On 24 November 2017, a suspected ISIS-linked attack is believed to be the worst terror attack on Egyptian soil. The Friday bomb and armed assault attack at an important Sufi mosque in Northern Sinai resulted in at least 235 people senselessly losing their lives and hundreds more injured. This attack, for which no one has claimed official responsibility, comes at a time when the Egyptian military has intensified their operations in the Sinai desert against ISIS-aligned militants. This horrific attack in Egypt raises concerns about the true nature and impact of ISIS affiliates on the African continent.
To understand the rise of ISIS, it is essential to comprehend the regional politics of Iraq and Syria that allowed for the creation of this Sunni militant group seeking to create an Islamic caliphate. The origin story of ISIS in Iraq begins when Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad, an extremist group under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, merged with al-Qaida to create al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) in 2003. Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant, killed in a US airstrike in 2006, was a hardcore jihadist who was deemed a national security threat by the US government. In a speech to the UN, Collin Powel, US Secretary of State under George W. Bush’s administration, stated that he was the link between the Sadaam regime and al-Qaida. This misguided and fictitious claim became one of the cornerstone arguments for invading Iraq. Although Al-Zarqawi knew Osama bin Laden through his father, who is believed to have been his spiritual mentor, and his participation in the Soviet-Afghan War at the tender age of 15, he was of little significance until the US glorified his position.
Al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS, exploited the rising sectarianism as a result of government policies. In Iraq, America’s decision to support Prime Minister Maliki’s government after their invasion in 2003 allowed for the creation of policies that disenfranchised the Sunni minority, especially with mass arrests of Sunni leadership and lack of political representation. In Syria, the attempt by rebel groups to oust the Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2011, amid the so-called Arab Spring, provided ISIS with the opportunity to expand its influence.
ISIS rose to international popularity when media sources reported on their remarkable success of conquering territory in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria to create the Islamic State. Their ability to conquer massive terrain with limited public knowledge until 2014 resulted in thousands of young Muslim men and women joining the ranks including many Africans.
Although ISIS’s origin begun as an al-Qaida affiliate group, they are currently rival groups fighting for support from the same constituents. The most prominent ideological difference between the two group revolves around sectarianism. As stated earlier, ISIS has exploited the sectarianism as a means to gain support and expand its influence, an element that is not prominent in al-Qaida. The current leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been very critical about AQI’s attacks on Shia civilians in 2005. Al-Qaida’s main focus continues to be its opposition to American and its western allies’ influence in the Muslim world. Al-Qaida, unlike ISIS, continues to criticize Arab regimes who have aligned themselves to the West.
Africa has become a new frontier for the fight for influence between al-Qaida and ISIS. Al-Qaida’s presence in the continent stems from the returnees from the Soviet-Afghan war. Bin Laden’s exile to Sudan in 1992 solidified alliances between local groups and al-Qaida. The prominence of ISIS in 2014 caused some groups to either completely change their alliance from al-Qaida to ISIS or create a schism with differing alliances. On November 10, 2014 alone, several groups in Algeria, Egypt, and Libya pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State.
The suspected attackers of the Sufi mosque mentioned in the introduction, are assumed to be affiliated or loosely-affiliated with Sinai-based groups that pledged their allegiance to ISIS at the height of their caliphate at the end of 2014. The most prominent group is the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), also known as Ansar Jerusalem or Islamic State-Sinai province. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was loosely affiliated to al-Qaida before changing its allegiance.
The two most prominent groups affiliated with ISIS in West Africa are Boko Haram and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Abu Bakr Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, announced in March 2015 its formal allegiance to ISIS, rebranding to become “Islamic State in West Africa.” Before this, Boko Haram never officially pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida, Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. The decision to pledge their alliance to ISIS was met with strong opposition from al-Qaida affiliate groups such as Ansaru. The leader of Ansaru, Khalid al-Barnawi, echoed similar sentiments to al-Zawahiri in 2005 against AQI. Al-Barnawi criticized Boko Haram’s decision to attacks “Muslims and public places such as mosques, markets and motor parks” as “contrary to the teachings of Islam.” The push to annex as much territory in Borno State in Northern Nigeria, according to Ely Karmon, comes just three months after their official allegiance to ISIS. MOUJAO, an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), schism into two organisations when the spokesman, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, and his allies pledged their alliance to al-Baghdadi, creating the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) May 2015.
Similar to ISGS, a small segment of al-Shabaab broke off to become an independent group under the leadership of Abdiqadir Mumin allied to ISIS in 2015. Godane, the previous Emir of al-Shabaab, appointed Abdiqadir Mumin as the Emir of al-Shabaab in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in Northern Somalia. The fighters who refused to follow Emir Mumin’s footsteps are currently fighting against the ISIS-affiliated group for control and influence in Puntland, an essential and strategic territory for al-Shabaab.
Hussein Solomon, one of the top scholars on terrorism and insurgency in the African continent, voiced his rising concern regarding the growing presence of ISIS-affiliated groups in mostly Muslim-majority countries (Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia). The brazen nature of these groups has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.
The most dangerous group allied to ISIS that frequently used force against civilians is Boko Haram. Since they pledged their alliance to ISIS in March 2015, they have conducted over 600 attacks causing the deaths of thousands. Boko Haram insurgency in 2015 alone resulted in the deaths of over 6000 people in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Based on University of Maryland’s database, Boko Haram’s attacks “accounted for 36 percent of all attacks by ISIS-affiliated perpetrators and 66 percent of the resulting deaths.” The previous year, although not allied to ISIS, resulted in similar high casualty rates. In fact, in 2014, the group was the most dangerous group in the world, topping al-Shabaab and ISIS. 2016 saw a reduction in the number of attacks and number of casualties by the extremist group. Despite the decrease, their attacks still accounted for a quarter of all attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups and 37 percent of all deaths. The frequency of the attacks by Boko Haram has displaced over 2 million people.
The Sinai-based ISIS-affiliated groups, although frequently targeting the Egyptian military, have conducted high profile attacks on civilians. Before the Friday attacks, the most devastating attack was the shooting down of the Russian aeroplane with over 200 passengers in the Sinai Desert in September 2015.
As stated in the previous sub-section, a segment of al-Shabaab splintered off in Puntland in 2015. The group, although still in its infancy, is slowly increasing their confidence to conduct symbolic and prolific attacks. On October 26, 2016, a year since their official splintering, approximately 50 fighters managed to seize Qandala, a small sparsely-populated town in Puntland. In addition to making small territorial gains, they have conducted suicide assaults in Bosasso, the capital city of Puntland, resulting in civilian deaths. The increasing threat of ISIS in Puntland forced America not only to place the group on its list of terrorist organizations but also to conduct, for the first time, airstrikes in Northern Somalia.
Like with ISIS, groups affiliated with ISIS have released videos showing the beheadings of individuals viewed as enemies of the state including ABM and ISIS in Libya. The most devastating of these instances is the beheading of the 21 kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya in February 2015.
So far, African countries, African Union, and regional organizations have had limited success in defeating independent extremist and al-Qaida-inspired groups. Most of their tactics have involved the use of military force which cannot be sustained forever. African countries must dedicate resources to understand the root causes for the rise and prevalence of extremist groups. There is a need to create solutions that tackle the historical legacies that perpetuate the disenfranchisement of minorities and stagnation in development. It is important that the continent as a whole acts swiftly and unitedly to combat the rising threat of ISIS-inspired groups and must determine whether they require a different approach than the one currently being used to fight al-Qaida-affiliated groups.