How ISIS Has Expanded Beyond Its Syrian Stronghold : Parallels The self-proclaimed Islamic State appears to be expanding again, with a presence in North Africa and Afghanistan. Three NPR correspondents discuss the evolution of the group.

How ISIS Has Expanded Beyond Its Syrian Stronghold

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There are reports surfacing about a new atrocity committed by ISIS, the group calling itself the Islamic State. Reports out of Iraq say 45 people were burned to death by the group in the town of al-Baghdadi, which is not far from a base housing hundreds of U.S. service members.


NPR has not been able to independently verify those claims, but acts like those are becoming a calling card for the group. They appear to be popping up beyond just Iraq and Syria. A video surfaced Sunday in Libya showing 21 men, mostly Egyptian Coptic Christians, being decapitated on a beach. It brought up questions about whether ISIS is growing and also if the militant group is redeploying its forces.

GREENE: We're going to spend some time looking at ISIS this morning with three of our correspondents. And we begin with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is in northern Iraq where, in many ways, it all began. Ari, good morning to you.


GREENE: Can you just remind us of some of the horrors that we remember from last summer, when ISIS was really growing in strength? And there was an ethnic group, the Yazidis, who were just being, I mean, terrorized.

SHAPIRO: Right. ISIS swept from Syria into northern Iraq, the Kurdish area where I am. They went through these towns and villages, killing people by the tens of thousands. And it all sort of came to a head as the group approached the city of Erbil, which is where I am. It's more or less the regional capital here in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people who belong to the this Yazidi ethnic religious minority were stranded on top of Mount Sinjar. They were starving. And president Obama announced U.S. airstrikes and a humanitarian mission to rescue those people. And that was sort of when the West became involved in what had until then been more or less a regional crisis.

GREENE: OK. So fast-forward to now, February, 2015. I mean, you've been spending some time in northern Iraq and in Erbil, as you say. What's the situation now?

SHAPIRO: Well, I actually went to the base of Mount Sinjar, to a town called Sanuni, that the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, have recently reclaimed. And we have seen in the last few months, backed by Western airstrikes, the Kurdish fighters have made advances against ISIS, which is in real contrast to the rest of Iraq, where the Iraqi army seems unable to keep ISIS from making advances in areas like Anbar Province, where we saw the group seize parts of a city called al-Baghdadi, coming within just a few miles of a military base where about 300 American Marines are training Iraqi military forces. So in Iraq, it's almost a tale of two wars - the north, where the Kurds are making advances and the rest of the country, where the Iraqi army is unable to hold back ISIS.

GREENE: But so for people in northern Iraq - I mean, people who live there - do they feel like they have defeated ISIS?

SHAPIRO: No, not at all. There are still parts of Mount Sinjar that ISIS controls. And where I am, Erbil, is only about 55 miles from the city of Mosul, which is kind of ISIS' grand prize within Iraq. And the big question here has been when will the effort begin to take back Mosul? I think the answer has to be not until the Iraqi army is ready, which, at this point, they aren't.

GREENE: All right. So that's the situation in Iraq, where clearly ISIS remains even though they have been pushed out to some extent in the area where our colleague Ari Shapiro is. Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, David.

MONTAGNE: There is also concern about the threat from ISIS beyond Iraq and Syria. We've heard ominous warnings about Westerners going to fight with the group then coming home to launch attacks. Middle East expert Samer Shehata of the University of Oklahoma tells us that may not really be the biggest worry.

SAMER SHEHATA: Although there have been some reports of ISIS fighters returning to their countries of origin, what's really going on is that extremist Islamist groups in other places are latching onto the ISIS brand name.

MONTAGNE: And one place that appears to happening is North Africa. NPR's Leila Fadel is with us on the line from Egypt. It was Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya. And, Leila, how big of a presence does ISIS have in North Africa?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, at this point, you're seeing militant groups that have declared allegiance to ISIS inside Egypt, inside Libya, inside Algeria. You have Tunisian fighters who've been going to Iraq and Syria and fighting. There was an attack today. It's unclear if it was ISIS or another group inside Tunisia killing guardsmen. So it really is a growing concern that these affiliates are gaining traction. Here in Egypt, extremists in Sinai have carried out major attacks - a historic area of lawlessness. And as you mentioned, this horrible beheading video that was released over the weekend.

MONTAGNE: Well, and Egypt bombed the area in Libya where ISIS was operating in retaliations. But what else is Egypt doing?

