Islamic State turning to its African cells to maintain image and even build a new caliphate?

“Africa is emerging as an important remnant of the Islamic State, even if the continent is too divided along cultural and tribal lines to restore its caliphate,” reports Bloomberg Businessweek (May 22). Paul Wallace writes that the loss of the core of the Islamic State (IS), the caliphate, was a devastating blow to the movement. Thomas Abi-Hanna, a security analyst with Stratfor, says “They are really trying to play up the gains they’ve made elsewhere, and Africa’s arguably the place where they’ve made the most gains.” Because many African states are struggling with a mix of dire poverty, corruption, and soaring populations, the Islamic State has proved adept at recruiting fighters and gaining support among locals. In a recent video, IS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that he accepted a pledge of loyalty from a group in Burkina Faso and spoke of plans to gain footholds in Algeria and Sudan. The Islamic State is reported to have had more than 6,000 fighters in Africa since last year, according to the Combating Terrorism Centerat West Point. The largest cell is the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), with 3,500 members, mostly in Nigeria. Wallace notes that this would make it the second-largest terrorist organization in Africa after al-Shabaab, which is based in Somalia and connected to al Qaeda.

Wallace notes that the IS leadership provides strategic and theological advice to these cells and helps publicize their attacks through its slick social media operations and newsletters, while the cells’ ties to the Islamic State make it easier for them to attract and retain fighters. Their physical separation from IS also allows for tactical independence. This can be seen in ISWAP’s split from Boko Haram, which was once affiliated with the Islamic State and is known for kidnapping children, and in its unique strategy (among the Islamic State’s affiliates) of targeting soldiers rather than civilians. The group seeks to win hearts and minds by distinguishing itself from Boko Haram and helping civilians by digging wells and providing some health care. Wallace adds that “Western powers take the threat of Islamic State and other jihadis in Africa seriously. The U.S. has thousands of forces on the continent [and] provides intelligence and military support to several governments…[Although] Washington sees little risk of attacks on U.S. soil by the African cells of Islamic State,…it fears that could change if it takes over large territories or creates a caliphate on the continent akin to its former structure in the Middle East. Even if it doesn’t achieve that, Islamic State is already reaping benefits from its efforts.” Judd Devermont, a former CIA analyst who is now Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that the Islamic State is in effect saying: “We’re undefeated. We remain a player.”