By Afro-Middle East Centre
With the Islamic State group (IS) losing territory in Syria and Iraq, many believe that the group will use the territory it controls in Africa as a fallback and shift its focus to the continent. This has seen international, and specifically western, powers grow increasingly weary of existing African conflicts, especially in Libya and Egypt, and we are beginning to see a convergence between Russia and the USA on supporting military strongmen. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have thus been empowered in their attempts to crackdown on dissent in the name of countering ‘terrorism’, further militarising politics in those countries and impeding efforts to negotiate political compromises. African states have subsequently been compelled to admit Morocco into the African Union and reinstate Egypt, partially as a result of western pressure and the belief that the two countries could form a bulwark against the Islamic State group’s expansion.
Although IS controls territory and possesses operational capacity in Libya and Nigeria, significantly this is more the result of the group appealing to existing cleavages and state fragmentation rather than inspiring the creation of new anti-state formations. The group has thus spent minimal efforts in establishing structures in southern and central Africa, rather promoting immigration to areas it already controls. IS has lost ground in Nigeria and Libya, two of its three strongest African ‘provinces’; however, failure to fill the vacuum left by its territorial losses and an inadequate focus on the economic reasons behind the group’s rise is paving the way for a resurgence of similar groups. With IS on the wane, a contextualised response emphasising governance in areas recaptured from the group needs to be promoted, especially since the group’s emergence has galvanised the international community.
Background: The declaration of provinces
Following the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, IS initially had great success. It consolidated control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province, parts of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Qamishli in Turkey, in addition to areas it originally controlled in Syria. This enabled it to traverse the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders, giving it the flexibility to direct the flow of arms and generate revenue through taxes and trade in oil. However, the group has increasingly faced setbacks, especially following the surge in the intensity of the international and regional effort to displace it from Syria and Iraq. It has been forced to alter its strategies and tactics. Initially advocating immigration to its ‘state’, the group has begun declaring non-contiguous provinces, as a result of a few major changes: First, heightened awareness and tighter border controls meant that by September 2014 the ability of IS recruits to travel to Syria, especially from western countries, had severely diminished.
Second, because IS was conceived in a system that was already experiencing local conflict, the group sought to subsume this conflict and capitalise on it in order to increase its influence. The group also began prospecting for areas with resources, both human and natural, that could strengthen its operational capacity and scope. The group’s mantra evolved to encompass ‘remaining and expanding’, with an increased focus on enticing militant groups to pledge allegiance to it, allowing it to increase its appeal and reach, and a shift away from a sole focus on territorial consolidation in Syria and Iraq. The group increasingly saw its success as expansion into other hotspots and the ability to incorporate these into its territorial project. This had succeeded, and by November 2014 it had received pledges of allegiance from around twenty existing militant groups, including former al-Qa'ida franchises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
In recent times, especially since early 2016, the reversals suffered in its main area of focus, Syria and Iraq, have forced the group to begin contemplating the option of retreat in order to survive and remain relevant.
However, in assessing the group’s influence in Africa over the past year, a holistic contextualisation is required. First, distinctions between groups directly controlled by IS in Syria, those in Libya and those, such as Boko Haram, who exercise more control over strategy and tactics need to be made. Second, we need to identify areas that are strategically significant to IS, such as Libya and Egypt, and those, which the group sees more as a means of gaining increased publicity. Last, we need to remain vigilant and account for the nuances between the different threats posed by groups that have declared allegiance to IS and citizens emigrating to IS-controlled areas.
In the past, IS viewed Libya as critically important, because of its oil resources and large Mediterranean coastline. This, the group believed, would allow it to increase its operational capacity, and threaten Europe, especially because Libya is located close to European states such as Malta and Italy. The group thus declared three Libyan provinces (Fezzan, Barqa and Tripolitania) in 2014, and dispatched senior leaders to the country to convince militia to pledge allegiance. Further, unlike in other provinces, IS in Libya was led by an Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, directly appointed by the group’s Syrian leadership. IS initially had some successes, capturing the jihadist stronghold of Derna in October 2014 and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in May 2015. However, following its capture of Sirte and the group’s attempts to move westward towards Misrata, a concerted campaign commenced to combat the group comprised of local militia groupings and western powers including the USA, the UK and France. The December 2015 Government of National Accord (GNA) was forced through for this purpose, and since August 2016 the USA has launched over 300 airstrikes in the country.
