Islamic State’s affiliates in Africa are set for major expansion after a series of significant victories, new alliances and shifts in strategy reinforced their position across much of the continent.
Following recent gains in Nigeria, the Sahel, in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Isis propaganda published by the group’s leadership in its heartland in the Middle East is increasingly stressing sub-Saharan Africa as a new front which may compensate the group for significant setbacks elsewhere.
Detailed accounts of recent internal debates in Nigeria, where Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) recently routed Boko Haram, suggest a new emphasis by Isis in Africa on providing security and basic services to local communities. Though strategies differ according to local conditions, the new bid by the group to create zones of “jihadi governance” could pose a major challenge to weak, corrupt and inefficient national authorities, analysts fear.
“For an organisation like Isis, sub-Saharan Africa is where you can have a lot of impact with minimal [investment of] resources. This is one of the few places in the world where Isis actually controls territory of many thousands of square kilometres. It’s a frontier for them,” said Vincent Foucher, an expert on Islamist extremism in Nigeria with the International Crisis Group.
Iswap stormed the Sambisa forest, a swath of strategically important dense forest, in Nigeria’s north-east last month, killing Boko Haram’s veteran leader, Abubakar Shekau, and inheriting many of his followers as well as his treasury and weapons.
Since, the group has sought to integrate former Boko Haram commanders and to convince them not to see any Muslim living outside zones they control as an enemy and apostate, as Shekau believed. The leader of Iswap, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, has argued that holding a passport and other government identity documents should now be permitted.
Audio tapes of speeches by Al-Barnawi, seen as more educated and relatively moderate compared with other Iswap commanders, reveal he has also taken unexpected steps to improve the treatment of children in local communities.
In recent weeks, Iswap has opened up areas of grazing to herders, released detainees from its prisons, started levying religious taxes from the wealthy in some areas it controls, and sought to limit raids for “war booty” to be distributed among fighters in place of pay.
Al-Barnawi was given the leadership role by an “auditing mission” sent from the Middle East by Isis earlier this year, said Foucher.
Western officials fear that in places like Nigeria, the combination of increased firepower, greater discipline and the possible acquiescence of local community leaders to Iswap rule will make the group a formidable challenge to local armed forces and authorities.
“The problem is once they are there, how do you get them out? You have to offer the local communities some kind of alternative, and there often isn’t one,” said one western counter-terrorist official based in Mali who monitors Nigeria and the wider Sahel.
The strategy of both co-opting and coercing local communities has helped Isis build its reach from north-east Nigeria across the Sahel region, with territory that now extends across thousands of miles as far north as the Libyan border and as far south as parts of Benin and Ghana.
Rida Lyammouri, an analyst at the Policy Centre for the New South in Morocco, said many thought Isis had overreached when the group launched an effort to expand in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 but that it was now in a stronger position on the continent than ever before.
“Progress has been slow but they have managed to identify very specific areas and communities that they could build ties with to entrench themselves,” he said. “The strategy is determined by local circumstances … [but] there’s been brutal violence against communities that are opposed to them or collaborate with the state.”
In Niger, civilian militias set up by local government to combat the growing presence of Isis-linked insurgents have been ruthlessly targeted. Last month, Isis claimed two high-profile attacks in which more than 150 people are thought to have died, saying in a statement that the victims were “militiamen”, not civilians.
In Mali, at a village close to the frontier with Niger, fighters amputated a hand and a foot from three men convicted by an Islamic court for robbing bus passengers. The punishment was carried out on a market day in front of a large crowd. Similar incidents have been reported in northern Burkina Faso, where Isis is hoping to expand.
“Isis are demonstrating their intention to provide law and order. Local communities don’t question how it is done,” said Lammouri.
Mali has been destabilised in recent months by political turmoil in Bamako, where soldiers took power in May in the second change of government this year. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, recently said that France’s deployment of more than 4,000 troops in Mali would come soon be dramatically scaled down, with the remnants merged into a broader international mission. The force has been stationed in the country for almost a decade and has struggled to stem the expansion of the territory contested by groups linked to Isis and al-Qaida.
In some parts of Mali, there have been peace agreements concluded between community leaders and extremists as both seek ways to accommodate the new balance of power in the expectation that it will last.
Many such deals are done with groups affiliated with al-Qaida, which has been present in the Sahel for 15 years and has built up a substantial network of factions and leaders. Most are at a very local level, such as that in Niono, about 210 miles (340km) from Bamako, during which extremists promised to minimise violence against local communities if they were allowed to preach and if women wore veils.
Not all factions linked with Isis on the continent have adopted the outreach strategy demonstrated by Iswap in Nigeria.
Isis Central African Province (Iscap), which operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique, appears to favour brutal coercion above all else, suggesting that any ties with the senior leadership of the group may be tenuous.
The Isis-linked militants in the DRC have committed a series of bloody massacres on the borders in the east of the country with no obvious strategic goal. Last week at least 50 villagers were killed in two attacks blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Kivu Security Tracker research group said.
In Mozambique, Islamist insurgents who fly the black flag of Isis remain in de facto control of much of the restive province of Cabo Delgado, though the degree of Isis links among the insurgents is disputed.
Some analysts attribute more effective tactics of insurgents in Mozambique over the last year to outside assistance. “In 2020, there was no doubt that they had international support … and there were many videos being shared where they were showing the Isis flag,” Joao Feijó, a respected local researcher, told the Guardian earlier this year.
Interviewees who spoke to Feijó said the Isis flag was flown at insurgent bases and Isis claimed the group’s most recent attack on the port of Palma. However, there appears limited evidence supporting claims of a close relationship with the Isis leadership in the Middle East, and little sign of any effort to build support among local communities.