The Next Wave of AUMF Expansion? The Islamic State’s Global Affiliates

Harleen Gambhir
Monday, November 13, 2017, 9:00 AM

The 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) authorizes the president to use force against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” But presidents have steadily interpreted the

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The 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) authorizes the president to use force against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” But presidents have steadily interpreted the 2001 AUMF to be broader than these words may at first glance suggest. The Obama administration, picking up on Bush-era arguments, maintained in 2009 that the 2001 AUMF covers “associated forces” of al Qaeda, and courts have since agreed. Then, in 2014, the Obama administration extended the 2001 AUMF to include the Islamic State, a group that had publicly split from al Qaeda’s leadership. It did not argue that the Islamic State was associated with al Qaeda but, rather, that the Islamic State was simply a continuation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group that had a direct relationship with Osama bin Laden and that the United States had fought since at least 2004 under the 2001 AUMF. The Trump administration now appears to agree with these legal conclusions.

The extension of the 2001 AUMF to cover the Islamic State raises the question of whether the use of force against Salafi-jihadi militant groups in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia that have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State may also fall within the scope of authorized presidential action. This post surveys Islamic State affiliates around the globe to provide a sense of what such an extension might entail.

Since its self-designation as a caliphate on June 10, 2014, the Islamic State has declared or recognized affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia’s Caucasus region, and Algeria; it may soon recognize an affiliate in the Philippines. The Islamic State classifies its affiliates as “wilayats” (or provinces) of its caliphate, naming them by their geographic area of operation.

Groups linked to or supportive of the Islamic State have also conducted discrete attacks in Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, Indonesia, Somalia, the Sahel and in several Western countries. The Islamic State often calls members of these groups “soldiers of the Caliphate.”

The Islamic State will likely rely on its affiliates’ actions to claim success despite the loss of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. In the long term, it may attempt to reconstitute leadership and planning cells in ungoverned spaces where its affiliates operate.

U.S. military forces have already targeted some of the Islamic State’s affiliates, including in Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan. As the following descriptions show, the groups vary in their military capability and operational links to the Islamic State. Some are currently conducting military operations. Others are now dormant or have been largely defeated by rival groups. All have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, have been recognized by the Islamic State and have conducted previous attacks confirmed by independent reporting.

The most active wilayats are the following:

Afghanistan/Pakistan: Wilayat Khorasan

Islamic State leaders in Syria reportedly contacted militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region (also known as the Khorasan) in September 2014. The Islamic State recognized an affiliate in the Khorasan in January 2015, after receiving a pledge of allegiance from several commanders previously affiliated with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. (Note that Wilayat Khorasan should not be confused with the separate al Qaeda-associated Khorasan Group operating in Syria, which the Obama administration targeted with air strikes in September 2014.) A faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in northern Afghanistan also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. A June 2017 U.N. report estimated that Wilayat Khorasan now operates in at least eight Afghan provinces. The group has launched suicide bombings and small arms attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians, including the August 2017 bombings in Kabul and the western city of Herat.

Wilayat Khorasan’s longest-running military campaign is in Nangarhar Province, in northeastern Afghanistan. There, the group has fought locals and Afghan security forces, in some cases seizing control of villages. The United States has conducted airstrikes and special forces operations against the affiliate, killing its leader, Abu Sayed, in July 2017. Six of the seven U.S. service members killed in combat in Afghanistan in the first half of 2017 died while supporting operations against Wilayat Khorasan.

Afghan officials claimed in August 2017 that Wilayat Khorasan and Taliban forces coordinated attacks in at least one province, though the groups have clashed in other locations. Wilayat Khorasan reportedly seized Tora Bora from the Taliban in July 2017, after the United States dropped a massive ordinance air blast bomb on an Islamic State-controlled complex of caves and tunnels in Nangarhar Province.

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula: Wilayat Sinai

The Islamic State recognized an affiliate here in November 2014. The affiliate primarily consists of members of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, a previously al Qaeda-linked group that subsequently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Wilayat Sinai has conducted several strikes against Egyptian security forces, including a coordinated attack in July 2016 against military and police positions across the peninsula. It also claimed responsibility for the October 2015 bombing of a Russian passenger jet, which killed 231 passengers and crew.

U.S. forces were previously stationed at the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) North Camp, close to Wilayat Sinai’s operating zones in North Sinai. The Islamic State affiliate claimed an attack against MFO forces in September 2015, prompting the United States to move American forces to a more secure location in southern Sinai. Wilayat Sinai continues to launch attacks in northern Sinai, recently targeting Coptic Christians in a bid likely intended to foment sectarian tension in Egypt.

Libya: Wilayats Barqa, Tarabulus and Fezzan

The Islamic State recognized an affiliate here in November 2014. Approximately 300 Libyans who had fought for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria formed Wilayat Barqa in eastern Libya. The group joined with local militants to seize parts of the eastern city of Derna later that month. Groups linked to Al Qaeda expelled the Islamic State forces from the city by April 2016.

Wilayat Tarabulus, based in western Libya, captured the coastal city of Sirte in March 2015 and held it until December 2016. Islamic State leaders from Iraq reportedly traveled to Sirte to oversee the affiliate’s governance and military efforts. At its height, the group had as many as 6,000 fighters, including many foreign fighters. Backed by a U.S. air campaign dubbed “Operation Odyssey Lightning,” local Libyan forces eventually expelled the group. The Obama administration continued to conduct airstrikes against remnants of these forces as late as January 2017, citing the 2001 AUMF as justification. Many Islamic State-affiliated fighters have since retreated to Libya’s southeastern desert. The Trump administration conducted its first airstrikes against this group on Sept. 22.


