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What Is the State of ISIS in Africa?

What Is the State of ISIS in Africa?

Explainer

5 min read

Ryan Cummings Signal Risk, Director

Posted on: 15th August 2016

On 29 June, ISIS commemorated the second anniversary of the founding of its caliphate. Marking the occasion, its Amaq media house released an infographic detailing the caliphate's expansion beyond its heartland in the Levant. One of many testaments to the group's maxim of baqiya wa tatamaddad (or remaining and expanding), the infographic noted countries where ISIS had branched out. Of the 17 listed, seven are located in Africa, a continent where social, political, and economic turmoil has been, and continues to prove, conducive to violent radicalisation.

But what is the actual state of the Islamic State in Africa, and is the group honouring its defiant axiom on the continent?

As I write, fighters of ISIS in Libya are seeing their positions come under heavy assault by government-aligned militias, supported by US airstrikes, in the city of Sirte. The coastal city once formed part of contiguous ISIS-held territory, which was the largest extension of ISIS' so-called caliphate outside the Levant.

In Algeria and Tunisia, ISIS has made inroads.

Following a series of crushing defeats to militias loosely aligned with rival Libyan administrations, ISIS-held territory – which at its zenith in early 2016 comprised major towns including Sirte, Tobruk, and Derna – has contracted to a few square kilometres in central Sirte. Yet it still remains premature to write the concluding chapter on ISIS' experiment in the North African state. While both of its Wilayat Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Barqah provinces in Libya's hotly-contested coastal regions have been downgraded, ISIS in Libya has a third branch known as Wilayat Fizzan in the country's desert southwest. A lack of ISIS activity and concomitant counter-terrorism operations in the region, make Wilayat Fizzan an attractive Libyan theatre in which ISIS can regroup, replenish, and recalibrate its armed activities.

Neighbouring Egypt is another country where ISIS' expansion has met mixed fortunes. In the country's insurgent-embattled North Sinai governorate, ISIS won the allegiance of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which would form the backbone of Wilayat Sayna, or Sinai Province – a purportedly 2,000-strong Islamist extremist group principally operating across the northern expanse of the desert peninsula. Sinai Province has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks that have primarily targeted security interests in and around the towns of El-Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid.

As in Libya, however, Sinai Province has been curtailed by incessant counter-insurgency operations, yielding significant logistical and operational losses for the group. Highlighting this fact, the Egyptian military announced on 4 August that it had killed 45 of the group's militants, including the group's famed leader Abu Duaa al-Ansari, in recent counter-terrorism operations. How al-Ansari's alleged death will impact Wilayat Sayna remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in the Maghreb, ISIS has made tentative inroads into both Tunisia and Algeria. The group's support in the former is particularly prolific with Tunisia being the largest export of ISIS' foreign fighters. A March 2016 incursion by ISIS-aligned militants on the town Ben Gardane, near the Libyan border, illustrated that Tunisia could become an operational, in addition to a recruitment, hub for the group. Whether this will be achieved will depend on whether Tunisia's newly forming government can treat both the symptoms and causes of violent extremism in the country.

ISIS has failed to make headway in French-speaking West Africa.

In Algeria, an ISIS faction known as Wilayat Jazair or Jund al-Khilafah possesses an operational presence across the country's Mediterranean coast provinces. Apart from a counter-terrorism-primed military, however, Wilayat Jazair's expansion into Algeria faces significant opposition from the powerful al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to which the group was formerly aligned. Wilayat Jaza'ir limited size and lack of activity suggests that AQIM's monopoly on the jihadi theatre in Algeria will not end anytime soon.

On the topic of AQIM, ISIS has also seemingly tried and failed to make in-roads into the group's sphere of influence in Francophone West Africa. Instead of deepening existing cleavages, however, the looming ISIS spectre has seemingly galvanised AQIM and its wantaway offshoots as demonstrated by a series of collaborative and high-profile attacks in West Africa by AQIM, al-Murabitoun, and Ansar Dine.

ISIS has been able to establish a foothold at the confluence of the Nigerian, Nigerien, Chadian and Cameroonian borders. This marks the killing fields of the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) – a moniker adopted by Boko Haram following its pledge of allegiance to ISIS in March 2015. Although ISIS inherited its largest and most powerful affiliate in Boko Haram, a multi-lateral counter-terrorism campaign has seen the sect yield large swathes of territory, weapons fighters, and hostages it had accrued over its decade-long insurgency. With the frequency of Boko Haram activity is the lowest in years, a leadership struggleostensibly linked to the group's allegiance to ISIS is likely to only further inhibit its pre-eminence.

The jihadi group's expansion across Africa is facing resistance.

In East Africa, early suggestions that ISIS could create fissures within the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab Islamist group appear to be short lived. An October 2015 defection by al-Shabaab commander Abdiqadir Mumin to ISIS failed to create the domino effect many anticipated. Instead of precipitating a viable rival to the al-Qaeda loyalists, Mumin and around 150 of his supporters have retreated to the Bari Mountains of Somalia's Puntland region in an ostensible bid to evade aggressions from both al-Shabaab and government-aligned forces. While the isolation of their mountainous retreat may provide Mumin's faction much-needed sanctuary, it could also see Somalia's ISIS expedition slowly fade into obscurity.

Outside of Somalia, little-known groups such as Jahba East Africa, which claims to have a presence in Kenya and Tanzania, continue to sporadically pledge allegiance to ISIS. However, their activity, which has been limited to amateurish video and social media communiques, is perhaps indicative of their capabilities or a lack thereof. Perhaps more telling is the fact that none of these pledges were ever acknowledged by ISIS in any one of its myriad communication channels.

So what is the state of the Islamic State in Africa? Seemingly, it is not that different from the group's trajectory in the heart of the caliphate. As in the Levant, the culmination of political violence, weak governance structures and dire socio-economic conditions has provided ISIS with a window of opportunity to take root in the continent. However, akin to Iraq and Syria, its expansion across Africa is facing significant resistance from various avenues to varying degrees. Two years may be too short a time to conclude whether ISIS will remain and expand or crumble and contract; however, developments over this time period does suggest that it may yet be a while before we can definitively conclude on the state of the Islamic State in Africa and beyond.

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Conflict & Geopolitics

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