December 20, 2018

The Islamic State is not defeated in Syria. Or anywhere else. Look at Africa.

The Islamic State is not defeated in Syria, as the Trump administration asserted this week. The Islamic State is also alive and well in Africa.  Militants affiliated with or inspired by the Islamic State have developed footholds across the continent, especially in regions facing instability, conflict, and poor governance.

  • Morocco: The murder of two Scandinavian tourists on December 17 is the first Islamic State-inspired killing in Morocco. The attackers pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader and framed the attack as revenge for operations against the Islamic State in Syria. Moroccan authorities have regularly disrupted cells of would-be Islamic State attackers since 2015.
  • Somalia: Italian police arrested a man who was in contact with an Islamic State cell in Somalia for plotting attacks in Rome and the Vatican. The Islamic State presence is relatively small in Somalia, but the group may attempt external attacks to gain an advantage over its local competitor, the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab.
  • Libya: The Islamic State franchise in Libya lost control of a coastal city in 2016 but is now recovering and rebuilding its fighting force. The group attacked Libya’s election commission and oil corporation this year. Libya remains a haven for Islamic State militants that seek to facilitate attacks in Europe, like the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.
  • Nigeria: The Islamic State’s West Africa Province has overrun military bases across northeastern Nigeria in recent months, inflicting high casualties and stealing military equipment. The group governs in parts of northeastern Nigeria and Niger.
  • Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso: The  Islamic State in the Greater Sahara expanded after killing four U.S. servicemen in Niger in October 2017. The group has inflamed ethnic violence in Mali and joined a growing insurgency in Burkina Faso.
  • Tunisia: The Islamic State threat to Tunisia has subsided since attacks in 2015 decimated the tourism economy. Islamic State networks remain active and militants have havens in remote areas. Tunisian authorities linked a bombing in Tunis in October—the first in the capital since 2015—to the Islamic State.

The Islamic State presence in Africa is not limited to these places. Islamic State-affiliated militants are waging a years-long insurgency in the Sinai. Algerian security forces suppressed an Islamic State affiliate in the country, but part of this network likely remains. More tenuous reports and rumors of Islamic State supporters have appeared in other countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and South Africa.

The Islamic State is not defeated in Syria or Africa because the conditions that permitted its rise remain. The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes the Islamic State and al Qaeda, draws its strength not only from control of terrain, but from its ability to build ties to populations made vulnerable by governance failures and war. Such conditions are spreading in Africa, and the Salafi-jihadi threat from the continent will only grow if we convince ourselves that the Islamic State is “defeated.”