Outlasting the Caliphate: The Evolution of the Islamic State Treat in Africa.

AuthorWarner, Jason

Beginning in 2014, individual jihadis and groups of jihadis around the African continent have pledged allegiance to Islamic State Central. By the end of 2014, the Islamic State had already declared fve official provinces--or wilayat--in Africa: three in Libya and one each in Algeria and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. By the end of 2015, it had added one more in the Lake Chad Basin, where the group previously known as Boko Haram became the Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP). By mid-2018, the Islamic State had begun to consistently describe militants in Somalia as members of a new Islamic State province, and by early 2019, it had declared yet another province in Africa, the Islamic State's Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which had "wings" (a) in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. Throughout this time, other sympathetic and robust cells--which would never themselves be elevated to "province" status like those mentioned above--would emerge around the continent as well, most notably in its "Greater Sahara" branch (which would eventually become a part of ISWAP), and the "soldiers of the caliphate" in Tunisia. Elsewhere in places such as Morocco and Kenya, and other countries, individuals inspired by Islamic State Central would undertake violence in its name.

Yet even as the Islamic State's presence grew throughout the African continent between 2014 and 2019, well before the end of this period, its central command's positions in Iraq and Syria began to deteriorate. In March 2019, Islamic State Central lost the last remaining territory of its Middle Eastern caliphate, in Baghouz, Syria. Islamic State Central's misfortunes worsened when its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria in October 2019. Given that this one-two punch significantly weakened Islamic State Central both practically and reputationally, it would not have been surprising if these developments had been accompanied by a decline in enthusiasm among the Islamic State's African provinces and non-province afliates for the Islamic State enterprise, and also a decreased operational tempo. But Islamic State Central's misfortunes did little to lessen, at least outwardly, its African provinces' and non-province afliates' commitment to its project. By November 15, 2019, almost every African Islamic State province and non-province afliate except for Algeria (b) had quickly pledged allegiance (c) to the Islamic State's new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who the U.S. government has identifed as Amir Muhammad Sa'id 'Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla. (1)

This article examines how Islamic State Central's annus horribilis of 2019, which cemented its decline, impacted--or not--the activities and overall strength of its African provinces and non-province afliates. In the main, the authors show how and why Islamic State Central's 2019 decline had seemingly little impact on the threat trajectory of its African provinces and non-province afliates. (d) As the authors argue in a soon-to-be-published book, (2) the Islamic State's African provinces have always acted with substantial degrees of autonomy from Islamic State Central, and thus, their parent group's decline did little to alter their trajectories. Indeed, post-2019, the Islamic State's West Africa Province remained deadly as ever while its provinces in Libya, Sinai, and Somalia continued their pre-2019 trajectories as pernicious, though generally contained, threats. Notably, the Islamic State's Central Africa Province and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) group (which would be subsumed into the West Africa Province), increased their violence post-2019. Elsewhere, Islamic State provinces (like Algeria) and non-province afliates, which had historically been quiet, sufered no discernible declines.

Before discussing the overall "state of the Islamic State" in Africa as 2020 comes to a close, this article provides brief histories of the evolution of each of the six official Islamic State provinces in Africa as well as the largest non-province Islamic State afliate group in Africa, in Tunisia. In each case, the authors assess the impact (or lack thereof ) of Islamic State Central's 2019 annus horribilis. The authors drew on a wide variety of sources, including open-source reporting in various international media, interviews with observers on the ground, and analysis of open-source propaganda by the groups themselves.