The Islamic State has not yet declared a wilayat in the Philippines (or in Southeast Asia generally). However, the Islamic State recognized Isnilon Hapilon as its emir, or leader, in the Philippines in June 2016. Hapilon was a senior leader of the Abu Sayaff Group (ASG), which had previously been aligned with al Qaeda but pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in June 2014. Several other Filipino militant groups joined ASG in pledging fealty to the Islamic State.

A coalition of Filipino pro-Islamic State groups joined together to seize parts of Marawi, a city in Mindanao, a province in the southern Philippines in May 2017. A Malaysian Islamic State leader based in the area reportedly coordinated with the Islamic State’s leadership in Syria to obtain funding and recruits before the offensive. Filipino military forces recaptured Marawi in October 2017, leaving it nearly destroyed. Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the fight, but his successor, Amin Baco, may still be at large.

Pro-Islamic State groups in the Philippines may seek to coordinate with militant cells in other Southeast Asian countries, or with Islamic State members in Syria. Malaysian police claimed in January 2017 that they disrupted a cell attempting to use the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah as a transit point to help Malaysian, Indonesian and Bangladeshi Islamic State supporters travel to Mindanao.

The remaining wilayats, which are less active than those above, include:

Yemen: Wilayats Bayda, Sana’a, Aden-Abyan, Lahij, Shabwah, Ataq, Hadrawmat, Ibb

The Islamic State appointed a Saudi Arabian emissary, Bilal al Harbi, to recruit supporters in Yemen before officially recognizing a Yemeni affiliate in November 2014. Some militants likely defected from al Qaeda’s affiliate in the region, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; others may have traveled from Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State’s Yemeni affiliate first attacked Shiite-linked targets to encourage sectarian conflict and recruit new members amid Yemen’s ongoing civil war between Shiitea Houthi rebels and the predominantly Sunni Yemeni government, which is backed by a Saudi-led regional coalition. The affiliate launched its largest attack in March 2015, killing 137 worshippers at two Shiite mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. After several months of attacks on targets linked to the Shiite al Houthi rebels, the affiliate shifted targets and began attacking the Yemeni government and associated coalition forces.

The group’s violent tactics and foreign leadership prompted a backlash, however. In December 2015, dozens of the affiliate’s military and religious leaders denounced Bilal al Harbi for alleged violations of sharia law. Of the Islamic State’s eight wilayats in Yemen, only a few continued to launch attacks in 2016 and 2017. The Trump administration conducted its first airstrike targeting the Islamic State in Yemen on Oct. 16, striking two training camps.

Nigeria: Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya

Boko Haram, a pre-existing Nigerian terrorist group formerly aligned with al Qaeda, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. The Islamic State acknowledged the group’s pledge within days and, in August 2016, announced that Abu Musab al-Barnawi would replace Abubakar Shekau as the group’s leader. Shekau and Barnawi’s factions reportedly clashed soon afterward.

Whether the core Islamic State leadership has provided any significant operational support to its Nigerian affiliate remains unclear. Boko Haram has several thousand fighters, and its clashes with the Nigerian military have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. The group controlled parts of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria in early 2015. Government forces have since regained the territory, but Boko Haram continues to conduct raids and suicide bombings.

Saudi Arabia: Wilayats Najd, Hijaz, Haramayn

The Islamic State recognized an affiliate here in November 2014. The affiliate initially sought to spark sectarian conflict by attacking Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. The Islamic State claimed suicide bombings at two Shiite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia in May 2015. The next month, the group claimed a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in neighboring Kuwait.

The affiliate also began to attack Saudi security forces, bombing a mosque at a Saudi special forces installation in August 2015. The affiliate may be responsible for the June 2016 suicide bombings that targeted the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia on the same day. The Islamic State has not claimed a comparable attack in 2017, but Saudi security forces continue to announce raids against alleged Islamic State cells.

Russia’s Caucasus region: Wilayat Qawqaz

The Islamic State declared an affiliate here in June 2015, after several militants in al Qaeda’s Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus defected to the Islamic State. The affiliate claimed a few attacks in 2016, including a suicide bombing and a small arms attack on tourists in Dagestan. Russian security forces claimed they killed the group’s leader in December 2016. Wilayat Qawqaz has been mostly dormant since then, but the group did attack a Russian artillery base in Chechnya in March 2017. Russian security forces claim to have disrupted multiple Islamic State cells in Moscow, most recently in September 2017.

Algeria: Wilayat al Jaza’ir

A small group of militants split from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in September 2014. The group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, calling itself “Jund al Khalifa.” Soon after, the group captured and beheaded a French hostage. The Islamic State then recognized the affiliate, dubbing it “Wilayat al Jaza’ir.” Algerian security forces killed the group’s leader during a counterterrorism operation in December 2014 and nearly decimated the group in a subsequent raid. Wilayat al Jaza’ir has claimed a few small attacks since, including an ambush on a military patrol in June 2017 and a suicide attack in August 2017.


Many of the Islamic State’s affiliates have previously maintained ties to al Qaeda or in some cases the Taliban. These affiliates therefore might qualify as associated forces of al Qaeda or the Taliban on their own accord, even though they later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

The Trump administration will likely maintain his predecessor’s broad interpretation of the 2001 AUMF. As operations against the Islamic State continue, the administration may cite the 2001 AUMF as the legal authority for attacks on the Islamic State’s affiliates across the world.

Harleen Gambhir is a student at Harvard Law School. Prior to law school, Harleen served as a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, where her research focused on the Islamic State's global strategy and operations. She graduated from Harvard College with an honors degree in social studies.

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