The military defeats of Islamic State’s (IS) fighters in Iraq and Syria led many to believe that the threat represented by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization was on the verge of extinction. The video-message by the “Caliph” in April 2019, however, denied the persistent rumors that circulated about his death and proved above all his growing attention to sub-Saharan Africa. Addressing the mujahidin in the Sahel, al-Baghdadi urged them to carry on with the jihad being fought against Western armies and avenge the attacks suffered by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In the same public statement, the leader of the jihadist organization confirmed formal acceptance of the pledge of allegiance by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the establishment of a wilaya (“province”) in Central Africa (Islamic State in Central Africa Province). A few days before, he had claimed responsibility for an attack in the north-eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Islamic State’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa reflects the need of the organization’s leadership to respond to the loss of territories in the Middle East, giving wide appeal to the global expansion of the “Caliphate” through the multiplication of regional franchises willing to recognize the political and religious authority of the Caliph. The nature of the relations between IS and local organizations in the African continent mainly concerns a symbolic dimension and the capacity of the IS “brand” to lure adherents and encourage the recruitment of new fighters, as well as the claim of an alleged doctrinal authenticity through which to legitimate its own actions in the perception of Islamic communities. The affiliation of radical African groups with the global jihadist network allowed them to obtain technical support, mostly in the field of media content production, and training, by receiving IS’ trainers on the ground. It is difficult to agree on whether IS has contributed to financing its African regional franchises, and to what extent: it is possible, however, that financing lines, although existent, have been interrupted following the start of the dissolution process of the Islamic State in the Middle East.
The Sahel emerged as the geopolitical area where the activism of organizations affiliated with IS has unfolded with more forcefulness, occasionally establishing political and administrative systems or jihadist proto-states, grounded on services delivery to the benefit of neglected local communities, marginalized by state authorities. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara emerged some years ago as a particularly important actor in the framework of (in)security balances in the “three frontiers” region bordering Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The bay’a (“oath of allegiance”) of al-Sahrawi, leader of the Salafi-jihadist armed group, to al-Baghdadi, dates back to 2015. The then spokesperson of al-Murabitun, a jihadist organization operating in the Sahara-Sahel region, pledged allegiance to the Caliph. Mukhtar Bilmukhtar, a former al-Qaeda member in the Islamic Maghreb region, distanced himself from al-Sahrawi’s initiative, reaffirming his organization’s solid adherence to the Qaidist field. The conflict between the two factions triggered an internal split and gave birth to the new jihadist group, led by al-Sahrawi, while Bilmukhtar was appointed emir of al-Qaeda in West Africa.
The affiliation of ISGS to the Islamic State was formally accepted by al-Baghdadi in October 2016, several months after its establishment. It has launched many armed attacks against security forces and civilian populations in the Liptako-Gourma region so far. The ambush conducted by some militants of the organization on a US and Nigerien patrol on 4 October 2017 in Tongo Tongo, in the Tillabéri region of Niger, had worldwide resonance, having caused the death of four American soldiers. Attacks have increased in number and intensified in the last few months; simultaneously, the Caliphate’s attention to the region has been growing: in a recent al-Naba newsletter, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks conducted by the Sahelian mujahidin against ṭawagit (transgressor of Allah’s will) governments, foreign “crusader” armies and murtaddin (apostate) tribal militias.
In the Lake Chad basin area, the presence of the Islamic State is ensured by the activism of a jihadist organization, namely the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWA). The activities of ISGS and ISWA seem to be interconnected in most cases, and many of ISGS’ violent attacks have been generically attributed to ISWA by the Islamic State, although it is not clear whether an operational convergence does effectively exist between them.
Shortly after the proclamation of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014, an armed group active in the northern region of Nigeria, Jamaat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daawah wa al-Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram and led by Abu Bakr Shekau, swore an oath of allegiance to the Caliph. Following the bay’a, the armed group renamed itself ISWA, and offered the Islamic State a stronghold on the continent, counterbalancing al-Qaeda’s influence, largely prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa, in the context of a strategic competition on the global jihadist battlefield. The break-up of a group of mujahidin led by Mamman Nur and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, was triggered by some disagreements over the organization’s strategies. The pledge of allegiance to IS by dissident militants urged al-Baghdadi to settle the leadership dispute between the two organizations: al-Barnawi’s group was officially embraced as the Islamic State’s province in West Africa, keeping the ISWA denomination. JAS was instead deprived of formal recognition from IS.
ISWA replaced a logic of indiscriminate violence against civil populations, carried out by Shekau’s militia, with a tactic of focused attacks against government and military targets – in the extreme north of Cameroon, the Diffa region in Niger, north-eastern Nigeria and south-western Chad – developing socialization processes with local communities and filling the states’ gaps in governance and services delivery. In the last few months, ISWA – counting on an estimated 3.500-5.000 members – went through a leadership change backed by al-Baghdadi. An internal rift related to the strategies of action and the prospects for negotiation with the Abuja government led to the killing of Mamman Nur by his own fighters and Abu Mus'ab al-Barnawi’s replacement at the head of the organization. ISWA’s current emir is Abu Abd Allah ibn Umar al-Barnawi.
