The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) lost approximately 14 percent of its territory in 2015, leading to hope that it might be possible to contain the group until it collapses under the strain of administering a state. That is an attractive idea. If correct, it would save the international community from a more robust, and therefore more perilous, intervention.
ISIS is not, however, the first Islamist terrorist group to create a proto-state in the modern era. The Somali terrorist organization al Shabab conquered and administered territory long before ISIS did. Studying al Shabab’s experience provides clues for ISIS’ possible trajectory, and little comfort that the group can be contained until it withers away.
In early 2007, al Shabab rose from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Islamist groups that had conquered most of southern Somalia. Its success provoked neighboring Ethiopia to invade and scatter the group. But al Shabab, previously only a minor partner in the ICU, waged a ferocious counterinsurgency that eventually drove the Ethiopians from the country.
The anti-Ethiopian campaign hypercharged al Shabab. Fighters—including scores of Americans and other foreigners—flocked to its banner, drawn by the group’s mix of nationalist and Islamist appeals. Al Shabab eventually cornered the internationally backed federal government, along with its protector, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in a sliver of the capital, Mogadishu. At its zenith, al Shabab controlled about one-third of Somalia, or approximately 81,000 square miles.
ISIS, at its own peak, controlled over 30,000 square miles. And there are many parallels between how ISIS operates in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and how al Shabab ruled its subjugated lands. Although it never declared a caliphate, al Shabab created an extensive administrative state featuring a bureaucracy responsible for everything from financial matters to relationships with pirates. It divided its territory into areas headed by governors and military commanders, and in the southern port city of Kismayo even boasted a number of committees meant to collectively administer the city. Al