The terrifying rise of ISIS: Map that shows how terror group’s tentacles now reach from Algeria to Afghanistan
- ISIS began as Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and militants had just 1,000 soldiers, but it has grown to more than 30,000
- Reach of ISIS now spans Middle East and northern Africa, with only the Mediterranean sea separating from Europe
- Terrorist groups around the world now pledging allegiance to Islamic State as groups seize destabilised countries
- Experts say ISIS’ control in Libya could create potential ‘disaster scenario’ and coalition airstrikes are fueling the militants’ manipulative propaganda
- ISIS has 31,500 loyal fighters according to CIA but estimates place this far higher at around 200,000 militants
Born out of the Iraqi War in 2003, Islamic State’s deadly grip has stretched across the Middle East and into northern-Africa where today, only the Mediterranean Sea separates the militants from Europe.
It has conquered regions of Iraq, Syria and recently Libya while building a terrifying support structure in Turkey, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s Sinai Province, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Algeria.
And this tyrannical expansion is all part of its ‘global strategy’ to seize control of destablised countries while ‘engaging in all-out battle against the West,’ The Institute for the Study of War told MailOnline.
Counter-terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir said: ‘What we’ve started to see is ISIS has begun to accelerate its operation to activate these sleeper groups that its reaching out to and it’s having international effects.’
The vastness of its influence went largely unnoticed among the wider public until Sunday when it released a gruesome video showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach.
The country’s proximity to Europe and its role as a ‘hub’ for radicalism now poses a ‘disaster scenario’ according to Middle East and Africa legal consultants Perim Associates.
Its Chief Executive Ethan Chorin told MailOnline: ‘There is real concern that dynamics in Libya could destabilise neighboring states like Algeria which, like Egypt, has had a long and particularly violent battle with extremism.
‘Radicals from neighboring countries have been using Libya as a refuge and a base for operations against their home countries.’
ISIS commands 31,500 loyal fighters according to the CIA but a commander of the Kurdish fighters who battled the extremists told the Independent on Sunday that they number closer to 200,000.
Its growth in power and territory has been staggering since 2004 when it was known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
After a string of bombings and murders over the next two years, its membership grew to around 1,000 according to the Washington Monthly.
AQI then merged with its Mujahideen Shura Council allies in October 2006 to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
During the Iraq War which took place between 2006 and 2008, ISI had strongholds in Mosul, Baghdad, Al-Anbar and Diyala and commanded between 1,000 and 2,500 soldiers by late 2012.
When it expanded into Syria in April 2013, it finally transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) as it exists today.
Islamic State has now self-proclaimed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital, although there have been reports of increased defections.
New ground: Its presence in Libya went largely unnoticed – but footage emerged of terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia parading a fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers in Benghazi while carrying Islamic State flags
It was once a rebel group defying the British and US occupation of Iraq. Now other extremists across the Middle East and northern-Africa are pledging allegiance to it.
‘ISIS has name brand power,’ Harleen Gambhir says.
‘What we’ve seen in a few different places is ISIS ability to transfer new military expertise, explosives planning, new planning to other groups to win over their allegiance and we’re seeing that in Libya.’
Terrorist organisations inside the country such as Ansar al-Sharia – which has taken control of Benghazi and declared its own Islamic state – also announced its alliance with ISIS in 2014.
While Yemen-based militant group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – one of Al-Qaeda’s most powerful branches – defected to ISIS this month according to US monitoring group SITE.
And while it has no confirmed territory in Tunisia, the country has become a breeding ground for ISIS fighters with the Interior Ministry claiming 2,400 citizens had become combatants since 2011.
ISIS does control regions in the north and west of Iraq, including Fallujah near the capital Baghdad and its second largest city Mosul.
It continued presence in Iraq has forced the West into action, with the US announcing it will train as many as 25,000 Iraqi soldiers to retake it.
Fighters in Kobane, northern-Iraq were able to successfully expel the insurgents from its village last month with the aid of Coalition air strikes.
But Western aggression only fuels Islamic State’s propaganda, counter-terrorism think tank Quillam has said.
Fightback: The majority of ISIS’ territory lies inside Iraq and Syria but there have been recent reports of defections in Syria, while Iraq plan to retake its second city of Mosul from the Jihadists
Researcher Charlie Winter told MailOnline: ‘One of the mainstays of IS ideology is provocation. So air strikes by the Coalition were always going to be interpreted as air strikes by the crusaders.
‘What better propaganda can you use to convince people there is a conspiracy against the Muslim world than showing horrible images of children who have been killed in air strikes?’
‘Their ability to menace and intimidate the rest of the world is all based on propaganda. If you took away their propaganda, they would not look nearly as dangerous.’
In Egypt’s Sinai region, which became the centre of a violent insurgency after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militant group has pledged its support to ISIS.
As did Algerian-based miltants Jund al-Khilafah – or soldiers of the Caliphate – who swore their loyalty to ISIS after kidnapping and beheading a French citizen in September.
Earlier this year, pro-ISIS slogans and graffiti even began to appear on walls in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Local Taliban groups there have considered joining ISIS after becoming frustrated by the army’s almost total control in the region, the BBC has reported.
Propaganda: Experts say Islamic State’s brutal execution videos are designed to entice the West into a war, while more ‘inane’ videos are planned to build support among ‘marginalised Muslims’
Although it controls no territory in the country, the New York Times says it has declared an interest in the country and its neighbour Afghanistan – where it has reportedly sent envoys to recruit.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram publicly declared its support for the Sunni extremists just one month after it established a worldwide Islamic caliphate in June 2014.
There have even been reports of guerrilla units taking its brand of brutal militancy to the Philippines, where its spokesperson said: ‘We have an alliance with the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.’
Experts say the group’s recent surge in military support is down to obscure propaganda videos showing the militants fixing roads and planting flowers which are ‘enticing’ to Jihadists excited about the idea of a global caliphate.
It also uses effective and carefully produced propaganda videos which could ‘exaggerate the exact amount of power it has in a region’