Beirut (AsiaNews/L'Orient-Le Jour) - The alliance that Boko Haram recently proposed is a sign of the internationalisation of the Islamic State (IS). What follows is an overview of the Sunni extremist group, based on an article published by the French Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour.
A "caliphate" and 25 "provinces"
On 29 June, the Islamic State announced the establishment of a caliphate in the territories on the border of Syria and Iraq, two of the nine countries in which the Islamist movement has set up shop.
In total, the group claims 25 provinces (wilayat, in Arabic) in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The highest number of provinces is in Iraq: 10, following the creation of Wilayats of Dijla and Jazira in February. This is followed by Syria (7) and Libya (3).
According to Pieter van Ostaeyen, an expert on the Middle East, about eight million people live in territory controlled by IS in Iraq and Syria. However, in Libya, "the territory isn't too large and isn't totally controlled by the jihadists," he said.
Luay al-Khatteeb, a researcher at the Brookings Institute, puts the number of people in IS-controlled areas at "between six and seven million". From that, the jihadists have more than enough possible recruits to maintain "a powerful and numerous armed force," he added.
How many fighters does the Islamic State have?
It is hard to evaluate the number of fighters IS has at its disposal, because "there are no reliable sources to provide an exact figure," said Khatteeb.
What is more, it is an unconventional terrorist group that conducts "unconventional warfare", and could have as many as 80,000 fighters, including "around 20,000 foreigners".
Van Ostaeyen put the number at 60,000-70,000 - the vast majority in Iraq and Syria - with about 1,500-2,000 in Libya. However, "it is very difficult to give an exact estimate".
Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimates IS has as many as 45,000 fighters in Syria alone.
Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, is more cautious about IS' fighting force. "If they have 25,000 in total, that's the maximum," she said.
Reporting inflated fighter figures amounted to "advertising" for IS, she explained, and should be stopped.
Is the Islamic State rich?
It is impossible to know what financial resources are at the disposal of the Islamic State group, which seized the economic assets of the conquered regions. What is known is that they have access to oil from oil fields in Syria and Iraq. According to Van Ostaeyen, "they make a great deal of money from it and sell it to anyone willing to buy it."
David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, estimated in October that IS makes as much as US$ 1 million per day from oil sales, even if some analysts dispute this figure.
However, for Khatteeb, the group produces "a maximum of 50,000-60,000 barrels a day," not enough to meet the demand from the people under its yoke.
IS' income, he notes, is supplemented by various activities, including the smuggling of antiques, taxes and extortion imposed on "merchants who have to pay to keep their shops open".
IS has also been able to plunder the financial institutions in the cities it conquered, like Mosul, where banks held about US$ 400 million before the city fell, said Bashar Kiki, head of the Nineveh Provincial Council.
For Ghanem-Yazbeck, money remains the main element in this war. "On the day when the Islamic State runs out of money to finance the people it administers, they will turn against them," she said.
How does the Islamic State operate?
The Islamic State's administrative structure is like that of any state, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its self-proclaimed caliph, assisted by a number of "territorial" deputies and a military command.
Baghdadi is also supported by a Shura Council, which brings together senior jihadist leaders. According to some reports, other councils are in charge of military, security, economic and media affairs.
Using social media and slick video productions, the group has become its own trademark, one "that works, like Coca-Cola or McDonald's, which attracts," Ghanem-Yazbeck said.
"Their true strengths are virtual, online, on YouTube . . . after nearly every defeat they put out a shocking video so that we talk about them. It's a way of compensating for military defeat."