ISIS in Africa: Reality far different from IS propaganda

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The revelation that the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) was of Moroccan descent, the turmoil in Libya, and the general strife in numerous African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia that is being attributed to IS and Al-Qa'ida has sparked speculation that IS is likely to expand within Africa, and even in South Africa.

However, most of these assertions are the result of hurried summaries rather than sober analysis. One news outlet, for example, carried two contradictory headlines on the IS threat in Libya within two days of each other. One claimed IS was ‘struggling to expand in Libya’ and the other that IS ‘could expand from Libya’.

This, however, is not unexpected; news and analysis on IS has increasingly become alarmist. Given the paranoia in the West after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, the anti-immigrant sentiment in western countries, and Islamophobia in the USA, coverage of IS suffers from exaggerations and enhances a politics of fear.

Serious assessment of the threat presented by IS in Africa must begin with a few qualifications. First, a distinction must be made between Africans who leave their home countries to join IS in Syria and Iraq, and local African insurgents who were already engaging their domestic enemies when IS announced its ‘caliphate’ in 2014 and who are now pledging their allegiance to IS. Second, even among the insurgents, including groups such as the Egyptian Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the Nigerian Jamat Ahl al-Sunnah li  al-Dawah wa al-Jihad (or Boko Haram), another distinction needs to be kept in mind. Not all insurgents are equally connected to IS in Syria and Iraq. For example, even though Boko Haram has re-branded itself as IS’s West African Province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya), it does not have direct logistical links and is not under operational command of IS, as might be the case with insurgents in the Libyan city of Sirte, who are fighting under IS’s flag. Three groups of IS sympathisers in Africa must be kept analytically separate: 1) African ‘foreign fighters’ joining IS in Syria and Iraq; 2) insurgents in Libya and Egypt who claim to be IS followers and are likely in direct contact with IS in Syria and Iraq; and 3) insurgents in Boko Haram (in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Mali). Analytically amalgamating them all together as if they are represent the same threat level and operational capacity will incorrectly assess IS’s strength in Africa.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram (IS’s ‘West African Province’) is the most feared insurgent group in sub-Saharan Africa, and would have been deemed the world’s largest threat had it targeted western interests as directly as IS has; it is, after all, considered to be responsible for more killings than IS. Boko Haram’s relationship with IS, despite a slew of propaganda videos IS’s West African Province, is tenuous at best.

Though Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau is believed to have officially pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015, and it was accepted by IS a few days later, there was some confusion about the issue. In July 2014, Shekau declared his support of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to caliphate in a video. A month later Shekau seemingly declared his own caliphate in Gwoza, Nigeria in another video. This back and forth leads us to believe that while Shekau at first toyed with the idea of declaring his own caliphate he eventually settled on being considered an extension of IS rather than claiming primacy because the IS branding would be of greater propaganda value.

That Shekau and Boko Haram’s eventual 2015 connection with IS is primarily for propagandistic and branding purposes is also evident from the fact that until the end of 2014 there was no link between the two groups, as Virginia Comolli points out. Additionally, there are no reports of Nigerians, Cameroonians, Chadians or Malians joining IS this year. Thus, other than exchanges between the groups over social media, there is no evidence of operational links between Boko Haram and IS. Even the IS claim that it could purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan and relocate it to the USA via West Africa, supposedly using Boko Haram’s logistical support, is wildly speculative, and is better regarded as an IS fantasy.

IS in Egypt and Libya

Recent statements from important governmental sources such as the French defence minister and prime minister suggest that IS is set to expand within Libya. Added to alleged reports by western intelligence sources that Libya is becoming the fall back option for IS leaders if they are squeezed out of Syria and Iraq, Libya begins to appear like the next Syrian and Iraqi base of operations for IS within North Africa.

However, these reports too are based on exaggerated estimation of known claims by IS to expand territory wherever possible. The recent UN report describes the situation in Libya more carefully:

ISIL is an evident short and long-term threat in Libya. The group is benefiting from the “appeal” and notoriety of ISIL in Iraq and in the Syrian Arab Republic. However, the group’s threat should be realistically assessed. ISIL is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances. Nevertheless, ISIL has clearly demonstrated its intention to control additional territory in Libya. This is a concern, given the country’s strategic location as a transit point within the region, control of which would enable groups associated with Al-Qaida, including ISIL, to further influence various ongoing conflicts in North Africa and the Sahel, in addition to offering a new hub outside ISIL-controlled territories in the Middle East.

In other words, while IS in Libya is a concern, it does not represent a singularly potent threat in the manner that French authorities have attempted to argue, presumably not only to hammer a deal between the warring Libyan parties, but also in a bid to widen their aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria to include targets inside Libya in order to support its favoured faction. At best, IS forces within Libya have only about 3 000 fighters (across the country), a far cry from its strength in Syria and Iraq (estimated at 27 000 foreign fighters at minimum, and possibly up to 80 000 fighters in total). Additionally, the area from where IS is believed to have drawn the highest number of Libyan fighters to Syria and Iraq, Derna, has already witnessed fighting between an anti-IS coalition and IS fighters in June 2015 that eventually forced IS to retreat to the outskirts of the city and disperse into other parts of the country.

