Conflict and Fragility


Marketing violence: Islamic State franchising as business strategy

17 Jun 2015 - 11:14
Source: Screenshot from World News Online (Creative Commons/YouTube)

Over the last weeks, the battlefield fortunes of the Islamic State (IS) have waxed once more after a number of setbacks that some considered to be the beginning of its end. The IS´s seizure of Ramadi and Palmyra have not only supplanted its defeat in Kobani, but also put an end to talk about the imminent recapture of Mosul or the reconquest of Anbar province. In fact, its recent victories have opened a range of possiblities for further IS expansion, particularly in Syria.[i] Direct territorial conquest will in all likelihood remain an important and feasible plank of IS’s business strategy.

In addition, the IS has also expanded significantly beyond its Syrian and Iraqi heartlands since November 2014.[ii] This has taken the form of a number of IS affiliates being negotiated or established around the Muslim world. While this process has unfolded somewhat under the radar of the media headlines, it is significant as it includes countries as far apart as Algeria, the Caucasus, Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Phillippines, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In consequence, creating a ´global´ footprint of alliances and affiliates represents an obvious second plank of the group’s business strategy.

While the solidity and relevance of these alliances and affiliates vary – contrast for example the reported establishment of new IS training camps in Libya[iii] with its more isolated acts of sectarian violence in Saudi Arabia – they merit close attention for two reasons. First, they are vehicles that spread the violence, fear and perception of strength on which the IS thrives. Second, they may contribute to its long-term survival and growth as Islamist terrorist groups have impressive track records of amalgamation and transformation, ensuring that the violent threat they pose persists.

Developing a better understanding of such processes is the first step in countering them. This brief article examines whether IS expansion beyond Syria and Iraq can sensibly be understood through the lens of franchising. As a franchise is a flexible business model that is highly standardized, mutually profitable, and, in consequence, low-risk and rapidly scalable, an affirmative answer is cause for concern.

Typically, a franchise is a commercial arrangement by which a franchisor allows an operator (the franchisee) to use his trademark and distribute his goods on the basis of a detailed set of instructions that safeguard quality and brand protection. In return, the operator pays the supplier a fee.[iv] Examples include McDonalds and Subway. There are at least four key questions that need answering to assess whether IS expansion beyond Syria and Iraq can be meaningfully seen as a franchising strategy, namely whether there is a clear trademark that IS franchisees can and do adopt, a standardized product that franchisees can market locally, a clear expectation of mutual profitability between IS and its franchisees, and a measure of strategic control from IS over its franchisees.

Starting with the trademark, it is straightforward to point to the brutal, highly visible and well-published acts of violence that IS franchisees have committed as evidence for the existence and uptake of a clear IS brand. The beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as the burning of Jordanian airforce pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, were evidently mirrored by the IS’s Algerian affiliate, Jund al Khilafa, in the beheading of Herve Gourdel, as well as by its Libyan affiliate in the form of the decapitation of 21 Copts in orange jumpsuits. Other elements that form part of the IS trademark include adoption by new affiliaties of the term ‘wilayat’[v] followed by the geographic reference as to where it is operational – replacing their old name – and their use of the black-and-white IS flag. In short, there is a clear IS brand and it is effectively franchised. The benefit for the franchisor (IS) is that it gives the impression of reach and presence; for the franchisee that it has the support of a larger, powerful organization.

The product that the IS has on offer consists, roughly speaking, of the aspiration to restore the worldly might of the Caliphate and the dominance of Sunni Islam that it symbolizes. This product has two main components: a social side, as exemplified by a rigid socio-religious code and the provision of (at least some) local governance and services[vi]; and a repressive side, as exemplified by deep intelligence control[vii] at micro-level, advanced guerilla combat tactics and zero tolerance for doctrinal deviation.[viii] This does evidently not represent a standardized product in the manufacturing or service-industry sense of the word. In fact, its two constituent components make full standardization very difficult; it is much easier to standardize the product’s repressive component – this can be done cheaply and does not require territorial control – than it is to standardize its social component.

Indeed, to date little evidence has emerged that local IS affiliates, such as the Derna Islamic Youth Council in Libya or Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt, have managed to establish much by way of rudimentary governance and social services as the IS has done in places like Raqqa and Mosul. Even if allowing for a sequenced strategy, in which social services would follow military success that establish territorial control, the Islamic State nevertheless only seems to have a partially standardized product to franchise for now. The business risk is that franchising a ‘toolkit for violence’ – rather than an ideological-geopolitial aspiration – limits the possibilities for scaling because it is too radical and one-sided to attract broad demand.

