Islamic State Africa – An Inevitability?

In 2018, it was estimated that as many as nine Islamic State ‘cells’ existed across Africa. Whilst lacking their predecessor’s numerical support and contiguous geographical influence, today they constitute a growing menace across the entire continent. Groups professing the ideology of IS now occupy territory in North, West, Central, East and Southern Africa. ‘Islamic State Africa’ is a real threat.

Background And Affiliations

ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province), ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) IS-CAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province) and Islamic State Libya are the four most influential offshoots of the original Middle Eastern movement now known as ISIL. ISWAP is a pseudonym for the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, which proclaimed its subservience to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015. The territorial remit of ISGS and IS-CAP has incorporated terror attacks across the Sahel belt, the DRC and Mozambique. Fighters claiming association with these IS sub-units have been recruited in the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia. Smaller groups claiming IS affiliation, such as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), are less well established and have less reliable ties to senior IS figures (ISS has been openly outlawed by the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab).

Organizational Strength

Although IS in Africa does not rival the level of dominance it once exercised in Syria and Iraq, there are indications that its ideological reach is steadily increasing. In March and April of this year, the Mozambican group ‘Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jamma’ or ‘Ansar al-Sunna’ was reinforced by fighters from across East Africa when it came under joint attack by government forces and the PMCWagner. The speed, numbers and coordination shown by Salafist extremists in Mozambique shows the collective organisational power still wielded by IS. The ability of this coalition to successfully repulse both African troops and heavily armed Russian mercenaries should serve as a warning of Islamic State’s continuing relevance. In Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique, three years of insurgency has left hundreds of civilian casualties and 100,000 displaced from their homes. Civilians have been preyed upon in increasingly barbaric fashion, with reports of mass beheadings of villagers in Xitaxi on April 7th.

Evolution On The Continent

That ISIL has transitioned into Africa on an increasingly destabilising basis is unsurprising. Whereas ISIL had its origins in years of insecurity wrought by Western intervention in the Middle East, IS has found various distinct proving grounds for radicalism in its new theatre of operations. Ethnic division rivalling the religious schism between Shia and Sunni, coupled with Africa’s own environment of virulent religious competition, makes for willing recruits in numerous disaffected regions. This regional and societal discontent is perhaps the greatest factor in fuelling the rise of IS in Africa. Relying on youth unrest and poverty as catalysts for recruitment into extremism, IS has been able to swell its ranks immensely.

Any Hopes For Averting An Imminent Threat?

Heavy handed military solutions have done little to address these issues. In Nigeria, where the largest African led battle against extremism has raged for over a decade, repeated attempts at eradicating Islamic fundamentalism have met with failure. The same has proved true in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where military ventures supported by former colonial powers (principally, France) have created only a hydra-headed plethora of opponents through over reliance on military force. “There are no fully military solutions here, just holding actions,” was the apt summation by Alice Hunt Friend, a former senior analyst at the Pentagon. Long term peace and stability are impossible without major investment in socio-economic development and governmental reform. Corruption, which enables the growth of fundamentalism by weakening state authority and removing faith in judicial accountability, must be extirpated. Support for grassroots economic development and providing people with the means to support themselves must rank higher on the agenda of foreign aid budgets than it currently does. Airpower, special forces and mercenaries cannot solely reverse the tide of extremism beginning to torrent across the continent.

Sam Peters