This is not to suggest that Libya is not important for IS. After all, it has sent emissaries and scholars to Libya for recruitment purposes, and it declared three different provinces in Libya: Wilayat Tripolitania, Wilayat Barqa and Wilayat Fezzan. Rather than representing IS control of territory, such statements illustrate IS’s aspirations in the region. The ultimate vision that IS aspires to, which is to spread the control of its caliphate over the whole world, should not blur the real world obstacles and challenges that beset its path.

Similarly in Egypt, though Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is believed to have had contacts with IS officials in Syria and Iraq in December 2014, and changed its official name to Wilayat Sinai, thus marking itself as an IS affiliate, the total number of followers it commands is, at most, a couple of thousand, which might have decreased if we are to believe the Egyptian government claim that it had killed hundreds of militants after the group’s daring raid on Sheikh Zuweid city in Northern Sinai. Also, the fact that it has rebranded itself as an extension of IS is not a guarantee that it will get more recruits. Significantly, in Derna (Libya), IS’s implementation of a strict version of Islam, which is rejected by most Muslims across the globe, elicited a strong backlash from the population and competing militant groups in the area. A similar result is possible in Egypt if Wilayat Sinai tries to implement IS’s version of Islam, especially if done at the hands of foreigners unfamiliar with the Sinai context. IS’s Sheikh Zuweid raid displayed an IS tactic borrowed from Iraq and Syria, and it has also shown an interest in governance and control of territory rather just in militant action focused on operational successes. Wilayat Sinai remains, nevertheless, a marginal phenomenon. While it might be able to magnify and internationalise its potential threat through the targeting of the Russian Metrojet flight, its threat is not any greater because of its association with IS. As Zack Gold notes, these developments ‘might have taken place without IS affiliation’.

Foreign fighters

Fighters from North Africa who joined IS in Syria and Iraq would present a danger if they returned and carried out operations in Africa, as in the case of Paris and Tunisia. One source indicates that at least 170 fighters left from Algeria, about 1 000 from Egypt, 600 from Libya, 1 500 from Morocco, and 7 000 from Tunisia. Additionally, the 70 fighters from Somalia and 100 from Sudan also present a threat, albeit to a lesser degree.

These African ‘foreign fighters’ potentially represent the greatest security challenge to the continent, because of their ability to move as individuals and engage in terrorist activities in their home and in neighbouring countries. However, few of those who migrated to IS in Syria and Iraq are interested in returning to their home countries. Most, even if they are not fighting, prefer to remain in IS territory and propagandise for the ‘caliphate’, as with South African recruit Abu Hurayra al-Afriki. Among those who return to their homes, many become repentant and disillusioned with the reality of life under IS, and thus do not pose a security threat.

Even if some returnees were potentially operational, it is far fetched to suggest that they represent a threat to a large part of the continent. The IS appeal in sub-Saharan Africa, outside of Boko Haram’s context, has been insignificant. This can be attributed to various factors: from the non-interventionist stance of governments in the region to the small numbers of Muslims to the general absence of domestic grievances on the part of the Muslim minorities in the region.

While Somalia can be regarded as a counter-example, there are factors limiting IS’s reach even within Shabab-controlled parts of Somalia. Not only has Shabab sided with al-Qa'ida in its antagonism towards IS for ideological reasons, but given the proximity of Yemen to Somalia, and the assistance Shabab receives from Yemen’s al-Qai'da affiliate, it does not suit Shabab’s strategy to link with IS rather than al-Qai'da. While there are reports of some Shabab fighters pledging loyalty to IS, there are also reports of IS sympathisers being persecuted by Shabab for having betrayed their cause. That Boko Haram has released videos asking Shabab to consider joining IS further underlines the assertion that IS has not been able to gather an amenable audience within Shabab.

Therefore, the problem of foreign fighters, while it does represent a threat to countries in North Africa where the fighters are from, it does not represent a threat for Africa as a whole.


IS clearly represents a clear and present danger within Syria and Iraq, and its sympathisers, who are willing to carry out lone wolf actions wherever they reside, can threaten security within their domestic contexts. But this does not imply that there is a significant IS threat in Africa. In terms of insurgencies in Africa, especially in Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt and Libya – places where IS could potentially find sympathisers – IS has been unable to have a major impact. Whether in Egypt or Libya, where its affiliates have not been able to capitalise on their relationship with IS in any substantial way, or in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has used IS only for propaganda purposes, or in the case of Somalia, where IS found an enemy rather than a friend, IS has not been as successful in Africa as its propaganda would have us believe.

IS thrives in magnifying its propaganda and spreading irrational fear, as can be witnessed in its exaggerated claims of Libya as constituting three of its provinces, or claims that it can use Boko Haram to transport nuclear weapons to the USA. Responses to IS should consider the reality on the ground as a primary guide rather than IS’s propaganda or fantastical claims.

Last modified on Sunday, 19 April 2020 10:56

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