The jihadist activities in the Horn of Africa – and particularly Somalia – rotate around the activism of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, an armed organization established following the break-up of the Islamic Courts Union government experience in the country. The affiliation of al-Shabab to al-Qaeda’s network makes the region a Qaidist stronghold on the continent. Nevertheless, IS can count on the embeddedness of a rival organization, Abnaa ul-Calipha or Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), born as an outcome of a split within al-Shabab, promoting an agenda markedly grounded on a global struggle prospect. In October 2015, Abd al-Qadir Mumin, military commander and ideologist of al-Shabab, leading some 300 mujahidin in the Puntland region, swore an oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, establishing a new organization. Though less important than al-Shabab in terms of numbers of members – around 200 fighters estimated – ISS contributed to enlarging the presence of IS in eastern Africa, gradually moving into southern Somalia by carrying out an increasing number of armed attacks.
The relationship between al-Shabab and ISS is openly hostile: in December 2018, al-Shabab accused ISS in a public statement, of dividing the mujahidin and jeopardizing the jihad in Somalia, inciting its own fighters to “attack and eliminate the deadly 'disease' of IS”. Several armed clashes between the two organizations have been observed recently, mostly in the Bari mountain region, in the north-east of the country. The formal acceptance of ISS as an Islamic State province has been discussed a lot; in December 2017 an IS video message mentioned an Islamic State province in Somalia, while following references to the presence of affiliated groups in the region have been very general. It seems, however, that IS granted the group some sort of material support at least until 2016.
In April 2016, Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda (ISISSKTU) or Jahba East Africa made a bay’a to the Caliph. ISISSKTU is a transnational jihadist organization probably established as a result of the initiative of some of al-Shabab’s foreign fighters, critical of the group’s leadership, who decided to leave the organization due to the discrimination suffered by Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian mujahidin. The effective capacity of the group is not clear but, according to analysts, Jahba East Africa is not operational.
On 18 April 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in northern Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, while announcing the establishment of a new province in the region: the Islamic State in Central Africa. Actually, the same violent attack had already been ascribed to another local armed group, created in Uganda in the mid- 1990s and operational in the north-eastern region of the DRC. Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) or Madinat Tawḥid wal-Muwahidin (MTM), has been deemed guilty of indiscriminate attacks against national army garrisons, international stabilization forces, civil populations and humanitarian actors. This circumstance, along with adoption of a rhetoric rooted in a misleading use of Islamic religion and jihad aimed at establishing a Caliphate in Congo and Uganda, encouraged several experts to speculate on a re-branding operation of the ADF, for the purpose of obtaining stronger international consideration of their claims. According to other interpretations of the security dynamics in the region, the creation of an organization affiliated with IS would be the outcome of internal divides within the ADF. However, the most likely scenario refers to the existence of operational relations and apparent financial connections between the ADF and IS.
In Mozambique, the activism of a Salafi-jihadist armed group – al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASWJ) or Swahili Sunna, led by Nuro Adremane and Jafar Alawi – with connections in coastal East Africa (Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania) dates back to October 2017. Bloody attacks, mostly concentrated in the Cabo Delgado area bordering Tanzania, regularly came in succession in the following months. Violent and indiscriminate repression by Mozambican security forces worsened the insurgency: the death toll is of around 200 victims so far. ASWJ’s activities are directly related to a local dimension of socio-economic marginalization and political exclusion of Muslim communities in the coastal north, worn out by high youth unemployment rates and excluded from the dividends of offshore oil exploitation. However, the media coverage of the insurgency over the last few weeks refers to the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for an attack in the Mocimboa area where, according to IS propaganda, the Mozambican army had been repelled by the Caliphate’s mujahidin. Some analysts hypothesized a spread of ADF’s activities in northern Mozambique, collecting evidence through the confessions of presumed jihadists found guilty and arrested. Nonetheless, a direct involvement of IS or its Central African franchise in Mozambique has been denied by the local authorities.
What seems to be a strengthening of the relationships between IS and armed groups in sub-Saharan Africa creates a situation of mutual benefit. On the one hand, it allows the central organization to prove an unchanged capacity for action, diverting attention from the failures and severe defeats suffered in the Middle East that caused the dissolution of the so-called State. On the other hand, the affiliation with IS gives armed groups’ claims, at the root of local insurgencies, a wider appeal and some sort of legitimacy. The local dimension of armed groups’ actions and political-economic claims mostly drives jihadist insurrections in sub-Saharan Africa. At a policy-making level, the affiliation of armed groups – deeply rooted in local ethnic, political, economic and social dynamics – to global jihadist networks urges the adoption of counterterrorist strategies, through the implementation of security measures restricting individual rights and freedoms, under the “state of emergency” narrative. This policy orientation, rather than addressing the root causes of insurgencies, contributes to creating a social fabric potentially favorable to the insurgents and hostile to government forces, triggering radicalization processes and feeding the same security threats meant to be eradicated.
 According to Kenyan police sources, Waleed Ahmed Zein, a financial facilitator, would have distributed 150,000 dollars to several jihādist groups – including ADF – through a network linked to IS.