Central Africa is the new front of the Islamic insurgency and the new front for the Islamic State. Africa has long been a hotbed for Islamic insurgency with several al Qaeda affiliated radical groups carrying out violent insurgencies in many countries.
Right now, it is the most violent region after Syria and Iraq. However, the chaotic violence in the Middle-East and the threat of ISIS have captured the world’s attention largely overshadowing the violence in Africa.
As the Syrian Civil War winds down, and Iraq comes under control, the radical factions of ISIS have followed in the direction of al Qaeda and begun to franchise their operations abroad creating a whole new front in the countries of Western Africa.
While recent news on the Islamic State centers on the threat in Iraq and Syria, the group’s ideological hold in sub-Saharan Africa has been quietly growing, and not simply in relation to its well-known merger with Boko Haram. Indeed, over the past year-plus, three new Islamic State affiliates have gained prominence in sub-Saharan Africa.
In West Africa, the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has gained prominence with a string of deadly attacks in September and October 2016. Simultaneously, across the continent, in the semi-autonomous northern Somali stretch of Puntland, a group known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) was recently the first Islamic State affiliate to hold territory in that county, while further south, another Islamic State affiliate known as the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU) has raised concerns (ctc.usma.edu/).
The Islamic State branch in the Sahara is led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi. Sahrawi was originally the spokesman and a senior leader for the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Most of MUJAO eventually merged with the forces of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. After several leaders of Murabitoon were killed, Sahrawi eventually took the helms and defected with a faction of the group to the Islamic State. Most of Murabitoon, however, did not and eventually re-merged into AQIM (www.longwarjournal.org/islamic-state-in-the-greater-sahara-claims-second-attack-in-burkina-faso.php).
Sahrawi is a member of the Sahrawi people, who are spread across southern Morocco, Mauritania, and parts of Algeria. He is the former spokesman of Mali’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), formed in 2011 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Moktar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion—another AQIM offshoot—to form al-Mourabitoun. The group released a statement that the region’s jihadist movement is “stronger than ever,” and al-Mourabitoun would “rout” France and its allies in the region (www.counterextremism.com/extremists/adnan-al-sahrawi).
ISGS started with the merging of two other jihadi groups: The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Masked Men Brigade, which created a third group, al-Mourabitoun, in August 2013. Under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the infamous, one-eyed commander of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—al-Mourabitoun operated without any official affiliation for the first two years after its founding.
An internecine battle within al-Mourabitoun ensued between Belmokhtar’s pro-AQIM faction and Sahraoui’s pro-Islamic State faction. Reports suggest that the battle may have actually been physical. Shortly thereafter, Sahraoui and other pro-Islamic State members of al-Mourabitoun defected, forming the Islamic State in Mali, which has now become the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Despite Sahraoui’s defection, his group’s May 2015 pledge to the Islamic State went unanswered. ISGS seemingly fell dormant.
In late 2016, the group showed itself to be far from defunct. In the last quarter of 2016, it carried out three notable attacks near the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The first attack occurred on the nights of September 1-2, 2016, when ISGS targeted a gendarmerie in Burkina Faso near the Nigerien border and killed two guards (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/). The violence has only expanded to further areas of the region.
Burkina Faso has become a pinnacle to this new Islamic front. Geographically, Burkina Faso is the only country that borders all of the following coastal West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Therefore, those countries’ border security inevitably depends on Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso, shares borders with peaceful countries on the West African coast, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Those countries have largely been spared from jihadist violence, with the exception of the 2016 Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire that left 16 dead. Now, however, they appear to be on the verge of suffering from jihadist spillover from Burkina Faso into the northern regions of their countries. AQIM networks have also begun penetrating Burkina Faso and probably have cells that have reached the borders of coastal West African countries or operate there. Nevertheless, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants have been heavily active in those areas, with that group having, among others, attacked a school and a bar not far from the border with Benin in Tapoa province, Burkina Faso.
What is more troubling is that jihadists may double as bandits and vice-versa. Crossover between militants in ISGS and AQIM groups in Burkina Faso also likely exist, considering they do not appear to be fighting each other; they come from a similar historical lineage with AQIM; and are operating in the same places.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the populations in the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin are predominantly Muslim and some people—especially in northern Benin and parts of the other three countries—are ethnically and linguistically linked with northern Nigerian Hausas. These populations could enable not only positive trade exchanges but also the spread of negative jihadist ideologies. Shaykh Jaafar Mahmud Adam, who was a mentor of former Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, for example, conducted preaching (dawa’) in Benin, Togo, and Ghana (jamestown.org/burkina-faso-and-the-looming-jihadist-threat-to-coastal-west-africa/).
Jihadi attacks in northern Burkina Faso have been steadily on the rise. These have largely been attributable to a newly established but understudied jihadi group, Ansaroul Islam, which has its roots in the ongoing insurgency in Mali and is linked to al-Qa`ida’s network in the Sahel. Its budding insurgency greatly threatens the security of Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. State responses to the violence have been heavy-handed, which only furthers the cause of Ansaroul Islam.
In the fall of 2014, a series of events shook Burkina Faso that paved the way for the jihadi insurgency in the north of the country. The then president, Blaise Compaoré, attempted to amend the constitution ahead of the 2015 presidential elections in order to extend his 27-year rule7—sparking a popular uprising that forced Compaoré to resign and flee to neighboring Ivory Coast. The events that followed included a further destabilizing power struggle.