This has been somewhat successful. Since June 2016, the group has largely been pushed out of Sirte, and leaders such as Abu Nabil have been killed. However, Libya is an exemplar of the paranoia around IS that currently marks the international community’s response to it. First, IS’s strength in Libya was already questionable following its inception. Although possessing between 3 000 and 6 000 combatants, IS in Libya appears outnumbered and outgunned when noting that the country is home to around 200 000 people belonging to different militias. By August 2015 it had already been pushed out of the hotbed of Derna by the relatively small, al-Qa'ida-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. Significantly both the rival administrations in Tripoli (the General National Congress [GNC]) and Tobruk (the House of Representatives [HoR]) have used the paranoia over the threat of IS in Libya to gain international support and weapons.
Second, the international community has favoured international intervention at the expense of local political processes. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat in December 2015 and forming the GNA, was forced through, ignoring initial successes in obtaining local backing and in spite of the fact that a week prior to its conclusion the rival administrations had expressed their willingness to conclude a local unification agreement. Even though the agreement was likely disingenuous, international actors needed to hold the two parties to it instead of the flat rejection that had been evident from the UN’s response.
The result has been a lack of support for the GNA, which is likely to never receive ratification from the Tobruk-based HoR, and which in recent times has experienced opposition from the GNC. The country remains divided, and may be headed towards partition as the divisive General Khalifa Haftar strengthens his control over the eastern oilfields.
IS’s partnership with Nigeria’s Boko Haram was more a marriage of convenience than an ideological and strategic union. IS saw the group as important in terms of gaining appeal and publicity, while Boko Haram viewed the merger as a means of unlocking financial resources and benefiting from IS’s media arm. There was thus very little tactical and operational coordination between IS in Syria and its then-declared West Africa province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah). As a result Boko Haram’s military losses, which began during the last few months of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in Nigeria, have continued. The group has largely been forced out of the territory it previously controlled in Borno and Adamawa, preferring to undertake operations in northern Cameroon. Attacks in Niger have declined to less than half a dozen from a peak of twenty-four in February 2015, and since July, these have also decreased to around eight per month in Cameroon. Boko Haram is no longer able to maintain and hold territory; the group is now mostly involved in smaller operations against weaker targets and isolated military bases.
Further, in August 2016 IS in Syria released a message recognising Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat, supposedly because of indiscriminate attacks against Muslims by its former leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau’s inability to enact and implement governance structures in areas the group controlled had also influenced the move. Shekau has since disputed this, threatening to further fragment the group, which had already been reeling since Ansaru’s formal condemnation of the group in February 2015. Ansaru previously coordinated activities with Boko Haram, and prior to 2015 many analysts viewed it as the more sophisticated faction within the group, which was tasked with kidnappings and attacks on foreigners.
IS in Syria’s repudiation of Shekau is also influenced by the group’s recent recognition of a Saharan province based in Mali, which in June 2016 reportedly carried out an attack on a military post in Bosso (Niger) killing thirty-two soldiers, and in recent months has carried out two smaller attacks in Burkina Faso. Shekau’s repudiation is also significant since it is one of the first instances wherein IS’s Syrian leadership has acted to alter provincial leadership structures, and because it illustrates that the group has limitations on what it will tolerate from provincial leaders. Further, Barnawi’s appointment may be a sign that IS’s Syrian leadership is beginning to view West Africa as important since it continues to suffer setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, the appointment has changed little thus far especially in terms of operational command and coordination. Shekau’s continued influence over factions within the group also points to the beginnings of a debilitating power struggle. The group’s infighting and the coordinated response by Lake Chad Basin countries has meant that by December 2016 it had been pushed out of its Sambisa Forest stronghold; in January 2017, a UN report went as far as claiming that it now lacks the resources to compensate fighters.
Notably, the success of the multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, has been constrained owing to concerns over sovereignty and different command and control protocols. The effort has transitioned more into a coalition of the willing, wherein states share interests and undertake individual actions, rather than an actual coordinated effort to contain the group. Moreover, failure to establish governance structures in areas where Boko Haram has been driven out from has led to the group being able to return intermittently; incidentally this is one of the key reasons the group initially arose.
