IS Focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa — So Should the West

Sub-Saharan Africa appears increasingly successful for IS operations, replacing traditional strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa.

In its weekly al-Naba newsletter on June 16, the Islamic State published an op-ed titled “Africa: land of Hijra and Jihad.” The author praised the jihadist organization’s sub-Saharan branches for their growing success, attributing it to their religious commitment and steadfastness.

The success manifests not only in battlefield gains but also in the implementation of Sharia and governance over its controlled territories, turning them into IS’ main area of jihad and hijra with foreign fighters moving into controlled territory to fight.

“Africa today is what al-Sham used to be yesterday,” the author wrote. He concluded by calling upon all Muslims to make a hijra to the region.

IS Strengthening Foothold in Africa

Unfortunately, Islamic State has good reason to praise its affiliates on the southern continent. Since January 2020, the jihadist group has increasingly launched attacks on its rivals, highlighting its growing activity and focus in the area. 

From January to June 2020, ISIS claimed 42 monthly attacks; from July to December 2020, 44; from January to June 2021, 55; from July to December 2021, 62; and from January to June 2022, a striking 80 attacks were claimed.

This trend is unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

First, there is growing fatigue in countries that intervene where IS operates. In February 2022, France announced, alongside its mission partners, the withdrawal of all troops from Mali. French officials stated that “political, operational, and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue.” The decision followed the country’s drawdown of troops in August 2021.

French soldiers deployed to Operation Barkhane in the Sahel
French soldiers deployed to Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Image: État-Major des Armées

In addition, in late 2020, due to increasing domestic civil strife, Ethiopia withdrew thousands of soldiers from Somalia. Former US President Donald Trump also ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the country, although President Joe Biden recently announced his plan to reverse the decision, redeploying 750 military trainers.

Pitfalls of Local Governments

The vacuum left by these troop withdrawals is often filled quickly by troubling elements. Over the past few months, reports have emerged concerning the participation of the infamous Russian private security company, Wagner Group, in Mali. 

The absence of French troops jeopardizes not only the operational capacity to fight jihadists, but also the ability to restrain local pro-government militias from abusing human rights, as the Russian entity lacks the commitment to protect civilians.

This underscores another advantage for the Islamic State in strengthening its foothold in sub-Saharan Africa. Local governments too often engage in aggressive counterterrorism practices that push the local civilian population to support jihadists. 

For instance, the Nigerian government too often employed an aggressive counterterrorism policy that further alienated the local population and encouraged some to join Boko Haram.

Boko Haram - Islamic State West Africa Province
A screenshot from a propaganda video showing fighters from Boko Haram faction Islamic State West Africa Province, ahead of an attack on a military base in Gashigar, Borno state, Nigeria, September 27, 2018.

In other cases, governments are simply incapable of containing the Sunni jihadist militant threat. Indeed, the Somali government’s incompetence facilitated the increasing threat stemming from such elements.

Additionally, the longstanding ethnic tensions in many countries serve as a fertile ground for jihadist recruitment. This is particularly relevant for West Africa where jihadist organizations have been able to capitalize on the sense of marginalization of the local Fulanis who find a place among the militants.

Containing the Jihadist Threat

The Islamic State’s increasing focus on sub-Saharan Africa over the past several years seems to be bearing fruit. Increasingly, the region appears to be more successful for its operations, replacing its traditional strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa.

Therefore, recent drawdowns and withdrawals by international peacekeepers should be reconsidered, with Biden’s redeployment of troops to Somalia a positive initial step.

In the countries of the West, citizens are overwhelmingly exhausted with military intervention. However, the complete abandonment of governments in need will not make the problem disappear.

In the long run, after solidifying its foothold, the Islamic State will certainly look to expand further and plan attacks in other regions across the globe from this new hub.

Instead of ignoring the issue, policymakers need to make a better case to their publics to convince them of the necessity of a long and patient campaign to contain jihadism.

Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst

Asaf Day is a security and Due Diligence analyst at a Luxemburg-based firm.

Asaf is a Political Science PhD student at the University of Kansas and has an MA Degree in Arabic Studies and a BA in Middle Eastern Studies.

In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.

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