In terms of mutual profitability, the obvious deal on offer is that IS as franchisor benefits from the stronger image – if not reality - of power, influence, and visibility that its franchisees confer upon it, while these in turn accrue local benefits from association with the IS brand, for example greater ease of local recruitment and fundraising. In addition, it is interesting to observe that the series of declarations of allegiance to the IS in late November 2014 coincided with several of the local groups doing the pledging, as well as the IS itself, facing military setbacks. For example, it was in the course of the same month of November that Kurdish forces steadily gained ground in the ‘battle for Kobani,’ in northern Syria. Hence, another mutual benefit of franchising might be to create the popular impression of a united front that grows in strength despite unavoidable setbacks.

Finally, in a commercial franchise central control is exercised through a comprehensive articulation of shared purpose, detailed product standardization (discussed above) and monitoring of compliance. Achieving such a level of control is clearly not feasible for the IS at present. However, one could argue that the IS exercises a loose form of strategic control of purpose by having prioritized the fight against the ‘near-enemy’ (i.e., corrupt and infidel Muslim regimes and believers – from their viewpoint), instead of the fight against the ‘far-enemy’ (i.e., the US, Zionists and their Western allies) as Al-Qaeda (AQ) does.[ix] Contrary to previous AQ franchises in the mid-2000s, this creates greater unity of purpose between the IS and the domestic agendas of the local groups that are its potential franchisees.

Moreover, several commentators have observed how shared prison and combat experiences have produced high levels of social cohesion between members of different terrorist groups. It is for example said that Camp Bucca, a US-prison in Iraq, provided a safer meeting space for the incipient IS leadership than they could ever have organized themselves.[x] There is also considerable evidence of jihadists returning home from places like Syria and Iraq to strengthen local terrorist groups, as well as of jihadists serving as emissaries from one group to the other on the basis of such shared experiences.[xi] Interpersonal connections of this nature provide the IS with additional levers of influence over its franchisees, obviously without amounting to full control in the hierarchical sense.

In sum, the tentative answers to these four questions suggest that IS expansion beyond Syria and Iraq can be considered an imperfect franchising strategy. There is a clear trademark that IS franchisees can and do adopt, a partially standardized product that can be marketed locally, a clear expectation of mutual profitability between IS and its franchisees and a modest measure of strategic control. In other words, IS offers a proposition that is reasonably attractive to a franchising formula. On this basis, it can be expected that further franchises will be established in the near future.

In the meantime, the key from a policy perspective is likely to be prevention. It is obvious where the IS has a direct presence and partial action is underway to reduce it. Partial, because in the absence of a feasible international strategy to bring the conflict there to a halt, Syria remains a significant direct growth market for the IS. However, it is much less clear where most growth potential exists for IS franchises - initial research suggests that factors like the degree of state absence, the tribal nature of areas and the absence of strong local competition play a role, but these need further work. Hence, an important next step is to identify those countries, areas or cities where conditions are favorable for IS franchises to take root, and to consider which actions, international or domestic, can address these conditions.


This article was inspired by the recent report of Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit entitled ‘Islamic State franchising: Tribes, transational jihadi networks and generational shifts’ by Rivka Azoulay.

It orginally appeared in the On Track journal of the CDA Institute

[i] For a good analysis of the relevance of the IS´s capture of Palmyra: Sayigh, Y. and A. Lund, After Palmyra: Military and Economic Targets of the Islamic State (online: Carnegie Endowment´s blog ‘Syria in Crisis’: 4 June 2015).

[ii] Ansar al-Maqdis (Egypt) was amongst the first groups to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014.

[iii] Fairfield, H., T. Wallace and D. Watkins, How ISIS Expands (online: New York Times: 21 May 2015).

[iv] Gurnick, D. (2011) cited on Wikipedia:

[v] A ´wilayat´ was the largest administrative unit of the Ottoman Empire.

[vi] S. Elias, Services improve under IS in Mosul (online: Al-Monitor, 13 May 2015).

[vii] C. Reuter, The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State (online: Spiegel International: 18 April 2015).

[viii] E. van Veen and I. Abdo, Do-it-Yourself Islam? Views on the Religious Credibility of the Islamic State (online: ETH’s International Relations and Security Network: 27 February 2015).

[ix] R. Azoulay, Islamic State franchising: Tribes, transnational jihadi networks and generational shifts (The Hague: Clingendael Conflict Research Unit: 2015).

[x] M. Chulov, ISIS: The inside story (online: The Guardian: 11 December 2014).

[xi] R. Azoulay, op.cit.