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Africa is the new battleground in fight against ISIS

  • elocal magazine By elocal magazine
  • Jul 8, 2024

A decade after declaring its caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has lost its territory but continues to exert influence and poses a growing threat in Africa.

ISIS’s appearance in Africa has complicated the security terrain in countries such as Somalia. : Major Joe Legros, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, via Wikimedia Commons Public domain ISIS’s appearance in Africa has complicated the security terrain in countries such as Somalia. : Major Joe Legros, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, via Wikimedia Commons Public domain


When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the caliph of Muslims in 2014 he had transitioned from a hunted guerrilla to claim he was the Commander of all Muslims. This seismic declaration, beamed around the world, led to a significant influx of jihadists to the new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), creating geopolitical implications across the world. By December 2015, approximately 30,000 fighters from at least 85 countries had joined the group. These fighters came not only from the Middle East and the Arab world but also from most member states of the European Union, the United States, Australia, Indonesia and Tajikistan . Many of these fighters were also from Africa and, in 2017, the African Union announced that some 6,000 ISIS fighters could potentially return home

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria marked a significant shift in global terrorism. However, the group came under intense global resistance culminating in the death of Al Baghdadi in October 2019. The group has since shifted its strategy, focusing on ideological propagation and decentralised operations, which have found fertile ground in Africa.

Africa to the rescue

From Osama bin Laden to Ayman Zawahiri and al Baghdadi, militant ideologues have identified African spaces as crucial to their strategy. Two years into the new caliphate, al-Baghdadi declared that the group had “expanded and shifted some of our command, media, and wealth to Africa.” Following ISIS’s territorial defeat in the Levant, Africa was projected to host the next ISIS capital. By September 2021, the Islamic State had established operations in six African countries and regions: Libya (2014), Algeria (2014), Sinai (2014), West Africa (2015), Somalia (2018) and Central Africa (2019).

The West Africa Province has two “wings” in the Lake Chad Basin (ISWAP-Lake Chad) and the Sahel (ISWAP-Greater Sahara). Likewise, the Central Africa Province has “wings” in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, giving the Islamic State a presence in at least eight locations across Africa. Africa has provided ISIS with continuity and relevance and is responsible for ISIS and its affiliates remaining the deadliest terrorist group globally for the ninth consecutive year.

The group’s appearance in Africa has complicated the security terrain. Between 2010 and 2017, campaigns to counter militant Islamist groups in the Sahel were mainly geographically focused on individual groups such as Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and al Mourabitoun.  With the introduction of ISIS, operations became more regional and less national. This shows not only the transnational nature of ISIS but also the strength of its threat. The ISIS network of provinces has created a support system between its regional branches, which has facilitated increased militant tenacity, comradery and violence. Accordingly, the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State now considers Africa as the new global priority region in which to combat ISIS.

What ISIS gets in Africa

While controlling a territory is vital to establishing a caliphate, territory is not essential to keep jihadist campaigns alive.  Similarly, leadership decapitation is seen as an ineffective counterterrorism strategy. Beyond territory and leadership, other factors are much more fundamental to the durability and danger of terrorists. Terrorist organisations generally require four things: grievances and aggrieved individuals, a supportive group or network, a legitimising ideology; and finally a conducive environment. Given these core conditions, things like territory and financing usually follow naturally. The long legacy of ISIS and its increasing threat across Africa is due to the concentration of these enabling factors in the continent.

Extremist movements often thrive on deep-seated local grievances and political instability. In many African countries, long-standing issues such as marginalisation, economic deprivation, and ethnic tensions create an environment ripe for radicalisation. Political ineptitude and corruption worsen these grievances. This undermines trust in state institutions and provides extremist groups with opportunities to exploit. For instance, ISWAP is found to perform better than many of its rivals, including the Nigerian affiliate, in many aspects of governance.

It developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the residents of the Lake Chad area and, as the International Crisis Group found, is involved in digging wells, preventing cattle rustling, offering limited healthcare, and occasionally acting against its own members who mistreat civilians. Pre-existing political instability remains a common denominator in all places where ISIS have thrived in Africa. In the Sahel, for instance, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the subsequent geopolitical vacuum is a prime example of how political upheaval can foster extremism. NATO’s intervention in 2011, while aimed at ending Gaddafi regime, inadvertently created ungoverned spaces that extremist groups exploited.

The future of ISIS in Africa

The policy responses of regional governments, the normative challenges of external actors such as France and the US, and the evolving strategies of extremist groups are likely to shape the future of terrorism and ISIS in Africa With Western nations struggling to retain the trust of several African leaders in combating terrorism and economic conditions worsening across the continent, there is an increased risk of violence and radicalisation from ISIS and its rivals. ISIS’s persistent threat in Africa underscores the need for sustained and adaptive counter-terrorism strategies.  Taking out ISIS leaders in Africa will not end the threat. Numerous counterterrorism initiatives and programs will not guarantee success, as the failure of counterterrorism in the Sahel poignantly demonstrates, without proper coordination.

Addressing the root causes of extremism, enhancing regional cooperation, and mitigating socio-economic vulnerabilities are crucial steps in countering the enduring shadows of ISIS across the continent.

Muhammad Dan Suleiman is a Research Associate at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts & Social Inquiry (MCASI) and the Curtin Centre for Australia-Africa Relations.

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