Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins "At a Glance." Country-specific updates follow.{{authorBox.message}}

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Africa File: Egypt threatens military intervention in Libya

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Egypt’s president ordered preparations for a military intervention in Libya on June 20, opening a new phase in an escalating regional conflict that increasingly threatens US interests. Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle writes that Egypt’s direct involvement raises a small but serious risk of direct confrontation with Turkey—an outcome that would pit two of the region’s strongest militaries (and two US allies) against each other. Russia will likely benefit from both an Egyptian intervention and rising tensions between Turkey and fellow NATO members (particularly France and Greece) over Turkey’s ambitions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Libya is setting conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups to recover from losses suffered in recent years. The Islamic State in Libya has resumed regular attacks in the country’s south after a nearly yearlong pause.

Also in this Africa File:

  • The Western Sahel. Counterterrorism efforts notched victories, including the killing of the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir. The Salafi-jihadi movement will continue to strengthen, however, if poor governance—including human rights abuses—and political instability continue in the Sahel.
  • The Lake Chad Basin. Islamic State militants in northeastern Nigeria have begun attacking Muslim civilians directly, signaling a shift in targeting and strategy.
  • Somalia. Al Shabaab attacked a Turkish-run military training base in Mogadishu, marking an escalation in its campaign to discredit Somalia’s federal government.
  • Mozambique. Islamic State–aligned militants in northern Mozambique attempted to capture a large town for the first time.

Recent Critical Threats Project Publications

Warning Update: Egypt’s Libya threat risks larger Mediterranean war” by Emily Estelle

Al-Qaeda’s return” by Katherine Zimmerman

ISIS: Resilient on sixth anniversary” by Katherine Zimmerman

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: June 2020

Source: Author

Read Further On:

North Africa
West Africa
East Africa


At a Glance: the Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated April 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of US forces in Iraq and Syria is uncertain following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and its leader’s death, though the group already shows signs of recovery. The US Department of Defense is also considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions in Africa, though support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel has been extended for now.

This is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure  before the pandemic hit; now, a likely wave of instability and governmental legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where it has pressured the Malian government to offer negotiations. It is also stalemated in Somalia and Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems with these forces, with contributing nations reevaluating their commitments to foreign intervention during the pandemic.

The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and now northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

North Africa

Libya

The Libya war is entering a new phase that could lead to direct confrontation between major regional militaries. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi announced on June 20 that Egypt has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya and ordered his military to prepare. Sisi declared a red line at Sirte and Jufra in central Libya, where Egypt’s Libyan partner—the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar—has fallen back after abandoning a 13-month campaign to seize Tripoli in early June. Sisi and Haftar announced a unilateral cease-fire on June 6 in a bid to stop Turkish-backed forces affiliated with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) from advancing on Sirte, the gateway to an LNA-controlled oil-producing region.

Diplomatic efforts, including a Turkish-Russian channel and an Arab League meeting boycotted by the GNA, have faltered. Both sides are now preparing to battle for control of Sirte.

Russian mercenaries will likely assist the LNA in its defense of Sirte. The Russian Air Force sent eight fighter jets to LNA-controlled al Jufra airbase in mid-May. AFRICOM shared imagery of Russian aircraft at al Jufra on June 18 and warned that inexperienced mercenary pilots are flying the aircraft. Russian mercenaries have also reportedly planted mines in the Sirte region.

The Libya conflict is deepening fissures in NATO, advancing a core Russian objective. Turkey’s ambitions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean Sea are bringing it closer to military confrontation with Greece and France. Turkey seeks to establish a maritime corridor to Libya that will allow it to exploit undersea hydrocarbon resources. This claim infringes on established maritime boundary claims, including Greece’s.

Turkey and France have traded rhetorical barbs since Turkish frigates prevented the Greek and French Navies from inspecting suspected weapons transports to the GNA in May and June. (A European naval mission focused on enforcing the Libya arms embargo disproportionately affects Turkey, whose rivals can route arms shipments through Egypt. France has provided clandestine military support to Haftar during the conflict.)

For more detail, see “Warning Update: Egypt’s Libya threat risks larger Mediterranean war.”

