“It is far easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology.” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
“Politics are politics, but there are serious dangers in making claims about the ability to defeat terrorism in general – and ISIS in particular.” Anthony H. Cordesman
“The global anti-ISIS coalition needs to become as flexible and adaptable as the Islamic State itself.”
When it comes to the Global War on Terror, (GWOT) the Western Intelligence Community (IC) seems focused on defeating the results of terrorism, not necessarily the causes. There is such a preoccupation with defeating individual extremists, both internationally and domestically, that it sometimes seems as if the Global War on Terror is “missing the forest for the trees,” in its approach to eradicating the world from dangerous existential terrorist threats.
This week, we will continue to look at the subject of ISIS 2.0, the next generation. Western Intelligence and Special Operations forces have dealt a devastating blow to ISIS leadership by killing leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (founder, killed in 2006), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, (former head of ISIS, killed on October 26, 2019), Abu Ayyub al-Masri (killed in 2010), Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi (killed in 2010), Al-Nasser Lideen Allah Abu Suleiman (head of the military shura, killed in February 2011.) Along with these, forty-five other top organizational leaders have been killed to date.
The result of the above killings, reveals that the U.S. has won many major victories at a military level, but all of the foreign terrorist movements the U.S. has targeted have survived, or mutated into different organizations with different names. What is worse is this: if one goes back to “9/11,” none of the fundamental causes which keep extremist and terrorist movements alive – and generate new threats – have been reduced.
There is currently, the proliferation of ISIS franchises across North, Middle, and Southern Africa. They have been opening faster than Starbucks and McDonalds in Eastern Europe. ISIS looks for countries with either a weak leadership or with a “leadership vacuum.” It is the intent of ISIS to fill that vacuum with a politico-ideologically-driven agenda. ISIS gains power by feeding on the fears, frustrations, and ignorance of people. They make promises, fulfill half of a promise, and then extract loyalty through force or intimidation. Africa is ripe for the picking. The ten lowest-ranked countries in the United Nations Human Development Report Education Index are African. ISIS is having a feeding frenzy on the likes of these uneducated communities.
There is more than meets the eye concerning the growth of ISIS 2.0 in Africa. Logic would dictate that a continued kinetic response is the best option, but there are so many other variables that impact the lives of the average African citizen. Eventually, the Intelligence Community (IC) will need to re-look at its core values to determine if they have “gotten stuck” on addressing only symptoms of extremist terrorism and if they have neglected to effectively look at the causes and to place some of their emphasis on reducing those variables.
According to a 2020 Center for Global Policy report, in 2018, when the Islamic State began losing its “territorial caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s leadership knew that the organization would have to depend on external “provinces” (called wilayat) to keep its global project thriving. The provinces would launch attacks and remain loyal to ISIS, and ISIS could claim that that the “caliphate” might no longer be expanding, but it was remaining. With setbacks in Afghanistan and the Philippines, Africa emerged as the only continent where ISIS could operate as it did in Syria and Iraq during its heyday. So long as ISIS thrives in Africa, the dream of the global caliphate remains alive.
Not only is ISIS capable of conducting multi-dimensional attacks in Africa, but it is also occupying territories and overpowering local military units. Moreover, with massive rapidly increasing populations, historical narratives about reviving pre-colonial Islamic states, and challenges resulting from corruption, weak governance, and security forces’ abuses, ISIS is finding fertile ground all across the African continent. While foreign policy often focuses on geopolitical competition in Africa, especially between the United States and China, the emergence of the Islamic State as a power player on the continent – placed on top of al Qaeda’s presence there since as early as Osama bin Laden’s 1990s stay in Sudan – it means the Islamic State will be a force that governments, armies, aid organizations, multinational corporations, and, of course, civilians will inevitably have to confront.
What is the extent of ISIS 2.0 in Africa now?
ISWAP, (Islamic State West Africa Province), its official Arabic name, Jamaatu Ahlis Sunna Liddaawati Wal-Jihad (“[Salafi] Muslim Group for Preaching and Jihad”), formerly Boko Haram, translated (“Western education is sinful” ) pledged loyalty to ISIS in March of 2015. The group’s leader, since declaring jihad in Nigeria in 2010 – and thus ISWAP’s first leader – was the notoriously egomaniacal and ruthless, Abu Bakr al-Shekau.
Shekau’s counter-productive strategy of targeting Muslims and killing sub-commanders alienated him from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had initially welcomed Boko Haram into al Qaeda’s fold by releasing Shekau’s first ever written statement and training his fighters in Mali in 2010.
Shekau was so power-hungry that although he believed al-Baghdadi was a legitimate caliph by 2015, he resisted subordinating himself and making bayat (pledging loyalty) to al-Baghdadi until his sub-commanders threatened to pledge without him. Shekau feared his group would split, like in 2012 when AQIM-trained fighters formed the anti-Shekau faction called Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru). Thus, Shekau finally pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi.
