The African continent has witnessed a growth in the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) since the beginning of 2020. Organizations that pledge allegiance to the IS have intensified their direct attacks and confrontations with the counter-terrorism forces in the west and south of the continent. This raises many questions about the factors and causes of this growing threat, its risks and future possibilities.

Indications of the growing threat of the Islamic State on the African continent

1. The growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel and West Africa. Relevant indications include the following:

  • The intensity of attacks on military positions in many countries of the region. Starting from early 2020, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) organization has intensified its attacks on military positions in Mali (Mondoro, Boulkessy, Indelimane and Tabankort) and Niger (Inates, Sanam and Chinagodar), resulting in at least 400 military casualties. In light of this, France and the G5 Sahel group held the Pau Summit in January 2020 and identified the Liptako-Gourma region as a "priority area".[1]
  • The development of terrorist propaganda, as ISGS developed its propaganda strategy by publishing long videos of its operations.[2]
  • The escalation of clashes between ISGS and the Jamaat Noussrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, JNIM) (loyal to Al-Qaeda), the increasing number of ISGS fighters after being joined by dissident operatives of JNIM, and the expansion of the areas of operations of ISGS and its control over parts of the areas of operations of the JNIM.[3]
  • Opening new fronts, as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has expanded its attacks in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin to open multiple fronts and secure its movements. The organization’s attacks on military convoys in June and July 2020 indicate its efforts to isolate the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. ISWAP’s targeting of military convoys in the Lac region of Chad in July 2020 signals an effort to deter Chadian military forces from operating outside their bases. The March 2020 attack, which killed nearly 100 Chadian soldiers, also indicates a new focus on targeting Chad.[4]

2. The growing threat of the IS in southern and central Africa. Relevant indications include the following:

  • Flexibility and ability to regroup. Despite the military operation launched by the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 30 October 2019, the organization that pledged allegiance to the IS (the Allied Democratic Forces, ADF) was able to regroup and continued its attacks on civilians in the Beni region, killing more than 40 civilians since the beginning of May 2020.[5]
  • The seizure of cities. The organization that pledges allegiance to the IS in Mozambique (Ansar al-Sunna Group) was able to strengthen its combat capabilities over the first half of 2020. It took control for a short period of small cities in March 2020 when it captured Mocimboa de Praia. This provided an indication of the organization’s capability to grab lands and keep them.[6]

Factors of the growing threat of the IS on the African continent

  • The decline of al-Qaeda’s control in the African Sahel region, especially after the increase in defections in the ranks of the JNIM organization, which announced its readiness to negotiate with the Malian government,[7] and its subsequent escalated confrontations with ISGS, especially after the end of the role of some al-Qaeda leaders in preserving a pattern of cooperation between the two organizations after their death at the hands of French forces.[8]
  • The growing dominance and control of the IS (the parent organization) over its branches in Africa, especially after the execution of the leaders of ISWAP ​​cooperating with al-Qaeda,[9] and the assumption of the leadership of the organization by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi in October 2020.
  • The strategy of the IS (the parent organization) in merging the geographically contiguous African branches, especially the decision to merge ISWAP ​​with ISGS. While some analyses refer to this as a propaganda ploy, because the capabilities of the two groups do not allow for a central command structure and unified action extending from Mali to the Lake Chad Basin, the tendency by the IS to merge the two groups under a unified leadership should not be ignored as this is one of its most important priorities in Africa.[10]

Risks of the growing IS threat

  • Regional destabilization. The merging of the IS branches continues to be one of the potential dangers of the growing threat of the organization across the continent. The unification of the two IS fronts in West Africa leads to the opening of new fronts for fighting and expansion through northwest Nigeria or south towards the Gulf of Guinea.[11] The same applies to the IS in central Africa in the event that the organizations loyal to the IS in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique are merged. This would lead to the opening of fronts for expansion in neighboring countries, especially South Africa. On 3 July 2020, the organization warned against opening a front in South Africa in the event that South Africa became militarily involved against it in Mozambique.[12]
  • Escalating sectarian violence. The continued clashes between the IS and al-Qaeda would lead to more violence in the areas they already control and the areas they want to expand to, especially the countries of the Gulf of Guinea.