The Islamic State in Libya resumed regular attacks in southwestern Libya after a nearly a year of limited attacks and media activity. The Islamic State claimed eight attacks between May 17[1] and June 11[2] targeting LNA personnel and civilians accused of supporting the LNA economically in several localities in Fezzan region. The attacks were claimed through the Islamic State’s Naba bulletin, indicating ongoing communications with the Islamic State media apparatus. The Islamic State included Libya in a cross-theater messaging campaign that marked the final third of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.[3]

The uptick in Islamic State activity coincides with increased pressure on the LNA, which had occupied key locations in the Fezzan in the months prior to launching the Tripoli campaign in April 2019. LNA operations in southwestern Libya in the first half of 2019 appear to have disrupted Islamic State operations; the group’s limited media releases in the latter half of 2019 were significantly delayed.[4] The Islamic State resumed attacks as the LNA lost control of a key military position on the outskirts of Tripoli to Turkish-backed GNA forces in mid-May and withdrew from the Tripoli front by June 6.

Forecast: In the most likely case, fighting will stalemate in central Libya. Egypt may make a show of force to persuade Turkey to scale back its support, limiting the advance of GNA-aligned forces and preserving LNA control of the oil crescent. This de facto partition would likely lead to future rounds of civil war and proxy conflict after the combatants rearm.

In a less likely but more dangerous case, a miscalculation or error could draw external forces into direct conflict, possibly including conflict between two US allies (NATO ally Turkey and major non-NATO ally Egypt).

Either case preserves and worsens the conditions that allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. The Islamic State will likely continue its renewed attack tempo and may resume intermittent attacks targeting symbolic state institutions in coastal cities in the coming months. (Updated June 24, 2020)

 

West Africa

The Western Sahel

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) confirmed the death of its emir but has not yet announced a successor. A French operation supported by US intelligence killed Droukdel and several of his associates in northern Mali on June 3. An AQIM official eulogized Droukdel on June 18.[5] AQIM is severely degraded in Algeria, where it originated, but continues to conduct intermittent attacks on Algerian security targets. AQIM claimed to kill an Algerian soldier in Ain Defla province in western Algeria on June 21.[6]

French military officials stated that Droukdel may have been in Mali to provide guidance to the AQIM affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) due to clashes between JNIM and an Islamic State branch. An al Qaeda–affiliated jihadist online claimed that Droukdel had ordered the eradication of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), formally known as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province.[7] French forces also captured a senior ISGS commander on May 19.

Tensions remain high between ISGS and JNIM. ISGS and JNIM have cooperated in the past but also clash over territory, economic opportunities, and personnel. The current clashes, which began in March, are the most severe and sustained eruption of hostilities between the groups. Islamic State media claimed multiple attacks targeting JNIM in Mali and Burkina Faso in late May and mid-June.

ISGS is attempting to challenge JNIM’s dominance in the Sahel. The Islamic State’s overall spokesman promised retaliation against al Qaeda in the Sahel on May 28.[8] ISGS has grown more lethal and hewed more closely to Islamic State ideology and tactics over time.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has increasingly showcased its West African branches—in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin—as it has suffered setbacks in its core terrain in Iraq and Syria. The JNIM-ISGS rift also reflects the Islamic State’s opposition to the al Qaeda–supported Afghan Taliban deal with the United States, which JNIM now seeks to replicate in Mali.

Recent French-led coalition operations have pressured ISGS in the border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. This pressure paired with the intra-jihadist clashes have temporarily reduced ISGS’s ability to conduct offensive attacks.

Likely JNIM militants conducted the deadliest Salafi-jihadi attack since 2016 in Cote d’Ivoire. Militants killed 12 Ivorian soldiers at an Ivorian frontier military post near the town of Kafolo on the Ivorian-Burkinabe border on June 12. This was the deadliest attack in the country since AQIM attacked the Grand Bassam beach resort in 2016. The attack comes after sustained Ivorian-Burkinabe operations against JNIM and its affiliates in northern Cote d’Ivoire and southwestern Burkina Faso in recent months. Ivorian security forces captured the attack leader on June 21.

Separately, JNIM conducted a series of raids targeting Malian military targets in Segou Region in central Mali. The group attacked military bases on June 6 and June 21 and targeted at least two convoys.[9]

France officially launched the International Coalition for the Sahel on June 12. The coalition, first announced in January after a series of JNIM and ISGS attacks killed over 200 soldiers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, brings international and regional counterterrorism forces under a single command.