Previously recognised as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the group, now referred to as ‘IS Sinai Province’, declared allegiance to IS in November 2014, and currently remains one of IS’s most operationally and tactically capable fighting forces. Following the 2015 Sheikh Zuweid attacks, which saw around a hundred combatants mount a coordinated attack on Egyptian security installations, the group has continued to remain active, and in 2016 is alleged to have undertaken over 700 operations in the Sinai region alone. The most infamous of these was the blowing up of a Russian civilian aircraft in October 2015, killing over 200. The decades-long, 1 600-strong Multinational Forces and Observers mission stationed in the Sinai, which is tasked with monitoring the area following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has also been affected and countries such as Fiji have pulled out troops. The USA has even proposed that an electronic monitoring system be used instead, to allow it to also decrease its troop contribution to the mission.
IS’s resurgence continues despite the third phase of Egypt’s Operation Martyr’s Right, which according to Egyptian security reports has killed around 2 300 militants and arrested a further 2 500 – even though most analysts estimated the group’s strength at between 1 000 and 2 000 fighters at its peak in 2015. The numbers of dead and arrested indicate the conflicting results of Egypt’s scorched earth policy, which has actually led to increased militancy, especially by other groups. Violence is also spreading to the mainland; in the past year, IS’s mainland Egypt province formed, and the younger, less ideological Popular Resistance Committees became hardened.
This is likely to continue, especially as the primary democratic alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains stifled, and because the Sisi regime is facing increased economic pressure, and has thus curbed its state-led redistributive policies and widened its repression to include leftists and youth groupings.
Observations and returning combatants
It is clearly observable that in most instances IS uses already existent cleavages and groupings to further its influence and reach in areas outside of Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria and Sinai, it thus successfully rebranded existing organisations instead of establishing new ones from scratch. The presence of al-Qa'ida on parts of the continent has been significant in this regard, as IS has sought to entice militants belonging to it to declare their allegiance to it. For the most part, in Africa this has failed. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has largely remained intact, and thus far Shabab has withstood attempts to declare allegiance to Baghdadi, despite the fact that splinter groups within these organisations have broken off to join IS.
Further, it is observable that IS-linked groups for the most part were already involved in conflict with the state and other powers prior to the declaration of the caliphate. Boko Haram had been militarily confronting the Nigerian state since at least 2010, while Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis had turned inward following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. Even in Libya, where the Derna Youth Shoura Council and the Battar Brigade were newly formed groupings that had previously been involved in fighting in Syria, IS’s ability to consolidate control of Sirte came as a result of aggrieved former Gaddafites joining the group, and because the Ansar Al-Sharia members present in Sirte rebranded and joined IS. This illustrates two key points: First, lack of governance and social services are a major factor accounting for the growth of IS on the continent, and ideology plays a supplementary role. Consequently, a military-only response, which does not improve governance, will lead to the group enduring, even though it may change its name and modus operandi. Second, as can be observed with the minimal coordination between IS and its West Africa and Sinai provinces, groups have had some form of agency. They have used IS headquarters to gain financial and operational support, and do not always follow its precepts entirely. Shekau, for instance, failed to install governance structures, and continued indiscriminate attacks on Nigerian Muslims while being allied to IS.
Apart from unsuccessful attempts to entice Shabab in East Africa, IS has refrained from attempting to establish wilayat further south. This results from various factors including the lack of a majority Muslim population as a base, the fact that many countries further south are more responsive to their citizens, and because most sub-Saharan countries are not directly involved in attempts to combat the group in Syria and Iraq. The group has however advocated emigration to areas it controls, and it is feared that returning combatants pose a threat to their home states. While justifiable in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco, which have seen thousands join the fight in Syria, for the most part this has been exaggerated. Most combatants have preferred to remain in IS-held territory, and most returnees cite disillusionment with the group as a reason for their return.
The current military-first approach to combatting IS, which has had some success, will only be long lasting if paired with a simultaneous focus on governance and restorative justice in recaptured areas. This will also help to stem the problem of IS recruitment, which, although partially curbed as a result of increased interstate coordination, may surge if former combatants and possible recruits feel aggrieved over perceptions around judicial unfairness and the lack of resource equitability.
Failure to create institutions to assist with this, as is the case in Libya, Egypt and to an extent Nigeria, risks engendering the conditions for the emergence of similar groups in future. African states thus need to ensure that the focus on IS extends from a military approach to one dealing with the root causes of militancy. This is especially pertinent as the group continues to lose territorial control in Libya and Nigeria, and its capacity wanes. Further, the reintegration of former IS combatants, and those belonging to other militant groups, is a necessity, especially as the majority of low-level combatants joined the group for economic reasons, and because the factors are an important weapon in disrupting IS’s claims of legitimacy.