This cannibalistic terrorist outfit, which has no relation with Islam, despite calling itself Jihadi in order to deceive simple and unsuspecting people in culturally-backward areas, has claimed of establishing a foothold in the Dark Continent. Over the past few months, there have been contradicting reports suggesting, on the one hand, a sustainable presence of ISIS within Africa or, on the other hand, that ISIS has failed to gain major ground in the continent.
The revelation that the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks claimed by the IS was of Moroccan descent, the turmoil in Libya, and the general strife in numerous African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia that is being attributed to IS and al-Qa’ida has sparked speculation that this terrorist group is likely to expand within Africa, and even in South Africa. However, most of these assertions are the result of hurried summaries rather than sober analysis. One news outlet, for example, carried two contradictory headlines on the IS threat in Libya within two days of each other. One claimed IS was ‘struggling to expand in Libya’ and the other that IS ‘could expand from Libya’.
This, however, is not unexpected; news and analysis on IS has increasingly become alarmist. Given the paranoia in the West after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the anti-immigrant sentiment in western countries, and Islamophobia in the USA, coverage of the Takfiri terrorists suffers from exaggerations and enhances a politics of fear. Serious assessment of the threat presented by this terrorist outfit in Africa must begin with a few qualifications. First, a distinction must be made between Africans who leave their home countries to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and local African insurgents who were already engaging their domestic enemies when this terrorist outfit announced its so-called ‘caliphate’ in 2014 and who are now pledging their allegiance to it. Second, even among the insurgents, including groups such as the Egyptian Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the Nigerian Boko Haram, another distinction needs to be kept in mind. Not all insurgents are equally connected to IS in Syria and Iraq.
For example, even though Boko Haram has re-branded itself as IS’s West African Province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya), it does not have direct logistical links and is not under operational command of IS, as might be the case with insurgents in the Libyan city of Sirte, who are fighting under IS flag. Three groups of IS sympathisers in Africa must be kept analytically separate: 1) African ‘foreign fighters’ joining IS in Syria and Iraq; 2) insurgents in Libya and Egypt who claim to be IS followers and are likely in direct contact with IS in Syria and Iraq; and 3) insurgents in Boko Haram (in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Mali). Analytically amalgamating them all together as if they are represent the same threat level and operational capacity will incorrectly assess IS strength in Africa.
Boko Haram, which calls itself the ‘West African Province of IS’ is the most feared terrorist outfit in sub-Saharan Africa, It is responsible for more killings than IS. Boko Haram’s relationship with IS, despite a slew of propaganda videos is tenuous at best. Though Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau is believed to have officially pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015, there was some confusion about the issue.
In July 2014, Shekau declared his support of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to caliphate in a video. A month later Shekau seemingly declared his own caliphate in Gwoza, Nigeria, in another video. This back and forth leads us to believe that while Shekau at first toyed with the idea of declaring his own caliphate he eventually settled on being considered an extension of IS rather than claiming primacy because the IS branding would be of greater propaganda value. That Shekau and Boko Haram’s eventual 2015 connection with IS is primarily for propagandistic and branding purposes is also evident from the fact that until the end of 2014 there was no link between the two groups, as Virginia Comolli points out.
Additionally, there are no reports of Nigerians, Cameroonians, Chadians or Malians joining IS this year. Thus, other than exchanges between the groups over social media, there is no evidence of operational links between Boko Haram and IS. Even the IS claim that it could purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan and relocate it to the USA via West Africa, supposedly using Boko Haram’s logistical support, is wildly speculative, and is better regarded as an IS fantasy.
Recent statements from important governmental sources such as the French defence minister and prime minister suggest that IS is set to expand within Libya. Added to alleged reports by western intelligence sources that Libya is becoming the fall back option for IS leaders if they are squeezed out of Syria and Iraq, Libya begins to appear like the next Syrian and Iraqi base of operations for IS within North Africa.
However, these reports too are based on exaggerated estimation of known claims by IS to expand territory wherever possible. The recent UN report describes the situation in Libya more carefully: IS is an evident short and long-term threat in Libya. The group is benefiting from the notoriety of ISIL in Iraq and in the Syrian Arab Republic. However, the group’s threat should be realistically assessed. IS is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances.
Nevertheless, it has demonstrated its intention to seize additional territory in Libya. This is a concern, given the country’s strategic location as a transit point within the region, control of which would enable terrorist groups associated with al-Qa’ida, to further influence various ongoing conflicts in North Africa and the Sahel, in addition to offering a new hub outside Takfiri occupied territories in Syria and Iraq.
