How Africa Has Become the Epicentre of Jihadist Activity

Though territorialy defeated in Iraq and Syria, since 2014 the Islamic State Organisation have given themselves the means to set up shop in Africa. By no means a secondary battlefield, the continent is today the epicentre of jihadist activities, the populations of the Sahel offering them an opportunity to replenish their troops.

Smoldering ash and charred objects on the ground in Badu near Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on July 28, 2019, after a Boko Haram attack that killed 65 people
Audu Marte/AFP

The Islamic State Group (ISIS) became known to the general public during the war in Iraq and later in Syria, especially via the declaration of the founding of its Caliphate on 29 June 2014 at the Syrian-Iraq border. At the time it claimed its objective was to “rectify the colonial injustice of the Franco-British Sykes-Picot accord”.

During that summer of 2014, the ISIS jihadists controlled a territory the size of Great Britain, straddling the two countries and ruled a population of eight million. Their black flag waved over major Levantine cities steeped in history. Two political-military coalitions, one commanded by the USA, the other led by Tehran and Moscow, were formed to drive them out. However, instead of throwing all its weight into the defence of “its” territory, ISIS, simultaneously at war with its al-Qaida rivals as well as several local factions, had other fish to fry. Just as 2012 had been the year of their expansion from Iraq into Syria, 2014 was to be that of the conquest of Africa. It was then that the “office of distant provinces” came into being and with it the group’s African and global strategy, at the instigation of its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. In this article we shall attempt to provide a few non-exhaustive examples, illustrating explicitly the African beginnings of the group, often little known.

ISIS: its preamble in Syria, its epilogue in Libya

Just as the first foreign jihadists to set foot in Syria were Libyan, so too the first African implantations of ISIS, the first cities to fall under its yoke, were in Libya. This country thus represents the group’s first involvement outside the Levant, even though its presence there, since the loss of its last bastion in Syria, has been confined to a few dozen fighters scattered across those vast desert expanses.

Derna was the first Libyan city where ISIS trained, in particular with Libyan jihadists who had been sent home early in 2014. These latter had belonged to a unit in Syria called Katibat al-Battar which was relatively autonomous, both in its operations and relations with the media. Its members took part in all the major battles fought by ISIS, including the siege of Deir-ez-Zor in Eastern Syria and the battle of Baiji in Iraq. Several French-speaking jihadists, from France and Belgium, along them Abdelhamid Aabaaoud, in charge of logistics for the 13 November 2015 Paris massacre. This was a watershed moment for ISIS in Libya. In July 2014, the unit’s Emir in Libya, Al-Mehdi Abu Al-Abyad was assassinated in Derna. Yet, three months later, the group set up an Islamic tribunal and a “board of grievances” in that same town. In June 2015, it was driven out of Derna by Majlis Shura Al-Moujahidin, an armed group allied with al-Qaida. The latter congratulated itself on this achievement in one of the rare public statements issued by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In November 2014, when the self-styled “international coalition” had begun its operations in Iraq and in Syria, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi decided to send to Libya one of his fellow travellers and right-hand man, Abu Nabil Al-Anbari, to make up for the shortcomings of his previous envoys in Derna. The latter’s real name was Wissam Al-Zubaidi, and he was military commander and “governor” of Saladin province in Iraq. He had commanded and participated in the June 2014 massacre at camp Speicher.1 He also commanded the attack on Samarra which had served as a diversion prior to the taking of Mosul by ISIS.

It was Baghdadi’s right-hand man who consolidated ISIS on its first African territory. One of his most prominent military exploits was the taking of the city of Sirte in June 2015. Coincidence or deliberate choice? Abu Nabil, under his new Libyan nom de guerre, Abdu Al-Mughira Al-Qahtan was finally killed by a US drone strike south of Derna in the night of 13–14 November 2015, the same night when an ISIS commando wreaked bloody havoc in the centre of the French capital.

