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IS seeks new ground in Africa

January 2, 2018

After the terrorist organization al Qaeda, now the so-called "Islamic State" is trying to expand its influence in Africa. Military means alone are not enough to fight it.

Young Ethiopians hold up a banner at an anti-IS protest in Addis Ababa
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Abubeker

French President Emmanuel Macron found clear words on terrorism in Africa during his recent visit to Niger

"The fight is not won today," Macron said. Within the next few months, one thing was needed above all: "Clear victories for our armed forces against the terrorists."

In Niger, as with most other countries in the region, few such successes can be claimed.

Jihadi forces have established footholds across the Sahel, in Chad, Mali, and indeed Niger. And the prospects of defeating them and neutralizing their ideology are far from good. At the very least, considerable efforts are required from French and other western troops, together with local forces, to rein in jihadism in the region.

Alternative territory in Africa

Macron's urgent focus on the next six months was no accident. That's because the so-called Islamic State (IS) has recently lost large areas that it used to control in Iraq and Syria. Now it's trying to make up for that lost ground elsewhere, including western Africa. IS fighters in Niger recently showed just how dangerous and combative they can be. Early in October, soldiers from the US and Niger clashed with militants associated with IS on the border with Mali. The battle claimed the lives of four US and five Nigerien troops

IS "has aspirations to establish a larger presence" in Africa, according to US General Joseph Dunford. He said after the October attack that the US military would make recommendations to President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "for the allocation of forces that meet what we see as the threat, what we anticipate the threat to be." Republican Senator Lindsey Graham found more blunt words: "The war is morphing. We're going to see more actions in Africa, not less."

President Macron  shakes hands with President Issoufou of Niger
President Macron (center left) met President Issoufou in Niamey shortly before Christmas to discuss terror in the Sahel regionImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Djibo

The US has already stationed around 1,300 special forces troops in Africa. France has deployed 4,000 soldiers in the Sahel region to assist soldiers from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Italy is also considering relocating troops from Iraq to Niger, at Macron's request. Donor countries have so far collected around €300 million ($360 million) to help fund the missions. Another such fundraiser is planned for January in Saudi Arabia, followed by another in February in Brussels. 

Read more — UN approves Sahel counterterrorism force

'Mali is our Afghanistan'

It's not yet clear whether money or military aid will be enough to stop the expansion of jihadism in the region, or indeed to drive it back. The challenges facing the alliance are immense. Christophe Ayad, a Middle East and Africa analyst for French daily newspaper Le Monde, wrote in November: "Mali is our Afghanistan." He said both countries were following similar patterns: first a military triumph, then a failed reconstruction and then a gradual spread of new insurrection, more brutal and more politically shrewd than the previous one. 

A helicopter with Bundesweher soldiers in Mali
Bundeswehr soldiers at Camp Castor in MaliImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Ayad said the reasons for this cycle were complex, and predicted that Western troops' commitment to the mission would wane with time, not least because they'd start to lose trust in their local partners on the ground. "Local authorities on the other hand are being marginalized by their western protectors, who tell them what to do, even though they do not understand the local conditions such as how to deal with this clan, that tribe, this political group or that militia." Meanwhile, the jihadis continue to spread. 

Conditions for contagion

According to a study by the American think tank NSI, the spread of jihadism is determined by a whole series of factors. Its findings suggest that, ideologically, the Sahel region is a rather difficult area for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and IS. The people there are generally not religious zealots. However, the susceptibility to such movements was increased by the spread of Wahhabism, the strict interpretation of Sunni Islam manufactured in Saudi Arabia, in the Sahel. 

Africa analyst Paul Melly on the Paris summit for the G5 Sahel force

Other issues that can help foment jihadi movements include specific local political and economic grievances. The perceived political legitimacy of a country's government can be important, the study's authors found. They said that the overall risk for the Sahel was high, "given its expanse of ungoverned space, which IS is likely to target." What's more, the contributors said that the Sahel "may be the poorest majority-Muslim territory in the world, with generally weak governments in the region, and an absence of national identity in specific states." 

A mix of weaknesses

Such charges could also be leveled at other sub-Saharan states like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. "While the mix of vulnerability and resilience may vary in these and other countries of West Africa, they share a large mixture of all factors, all of which contribute to structural fragility," the NSI report states.

All this has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to call for international and urgent action against Islamist extremism in Africa. But he surely knows that speed is but one factor in the fight against terrorism. Paradoxically, what he might need most of all to win this battle is time. A lot of time.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East