ISS: As terrorists claim new ground, an African strategy is vital

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As Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda leaders have been targeted and eliminated internationally, the terrorist groups have expanded and consolidated their African operations. According to Jihad Analytics, half the attacks claimed by IS since the beginning of 2022 were carried out in 10 African countries. Among them were Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – the four Boko Haram-affected countries of the Lake Chad Basin.

Boko Haram factions are also expanding operations beyond the region. For a long time, the eight primary target areas of violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin were North and Far North (Cameroon), Lac and Hadjer-Lamis (Chad), Diffa (Niger), and Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (Nigeria). However in 2022 the scope has expanded, particularly with the establishment of Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) cells in other parts of Nigeria.

This has complicated counter-insurgency operations, especially where national militaries are already overstretched. The extension of terrorist activities beyond the Lake Chad Basin also puts these groups beyond the reach of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – a military response to Boko Haram set up by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

There is the growing possibility of mergers or alliances of convenience involving the three prominent violent extremist groups in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, namely ISWAP, Ansaru and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). The move to expand and consolidate operations is forging unlikely ties not only between terrorist groups but between them and organised criminals.

Two examples are the kidnapping of train passengers in Kaduna, Nigeria, in March and the jailbreak leading to the escape of prisoners affiliated with Boko Haram in Abuja, Nigeria, in July. The former involved a collaboration between the Boko Haram faction Ansaru and criminal gangs referred to as bandits. The latter brought together two Boko Haram factions, Ansaru and ISWAP.

Growing links are also being observed between Boko Haram offshoots outside their usual geographic zones of operation. A merger of the three breakaway factions may cause a spillover of terrorism in Nigeria and the wider Sahel.

Ansaru is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, while ISWAP owes allegiance to the IS core. JAS has reportedly reached out to IS, leading the global terror organisation to nudge its most successful affiliate, ISWAP, towards an alliance with JAS. A merger could see a consolidation of fighters and resources. It may also lead to greater control of economic activities in the communities where these groups operate, improving terrorists’ access to income.

These trends could expand recruitment into violent extremist groups. Attacks such as the Abuja jailbreak show the ability of perpetrators to target capital cities in affected countries. Boko Haram has hit N’Djamena in Chad and Abuja in the past.

Collaboration between terrorists and other armed groups will affect counter-insurgency measures, making a careful analysis of the conflict dynamics vital. Only by staying ahead of the curve and being proactive can Lake Chad Basin and other African countries avoid becoming more deeply entrapped.

The rise of banditry and abductions signals worsening insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin. Nigeria is currently the epicentre, but the phenomenon is rising in northern Cameroon. Train attacks, hostage takings and arms flows increasingly characterise the already vulnerable region. Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones are particularly affected, with transnational expansion likely.

In the 16 June 2022 edition of its Al-Naba publication, IS declared Africa the land of Hijra and Jihad and called on its members to relocate to African countries. Analysts have observed the growing involvement of IS and al-Qaeda in the affairs of their African affiliates. The prevailing belief is that the continent is the next stronghold for an ‘Islamic caliphate’.

Between January and June 2022, Nigeria had the second-highest number of IS-claimed attacks (305), just behind Iraq and ahead of Syria at 337 and 142, respectively. The actualisation of IS’ desire to ‘remain and expand’ in Africa may internationalise a conflict that has hitherto been primarily local.

If more terror attacks are launched from locations such as the Lake Chad Basin, these new target countries may be further isolated from the rest of the world through profiling and travel restrictions.

The African Union (AU) has shown a willingness to support regional organisations such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission in the fight against violent extremism. This was emphasised at an AU Peace and Security Council meeting on 23 September. Given the increasing complexity of the situation and a clear trend towards terrorist expansion in parts of Africa previously spared, the AU’s role is crucial.

Drawing on its experience in Somalia and the Lake Chad Basin, the AU’s security bodies should assess the current threats and upgrade their responses accordingly. This implies a consolidated approach that aims to stabilise affected regions, focusing on the military and the socio-political sources of violent extremism.

Greater AU support is also needed for the Lake Chad Basin’s stabilisation and recovery strategy. The AU should also consider bolder engagement with the 85 country member-Global Coalition against Daesh, which in December 2021 announced the establishment of an Africa Focus Group.

Written by Lake Chad Basin project, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, Dakar.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.