The group was to hold Sirte from June 2015 to December of the following year. Despite the death of Abu Nabil, it was from its Libyan base that ISIS carried out its attack on Ben Guerdane in Tunisia on 7 March 2016, fought a six-month battle to defend its Sirte stronghold and planned on Libyan soil the Manchester bombing of 2 May 2017.

Another key figure of ISIS turned up in Libya: a Bahraini called Turki Al-Binaali, a name little known to the general public. Yet he was, and remains today in spite of his death, one of the most influential thinkers and clerics in the group. True, he was not a veteran of the jihad, in fact, had never seen action at all, unlike Abu Nabil, but he had an impressive CV, with prestigious diplomas in Islamic studies, earned from among other places the Imam Al-Uzai’s Institute in Beirut. And above all, he was a disciple of Sheikh Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, mentor of Abu Mussaab Al Zarkawi, spiritual father of today’s Islamic State group, and one of the most influential theoreticians of the modern jihad. Paradoxically, Maqdissi later became one of the principal detractors of ISIS and its methods.

Al-Binaali’s school of thought was not unanimously supported in the ranks of ISIS where there were genuine ideological quarrels and structural disputes with the rise of Hazemi’s followers – far more radical – to positions of power. Turki Al-Binaali was killed by a US strike on 31 May 2017 at Al-Mayadin in Eastern Syria. During that period, tensions between the two schools of thought within ISIS were at their height, resulting in campaigns of detention, executions and defections.

Affiliation of Shekau

While everyone had their eye on Iraq and Syria, the ideological tensions in the Levant had their equivalents on the shores of Lake Chad, where an outgrowth of ISIS had begun to take shape. The Lake Chad episode and the affiliation of Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (Sunnah Group for Preaching and Jihad, JAS), better known by the name “Boko Haram,” is a textbook case.

It all began early in 2015 when Abubakar Shekau expressed the wish to pledge allegiance to the caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The latter greeted this wish very cautiously considering Shekau’s reputation, since he had previously attempted – and quickly abandoned – a rapprochement with AQIM. In the end, his initiative was accepted but under certain conditions. After Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis in the Sinai that same year, this was the second jihadi group to pledge allegiance to ISIS with arms and baggage. A clerical “facilitator” for this rapprochement, Abu Malek, described to us the main conditions set by ISIS, among them an end to the taking of other community’s children as hostages, an end to Shekau’s media appearances, the appointment of a designated spokesperson and the requirement that all public communication be via the official ISIS media outlets.

These conditions – respected for a while – and combined with the intangible inputs from ISIS central in terms of tactics, organisation and administration greatly improved the group’s capacities and influence. But Shekau soon began to depart from this charter by attacking rivals within his own group. Several commanders and one imam were put to death during the Aid al-Adha period of prayers. It was the same Abu Malek, disillusioned by then, who gave us this information, substantiated by private recordings proving Shekau’s ghoulou or extremism. He wanted us to understand the latter’s ouster from ISIS at a time when the group itself was the object of similar accusations from within. With his back to the wall, Shekau activated his explosive belt and died gun in hand having taken some of his former comrades into Sambassa Forest on 19 May 2021. His group remained active after his death.

This internecine war did not prevent ISIS “West-Africa province” from becoming the most powerful and most territorialised branch of the group with a rudimentary administration and an increasingly broad range of operation, in both military terms, attacks against Christian communities and others aimed henceforth at official representations in central Nigeria and the State of Kogi, where a car bomb barely missed killing the country’s incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari at Okene on 29 December 2022.

“The Syrian error” casts its shadow over the Sahel

ISIS adapts its strategy to the situation in the African country where it puts down roots. Its Sahelian branch, known today as the “Islamic State Sahel Province” was not given that title until the death of the man who had founded it, Abu Al-Walid Al-Sahrawi, killed by the French forces in Mali on 17 August 2021. It turned out that ISIS did not completely trust him, believing he was still in touch with his former al-Qaida comrades. Baghdadi was keen to avoid the mistake made in Syria with Abu Mohammad Al-Julani. In 2012 the latter had been assigned a mission in Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq, then broke with ISIS and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in 2013 before leaving this group to found a group known today as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTC). This group disavowed the “global Jihad,” actively fighting both groups in the rebel stronghold of Idlib and sought a rapprochement with the international community.

