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WASHINGTON – Islamic State "affiliates" seem to be emerging at an alarming rate, giving the sense of an expanding terror network with satellites all over the world.
But a closer look, according to analysts, shows these ISIS offshoots are likely operating without much coordination with the Islamic State core. It doesn't make them any less dangerous, but helps explain how a group President Obama described just one year ago as "JV" has established a presence in nearly a dozen countries.
Unlike Al Qaeda, which in its prime was operationally stronger and had a better communication network with its affiliates, the ISIS network appears more fractured. There is no clear-cut power pyramid beyond its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And a number of the affiliates existed before, only recently latching onto ISIS as the terror network grew in notoriety.
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman, told FoxNews.com the array of different ISIS offshoots reveals an organization “that is operationally not as close or sophisticated as Al Qaeda."
But he warned, even though Al Qaeda has a more “robust system of finances as well as better communication,” ISIS is quickly learning how to fund its terror network and address its operational issues.
Officials are looking at the spread of the terror network following the recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya. While the heart of ISIS beats strongest in Syria and Iraq, terrorist cells tied to the group have popped up in 11 countries including Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
Just how close these smaller offshoots are to the mother ship is a matter of debate. But ISIS has been able to successfully back smaller terror cells linked to them through a for-profit militant model, of sorts.
The smaller terror groups act like a franchise, running under the ISIS name with a certain degree of independence. They get some seed money from ISIS -- but most of their funding comes from a well-developed, trade-based money laundering system, in part through the import of sugar and the export of charcoal. The groups also pad their pockets by imposing sky-high taxes on areas where they fought their way into control as well as through petty crimes, bank robberies and oil smuggling.
Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told FoxNews.com the ISIS core operation in Iraq and Syria aims to expand the caliphate in two ways.
“First, by dispatching expeditionary ISIS cells to areas such as Damascus and Lebanon, which can be activated and augmented at a later date,” she said. “In addition, ISIS seeks to recruit local successful jihadist groups globally in areas such as Libya and Egypt, to bring them into the ISIS fold.”
The nature of the financial and operational ties between ISIS and its offshoots remains unclear. But it likely consists of ISIS providing at least some funding and expertise in return for allegiance, Cafarella said.
“These groups likely therefore retain more independence than Syrian rebel groups that pledge allegiance to ISIS, at least in the near term,” she said. “ISIS appears to dispatch advisers to support local recruitment in such areas in an attempt to bolster the local strength of these groups, but does not augment their ranks with its own forces.”
Cafarella says the activation of ISIS cells is occurring now.
“The initial ISIS dispatch makes connections with local actors and seeks to bring them into the fold, including local civilians and Syrian rebel groups,” she said. “When these groups pledge allegiance, they submit to ISIS command and control, however appear in some cases to retain their independence as functional units.”
But the push for power among groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram is rapidly approaching its boiling point.
The expansion of ISIS into Syria, for example, has sparked friction with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria called Jabhat Al-Nusra. And while ISIS has shown some “affinity” toward Nigeria-based Boko Haram, Gordon said, they have stopped short of allegiance.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS bosses continue to run a multi-million-dollar operation, through increasingly horrific methods.
Most recently, a top Iraqi diplomat told the United Nations Security Council that ISIS is harvesting the organs of its victims to fund its murderous operations – a new low for the group that revels in its barbarity, which already includes burning people alive, beheading hostages and crucifying children.
Mohamed Alhakim, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, leveled the charges during a plea for help he made to the international board.
“We have bodies,” Alhakim reportedly said. “Come and examine them. It is clear they are missing certain parts.”
Alhakim said bodies have been turning up in mass graves bearing surgical incisions and missing organs such as kidneys.
But others question how much control ISIS actually has over its network.
“I don’t believe for a minute that al-Baghdadi, who’s got his hands full in Syria and Iraq, is directing and controlling activities in other countries,” retired Gen. Jack Keane, a Fox News military analyst, said.
But he warns: Just because al-Baghdadi is not directing their activities, it “doesn’t mean these organizations are going to be less effective.”
Steve Rogers, a former member of the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task force, told Fox News that ISIS recruiters are “just as bad as the beheaders themselves” and said the terror group combs the web, looking for sympathizers in western countries as well as those who are “angry and bitter at the United States.”
“The web is a rich target for recruitment,” he said. “They are offering people money, training and friendship, if you will.”