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A Global Strategy to Address the Islamic State in Africa

In an important shift, the 85-country Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh is poised to turn its attention to the most important battleground against the Islamic State and its affiliates today: Africa. Though since its formation in 2014, this unprecedented Coalition significantly weakened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the terror group’s affiliates are flourishing in Africa. In December 2021, the Coalition announced the launch of its Africa Focus Group. Overseen jointly by the United States, Morocco, Niger, and Italy, the Africa Focus Group is intended to synchronise capacity-building programmes with existing initiatives on the ground. Then in May 2022, the Coalition held its first-ever ministerial meeting on the African continent, reflecting the “need to meet the evolving threat” in Africa as a primary concern for the multinational coalition.

With the mission of “ensuring the enduring defeat” of the Islamic State, the Coalition will bring five established lines of effort to its mission in Africa:

  • defeating and destroying the Islamic State through military action;
  • tackling the Islamic State’s financing and economic infrastructure;
  • preventing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters across borders;
  • supporting stabilization and the restoration of essential public services;
  • and countering the group’s propaganda.

With the unprecedented spread of violent jihadism on the African continent, the Coalition is right to make Africa its new priority. But importantly, the Coalition's efforts to degrade the Islamic State in Africa cannot be rinse-and-repeat of its previous activities in other parts of the world. The goals, capabilities, and patterns of violence of the Islamic State’s affiliates in Africa present new challenges that must give rise to new strategic outlooks. Beyond merely representing a new theatre to combat affiliates of the Islamic State, in its shift to Africa, the Coalition will face a complex operational environment. Near peer competition is well underway in Africa, with China investing heavily in Africa, French counter-terrorism forces retrenching, and the American counter-terror presence vacillating on the side-lines. Looming over all of these phenomena is Russia’s newfound role in continental affairs. While its recent decision to position Wagner private military contractors as an alternative as the West retrenches, its invasion of Ukraine has significant implications for the continent. Not only does the invasion risk diverting attention and resources for leading members of the Coalition, such territorial ambitions could remake a world order that could encourage land grabs by African leaders. For their parts, African states themselves are divided in their views of that conflict as the shock waves are felt in rising wheat prices and food insecurity in Africa. Beyond external interlocutors, the Coalition will have to navigate regional rivalries and sensitives in Africa to make its campaign effective.

In light of the complexities of the environment and the critical importance of managing the Islamic State threat in Africa, we propose ten factors – four strategic principles and six operational guidelines – to guide the Coalition’s mission in Africa in the near and intermediate future.

An Overview of the Islamic State’s Activity in Africa

Just what does the Islamic State’s presence look like? Since 2014, militant groups in Africa have been pleading allegiance, or bay’ah, to the Islamic State Central. These pledges led to eight–or six depending on classification–official provinces, or wilayat, of the Islamic State: Libya, Algeria, Egypt (Sinai Peninsula), West Africa (Lake Chad), the Sahel, Somalia, Mozambique, and Democratic Republic of Congo. While these organisations have varying goals, capabilities, and relationships with the Islamic State Central, they are all broadly united in their dissatisfaction with socio-political status quos within their countries, and their incorporation into the Islamic State as a way to change those realities.

To be sure, while none of the Islamic State’s African provinces come close to the Islamic State Central’s occupation of major swathes of Iraq and Syria, these provinces’ existence is not nominal. Indeed the rise of the Islamic State in Africa has been a primary factor leading to the overall rise in jihadist violence in the continent over the past several years. The statistics are grim: the prevalence of jihadist-linked violence in Africa has risen an astounding 17-fold since 2009. Moreover, in the summer of 2021, the United Nations revealed an equally stark statistic: in the six months prior, “the most striking development of the period under review” was that the African continent — not South Asia or the Middle East — was the world region most afflicted by jihadi terrorism, suffering the greatest number of global casualties caused by UN-designated jihadi groups. Further underscoring the Islamic State’s so-called “African turn,” since the beginning of 2022, the Islamic State has conducted half of its claimed global operations in Africa; during the first four months of 2022, the Islamic State claimed more operations in Nigeria than in Iraq. Resultantly, Africa has emerged as a centre of gravity for the Islamic State, and indeed, it is precisely the rise and significant spread of the Islamic State in Africa that has led Africa to arguably serve as the new global epicentre of jihadi terror.