Libyan Provinces

Once the exemplar of success of Islamic State Central's extra-Middle Eastern provinces between late 2014 and late 2016, the Islamic State's presence in Libya has since declined precipitously, though it looks to be on a slight upward trajectory since al-Baghdadi's death in October 2019. After the fall of Qaddaf in 2011, thousands of Libyans began traveling to participate alongside the anti-Assad rebels in Syria as early as late 2011, (3) where rather than afliating with the primary al-Qa'ida presence there, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), they formed their own distinct fighting force, the Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, or the Battar Brigade. (4) This force would ultimately align with the Islamic State when the Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State split occurred in April 2013. (5) Eventually, many of these Islamic Statealigned fighters returned to Libya--some with battle fatigue (6) but others remaining under the direction of the subsequently formed Islamic State Central (7)--and in Derna, merged with members of the pre-existing jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia (Libya) (8) to form a new group, the Islamic Youth Shura Council (or Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, or MSSI). (9)

The MSSI began to offer statements of support to the Islamic State--even before it had been fully announced--in June 2014, and pledged bay'a by November of that year. (10) By the end of 2014, three Islamic State provinces had arisen in Libya--Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania--with Libya-based Islamic State soldiers (mostly local but many foreign) occupying entire portions of the major Libyan towns of Derna (late 2014 to mid-2015) and Sirte (February 2015 to December 2016). (11) Between late 2015 and late 2016, the Islamic State in Libya was consistently estimated to have between 2,000 and 6,500 fighters (12) with estimates varying widely within that range. In these eforts, its members undertook widespread governance eforts of varying eficacy, many of which were marked by brutal human rights abuses for citizens who resisted its rule. (13) Despite these occupations, the Islamic State was driven from its major territorial when targeted by a joint U.S.-Libyan militia ofensive that ended in December 2016.

From December 2016 until al-Baghdadi's death in October 2019, the Islamic State in Libya was sporadically active, despite being profoundly weakened from its 2014-2016 apogee. By the end of 2016, most surviving Islamic State members had fed to Libya's more remote, southern Fezzan desert, though the group only occasionally launched larger-scale attacks in cities, including a May 2018 attack on the High National Elections Commission of Libya in Tripoli in which at least 12 were killed by dual suicide bombers (14) and a September 2018 operation in which Islamic State militants attacked the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli, killing two and injuring 10. (15) The Islamic State's most active month during 2019 was April, when it conducted, according to tracking by Aaron Zelin, at least 11 attacks, in Sabha, Tmassah, al-Fuqaha, Ghadduwah, Zillah, Darnah, Samnu, Haruj, "and Checkpoint 400 between Sabha and Jufrah." (16) In May 2019, members of the Islamic State in Libya allied with Chadian fighters to attack a Haftar-LNA training base in Sebha, killing eight, (17) and launched another two attacks in Derna in June 2019, which injured 18. (18) In response, in September 2019, the United States launched four airstrikes (19) against Islamic State militants in southern Libya (e) (killing an estimated 43 militants, or one-third, of all of the Islamic State's Libyan fighters). (20)

Media production by the Islamic State in Libya also declined after 2016. According to Zelin, Libyan Islamic State groups produced only four videos between 2017 and 2019, (f) despite the various provinces having produced nearly 50 media products between 2015 and 2016. (21)

However, the disastrous decline-cementing 2019 for Islamic State Central does not appear to have further weakened the Islamic State in Libya. The group's Libyan Province is essentially as strong/weak as it was at the end of 2018. With only an estimated 100 to 200 fighters in southern Libya according to a U.N. report published in January 2020, (22) and with the one-time emir of its Barqah province, Malik al-Khazmi, believed to have been killed in 2019, (23) the Islamic State in Libya still retains its bases in the southern deserts (its former "Fezzan province") (24) as well as assumed sleeper cells in neighborhoods in Sirte. (25) King Abdullah of Jordan, in a warning on the Islamic State threat, stated in January 2020 that "several thousand fighters have left Idlib (Syria) through the northern border and have ended up in Libya," (26) an assessment that was seconded by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. (27) Indeed, the United Nations' ISIL (Da'esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee listed the Islamic State in Libya on March 4, 2020. (28) And, as the United Nations notes, the Islamic State in Libya's reduced number of fighters may have the upside for the group of making it less "financially burdened;" as an anecdotal corollary, U.N. member states also offered evidence of the group's members buying weapons on the black market and investing in "projects" in coastal areas of the country. (29) As of September 2020, small cells still exist mostly in some cities, though mostly in the southern desert: a U.N. report published in early 2020 estimated only between 100 to 200 Islamic State fighters remained in southern Libya...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT