The aftermath of airstrikes targeting Islamic State in Libya.

Photographer: Jawhar Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Islamic State's Appeal in Libya

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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The expansion of Islamic State’s franchise into parts of Libya is horrifying, as the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic laborers shows. It’s also frightening for a different reason. The essence of the Islamic State brand is the assertion of sovereign control over territory. Until now, Libya’s post-revolutionary problem has been fragmentation. The emergence of Islamic State there suggests that over time, Libya's problem could become the opposite: Islamic State might create a unifying umbrella that would subject large parts of the country to its dangerous brand of control.

To understand what makes Islamic State distinctively appealing to a global audience of radical Muslims, it’s necessary to compare it with al-Qaeda. From the time Osama bin Laden brought the organization into prominence in the late 1990s with the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, al-Qaeda followed an identifiable strategy. It promoted a defensive jihad against Western powers, with an emphasis on spectacular bombings to attract global public attention and goad the U.S. and other countries into retaliation. The Sept. 11 attacks were the epitome of this highly successful approach.

The crucial element of the al-Qaeda strategy was to encourage local terrorist franchises to affiliate with the parent organization. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri often didn't possess full operational control over the affiliates. That didn’t matter. The various al-Qaeda branches followed the general strategy pretty effectively -- because within bounds, it worked for them.

But with the exception of brief moments during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and intermittent episodes in Yemen, al-Qaeda never achieved sovereign control over territory. The reasons for this failure are complex; the most prominent was that al-Qaeda never faced a situation where a true power vacuum existed. Its preference to ally itself with resistance movements matched the rhetorical justification of defensive jihad. It also meant that al-Qaeda focused its efforts on places where there was an identifiable enemy to be fought.

Islamic State’s approach is the opposite. The organization rose to significance precisely because of the power vacuum created in Syria by the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. As a consolidated local power, its leadership gambled that conditions in Sunni Iraq weren’t so different.

This was genius. Expanding to Iraq enabled Islamic State to become something much greater than an al-Qaeda competitor. Islamic State could claim to be, in fact, a state -- an entity that exercises sovereignty. This plausible claim to territory was the necessary prerequisite for the declaration of a caliphate. And it was the reason Islamic State dropped the modifier “in Iraq and the Levant” from its name. Regionalized names were reminiscent of al-Qaeda; Islamic State was aiming at something much bigger. The branding decision flowed logically from the strategy.

To radical Muslims, the assertion of sovereignty through the unification of disparate parts is deeply resonant. After all, the Prophet Muhammad’s first and most important step to empire building was unifying Arabian tribes under the banner of Islam. Divided, the tribes suppressed and balanced one another. United, they swept through the late antique world, conquering at an astonishing rate of speed.

Islamic State lays claim to the mantle of the Prophet not only in the religious sense but also in the political sense. The early caliphate as imagined by Islamic State combined legitimate religious and political authority.

As a result, when franchises of Islamic State spring up in a place like Libya where a power vacuum exists, they have the potential to be much more significant than al-Qaeda franchises were in the past. A new al-Qaeda franchise meant suicide bombings and protracted war. But a new Islamic State franchise means more than just beheadings or burnings. It means some organized group thinks it can achieve sovereign control over territory -- and hold it.

Of course, the franchisee may not be as skilled or as powerful as the brand would suggest. Anyone can commit murder and claim affiliation with Islamic State, like Amedy Coulibaly, the al-Qaeda-trained terrorist who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris.

Thus, the fact that the self-defense Islamic State branches in Libya are claiming affiliation doesn’t mean that they will necessarily succeed in gaining local control, much less expand more broadly.

By most accounts, Islamic State fighters don’t fully control any cities in Libya. It's important, however, that they are asserting such control -- propaganda can fuel reality.

Libya is ripe for some ideological and organizational force with the capacity to reunify the country’s varied regions and tribal groups. Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, no one has truly controlled the country. Since last summer, there hasn’t even been a meaningful government.

Islamic State can be counted on to make a serious try, beginning province by province and eventually hoping to create some sort of centralized authority structure. The fact that its path to success isn’t perfectly clear doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about it.

Until now, the greatest concern about Libya has been its descent into fragmentation. But there’s something worse than anarchy. Its name is Islamic State. And it’s coming.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net