Resultantly, the Global Coalition’s work to address the Islamic State has never been more pressing.

Guidelines for Global Engagement with the Islamic State in Africa

To help the global community best approach the challenges posed by the Islamic State in Africa, we articulate ten principles that, as scholars and practitioners in the counter-terrorism space in Africa, we propose should guide the Coalition's mission to address the Islamic State in Africa. These are divided into two categories: strategic principles and operational guidelines. The strategic considerations are factors that should significantly shape how the Coalition understands and articulates its mission, prioritises its resources, and forms strategic partnerships in the region. The operational guidelines are our suggestions as to how the Coalition should design and execute its regional initiatives in alignment with its priorities and objectives.

Strategic Principle 1: Articulate a clear mission about what can and cannot be achieved. At its core, the Coalition — and all those relying on it for leadership — must be clear about its mission, including what it seeks to achieve and just how it seeks to achieve it. At present, the Africa Focus Group’s stated objectives remain vague. For instance, the Coalition’s broad goal of overseeing “the enduring defeat” of the Islamic State is not only unwieldy, but ultimately, we argue, unrealistic. A wholesale “defeat” of the Islamic State in Africa or elsewhere is, in effect, impossible. Ideologies of the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda) show every likelihood of endurance. The Islamic State, in particular, has the ability to invoke what Aaron Zelin refers to as  “nostalgia narrative”: harkening back to one-time glories in Iraq and Syria to encourage its perpetuation.

Precisely because the Coalition cannot “defeat” the Islamic State in Africa, it needs to be clear  what it actually can do: reduce the appeal of and violence by the Islamic State’s affiliates in Africa. Given that the Islamic State’s jihadist ideology has found resonance by providing a compelling framework to explain and compel action based on articulating then exploiting existing fissures in societies — related to grievances around politics, economics, ethnicity  — the most important strategy for the Coalition is to minimise the appeal of those ideologies as explanations and motivators for violence. In other words, the goal should be to reduce the resonance of the Islamic State’s ideology, not “defeat” it. With a clearer, more realistic goal, the Coalition will be better able to allocate resources, respond to stakeholders, and avoid imprecision. As such, the Coalition should develop a limited mission and implementation plan. This should include greater clarity on its intended incremental goals, envisioned areas of operation, and targeted partnerships.

Strategic Principle 2: Prioritise consistent, clear regional partnerships.  To date, there  are eighteen African states in the Coalition, most of which have been countering Islamic State provinces at home to varying degrees. Indeed, five of the Coalition’s newest members come from Africa. Many of the Coalition’s African members represent governments facing the most severe threats from the Islamic State: these include members like Nigeria, Niger, Somalia, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But there are notable absences from the Coalition from countries where the Islamic State is highly active, such as Mali and Mozambique. Other important countries not yet part of the Coalition are Algeria, Chad, Uganda, and South Africa. The success of the Coalition will hinge on buy-in from African states.

Why then would African states facing threats from Islamic State affiliates be reluctant to join the Coalition? One factor is regional rivalries with neighbouring countries (see: Morocco and Algeria). Another is that some African states may feel uncomfortable joining a global Coalition spearheaded, in large part, by Western states: one need one look at the Malian junta’s devastating collaboration with the Russian Wagner group to understand why it is likely not a member. Mozambique, having also invited Wagner to help battle members of the Islamic State there, may also seek to remain non-aligned. For its part, the Coalition also faces challenges around casting a wide net of partners. In certain cases, the Coalition risks bringing in members who are willing and eager to fight such groups, but whose past actions suggest that counter-terrorism actions will likely be counterproductive. In short, in a world where distrust impedes international cooperation, the Coalition needs to figure out how to get buy-in from reluctant target states (even if they do not become formal members) and how to itself ensure that its own mistrust of certain members can be managed appropriately.

Strategic Principle 3: Understand the nature of the relationships between Islamic State provinces and Islamic State Central, and each other. Understanding the nature — and limits — of African Islamic State provinces’ relationships with IS Central and other African Islamic State provinces is imperative. As Warner, O’Farrell, Nsaibia, and Cummings detailed, Islamic State African provinces’ relationships with the Islamic State Central — while certainly real — were in general terms never exceptionally robust: the Islamic State Central has in no way ever exerted anything approaching command and control over the provinces. Thus, the degradation of Islamic State Central has had little negative impact on its African provinces. In fact, to some degree the direction of the relationship has recently been the reverse: the Islamic State has relied heavily on its affiliates in Africa to show continued viability and growth. At the same, especially as the Islamic State Central has suffered, African provinces of the Islamic State have shown cooperation and mutual support for one another.

