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A Brief History of ISIS “Provinces”


In an effort to validate itself as a state, the group has divided the territory it occupies and others that it does not control in wilâyât, drawing inspiration from the ancient caliphates

In June 2014, the Islamic State terrorist group proclaimed the restoration of the “caliphate” in the areas it conquered between Syria and Iraq. Unlike other terrorist movements, the jihadists of the “caliphate” aim to create a state. In an attempt to realise its ambitions, the Islamic State has established an administrative system that divides territories into provinces, in Arabic wilâyât, taking inspiration from the ancient division of the Ottoman caliphate (1517-1924) and, before that, from the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258). The establishment of provinces is largely for the sake of propaganda, as they do not correspond to any effective bureaucratic administration of territories by the Islamic State, nor the provision of services to the population.



The areas in Iraq to which the “caliphate” extends include some actual provinces, al-Anbâr, Diyâlâ, Salâh al-Dîn, al-Furât (areas between Syria and Iraq along the Euphrates river), al-Fallûja, Nînawâ (Nineveh), al-Jazîra, Dijla (Tigris), and others that are purely virtual, being actually controlled by the government of Baghdad (al-Janûb, “the south”, and Baghdad) or by the Kurds (Kirkûk).



In Syria, Islamic State has established the provinces of Aleppo, al-Raqqa (the de facto capital), al-Khayr (originally the province of Deir Ezzor), al-Baraka (originally al-Hasaka), al-Bâdya (originally Homs) and Damascus. Again, some of these provinces are virtual as in reality they are controlled by the government of Damascus, including the province of Damascus itself, or are under contention with other rebel forces. This “administrative” division, updated on 17 December 2015, is constantly evolving. Some provinces proclaimed in 2014 no longer exist (e.g. the province of al-Sâhil – the coast, in the area of Latakia in Syria), while others have been further divided (e.g. the province of Nînawâ in Iraq was divided into three provinces: Nînawâ, al-Jazîra and Dijla).



Islamic State has also recognised ten other provinces outside of Iraq and Syria, in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of these provinces, they only exercise effective control of the territory in part of those in Libya and the one located in Nigeria. Besides these wilâyât, many other organizations have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but without being recognised in turn by him. Finally, there are some groups that have declared their support for Islamic State but have not sworn allegiance to the “caliph”.



Below is an overview of the ten provinces proclaimed by the Islamic State outside the original core of the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.





Wilâyat Barqa (Cyrenaica)


It was 10 November 2014 when Abu Habeeb Al-Jazrawi, a Saudi who had come to Derna in mid-September along with other mujahideen, declared allegiance to the “caliph”. On 13 November, al-Baghdadi accepted the pledge of allegiance, thus creating the province of Cyrenaica, or wilâyat Barqa in Arabic, which owes its name to the Eastern region of Libya during the transition from Roman to Islamic rule. According to some sources, the province has 800 fighters and operates half a dozen camps around the city, where fighters from North Africa are trained. The number of militants in the province has increased with the return of more than 300 Libyan jihadists from Syria and Iraq, who were part of the al-Battar Brigade, first deployed in Deir Ezzor in Syria, then in Mosul in Iraq. Once they returned, the militants became affiliated to the Youth of Islam Advisory Council, a pro-Isis group that was formed in Derna in March 2014. Numerous Tunisian jihadists who fled Tunisia in 2013, when the government banned the Ansar al-Sharia movement, also joined the “province” of Barqa.



Wilâyat Fazzân (Fezzan)


Little is known about the province of Fezzan, in South-western Libya. The militants of this desert wilâya have perpetrated attacks agains oil fields and kidnapped workers. One of the commanders of the attack on the al-Mabrouk oil field, in February 2015, was a former member of the Tariq bin Ziyad brigade, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), headed by Abdelhamid Abu Zayd, a terrorist and drug trafficker of Algerian origin, who died in February 2013 in Mali during a clash between French and Chadian troops and Islamist guerrillas.