Sahrawi’s allegiance to ISIS would not be publicly recognised until October 2016. His presence in the Sahel would not be officially demonstrated until March 2019, from Burkna Faso. That same year, the group acquired unprecedented fire power, with assaults and firefights which caused several dozen casualties in November among the Malian army as well as the death of 14 French soldiers in Mali, at Indelimane and Tabankort. Other attacks took place in Niger and Burkina Faso. Responsibility for all of these was claimed by the Islamic State Organisation, “West-Africa Province”. During this period, there was no official reaction from the central instances of ISIS, not even to the Tongo-Tongo operation in October 2017, in the course of which four US “green berets” were killed as well as four Nigerian soldiers. However, in January 2020, the West-African province group was to include it in its very first long video (31 minutes) broadcast from the Sahel.

This propaganda video was to mark a point of no-return in the group’s relations with AQIM and the end of the Sahelian exception. Until then, this region was the only part of the world where the two groups did not fight each other directly. Since then, their battles have become incredibly violent. Those which pitted the one against the other at Menaka (Mali) or in the Ansongo region all through 2022 caused hundreds of casualties on both sides, in areas where the civilian population are now summoned to take sides.

Until now, neither of the two groups has gained any advantage over its rival, although each has evolved. ISIS Sahel has achieved an unprecedented extension of its radius of action simply by knocking on doors in the cities if Gao and Menaka. while at the same time sanctuarising a part of Malian territory. The Jama’al Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has increased its political influence in areas where its presence is relatively modest, by taking the defence of the local population against ISIs, a tactic which has triggered several massacres in the region. In an interview granted us on 6 March 2023 by the emir of AQIM, Abu Oubaida Youssef Al-Anabi, he described the Islamic State fighters as khawarij, “deviants”, from the true faith which makes their spilled blood “licit” and fighting them “a priority”.

In its latest media release, issued just a few days before the Nigerian presidential election, the West-Africa Province of ISIS, attacked, in Haussa and Arabic, the basic principles of democracy and electoral processes in general and particularly in Nigeria. A few days later, ISIS posted photographs of its jihadists in Nigeria, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, all watching that video. Anachids (religious or jihadi songs without instrumental accompaniment) and propaganda videos are produced in various local languages. The front page of the ISIS weekly, Al-Nab is now regularly devoted to the group’s African activities in Somalia, Mozambique, the DRC, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Libya, Mali, Butkina Faso and Benin. ISIS has already mounted attacks in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Financial movements in its favour have already been detected or dismantled in Kenya and South Africa. But aside from Libya, the only urban agglomerations to have fallen temporarily under its control are Macimboa de Praia and Palma in Mozambique. Thus, the situation in Africa is a far cry from the model of the Levantine caliphate, involving territorial continuity and urban subjugation.

These examples are far from summing up the activities of ISIS on the African continent, but they show that since at least 2013 the group has a strategy for its extension in Africa. Despite the distances, security obstacles and high mortality rate, the central command maintains its authority over its African affiliates, and a constant concern for Africa which has now become the epicentre of jihadi activities the world over.

The Dark Continent is not a spare tyre for ISIS as some are fond of repeating, but an objective which dates from before the loss of territory in the Levant and one which is perfectly compatible with its prophetic dogma preaching the “renewal of the Umma”. For some of the group’s ideologists, the sunna (the law) of istibdal, i.e., the notion of replacing those Muslims who have abandoned their religion by others who are prepared to defend it, often put forward by jihadi groups, finds its embodiment in Africa.

1Photos posted on the social networks showed masked ISIS fighters shooting at point-blank range Iraqi soldiers with their hands tied in front of trenches they had been forced to dig. The number of victims is thought to have been between 560 and 770.