Daesh on the offensive across Africa
At a time when some world leaders are making extravagant and disingenuous boasts about the strategic defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, other segments of this terrorist movement are establishing a vast “Islamic empire” across Africa.
Across a huge swath of the Sahel states — from Mali and Libya through Nigeria and Chad to Egypt, Somalia and Kenya — vast desert and rural regions are either in extremist hands or vulnerable to depredations by these groups.
Daesh’s African franchises have learnt from the mistakes of Syria and Iraq. Rather than seeking maximum attention through gratuitous and spectacular violence, they are concentrating on quiet state-building and winning over local people, scrupulously avoiding international attention. Unwilling to get bogged down overseas, Western leaders collaborate by studiously ignoring this threat. However, once Daesh feels sufficiently firmly entrenched, it will inevitably revert to brazen attacks against religious minorities and Western targets, along with the savage repression of local people.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram tended to enjoy most media notoriety, despite now being a shadow of its former barbaric self. Yet a rival Daesh affiliate with around 5,000 fighters is consolidating a vast area of territory in the Niger-Chad-Cameroon-Nigeria border areas. In December, this entity put hundreds of well-armed Nigerian troops to flight near Lake Chad. “We were sitting ducks,” reported one Nigerian sergeant. “The terrorists control the whole region now.” Western African leaders have largely abandoned ineffectual attempts to regain territory and frequently suppress negative news about this growing menace.
In Burkina Faso, a succession of terrorist attacks (200 serious attacks since 2016) and abductions of foreign workers prompted the government’s resignation last month, with fears of contagion to coastal states like Ghana and Togo. Extremist elements entered the country through Mali, which has faced its own perfect storm of Islamist and separatist insurgencies. With previous administrations reportedly paying off terrorists to prevent attacks, local populations are often sympathetic to outreach by extremists, having lacked even basic services from Burkina Faso’s central government.
In Libya during 2016, a coalition of forces pushed Daesh out of Sirte. However, a failure to address the Libyan conflict allowed Daesh cells to disperse and take root across the country. As well as being an important incubator for terrorism, Libya is a conduit for weapons smuggling to Daesh franchises further south, allowing fighters to outgun local security forces. “The weapons are being smuggled from Islamic State in Libya to their factions in Nigeria and Mali,” said an arms smuggler in Niger, using another term for the terror group. “These groups want to create a big domain. They want their own country.”
Other forms of organized criminality are also rife, such as the lucrative trade in people smuggling. Daesh is devastatingly effective at raising revenues through such enterprises. Chronic instability breeds a generation of uneducated, armed radicals who know of no other professions than warfare and gangsterism.
In states like the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Daesh does not have a substantive presence, but instability provides a conducive environment for weapons to flow and dispersed insurgent forces to make common cause.
In Egypt, Daesh has murdered about 100 Christians over the past two years, slaughtered 224 in the 2015 Russian airliner atrocity, and massacred more than 300 worshippers in a 2017 mosque attack. Severe crackdowns by the state perpetuate a cycle of increased anger and fresh waves of recruits. Al-Shabab in Somalia, meanwhile, remains deeply entrenched. Its ability to penetrate into neighboring states, such as with the recent attack on the Nairobi hotel complex, demonstrates that this threat isn’t going away either.
In states like the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Daesh does not have a substantive presence, but instability provides a conducive environment for weapons to flow and dispersed insurgent forces to make common cause. Thus, a vast, broad belt can be drawn across Sahel Africa where insurgents are dominant and state control is absent.
Western countries are on the retreat from other counter-terrorism battlefront states, such as Syria and Afghanistan. It is thus not surprising that zero attention is being paid to an epic Daesh expansion across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Tiny contingents of French or US soldiers train local forces or carry out occasional patrols, but their presence is a drop in a vast ocean.
US President Donald Trump has ludicrously said he may be announcing the defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the coming days. Yet, even if all remaining pockets of Syrian territory are recaptured, Daesh is scattering, going to ground and regrouping, reportedly still with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets and around 30,000 active members, according to US intelligence estimates. Does this sound like a defeated force?
With Daesh veterans from Syria providing additional capacity and experience, and as the group’s center of gravity shifts toward Africa and Southeast Asia, this may encourage localized forces to hook up as part of a transregional enterprise. For the time being, Daesh leaders have wisely avoided declaring an African caliphate, not wanting to attract unwanted attention that could provoke a sharp curb on expansion. However, the movement is close to having a continent-straddling de facto “caliphate” far more multinational and expansive in essence than its previous doomed experiments.
Africa is portrayed as a geopolitical backwater. However, as refugees in inflatable dinghies have proved, Libya’s coast is a boat-ride from Malta, Sicily and Greece. If Osama bin Laden could wage war against the West from caves in Afghanistan, a rejuvenated Saharan Daesh would constitute a far greater future threat, with widely dispersed militants proving nigh on impossible to root out.
The resurgence of a major African terrorism threat is the last thing that international publics want to hear about at a time when all forms of foreign entanglement are deeply politically unpopular. Yet, if we ignore this threat today, we shouldn’t be surprised when this menace emerges from the deserts of Africa to bite us tomorrow.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.