Wilâyat Tarâbulus (Tripoli)


Like the other two provinces of Libya, the province of Tripoli also obtained recognition by the “caliph” on 13 November 2014. This wilâya has its stronghold in the city of Sirte, where the Ansar al-Sharia organisation has vowed its loyalty to al-Baghdadi, despite deserting shortly afterwards. The spiritual leader of the province is Hassan Karami, also known as Abu Mu‘awiya al-Libi, while the governor is said to be a man of Tunisian origin, Abu Talha al-Tunisi. The militants have claimed responsibility for the attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli on 27 January 2015.





Wilâyat Sînâ’ (Sinai)


On 10 November 2014, an unidentified jihadist from the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) organisation active in the Sinai Peninsula since 2011 declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Later, the group was split, and ABM in the Nile Valley actually remained loyal to al-Qaida. The province of Sinai was proclaimed by the “caliph” a few days later, on 13 November. According to some estimates, the militants of this “province” number around 1,000-1,500. The group claimed the shooting down of a Russian flight over Sinai on 4 November 2015.





Wilâyat al-Jazâ’ir (Algeria)


The armed group Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) separated from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and swore allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 September 2014. Khaled Abu Suleimane took over the leadership of the new group, and in a video addressing the “caliph” he declared: “In the Islamic Maghreb there are men under your command.” The province of Algeria was proclaimed on 13 November 2014. The militants of the wilâya have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and beheading of the French tourist Hervé Gourdel in September 2014. The organisation features in the list of terrorist groups compiled by the U.S. government..



Afghanistan and Pakistan


Wilâyat Khurâsân (Khorasan)


The province of Khorasan, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was proclaimed in January 2015. In October 2014, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former commander of the Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) movement, swore allegiance to the “caliph” in a video released on 10 January 2015 by the group Khorasan Media, which includes the execution of a Pakistani soldier. The group's spokesman is the former Pakistani Taliban member Sheykh Maqbool, better known by the nom de guerre Shahid Shahidullah.





Wilâyat Qawqâz (Caucasus)


The province of the Caucasus was proclaimed on 23 June 2015 by Abu Monammed al-Adnani – spokesman of Islamic State. The announcement was made following the broadcast of an audio message on Twitter in Russian, in which Isis supporters in the regions of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and KBK (Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay) swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi. This announcement effectively placed Isis against the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (ICE), an affiliate of al-Qaeda that has operated in the mountainous region of Southwestern Russia since 2007. The leader of the new province is Rustam Asilderov, one of the former leaders of the Islamic Emirates of the Caucasus. The province of the Caucasus claimed responsibility for the attack on a Russian military base in Southern Dagestan, on September 2 2015.





Wilâyat Gharb Ifrîqiyâ (West Africa)


The province of West Africa (Iswap) was declared on March 7 2015 after Abubakr Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, swore allegiance to the “caliph” in February. Initially, the group continued to use its official name, Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-d-da‘wa wa al-Jihad, more commonly known as Boko Haram, an expression that means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language. According to an estimate by Amnesty International, the group has about 15,000 members.





Wilâyat Yaman


The province of Yemen was proclaimed on 13 November 2014. In Yemen, Islamic State has been able to exploit the power vacuum created when the Houthi, Zaydi Shi’ite rebels in the North of the country, lost control of the capital Sanaa in late 2014, and the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Unlike other provinces, in this case al-Baghdadi has not officially named a leader. Experts have however identified one in the person of the Saudi Abu Bilal al-Harbi. This province is divided into six sub-provinces, Sanaa, Ibb and Taiz, Lahij, Aden, Shabwa, Hadhramaut and al-Bayda.



Saudi Arabia


Wilâyat Najd (il Najd) and wilâyat Haramayn (the two Holy Cities)


The province of Najd, central Saudi Arabia, and the province of the Two Holy cities, Mecca and Medina, were proclaimed on 14 November 2014 when the “Mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula” swore allegiance to Islamic State and accused the Saudi rulers of apostasy. The militants of the province of Najd have claimed responsibility for the attack on the Shiite mosques of Dammam, capital of the Eastern province of al-Sharqiyya, on 29 May 2015, and, shortly before, the attack on the village of al-Qadeeh, near al-Qatif. The group has also claimed responsibility for the attack at the Shiite mosque in Kuwait City on 26 June 2015.