How powerful is ISIS 2.0 in Africa today? Based on a compilation of best available open-source data, my best estimates suggest the presence of approximately 6,000 Islamic State fighters in Africa today, spread over a total of nine Islamic State groups.
Graphic used from Center for Combatting Terrorism at West Point
By 2017, at the height of the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, affiliations included the rebranded Islamic State in Greater Sahara, which was particularly active in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Islamic State in Somalia, a rival of al-Shabab; and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. U.S. officials attributed the deadly 2017 attack on elite American soldiers in Niger to an ISIS-affiliated group. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for recent attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique, which were ominous, since those two nations have Muslim populations, but are hardly majority-Muslim.
A combination of factors makes the continent particularly vulnerable to infiltration by the Islamic State. Some regions of Africa have little or no government control. While not ungoverned, power lies with local groups that might ally with the Islamic State. National borders in many places are porous or even meaningless, for example around Lake Chad, where Boko Haram holds sway. A number of governments have limited military, intelligence, law enforcement, and border control capability. Corruption and inadequate economic opportunity are persistent problems. Many local conflicts across sub-Saharan Africa also have a religious or sectarian dimension, for example in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Mali, while there are many local jihadist groups to provide potential allies for the Islamic State. Internet access is increasingly available, too, often via smartphones, giving alienated and angry young people access to jihadist propaganda. All of this creates an opportunity for extremists, and no organization is better at capitalizing on opportunity than the Islamic State.
ISIS 2.0, under the pledge-ship of ISWAP has extended its reach across the Sahel and has only been stunted by the introduction of very unlikely players, namely, private security groups, most of which are led by former South African and Rhodesian Officers. One can only imagine the push-back these governments are feeling from their opponents. The fact is: it has not been the presence of U.S. Special Forces, European Special Operations Forces, or even the Russian Spetsnaz or mercenaries, that has made a difference. It has been the training, equipping, and advising of these African born, former special operations officers that have been the most significant.
This is an important piece of information for the casual analyst. These “soldiers of fortune” are not necessarily better soldiers, more trained or equipped. They are soldiers who have a deep understanding of the cultural morés, tactics, terrain and languages, in a way that Western soldiers simply do not. Their presence on the battlefield ought to be causing conventional soldiers to stop and reconsider the soft tactical skills that soldiers may or may not bring to the fight. This is no small matter.
The bottom line is that ISIS 2.0 is having a field day in Africa today and is fully exploiting major gaps in the unprepared governance of provincial governments. ISIS has not had to enter into these countries and build their platform from the ground up. ISIS deployed limited, yet targeted support such as ideological and operational guidance, as well as small amounts of money, to upgrade the capabilities of a distant jihadist group adopting the ISIS brand, thus making it a far more potent insurgent force. In essence, ISIS 2.0 is keenly about brand-making and franchising. They have a singular focus. Their goal remains nothing less than establishing a territorial Caliphate that is governed by an Allah appointed ‘Caliph.’
They are finding a willing land-fill to carry out their mission. These territories are filled with disenfranchised customers who are deeply frustrated by the corruption of their governments, their marginalization by local leaders, their poverty, their inaccessibility to government services, and consistent exploitation in general.
ISIS 2.0 is happy to fill that gap by providing little more than promises. ISIS’s strategy is proof that people will hold on to a promise relentlessly when there seem to be no other options at their disposal.
Sub-Saharan Africa has proven particularly vulnerable to this infiltration by the Islamic State. This development should concern the United States. The Islamic State’s move into Africa threatens existing U.S. national interests and partnerships on the continent, and could potentially lead to the creation of terrorist safe havens or training areas. However, this is a threat that can be managed with a smart strategy, expanded international collaboration, and a modest investment of strategic resources.
We have seen the phrase, “terrorist safe havens” before. They ultimately led the U.S. and allied Western forces to engage national armies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Intelligence community needs to keeps its eye on the ball, on the continent of Africa today. ISIS 2.0 is multiplying franchises all across the African landmass like never before. This has the potential of becoming a bastion of nefarious extremist violence, all in the pursuit of ISIS’s one dream and goal, a territorial Caliphate.
Western nations need to render increasing support for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, especially regarding its support for African national assemblies. Currently, there are fourteen African nations who are participating in the Coalition, but nothing less than a 100% full partnership will allow for the dismissal of all ISIS fighters in Africa.
There should probably be an assessment as to the effectiveness of private African executive protection forces (read: mercenaries) in order to understand why they seem to be having a more robust impact on anti-terrorist campaigns than others, even others that have far more proven track records.
The Real World Capabilities of ISIS: The Threat Continues… https://www.csis.org/analysis/real-world-capabilities-isis-threat-continues
Recent Developments in Northwest Syria – Situation Report No. 22 – As of 18 November 2020…https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/recent-developments-northwest-syria-situation-report-no-22-18-november
For your comments or questions about any of our digests, please feel free to write to me at: email@example.com
The Atlantic, The inconvenient truth about ISIS, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/02/kurdish-leader-isis-conflict-iraq-iran/606502/ [access: 19.04.2020].