Possible scenarios

First scenario: continuation of the current situation (the growing threat of the IS), especially after the growth in communication and coordination relations with the parent organization, the emergence of the IS as a strong alternative to al-Qaeda splinter elements, especially the Macina Liberation Front which wishes to continue the fight against the Malian government,[13] and the capability of the IS to attract new fighters. Information indicates that 70 percent of the fighters involved in the attacks in the Sahel region are individuals who have been recruited from criminal gangs. However, this scenario is challenged by the attempts by the JNIM to regroup[14] and regain control of its areas of operations, with the support of Tuareg groups and self-defense militias from northern Mali,[15] as well as France’s tendency to focus its military operations on the IS in the region.

Second scenario: expansion of the circle of confrontations between the IS and al-Qaeda organizations in the context of the strategy pursued by some African governments, especially Mali, which announced their willingness to negotiate with al-Qaeda, which would intensify confrontations between the two organizations, in addition to the directives of the (parent) IS to fight against al-Qaeda and execute the leaders cooperating with it. However, this scenario is challenged by the need by the two organizations to maintain quiet relations that would prevent them from depleting their combat capabilities in the face of the security forces and the French military strikes,[16] and their relations and alliances with the existing criminal networks, which are often linked to financing the activities of the two organizations.[17]

Third scenario: decline of the threat of the IS in light of the efforts made to combat terrorism, and the escalation of political demands in some countries for the need to intervene to confront the threat of the IS. For example, the Democratic Alliance Party in South Africa released a statement on 6 July 2020 urging the government to intervene to confront the IS in northern Mozambique.[18] In addition, France and thirteen European countries have announced the formation of a European multi-task force (Takuba) to enhance counter-terrorism efforts. Many African countries have also announced that they would carry out joint military operations on the borders to stop the infiltration of terrorists. Nevertheless, current political and economic challenges remain among the most important challenges facing the counter-terrorism efforts on the African continent.

The second scenario (expansion of the circle of confrontations between the IS and al-Qaeda organizations) seems the most likely one. With the tacit approval of the countries supporting counter-terrorism efforts, some African governments see in those fights a favourable opportunity to contain the two organizations. By negotiating with al-Qaeda, one of the fighting fronts could be neutralized, which would help operatives defect from al-Qaeda and join the IS, which would facilitate focusing military strikes on the IS front.

Footnotes

[1] Eleanor Beevor and Flore Berger, ISIS militants pose growing threat across Africa, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2/6/2020, available at: https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2020/06/csdp-isis-militants-africa

[2] Islamic State replaces al-Qaeda as Enemy No. 1 in Sahel, France 24,15/1/2020, available at: https://www.france24.com/en/20200115-islamic-state-replaces-al-qaeda-as-enemy-no-1-in-sahel

[3] Security Council, Letter dated 16 July 2020 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council, 23 July 2020, available at: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2020_717.pdf

[4] Zachary Jaynes and (others), Africa File: A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics, Critical Threats, 23/7/2020, available at: https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file

[5] Eleanor Beevor and Flore Berger, op. cit.

[6] Idem.

[7] Wassim Nasr, ISIS in Africa: The End of the “Sahel Exception”, June 2, 2020, available at: https://cgpolicy.org/articles/isis-in-africa-the-end-of-the-sahel-exception/

[8] For example: Jamal Okasha (alias Yehia Abul-Hamam) and Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi who were killed at the hands of the French forces on 21 February 2019 in Elak in northern Timbuktu, and Abu Yahya al-Jazairi who was killed at the hands of the Malian forces in Bamba on 6 April 2020.

[9] Jacob Zenn, ISIS in Africa: The Caliphate’s Next Frontier, May 26, 2020, available at: https://cgpolicy.org/articles/isis-in-africa-the-caliphates-next-frontier/

[10] Eleanor Beevor and Flore Berger, op. cit.

[11] Idem.

[12] Zachary Jaynes and (others), op.cit.

[13] Méryl Demuynck, Julie Coleman, The Shifting Sands of the Sahel’s Terrorism Landscape, Mar 2020, available at: https://icct.nl/publication/the-shifting-sands-of-the-sahels-terrorism-landscape/

[14] Idem.

[15] Security Council, op. cit.

[16] Méryl Demuynck, Julie Coleman, op. cit.

[17] Idem.

[18] Zachary Jaynes and (others), op. cit.

 

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