Islamic State terrorists pose growing threat across Africa
Article RadarTHIS ARTICLE CONNECT:
- Al-Shabaab Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, more commonly known as al-Shabaab, is a Salafist...[+]
- Boko Haram Boko Haram, is jihadist group based in northeastern Nigeria, also active...[+]
- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
The Islamic State has been consolidating its African offshoots as part of an effort to expand its presence across the continent. As part of a series of blogs to mark the publication of Armed Conflict Survey 2020, Eleanor Beevor and Flore Berger examine the impact of these developments and the risks they could pose.
There had been hints about the intentions of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to develop a Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in a speech by the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in August 2018. However, it was not until April 2019 that an attack in Beni, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was claimed as the work of ISCAP by ISIS-run media outlets. Later that month, Baghdadi formally acknowledged it as an ISIS ‘wilayah’ (meaning ‘province’ and referred to as ‘wilayat’ in the plural) in a video message.
In addition to attacks in the DRC, in June 2019 ISIS started to attribute attacks in Mozambique to ISCAP. The media campaign around ISCAP has been extremely active – in February 2020 a graphic was released comparing the number of attacks conducted in each of the Islamic State’s wilayat, with ISCAP ‘scoring’ the highest number for the month.
However, the picture on the ground is very different to what ISIS portrays. The wilayah in fact consists of two armed groups operating in different countries, with only loose connections. Both groups are driven by complex motives, which are predominantly shaped by their local surroundings.
In the DRC, the rebels usually assumed to be behind the violence claimed by ISIS are the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist group with a grim record of attacks against civilians. However, is not certain whether the ADF as a whole now operates under the ISCAP label, or whether ISCAP is a smaller faction of the ADF.
The Congolese army, the FARDC, launched a large offensive operation on 30 October 2019, with the aim of eliminating the ADF for good by taking their largest base camp, Madina. Despite claims of success, ADF attacks on civilians in the towns of Beni region have occurred since, with over 40 civilians believed to have been killed by the group since the beginning of May. The ADF has previously regrouped after losing its base camp and is known to be highly mobile and resilient.
The situation in Mozambique is very concerning. While fighting began in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique in late 2017, the number of attacks committed by the insurgency known as al-Shabaab sharply rose in the second half of 2019. Al Shabaab has no known connection to the Somali al-Qaeda affiliate carrying the same name.
The group appears to have been gaining strength over the course of 2020, briefly holding small but strategic towns in the area, most notoriously in March when militants captured Mocimboa de Praia and raised the ISIS flag. The town’s capture not only highlighted the weakness of the Mozambican army, but also served as a chance for militants to address residents. They appear to be refining their public messaging along both religious and class lines – a speaker claimed the group was on the side of Muslims and the poor.
This is something of a departure from official ISIS messaging, which claims the group targeted Christians on several occasions. Whatever the message, it appears to be having an impact locally. The group’s ability to take and hold territory is clearly growing; its numbers are likely to increase too.
The growing threat posed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the central Sahel region coincided with a decision by ISIS in March 2019 to merge the ISGS with Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – another ISIS branch operating in the Lake Chad Basin. ISWAP first claimed various small-scale attacks that did not get much attention before claiming responsibility for a May 2019 attack in Tongo Tongo, western Niger, that killed 28 Nigerien soldiers.
ISWAP followed this up with further claims of attacks and released videos of fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso renewing their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since then, ISGS has received much more attention from ISIS and was even ranked as the most ‘successful’ offshoot at the end of 2019.
It was clear from the beginning, however, that these claims did not reflect an actual merger of the two groups; their nature and capabilities allowed for neither a central command structure nor united action and reach throughout the Sahel, from Mali to the Lake Chad Basin. But even though it was primarily a propaganda stunt, ISIS’s decision to merge ISWAP with ISGS should not be overlooked.
In addition to local and tribal dynamics that naturally shape the development and success of ISGS, other factors – such as closer ties with ISIS central from March 2019 onwards – are influencing the behaviour of the group. The noticeable step up in ISGS capabilities and the growing sophistication of its attacks are arguably the result of growing ISGS–ISIS communication.
This culminated in late 2019 and early 2020 with the orchestration of large-scale attacks against military positions in Mali (Mondoro and Boulkessy, Indelimane and Tabankort), which then opened the way across the border for further attacks in Niger (Inates, Sanam and Chinagodar), resulting in at least 400 military casualties.
To break the cycle of violence, states attending the January 2020 G5 Sahel Summit agreed on new strategies, including a new framework for cooperation, the ‘International Coalition for the Sahel’. Notably, the fight against the ISGS in the Liptako-Gourma area (along the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) was branded as ‘a matter of priority’. This was a significant development for a region that has hitherto been dominated by al-Qaeda, rather than ISIS, affiliates.
In the coming months, the trends analysed in the Armed Conflict Survey 2020 will guide and inform our assessment of these new dynamics as they unfold. At the top of our risk list are the increased tensions and confrontation between ISGS and al-Qaeda’s regional umbrella organisation, known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), as well as the threat of ISWAP and ISGS uniting their fronts through northwest Nigeria or pushing southwards towards the Gulf of Guinea.