FADEL: Well, at this point, they've carried out a series of airstrikes, as you mentioned, inside Libya - actually in an area called Darna, which is somewhat far away from the area where the Christians were taken. That is a hotbed for extremism and affiliate of ISIS inside Libya. They're also calling for international intervention. They're saying this needs to be a global war that is part of the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

MONTAGNE: Well, it was interesting, though, that we just heard Samer Shehata speak of these groups as people who latched onto a brand name. There in Egypt, for instance, is there concern that ISIS will move in to the area, or are there groups that already exist that now can make use of the ISIS brand?

FADEL: That's right. ISIS, in some ways for militants, is the biggest name in town. And so you're seeing militant groups latch onto the name and operate under that name. So here in the lawless area of Sinai, they have an affiliate that's carried out attacks. Now, it's unclear if ISIS is actually organizing those attacks or the affiliates are doing those attacks in the name of ISIS - same thing in Libya. But the difference with the video that was released over the weekend was the high level of production. It carried the hallmarks of ISIS propaganda and showed a level of coordination with its affiliates that we really haven't seen before.

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Leila Fadel, speaking to us from Cairo.

GREENE: So as the ISIS name begins showing up in more places in the world, it is hard to figure out if it's the actual group or the brand. It's hard to measure the actual threat. And that's the challenge right now in the next country we're going to visit - Afghanistan. Some element of ISIS appears to have arrived there. It's even put pressure on the Obama administration to slow the withdrawal of American troops. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves in Kabul.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Not long ago, a missile fired from an American drone obliterated a car in southern Afghanistan. Drone strikes often don't make headlines these days, but this one did. It killed a man called Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim. He's the first prominent militant in Afghanistan to defect to the so-called Islamic State.

JAWEED KOHISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Khadim used to be one of the most senior commanders of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, says political analyst Jaweed Kohistani. After U.S. forces entered Afghanistan 2001, Khadim was captured and dispatched to Guantanamo Bay. When he was eventually released, he'd clearly changed, says Kohistani, who met Khadim in Pakistan in 2011.

KOHISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "He had a deep hatred for foreigners," says Kohistani, "and had become more extreme." According to the Afghan intelligence service, after his return, Khadim fell out with the Taliban's high command and was sidelined. Using a fake passport, he traveled to Iraq, where he met militants from the Islamic State, or IS. Khadim arranged to work for them in Afghanistan. Afghan security officials say a couple of months back, he showed up in his home district in Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand with about 100 fighters. He started recruiting Taliban local commanders, offering to up their pay to $500 a month. A drone killed him there along with five others just over a week ago. Khadim's case is not the only sign that the Islamic State's gaining a toe-hold in Afghanistan.

I'm standing by the wall of Kabul University. This is it right here. It's made of bricks. And written on it are the words long live Islamic State. They've been scrubbed out, but you can still read them. And next to them, there's another sign which hasn't been scrubbed out in support of the Islamic State. There's more.


REEVES: A video on the Internet purporting to show 10 Pakistani and Afghan Taliban swearing allegiance to the Islamic State's leader. There've also been recent reports of Taliban fighters switching to IS, or ISIS as it's also known, in at least six of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. This potential threat has caught the eye of the U.S. military.


JOHN CAMPBELL: You do have some of the Taliban breaking off and claiming allegiance toward ISIS. Part of that is happening in different parts of Afghanistan. A lot of we get is through our Afghan partners, as they see that probably before we do.

REEVES: That's the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, addressing the Senate's Armed Services Committee last week.


CAMPBELL: We have seen some of the recruiting. We have seen some night letters. We have seen some talk of it at some of the universities.

REEVES: Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, warned recently that this threat must be taken seriously. There's a debate, though, over just how serious this is. There are suspicions that Afghan government officials are talking up the threat to attract funds. It's actually not easy for outside militant organizations to operate in Afghanistan, says Borhan Osman of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. For example, there are religious differences.

BORHAN OSMAN: IS is very much a narrow-minded, Salafi jihadist group. That makes them unwelcome in Afghanistan.

REEVES: The trouble is no one can be sure. Afghanistan's highly unstable. Conflicts can quickly change. General Campbell, the U.S. commander here, told senators that right now, the IS threat in Afghanistan is seen more as a rebranding by a few marginalized Taliban. But he added...


CAMPBELL: We're still taking this potential threat, with its dangerous rhetoric and ideology, very, very seriously.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kabul.

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