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'Islamic State' poses growing threat across Africa

Cai Nebe
July 15, 2021

After the so-called "Islamic State" saw its influence wane in the Middle East, the group and its affiliates targeted poorly governed areas in Africa. But just how big is the threat across the continent?

ISIS-flagged Toyota Land Cruiser Pick up truck
'Islamic State' in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has clashed with Nigerian security forcesImage: Audu Ali Marte/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum said his country needed technological assistance from its European partners to fight jihadis. He complained of swaths of territory in Mali and Niger being taken over by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) — known also as ISIS — and its affiliates.

Bazoum's comments came as French President Emmanuel Macron announced France would start closing military bases in northern Mali by the end of 2021, including the 5,100-member Barkhane force.

"We are going to reorganize ourselves in line with this need to stop this spread to the south," Macron told reporters.

French soldiers march in Mali
France recently ended its Operation Barkhane mission in MaliImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

"Unfortunately, ISIS is so widespread in Africa today that you can say it is across the continent," Nigerian political analyst Bulama Bukarti told DW. "You are talking about groups of countries and subregions."

Jihadis have taken control of significant territories in the Sahel and the Lake Chad regions, which include parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Nigeria. In 2018, the West Africa Center for Counter Extremism (WACCE) reported up to 6,000 West Africans who had fought with IS had returned home from Iraq and Syria after the group's self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed.

"It was only a matter of time before we would begin to see ISIS activities replicated in their home countries," said Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar, director of the WACCE in Ghana.

He said West African countries with weak national institutions and high unemployment rates for young people have eroded resistance to the "Islamic State."

"We have pervasive, 'ungoverned' spaces that allow affiliate groups to operate on the blind side of security forces. Countries currently going through different conflicts make them vulnerable," Muqthar told DW.

While coastal west African states so far have largely avoided attacks, that could soon change, Muqthar warned. The threat increases the longer IS-affiliated groups "fester" and can mobilize resources and capacities in areas currently under their control, he said.

"That is the end game for 'Islamic State,' and that is why I believe the entire region is at risk of having a whole new caliphate established," he said.

Bukarti points out that the IS strategy of "recruiting locally entrenched troops who know the area very well" has contributed to the groups' successes against national and regional security forces.

IS threat in Congo?

Reports of bloody attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern Congo have sparked fears that the group has an affiliation to the Islamic state. Recently, 50 villagers were killed in two attacks blamed on the ADF, the Kivu Security Tracker research group said. This March, the United States officially linked the ADF and IS.

Burnt houses near Beni in the eastern DRC
The Allied Democratic Forces have been blamed for attacking villages in eastern CongoImage: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

But Christoph Vogel of the Belgium-based Ghent University Conflict Research Group said there is not a lot of evidence to prove the groups are linked. He acknowledged, however, that the "Islamic State" has an interest in gaining a foothold in areas lacking social cohesion and socioeconomic well-being, such as eastern Congo.

"The populations in the Congo are not very open to religious extremism in general. Conflicts are more about identity politics, land, political problems, but it's rare that religious mobilization works," he told DW.

Vogel describes the armed groups operating in the eastern Congo as "pragmatic and flexible," especially in terms of partnerships. The ADF, he said, has entertained alliances with local groups.

"In the past few years, we've observed international ISIS propaganda media channels actually spreading information about the ADF's battlefield operations and attacks and then claiming these under the label of the 'Islamic State.' We don't know if this is just a loose connection aimed at propaganda or if there are deeper links in terms of recruitment, supply or training," he told DW.

Vogel added that the ADF's methods and attacks have not changed significantly over the years.

Mozambique the new IS frontier?

While some Western-backed efforts to stem the spread of "Islamic State" operations in the Sahel and central Africa have lost steam, the European Union, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and regional neighbors are gearing up to defend the resource-rich region of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique from jihadis. More than 800,000 people have been displaced and some 1.3 million people are living in severe humanitarian need, the EU has said.

Destroyed military vehicle next to a ransacked post office in Cabo Delgado province
Clashes between jihadis and Mozambican security forces have made Cabo Delgado unstableImage: Roberto Paquete/DW

The EU's military mission is intended to train Mozambican forces, while Rwanda has sent 1,000 police and army personnel. Regional body SADC has also sent troops. While securing northern Mozambique is the prime objective, each mission has its own aims and parameters, according the security analyst Ryan Cummings from Signal Risk in South Africa. He said Mozambique's decision to allow foreign troops to stabilize Cabo Delgado "may have come from external pressure, from stakeholders in the liquified natural gas sector".

"In the medium term, it would be unrealistic to see significant gains or change in the trajectory in the insurgency," Cummings told DW.

He said there is evidence to suggest the insurgents have a "foothold" in southern Tanzania, and could "melt away" to ride out the deployment of foreign troops.

"We saw something very similar happen in Nigeria, where a multinational force deployed against Boko Haram in 2015," he said, adding that Boko Haram simply held out across the border in neighboring countries.

Jihadis have strong appeal for young men

Reports suggest jihadi groups that have taken control around the Lake Chad area have a symbiotic relationship with local communities, offering a measure of security, law and order and discipline among its ranks. Corruption, a dearth of economic opportunities, investment and social amenities by state actors has pushed mostly young men toward IS-affiliated groups in West Africa, according to Nigerian analyst Bukarti.

"Democracy has not worked for populations. Governments must invest in education and infrastructure and try to strengthen the relationship between the governed and government, so these groups will not be able to exploit economic grievances and recruit young people," he said.

With Western-backed military operations, and by extension national governments being unpopular in poor areas of the Sahel, young people are increasing attracted to the "heroic fantasy" of "Islamic State." 

"When people feel marginalized, they may look out for something big and meaningful. IS presents that because of its 'global' brand and propaganda," Muqthar said. "We had a guy in Burkina Faso we stopped from going to ISIS. We asked him why he chose ISIS over Boko Haram. He said he liked the uniforms of ISIS, which they sent to him. They showed him the military camouflage he would wear."