ABUJA, Nigeria—In recent months, Islamist militant groups in Africa allied to the so-called Islamic State have been on the rampage—attacking communities, slaughtering aid workers and seizing important government assests.
Since ISIS was squeezed out of its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East last year, its offshoots—particularly those in West and Central Africa—seem to be waxing even stronger.
In the last five months, about 100 Nigerian and Chadian soldiers have been killed in deadly attacks by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) around the Lake Chad region (an area in the Sahelian zone of west-central Africa with a freshwater lake at the conjunction of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger). Since late July, the group has murdered several humanitarian workers in Nigeria and are suspected of slaughtering French aid workers in Niger. And after a series of attacks early this year in northwestern Nigeria, the Nigerian government was forced to admit last month that the terror group, which usually operates in the northeastern part of the country, does have a foothold in the northwest region.
The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which is active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique, has been even more deadly in 2020 than any period of its existence. In the first half of this year, about 447 people died in jihadists attacks—far more than 2019, which saw 309 attacks result in 660 deaths, according to a report by the Babel Street which cited the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.
Much of ISCAP's attacks this year have been in rural and semi-urban communities in northern Mozambique. But last week's attack on the commercial town of Mocímboa da Praia in which many Mozambican soldiers were killed and the local port was seized indicates that the group is extending beyond its traditional areas of operation.
One reason why ISIS-backed groups appear to be succeeding in Africa is because they adopt the approach of cultivating relationships with locals to exert great influence rather than fighting to gain territories and govern with brutality like the main Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria.
In Nigeria, for example, ISWAP—which broke away from Boko Haram in 2016 because the latter failed to heed to instructions from ISIS, which included ignoring warnings against the use of children as suicide bombers—continually assures Muslims in the conflict-hit northeastern region of its commitment to protecting them from armed elements in the region so as to win their support and loyalty.
The group learned from Boko Haram's loss of territorial control and influence in the northeast and does not at the moment seek to acquire land, which would make it easy to target. Rather, ISWAP is taking advantage of its relationship with the locals—offering them loans and allowing them to live freely in their communities—to recruit fighters and target Nigerian security forces in a way that makes it hard for its militants to be caught, as they blend in with the local population. And the fact that dozens of Nigerian soldiers, including 20 in June and 13 in July, have been killed in recent months indicates that ISWAP's plan is working and that the group is a major threat to the stability of the West African region.
ISWAP's growth in Niger is another example of how it has built close ties with local communities to pursue its jihadist agenda. The U.S. felt the bad effect of this relationship when ISWAP fighters—then operating under the name Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)—ambushed American Special Forces service members in an attack on Oct. 3, 2017 that left four Green Berets dead in the southwestern village of Tongo Tongo, after a villager tipped off militants to the presence of U.S. soldiers in the area.
As I wrote for The Daily Beast after the attack, the ISGS won the hearts of the locals when it began to provide financial assistance to villagers and protection from rustlers who often stole their cattle and other livestock. The group then used the opportunity to convince these villagers to develop hatred for America, giving them the false impression that the U.S. was building a drone station in Central Niger to use to target the area. And as the world paid more attention to ISIS in Syria, the ISGS spread into neighboring Burkina Faso using the same method it adopted in Niger and tested on the Americans. Today, the group, which has adopted the ISWAP brand, has become a very complex unit to target, as it receives wide support from the local population.
In Mozambique, ISCAP, which operates in the predominantly Muslim northern region that has long suffered from high levels of poverty and alleged government discrimination, took advantage of the economic and social marginalization suffered by people of the Kimwani tribe, where the majority of its fighters come from, to recruit members with financial incentives. One report noted that the promise of monthly wages to incoming members helped ISCAP, a group that emerged from the local sect, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (ASWJ) (“adherents of the prophetic tradition”), to expand its operations.
The strategy is almost the same in Egypt where ISIS network of cells have blended into a number of Egyptian communities and use their presence there to wage a sectarian war in the country by killing Christians with the goal of denting the glue which holds Egypt together, thereby creating instability. And as long as the government continues to allow the country's security gap to expand, ISIS will continue to have its way.
The terror organization is also active in Tunisia and Somalia where its franchises have inserted themselves into local conflicts. And even though they are not the dominating jihadist group in both countries, they play a crucial role to the instability in their respective regions.
ISIS African affiliates are known to operate mostly in multi-border areas, where they capitalize on ethnic and religious divides to draw followers from bitterly aggrieved groups. Having an expansive area of operations in border territories, as a former Navy Signals Intelligence Analyst Brian M. Perkins noted in his article for The Jamestown Foundation, allows Islamic State groups “to more easily conduct hit and run style attacks, avoid head-to-head military operations, and draw from a larger recruiting pool.” And because controlling territories—like ISIS did in the Middle East—does not appear to be paramount to the Islamic State franchises in Africa, it is extremely difficult for government forces to target these groups, as their fighters have mixed with the local population in the places they are active.
ISIS may have lost ground in the Middle East, but it is definitely not diminishing in Africa. The organization is taking a different shape in the continent. The new-look ISIS is not territory-drunk and is opening room for alliances with new groups including al Qaeda, as we've seen in the Sahel where a coalition of al Qaeda loyalists called Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and ISWAP are working hand in hand to dominate villages. And as long as sectarianism, political conflicts, and ethnic violence continue to increase in Africa, ISIS’ chances of expanding will grow even higher.