While Burkina Faso did not endure attacks during Compaoré’s regime, parts of its territory served as a recruitment ground and logistics hub for jihadis in the Sahel region. In the early 2010s, AQIM and its allies made several attempts to establish a more permanent presence in Burkina Faso and on its borders.
In addition to its recruitment efforts, al-Qa`ida has been able to conduct several attacks inside Burkina Faso since 2015. This includes the aforementioned kidnapping of a Romanian security guard, as well as the kidnapping of an Australian couple in January 2016. The same day of the couple’s kidnapping, gunmen belonging to AQIM carried out a large-scale terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, killing at least 30 people at the Splendid Hotel and a café popular with foreigners.23 In August 2017, at least 18 were killed at a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou popular with expats in another terrorist attack. While no group has claimed the assault yet, it is widely suspected to have been carried out by al-Qa`ida-aligned jihadis.
After the French military intervention in Mali and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the jihadi insurgency in Mali was largely confined to its northern regions. AQIM, its local front group Ansar Dine, and MUJAO routinely mounted assaults on French and U.N. peacekeepers. From 2015, the violence spread southward. According to data compiled for the Long War Journal, there were at least 30 notable attacks in central and southern Mali in 2015. The following year, there were 51. And in 2017, there were at least 90 attacks in central and southern Mali.
Concurrently, the rise in violence in northern Burkina Faso has been directly correlated to the growing violence in central and southern Mali. As the jihadis began to move southward into the regions closer to the Burkina Faso border, more operating space was made for cross-border raids into neighboring Burkina. The jihadis made use of several forested areas and the largely unprotected borders to their advantage. And they had new opportunities to train and facilitate the growth of a local Burkinabe jihadi faction (ctc.usma.edu/ansaroul-islam-growing-terrorist-insurgency-burkina-faso/). It is not just AQIM and ISGS that is posing such a threat.
Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly (and to a degree, currently) known as Boko Haram, has also been rapidly growing its operations in the region. ISWAP has two factions: the al-Barnawi-led faction that controls territory in the Lake Chad Basin area in northern Borno state and the Shekau-led faction, which controls land in central and southern Borno state, including in the group’s historical stronghold of the Sambisa (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/).
The Nigerian militant Islamist group has caused havoc in Africa's most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions and is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, regardless of whether the president is Muslim or not - and it has extended its military campaign by targeting neighboring states. The group then began to carry out more audacious attacks in northern and central Nigeria, including bombing churches, bus ranks, bars, military barracks and even the police and UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. It has a force of thousands of men - CIA officials have estimated around 9,000 - and cells that specialize in bombings. Through its raids on military bases and banks, it has gained control of vast amounts of weapons and money
African governments have responded to this threat. Amid growing concern about the escalating violence, the government declared a state of emergency in May 2013 in the three northern states where Boko Haram was strongest.
Eventually the deployment of troops and the formation of vigilante groups drove many of them out of Maiduguri, their main urban base and they retreated to the vast Sambisa forest to the south and the Mandara Mountains, close to the border with Cameroon. From there, the group's fighters launched mass attacks on villages and towns, looting, killing, abducting women and children and conscripting men and boys into their army. Boko Haram has outlived other militant groups in northern Nigeria and has built a presence in neighbouring states where it has carried out attacks and has recruited fighters (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501). Nigeria has also deployed additional 2,000 policemen from the Police Mobile Force, Counter-Terrorism Unit, bomb squads and the Sniffer Dog Section to join forces with the military to combat the threats in the stronghold regions North-East (https://punchng.com/bharam-2000-police-deployed-in-north-east/).
The Islamic insurgency has been a threat in West Africa for several years. In the twilight of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent failure of ISIS, it has gained serious momentum as the new front of the movement. Despite this, it still has not achieved the same levels seen in the Middle-East. Many of the recent IS organizations are either breakaways from pre-existing insurgent groups or existing groups that have simply transitioned into the IS franchise. The changing allegiances have led to a lot of internal conflict as loyalists to the old al Qaeda network have taken to battling those who have pledged to the IS.
While the IS and AQ groups have intensified their campaigns and spread into neighboring countries, none have yet reached the level of strength seen by ISIS in the Levant. They have stepped up a terror campaign of bombings, raids, and assassinations. Yet, none of them have shown the ability to mount large scale military operations or seize territory for any long period of time.
In addition, many of the African states threatened, such as Nigeria, have significantly better security forces than that of the Syrian or Iraqi militaries, which started out in bad condition. They have proven capable as a responsive force quickly taking back towns and villages held by insurgents and directing energies to hostile areas in a rapid timeframe. Additionally, public attitudes have yielded their own negative response to the insurgency. Several vigilante groups have taken to combating Islamic militants on their own.
In the interim, it is unlikely that the Islamic insurgency will gain the level of power seen in the Middle-East with all the resources working against it. However, that could change over time. They are recruiting heavily within the remote communities and trying to establish a new base of power for the movement. They are connected to the greater IS and al Qaeda movements abroad. Many of the African countries currently being threatened host a great deal of natural resources that could give financial capital to the movement. It is more likely that at some point, they could gain the ability to overpower security forces in regions of these countries, creating autonomous zones that could shelter groups working more actively abroad.
Western militaries have for some time been offering the support of advisors and Special Forces tactical teams largely aimed at combating Boko Harem. For now, this should suffice. However, greater emphasis must be placed on Africa as it is destined to be the next front of this conflict.