As the Islamic State rolled through Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, it carried with it a sense of inevitability and invincibility. Indeed, even as the counter-Islamic State coalition began to step up its operations in the latter part of 2014, the Islamic State continued to receive pledges of allegiance from a variety of groups around the world. In an effort to highlight its advances even in the face of difficulty, the group released its English language magazine Dabiq in November 2014 with the headline title of “Remaining and Expanding.” Within this issue, an article by the same name appeared in which the group touted the addition of new provinces (wilayat) and pledges as the clearest illustrations of its continued march forward.

Since that time, the group has endured a series of setbacks as the variety of forces fighting against it have focused and intensity their efforts. For just one example of the pressure that has been brought to bear against the Islamic State, consider that as of August 7, 2017 (the last time the U.S. military has updated the Operation Inherent Resolve total airstrike count), the coalition has conducted 24,566 airstrikes, an average of about 22 strikes per day.

While recent research has shown the group remains a threat, it is clear that the pressure has had important impacts.1 According to the U.S. military, coalition efforts, including the efforts of a number of partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria, have reduced the Islamic State’s territorial holdings by approximately 98 percent.2 The effects have not been on the physical battlefield alone; recent research has shown that the group’s propaganda output has declined and changed in tone to become less focused on utopia and more focused on military denialism.3

Yet, all of these indicators do not tell us how the group evaluates its current status and prospects. However, a window into the group’s assessment of itself appeared in the latest issue of Al-Naba, the weekly Arabic language newsletter that the group both publishes online and distributes to fighters and individuals living within its territory. In the 140th issue, released on July 20, 2018, the group presented a seemingly typical chart displaying all of its military activities through the previous week, broken down by geography. However, there was one glaring difference in the group’s presentation this week: the Islamic State, which has previously divided its count of attacks among dozens of wilayat or provinces inside Iraq and Syria alone, only chose to list its Iraq and Syria attacks into two entities that it specifically labeled wilayah: wilayat al-`Iraq and wilayat al-Sham.

In other words, whereas the Islamic State has previously listed each of its military operations separately, it appears to have now chosen to group operations into larger geographic segments. This is illustrated by the graphic below. Each of these pie charts was released in Al-Naba and contains a breakdown of the group’s military operations during a particular week. The one on the left, which came from last week’s issue of Al-Naba, contains an entry for each wilayah. On the right-hand side of the graphic below, which came from the Al-Naba released today, it is plain to see that there are fewer pie slices, with the two larger slices labeled wilayat al-`Iraq and wilayat al-Sham.

The group does not appear to have completely jettisoned the detailed tracking of operations in the geographic entities that it previously listed as wilayah. In the most recent issue of Al-Naba, each of the individual geographic entities that were formerly mentioned as wilayah are still noted in a breakdown of operations, but they are referred to as manatiq (areas), not wilayat. The graphic below shows the breakdown of operations by each mantaqah (area), again listed under the headers of wilayat al-`Iraq and wilayat al-Sham.


Because this issue of Al-Naba only listed wilayat or manatiq in which military operations actually took place, it remains to be seen whether the administrative consolidation that appears to have happened in Iraq and Syria will also occur in Libya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, locations in which the Islamic State had previously identified multiple wilayat. Also, it will be interesting to see how the group deals with operations carried out in what was formerly known as wilayat al-Furat, as it straddled the border of Iraq and Syria. Regardless, for a group that claimed to eliminate the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, having to adhere to the borders again cannot be seen as anything other than a setback.

Another important change that appeared in the latest issue of Al-Naba is that the Islamic State’s East Asia area of operations, which previously had not been mentioned officially as a wilayah, is given the wilayah label in this infographic. Together with Sinai, Khurasan, al-`Iraq, and al-Sham, these are the only entities labeled as wilayah.

It is important to note that it is too early to say if this is simply a change in presentation for aesthetic reasons or a more substantive reorganization of the group’s administrative functions, the fact that it has consolidated. However, the latter interpretation seems increasingly to be the case. The Islamic State’s media arm has traditionally been very careful and deliberative in the way that it treats the names of the various geographic entities under its control.

If the latter interpretation is true, it may be that the group, in response to continued personnel losses, financing challenges, and communication difficulty, has made the logical (but telling) step of consolidating its organization, moving from having a large number of smaller administrative units into a small number of larger administrative units. Such a move would likely remove unnecessary redundancies, save money, and potentially allow for more focused efforts. It will be important to watch over the next few weeks to see if operational activity seems to increase following this change or if the pace remains more or less consistent.

Changes to the Islamic State’s geographic structure are not new. In February 2015, the Islamic State actually expanded the number of wilayat, creating wilayat Dijlah and wilayat al-Jazirah out of territory that had previously pertained to wilayat Ninawa. Other changes to the group’s structure have occurred over time, although none appear to be as dramatic as what the group seems to have tried to discretely push out in the 140th issue of Al-Naba. Such organizational changes, even if not explained or discussed by the group, can provide insights into how the group views its opportunities and challenges. In this case, the downsizing reflects the growing reality for the group in Iraq and Syria. In short, the group’s own words point less to an organization that is “remaining and expanding” than one that is struggling and being forced to adapt.

Substantive Notes & Citations
[1] Many researchers have noted the resilience and in some cases resurgence of the Islamic State. For a couple of examples, see Hassan Hassan, “Insurgents Again: The Islamic State’s Calculated Reversion to Attrition in the Syria-Iraq Border Region and Beyond,” CTC Sentinel 10:11 (2017): pp. 1-8; Rhys Dubin, “ISIS 2.0 Is Really Just the Original ISIS,” Foreign Policy, April 3, 2018.

[2] “Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria in maps,” BBC News, March 28, 2018. This figure is similar to one given by IHS Jane’s, a private conflict research firm. The IHS Jane’s estimate is cited in Jon Greenberg, “Donald Trump: ISIS territory losses near 100 percent,” PolitiFact, January 30, 2018.

[3]Charlie Winter, “Apocalypse, later: a longitudinal study of the Islamic State brand,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 35:1 (2018): pp. 103-121.

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