ISIS is expanding in North and West Africa
The United States and its allies have achieved important victories against the Islamic State (ISIS). Late in 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the routing of the extremist group from its stronghold in Mosul. US President Donald Trump expressed his expectation that ISIS would be defeated in Syria “soon.” In 2016, the United States helped militias backed by Libya’s Government of National Accord to push ISIS out of its territory in the coastal city of Sirte.
Operational victories over ISIS, however, should not obscure the fact that it remains a serious global threat. Nowhere is this clearer than in North and West Africa.
As ISIS lost territory in Syria and Iraq, the infiltration of local jihadist groups beyond the Levant provided an important opportunity to continue the group’s expansion. Weak states in North and West Africa offer ISIS and other militant groups a haven to recruit and train fighters, access weapons and funding and plan operations.
ISIS has taken advantage of the security vacuum caused by weak or absent governance in Libya, Niger, Mali, north-eastern Nigeria and northern Chad to increase its influence and expand its network.
There have been reports that ISIS has established a substantial presence around Lake Chad. The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) is reportedly attempting to win over locals in the area as it seeks to push into north-eastern Nigeria and Niger.
ISWA emerged out of a split with Nigeria’s Boko Haram in 2016. The new group appears to be capitalising on the local populations’ fear of Boko Haram to garner support. Reports say ISWA is protecting locals from Boko Haram attacks, undermining the legitimacy of the Nigerian government and military, as well as challenging Boko Haram’s operations.
ISWA’s tactics are not novel. In Libya, ISIS took advantage of the post-Qaddafi situation when authorities marginalised the city of Sirte, which was Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown and believed to be a bastion of support for the dictator. Some of Sirte’s residents welcomed militant jihadist groups that promised stability and services that the government failed to provide.
However, as it consolidated its territory, ISIS displayed the same brutal and oppressive patterns that defined its governance of Mosul and Raqqa.
ISWA’s tactics indicate the local nature of ISIS affiliates as well as the group’s overall decentralised nature. ISWA is primarily a Nigerian organisation, with few foreign fighters. ISIS has expanded due to its networked structure. This takes advantage of existing militant jihadist organisations to promote defections, recruit local fighters and adapt to local conditions.
Even in Libya, where Sirte served as the third major city in ISIS’s self-styled caliphate and saw the arrival of many foreign fighters, ISIS relied on localism to expand. ISIS in Libya has its roots in the local jihadists who travelled to Syria in 2011 and 2012 and returned in 2014. ISIS recruitment in Libya largely focused on defectors from existing Salafi jihadist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia. Most of the group’s foreign fighters came from neighbouring Tunisia.
Post-Sirte, ISIS is pursuing another local strategy in Libya. It is reportedly sending envoys and fighters to develop relationships with and offer protection to local communities and smugglers in southern Libya. These communities are key nodes in the transnational smuggling networks that extend through Central and West Africa and in Libya’s ungoverned territories. ISIS in Libya also maintains the capability to carry out attacks throughout Libya, as demonstrated by the May 2 suicide bombings at Libya’s Electoral Commission in Tripoli.
The expansion of ISWA and recent manoeuvring of ISIS fighters in Libya, therefore, demonstrate that ISIS remains a formidable global threat.
Although ISIS fighters in North and West Africa are locally based, as the group loses territory elsewhere, ungoverned spaces in the region will serve as critical areas of operation. It is these areas that could facilitate greater coordination among the group’s affiliates. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had maintained stronger ties than ISIS to smuggling networks through West and North Africa. Now, there are indications ISIS is seeking to increasingly insert itself into the lucrative smuggling business. This could strengthen ties between its fighters in West and North Africa.
ISIS propaganda since at least 2014 has emphasised the importance of Libya as a gateway to Europe, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. As such, the activities of affiliates such as ISWA and attacks in Libya should be viewed neither separately nor in a vacuum. Considering the transnational and forward-looking nature of ISIS, Western policymakers touting the victory of ISIS in Syria and Iraq should be wary of the group’s resurgence in North Africa.