In other words, while IS in Libya is a concern, it does not represent a singularly potent threat in the manner that French authorities have attempted to argue, presumably not only to hammer a deal between the warring Libyan parties, but also in a bid to widen their aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria to include targets inside Libya in order to support its favoured faction. At best, IS forces within Libya have only about 3 000 fighters across the country, a far cry from an estimated 27,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Additionally, the area from where IS is believed to have drawn the highest number of Libyan fighters to Syria and Iraq, Derna, has already witnessed fighting between an anti-IS coalition and IS fighters in June 2015 that eventually forced IS to retreat to the outskirts of the city and disperse into other parts of the country. This is not to suggest that Libya is not important for IS. For recruitment purposes, it declared three different provinces in Libya: Wilayat Tripolitania, Wilayat Barqa and Wilayat Fezzan. Rather than representing IS control of territory, such statements illustrate its aspirations in the region.
Similarly in Egypt, though Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is believed to have had contacts with IS officials in Syria and Iraq in December 2014, and changed its official name to Wilayat Sinai, thus marking itself as an IS affiliate, the total number of terrorists it commands is, at most, a couple of thousand, which might have decreased if we are to believe the Egyptian government claim that it had killed hundreds of terrorists after the group’s daring raid on Sheikh Zuweid city in Northern Sinai. Also, the fact that it has rebranded itself as an extension of IS is not a guarantee that it will get more recruits.
Significantly, in Derna (Libya), IS implementation of a distorted Wahhabi version of Islam, which is rejected by most Muslims across the globe, elicited a strong backlash from the population and competing militant groups in the area. A similar result is possible in Egypt if Wilayat Sinai tries to implement the Wahhabi version of Islam, especially if done at the hands of foreigners unfamiliar with the Sinai context. Wilayat Sinai remains, nevertheless, a marginal phenomenon. While it might be able to magnify and internationalise its potential threat through the targeting of the Russian Metrojet flight, its threat is not any greater because of its association with IS. As Zack Gold notes, these developments ‘might have taken place without IS affiliation’.
Terrorists from North Africa who joined IS in Syria and Iraq would present a danger if they returned and carried out operations in Africa, as in the case of Paris and Tunisia. One source indicates that at least 170 terrorists left from Algeria, about 1,000 from Egypt, 600 from Libya, 1,500 from Morocco, and 7,000 from Tunisia. Additionally, the 70 terrorists from Somalia and 100 from Sudan also present a threat, albeit to a lesser degree. These African terrorists known as ‘foreign fighters’ potentially represent the greatest security challenge to the African continent, because of their ability to move as individuals and engage in terrorist activities in their home and in neighbouring countries.
Most, even if they are not fighting, prefer to remain in IS occupied territory and propagandise for the so-called ‘caliphate’, as with South African recruit Abu Hurayra al-Afriki. Among those who return to their homes, many become repentant and disillusioned with the reality of life under IS, and thus do not pose a security threat. Even if some returnees were potentially operational, it is farfetched to suggest that they represent a threat to a large part of the African continent. The IS appeal in sub-Saharan Africa, outside of Boko Haram’s context, has been insignificant. This can be attributed to various factors: from the non-interventionist stance of governments in the region to the small numbers of Muslims to the general absence of domestic grievances on the part of the Muslim minorities in the region. While Somalia can be regarded as a counter-example, there are factors limiting IS reach even within Shabab-controlled parts of Somalia.
Not only has Shabab sided with al-Qa’ida in its antagonism towards IS for ideological reasons, but given the proximity of Yemen to Somalia, and the assistance Shabab receives from Yemen’s al-Qa’ida affiliate, it does not suit Shabab’s strategy to link with IS rather than al-Qai'da. While there are reports of some Shabab terrorists pledging loyalty to IS, there are also reports of IS sympathisers being persecuted by Shabab for having betrayed their cause. That Boko Haram has released videos asking Shabab to consider joining IS further underlines the assertion that IS has not been able to gather an amenable audience within Shabab.
Therefore, the problem of foreign fighters, while it does represent a threat to countries in North Africa where the fighters are from, it does not represent a threat for Africa as a whole. But this does not imply that there is a significant IS threat in Africa. In terms of insurgencies in Africa, especially in Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt and Libya – places where IS could potentially find sympathisers – IS has been unable to have a major impact.
Whether in Egypt or Libya, where its affiliates have not been able to capitalise on their relationship with IS in any substantial way, or in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has used IS only for propaganda purposes, or in the case of Somalia, where IS found an enemy rather than a friend, IS has not been as successful in Africa as its propaganda would have us believe.
The conclusion is that, the IS thrives in magnifying its propaganda and spreading irrational fear, as can be witnessed in its exaggerated claims of Libya as constituting three of its provinces, or claims that it can use Boko Haram to transport nuclear weapons to the USA. Responses to IS should consider the reality on the ground as a primary guide rather than propaganda or fantastical claims.