Strategic Principle 4: Avoid “jihadi myopia,” and instead understand underlying, localised grievances. Undeniably, African militant groups’ decisions to seek formal affiliation with the Islamic State is what has sounded the alarm for the Coalition. And, while the Coalition’s primary interest is understanding these groups’ links with the Islamic State Central, the Coalition should avoid attempting to understand these organisations solely or even primarily through the lens of their Islamic State affiliations at the exclusion of local drivers motivating their actions. Ignoring local permitting factors can have “profound consequences” in the form of bolstered recruitment and weakened trust in local governments. And, while research shows that allying with the Islamic State does change the behaviour and capabilities of African affiliate groups in an important way — leading to the adoption of new tactics, like beheadings and suicide bombings for instance —  it is the local drivers that are key to these organisations’ formation and perpetuation. Most importantly for the Coalition, understanding and addressing these grievances is also the key to weakening them.

Operational Guideline 1: Understand that one size does not fit all. It is essential that the Coalition’s initiatives are centred on a deep understanding of the uniqueness of each of the Islamic State’s provinces in Africa — objectives, membership, patterns of violence — and designing and executing tailored operations in each theatre of focus: a singular plan to address “the Islamic State in Africa” writ large is likely to be insufficient. To be sure, the Islamic State’s African provinces vary significantly. For instance, some like the Islamic States West Africa Province, have memberships estimated up to 5,000; others like the Algerian Province, are arguably entirely  defunct. Certain provinces, like Wilayat Sinai, have historically exploited sectarian tensions (notably between Sunni and Sufi) while other provinces, like the newly-named Wilayat Sahel, have been more inclined to exploit ethnic tensions (notably, between Fulani (Peul) and Djerma and Tuareg) to recruit. Yet still, some African IS provinces like Wilayat Somalia, recruit primarily from local communities, other IS provinces, like ISCAP Mozambique (Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma), have recruited hundreds of foreign fighters and also draw on regional financial networks to support their operations. These diverging characteristics correspond with unique opportunities for accelerating erosion and should be leveraged accordingly.

Operational Guideline 2: Recognise that kinetic approaches will be necessary, but need to be calibrated. Part of a campaign to weaken the Islamic State affiliates in Africa will require military force across multiple theatres. The threat is sufficiently entrenched that kinetic approaches must be part of the equation. What role can the Coalition play, given the unlikelihood of direct military action by major Coalition partners, like the United States? The Coalition should foster military cooperation among states facing a shared threat. Such coordination will prevent Islamic State affiliate groups from simply relocating when there is pressure in one place. Members of the Coalition can act as liaisons in particular between countries that may be reluctant to collaborate with one another or share intelligence because of strained bilateral relationships.

At the same time, the Coalition should clearly advocate for the responsible use of force. Kinetic approaches have the greatest potential to inadvertently exacerbate the threat. Unfortunately, heavy-handed operations by security forces against jihadist groups in Africa have badly backfired, alienating communities and stoking grievances. The Coalition should strongly resist the temptation to empower  corrupt and/or abusive local governments out of a desire for mission expediency (or out fear of ground being lost to global peer competitors). In addition, the Coalition should take pains to support civilian leadership over militaries.

Operational Guideline 3: Understand that improvements to state accountability will best degrade the Islamic State’s appeal. While there will be a military component to counter most, if not all, the Islamic State affiliates, these efforts need to be civilian led with equal emphasis on good civilian governance. A focus on bolstering local military forces without the civilian component undermines civilian and democratic governance. Military force must be accompanied by improvements in rule of law, policing, and judiciaries and with consultation with civil societies. The Islamic State has often found purchase in places where the rule of law is weak, where police are viewed more as a threat than as a force protecting the public, and where justice sectors are corrupt and inefficient. These governance shortfalls in particular create an opening for the Islamic State to provide predictable order. Along these lines, the US Acting Deputy Special Envoy to the Coalition, Doug Hoyt, recently elaborated on the character of the mission, “It's not going to be military hardware, tanks…We are talking about civilian-led capacity building. That's border security. That's collection of biometric evidence. That's information sharing. That's a focus on the judicial processes.” Ultimately, in order to “enduringly” weaken the Islamic State affiliates in Africa, there will need to be more legitimate systems for policing, rule of law, and justice. The justice sector will be as important as the military in dealing with members of the Islamic State affiliates, as well as dealing with foreign fighters who have joined Islamic State affiliates in Africa, often from other parts of the continent.

