forces to annihilate its leadership and fighters.
At one point, in April 2017, the United States dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal — a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast — on an IS cave and tunnel system in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province to little avail.
But rather than shrink, U.S. officials say IS-Khorasan gained ground, now boasting as many as 5,000 fighters across the country.
U.S. military officials also warn there are indications that IS-Khorasan has been actively involved in plotting attacks against the West.
The release of the photos from IS-Khorasan is the latest part of the terror group's campaign to show momentum, giving visual evidence that the group's affiliates and followers are rallying behind Qurashi.
The first of the pledges came from IS-Sinai, with IS distributing three photographs of about 25 masked fighters gathering in a sparsely wooded area in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, with guns raised.
That release was followed hours later by a series of photographs showing a group of about seven or eight masked fighters, allegedly from Bangladesh, pledging their loyalty.
IS media officials have since distributed more photographs similarly showing masked gunmen from Yemen and Pakistan pledging allegiance.
"Some of this is, we're seeing some of the weaker affiliates rapidly realign with Islamic State," said Katherine Zimmerman, project manager with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.
"Four of the five are actually pretty small affiliates — Yemen, Somalia, Bangladesh and Pakistan — that haven't really had a massive presence on the ground and don't seem to have the sort of global pull that other ISIS branches have had," she added.
The exception is IS-Sinai, the first of the terror group's affiliates to give bay'ah to the new Islamic State leader.
Western intelligence officials have long pointed to IS-Sinai, which has anywhere from 500 to 1,200 fighters, as one of the terror group's most dangerous affiliates, suspected of planting a bomb aboard a Russian airliner in 2015, killing 244 people.
While there has been a sense in the intelligence community that most of the IS affiliates eventually will fall in line behind Qurashi, some affiliates may be trying to feel out the terror group's core leadership to see if financial and logistical support will continue.
They also may want more information about Qurashi's true identity, to evaluate whether he can bring the same cache as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped guide IS from a struggling insurgency into one of the world's most feared terror organizations.
'Risk of Defections'
Officials and analysts say it may be telling if or when fighters with some of IS' African affiliates, including IS-West Africa, with an estimated 3,500 fighters, come forward to pledge their loyalty to Qurashi.
"There is also the perception that ISIS was simply gaining ground in the world of jihadism," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Valens Global, told VOA prior to Thursday's announcement that Qurashi is now in charge.
"If the new leader is not seen as a sufficient replacement for Baghdadi, then they do face the risk of defections," he said.
But early indications are that the strategy of gradually building momentum appears to be working.
"ISIS supporters on social media platforms seem to have a renewed sense of belonging since the announcement of the new caliph," according to Chelsea Daymon, a terrorism and security researcher at American University.
"Supporters are definitely keeping track of what's being written and said," she added.