Germany’s parliament voted in late May to extend its deployment with the European Union Training Mission in Mali until 2021.

Human rights violations by Sahel militaries are threatening their international backing while contributing to the grievances exploited by Salafi-jihadi groups. The French defense minister called on Sahel governments to address accusations of extrajudicial executions. Burkinabe soldiers are accused of executing unarmed members of the Fulani ethnic group in Djibo in northern Burkina Faso in April. This alleged attack is part of a larger wave of violence by security forces and state-approved vigilantes that now kills as many people as Salafi-jihadis and bandits.

Security forces abuses are a key driver of support for Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso has claimed recent progress in the fight against Salafi-jihadi groups. Burkina Faso’s president visited Djibo briefly on June 19 as a show of force and commitment. The city remains largely cut off from southern Burkina Faso due to surrounding instability. Burkinabe security forces claimed to destroy “terrorist bases” in northern and eastern Burkina Faso on June 23. Such advances will be fleeting, however, as long as state actions (and inaction) deepen the grievances of populations that Salafi-jihadi groups co-opt and exploit.

For more detail, see “How Ansar al Islam Gains Popular Support in Burkina Faso.”

The Malian president committed to dialogue following mass protests. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced that he would hold talks with opposition leaders on June 17. Keita also suggested first steps toward institutional governmental reform and stated that abducted opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, whom JNIM captured during elections in April, is still alive. Thousands of Malians rallied in Bamako demanding Keita's resignation on June 5, citing mismanagement and corruption related to the election results.

Forecast: The perceived illegitimacy of the Malian elections will fuel unrest with interest groups in northern Mali, possibly distracting the state from counter-Salafi-jihadi efforts and creating more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish mutually beneficial agreements with other anti-government groups. Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the Burkinabe-Malian-Nigerien tri-border area, though they may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government.

Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative.

The JNIM-ISGS clashes will likely not have a significant operational effect because French pressure on ISGS is already limiting the group’s operations in the near term. ISGS’s opposition to negotiations may increase JNIM’s palatability to local populations over time. (Updated June 24, 2020)

The Lake Chad Basin

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) in the Lake Chad Basin has begun attacking Muslim civilians directly, signaling a shift in targeting and strategy. ISWA conducted twin attacks on Monguno village and Nganzai district in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State on June 13, killing at least 60 soldiers and civilians. The group also claimed a June 9 attack on Gubio village in Borno State that killed at least 90 civilians. This shift to targeting civilians indicates a hard-line turn by ISWA under the direction of senior Islamic State leaders, who ordered the purging of more moderate ISWA leadership with ties to al Qaeda who advocated a more lenient approach toward civilians. This brutal shift may increase ISWA’s area of control in the short term but may ultimately weaken the group by incentivizing local populations to resist rather than accept ISWA’s governance.

East Africa

Somalia

Al Shabaab conducted its first attack on a Turkish-run military training base in Mogadishu, marking an escalation in a campaign to discredit a Somali Federal Government (SFG) effort to secure the city. An al Shabaab militant detonated a suicide vest at the base on June 23. Somalia’s army chief claimed that security forces killed the attacker before he entered the base, contradicting the accounts of local officials who said the militant successfully entered the base before detonating his vest. The blast killed two civilians, according to local police, while al Shabaab claimed killing seven Somali military officers and wounding 14 more. Al Shabaab’s Shahada News Agency reported that the attack showed that al Shabaab “continues to dominate the security scene in the areas under the control of the Western-backed Somali government.”[10]

Al Shabaab exploited the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr to present itself as an effective governing alternative to the SFG, but the celebrations may have helped spread COVID-19 in al Shabaab–controlled territories. The group's Shahada News Agency boasted on May 28 that al Shabaab correctly identified the first day of Eid, while the SFG failed.[11] The press release included photos depicting large groups of civilians celebrating Eid in al Shabaab–controlled areas of southern and central Somalia. Al Shabaab featured many of the same locations during Eid in 2019.[12]