Operational Guideline 4: Hone counter-messaging to reach African audiences. Since the Islamic State lost the last of its territory in Iraq and Syria, global efforts focused on countering its messaging have waned,  though still endure with notable successes Today, not only does the effort to counter the Islamic State’s messaging need to be rejuvenated, it needs to adapt to the African operational environment, which is now taking centre stage in many of the Islamic State’s propaganda materials. These renewed efforts include counter-messaging in local languages and through different media. Given the centrality of local conditions and grievances, counter-messaging that addresses these dynamics is critically important for degrading the appeal of the Islamic State in local communities. In addition, given the unprecedented spread of jihadist violence in Africa, counter-messaging efforts should include areas currently affected, as well as those adjacent to affected areas in an effort to stem the Islamic State’s further expansion.

Operational Guideline 5: Deter and degrade connectivity between affiliate groups. While strategic decision making in each regional affiliate will remain largely determined by local drivers, each group’s capacity for destruction and disruption are enhanced by connections with nearby co-branded partners. The links between IS provinces are important: they help facilitate funding transfers between provinces, offer training to members of other provinces, and sometimes offer mediation between provinces. To avoid further metastasising of the Islamic State brand in Africa, the Coalition must actively work to drive wedges between the group’s regional affiliates. Failed efforts at cooperation, such as the interception of funds or liaisons between groups, helps to sow mistrust between partners. This will require military aid, some intelligence sharing, and targeting of regional financial networks and require coordination with extant regional security and political bodies, such as the Southern African Development Community. Particularly importantly in this realm, the Coalition will want to focus on deterring and limiting foreign fighter movement within Africa – especially those who would move from one group to another. In a recent report, the African Union outlined a number of recommended practices in response to this issue, including improved means of identifying foreign terrorist fighters and stronger legal frameworks for prosecuting aspirational or returning foreign extremist fighters.

Operational Guideline 6: Do no harm. Unfortunately, at times, interventions have worsened the threats, rather than alleviating them. In order to do no harm, the Coalition needs to reinforce civilian control over military and security forces and take extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties – endemic to “over the horizon” military action – that exacerbate existing grievances and bolster jihadist narratives. It also needs to avoid the pitfall of working too closely with dictatorships or strongman regimes that positioned themselves as good CT partners. This will also require holding local security forces accountable. The heavy-handed actions of security forces seeking to counter the jihadist threat have played into the Islamic State affiliates’ hands, bolstering the resonance of their narratives and stoking grievances that allow them to recruit. Given the size of the Coalition, it is well positioned to put international pressure on governments that engage in these counter-productive practices, including limiting security assistance to the units or forces involved.

Looking Ahead

The Coalition’s shift to focus on Africa comes as no surprise to governments, scholars, aid organisations, and civil society organisations who have tracked the alarming increase in jihadist violence in Africa. The Coalition’s formal reorientation is an important and welcomed step to meet the Islamic State threat where it is most severe. If carefully conceived and implemented, the Coalition has the potential to stem the Islamic State’s rise in Africa and reverse the deteriorating security situation on the continent. But the Coalition’s new initiative comes with significant risks and can even inadvertently worsen the situation. The Coalition faces a stark challenge in Africa; extant environmental dynamics and structural factors will constrain Coalition members’ ability to form partnerships, degrade Islamic State affiliate groups, and manage cross-border contagion. And it comes to this threat amidst a shift in global security priorities, the retrenchment of Western powers on the continent, a dizzying array of growing governance challenges imposed by climate change and food insecurity, and shifting demographics.

In its pivot from the Middle East to Africa as a priority region, the Coalition should learn from its experiences though it should be careful not to repeat the practices used in Iraq and Syria. Instead, this mission will likely require a different toolkit altogether.