The Islamic State group, which once held about a third of Syrian territory and even more ground in Iraq, now oversees a network of affiliates of varying sizes across Africa.
Each affiliate arose in disparate regions with unique histories and grievances. Groups exploiting those grievances through extortion and violence eventually took on the brand known globally as ISIS. Now the international community is joining African nations in looking for ways to combat the spread.
Islamic State group influence in Africa has grown yearly since 2014, according to a 2021 Sky News report. By 2019, at least 22 African countries had seen suspected IS-linked activity, even if no affiliate was based there. By 2020, eight countries had seen an increase in such violence. Those eight represent West Africa’s Sahel, the current epicenter of Islamic State group violence on the continent, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.
Observers say the Islamic State group affiliations offer advantages to Africa-based militant groups and the umbrella organization. Local jihadist groups gain the cachet “of the Islamic State brand as well as the resources that come along it, such as financing, training, and a worldwide social media-based propaganda platform,” wrote Jacob Zenn, of the Jamestown Foundation, and Colin P. Clarke, of the Soufan Group, for Foreign Policy. In turn, the Islamic State group can point to successes in Africa as it struggles to recover from defeats in the Middle East.
In fact, African affiliates now are featured on the front page of the Islamic State group’s weekly publication, al-Naba, more than core groups in Iraq and Syria, Zenn and Clarke reported.
There are six African affiliates, or provinces, of the Islamic State group in Africa. The first three began in 2014 in war-torn Libya, Algeria and Egypt’s troubled Sinai region. A year later, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) formed and has branches in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel. One branch emerged from Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency and the other out of militant groups active in northern Mali.
A small group in Somalia pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2018, and a year later Islamic State Central Africa Province formed. It has branches in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province insurgency and in a faction of the eastern DRC’s Allied Democratic Forces militant group.
“Underscoring how important an area of operations Africa has become for the Islamic State, an estimated 41 percent of all global deaths inflicted by Islamic State militants in 2019 occurred in Africa,” researchers Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point wrote.
The African groups vary by history, size and motivation. Experts have found that discerning the true relationships between them and the so-called ISIS Core can be elusive. Ultimately, the Islamic State group has to designate a group as a province for it to be considered an affiliate.
Researchers Haroro J. Ingram and Lorenzo Vidino in a May 2021 essay for Lawfare, a blog of the Lawfare Institute, wrote that the Islamic State group supplies affiliates with its aqeeda (creed) and manhaj (method) for establishing an Islamic state and a brand for furthering its propaganda.
“In short, its affiliates are expected to adopt and apply the Islamic State’s ideology and politico-military strategy in their corner of the world,” they wrote.
For example, in the DRC, Seka Musa Baluku’s faction of the Allied Democratic Forces militant group has adopted ISIS Core propaganda techniques and talking points. In turn, Ingram and Vidino wrote, the Islamic State group has acknowledged the DRC militants’ operations and claimed its successes. ISIS Core doesn’t seem to be doing much toward command and control, but there is evidence of funding coming to the DRC group.
One theme that unites the affiliates is their “mutual commitment to the ideals, at least ostensibly, of a global caliphate,” according to Bacon and Warner.
In the way of aid to the Libyan group, ISIS Core sent emissaries from Iraq, returned foreign fighters to bolster local forces, offered money, and supplied governance, tactical and strategic advice.
ISIS Core also has sent money to ISWAP’s Lake Chad faction and to groups in Somalia. Money and weapons went to the Sinai group, Bacon and Warner wrote. Even so, aid to affiliates was “ad hoc and infrequent.”
Affiliation comes in three degrees, Zenn and Clarke argue. Libyan provinces, which are more or less defunct now, represented a first-degree connection because they pledged loyalty, took in fighters from Syria to establish themselves, and “maintained frequent and direct communications to the group’s core.” They also got funding, training and advice until international and Libyan forces dislodged them.
ISWAP would represent a second-tier connection. It has pledged loyalty but has had little engagement with fighters and trainers from the ISIS Core group. ISIS does, however, promote attacks and consult with ISWAP leaders.
Mozambique could be described as having a third-degree connection. Militants there pledged loyalty, but ISIS Core did not formally release those pledges. “Although a third-degree affiliation may not have led to the same harmonization as ISWAP has with the Islamic State, the benefits of its sponsorship have been seen in Mozambique, including strategy and tactics, media, and even down to uniform aesthetics,” Zenn and Clarke wrote.
The world is taking note of the Islamic State group’s growth in Africa. In late June 2021, leaders with the 83-nation Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS met in Rome and approved a task force to address the militant group’s spread into Africa.
Luigi Di Maio, Italian minister of Foreign Affairs, did not share details about how the task force would work, but he said a “holistic approach” is needed to address poverty and other drivers of extremism.
The coalition announced that the Central African Republic, the DRC and Mauritania are among the group’s newest members. Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique attended as observers.
“While it is good that the coalition is talking about Africa and bringing relevant countries into the discussion, any coordination seems to be still in the early stages, while the conditions on the ground are deteriorating very fast,” Emily Estelle, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Voice of America.
“The proposed task force should focus its energy on backing up military success with governance success,” she said. “This is the gap that lets IS and other groups keep coming back after military losses.”