A meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS earlier this week highlighted concerns that the so-called Islamic State is continuing to spread throughout Africa despite international efforts to combat it. Now there are fears that the unraveling of international military support in Africa could encourage further growth of the terror network.
Lead Africa researcher at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Jason Warner, spoke to the importance of ISIS’ reorienting from the Middle East to Africa.
“The Islamic State’s presence in Africa has been clear and steadily growing, even as IS Central’s power has waned,” Warner said, according to Voice of America. “The sheer number of IS African provinces and wings with clear staying power has arguably created an even more intractable threat from IS than we’ve seen in the past.”
Much of that success, however, can be attributed to already-extant rebel groups throughout Africa’s border regions rather than any real ISIS hierarchy. Many such groups have accepted training and networking aid from the 20,000 odd jihadists who escaped from Syria and Iraq into Africa.
“The situation remains very fluid, with jihadist groups often changing allegiances or splintering into either IS or al-Qaida affiliated groups or maintaining a nominal independence,” military historian Joseph Micallef wrote of the situation.
Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than on the ground in northern Mozambique, where ISIS-affiliated fighters struck monumental economic damage by capturing the city of Palma earlier this year, which served as the major transportation hub for a $60 billion natural gas development.
The siege was carried out by regional terrorist group Ansar al-Sunna, locally referred to as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) but unrelated to the Somali organization of the same name. The U.S. designated the group as a branch of ISIS earlier in March but, like so many similar factions throughout Africa, it is nearly impossible to explicate the actual extent of the relationship between the two.
Indeed, what makes ISIS’ spread through Africa simultaneously perplexing and difficult to mitigate is the fact that most ISIS-affiliated groups do not appear to be pursuing the goal of global jihad at all, but are instead using the ISIS “brand” to recruit more fighters and solicit greater funding in order to pursue hyper-localized conflicts.
And therein lies the rub. What is now spoken of as ISIS’ Central African Province (ISCAP) was until very recently nothing more than a large collection of disparate gangs like Ansar al-Sunna. When trying to discern the actual extent of ISIS proper in Africa then, as with so many things on the continent, ambiguity reigns supreme.
Such ambiguity is precisely why Global Coalition leaders are concerned about the apparent lack of a serious international commitment to Africa’s ISIS problem, and why ISIS-affiliated groups may continue to prosper and even come into political power in the coming years.
The U.S. currently has some 5,100 troops spread throughout the African continent, though the Pentagon has reportedly been mulling the possibility of further reducing that number as the nation reorients to competition with near-peer rivals Russia and China. France, likewise, announced earlier this month that it would be ending its historic mission in the Sahel in favor of initiating a more broadly international mission that would not require the nation to bear so much of the military and economic load.
The damage that such withdrawals will have on the U.S. and France’s immense counter-terrorism operations remains to be seen, but local leaders are already hedging their bets.
In both Burkina Faso and Mali, political leaders pursued unofficial talks with militants, reaching agreements that allowed jihadists and their families to trade at market and receive medical care in return for the a vow from jihadists to cease all attacks and lift road blockades.
For now, the future of the international commitment to fighting ISIS in Africa is up in the air, as is the future extent and legitimacy of ISIS throughout the continent.