The downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last October, for which the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility, may ultimately prove more consequential than the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that followed. Western security officials had long worried that their countries’ own citizens would conduct attacks after returning home from Iraq or Syria or strike out as “lone wolf” terrorists. But the Russian plane crash, which killed 224 people, was caused by a different beast: neither lone wolves nor ISIS itself but an ISIS affiliate that had pledged its loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ self-declared caliph. ISIS calls these groups wilayat, Arabic for “provinces.” (The term is borrowed from the seventh century, when the armies of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and established regional governors who ruled in the name of the caliph; ISIS also uses wilayat to refer to administrative divisions within Iraq and Syria.) If, as recent events suggest, ISIS far-flung provinces have begun closely aligning their actions with those of the group’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, then ISIS geographic scope has expanded vastly.
Although alarming, such expansion is not unprecedented. After 9/11, several of al Qaeda’s affiliates eclipsed that group’s central command in both size and importance. One of them, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airplanes and remains a deadly threat today. AQAP claimed responsibility for the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and last May, Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, said that AQAP retained “the ability to bring down an airliner in the United States of America tomorrow.”
ISIS itself also began as an al Qaeda franchise. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as a leader of jihadist forces in Iraq. In 2004, he pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and changed his organization’s name from the Organization of Monotheism and Jihad