The lack of social distancing at these gatherings may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in al Shabaab territories. The head of al Shabaab’s COVID-19 response committee announced the creation of an isolation and health care facility in al Shabaab's stronghold of Jilib in southwestern Somalia on June 12. The committee head urged Muslims showing virus symptoms to come to the facility to avoid infecting others. A staff member at the facility said they had all the necessary equipment to treat patients but declined to say how many patients they had. Al Shabaab created the response committee in mid-May while claiming that the virus had not spread to its territories.[13] Al Shabaab will likely downplay the extent of the virus’ spread in its territory.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt to capitalize on backlash to the SFG’s pandemic response to present itself as the more legitimate governing force in Somalia but may suffer its own delegitimization if its efforts—potentially including disrupting aid—are seen as causing harm in the areas it controls. The pandemic may reduce targets available for al Shabaab’s campaigns, potentially leading to fewer attacks (especially if the planned 2020 elections are postponed). The pandemic may also delay al Shabaab’s efforts to execute a spectacular attack in Kenya. (Updated April 14, 2020)

For more on Salafi-jihadi groups’ opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic, see “Forecast: The African Salafi-Jihadi Movement After COVID-19.”

Mozambique

Islamic State–aligned militants in northern Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province attempted to capture a large town for the first time. Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCA) militants raised the Islamic State flag in Macomia after invading the town on May 28. The attackers were reportedly dressed in Mozambican security force uniforms and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and an armored personnel carrier equipped with a heavy machine gun captured from government forces.

The Mozambican Defense Armed Forces, supported by helicopter gunships piloted by South African mercenaries, drove the militants from the city on May 30 after heavy fighting. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi claimed on June 1 that Mozambican forces killed two militant commanders during the fighting. Mozambique’s defense minister later reported that the militant forces lost 78 fighters total.

The attack on Macomia is the latest departure from the militant group’s usual hit-and-run tactics. Raids on the similarly sized cities of Muidumbe and Mocimboa da Praia in late March saw the militants chase security forces from the town, briefly address the local population, and withdraw after brief skirmishes with Mozambican reinforcements. The attempt to seize Macomia, despite its failure, indicates that the militants now have sufficient resources and capabilities to hold off government forces for days.

Forecast: The Mozambican ISCA branch will attempt to take control of a Cabo Delgado population center and declare it a part of the Islamic State’s caliphate this year. (Updated June 23, 2020)


[1] “IS Reports Previously Undocumented Rocket Strikes in Libya in Naba 235 Exclusive,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 21, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “al Naba 238,” June 18, 2020, https://jihadology.net/wp-content/uploads/_pda/2020/06/The-Islamic-State-al-Naba%CC%84%E2%80%99-Newsletter-238.pdf.

[3] “Is Reports Torching Farm of Municipal Guard Member And Blowing Up Businesses In Libya In Naba 236,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 29, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Following Pattern By IS Fighters Elsewhere, Those in Libya Renew Pledge To Baghdadi in Video,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 6, 2019; “With Photos Of Fighters Pledging To New Is Leader, "Libya Province" Demonstrates Its Continued Existence,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 15, 2019, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “IS Libya Province Video Documents April-June 2019 Raids, Grisly Executions,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 4, 2019, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “AQIM Official Confirms Death of Droukdel, Urges University Students Embrace Jihad,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 19, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “Pro-AQ Media Unit Reports AQIM Attack in Algeria, Major Ambush by JNIM In Mali,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 22, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[7] “AQ Jihadist Says Deceased AQIM Leader Ordered Eradication of ISWAP,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 17, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[8] “IS Spokesman Echoes Jihadi Sentiment of Covid-19 Being Divine Punishment, Vows Group Will Never Compromise Their Faith,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 28, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[9] “Pro-AQ Media Unit Reports AQIM Attack in Algeria, Major Ambush by JNIM In Mali,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 22, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[10] “Shabaab Says Camp Turksom Suicide Bombing Demonstrates Its "Domination Of Security Scene" in Government-Controlled Areas,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 23, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[11] “Shabaab Photographs Toy Gun-Totting Children During Eid Celebrations, Claims 18 Attacks in One-Week,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 28, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[12] “Shabaab Photographs Eid Al-Fitr Celebrations in Held-Territories, Claims 25 Casualties Among Kenyan Forces in Mandera,” SITE Intelligence Group, June 5, 2019, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[13] “Shabaab Appoints Committee to Monitor COVID-19 Pandemic in its Controlled Territories,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 13, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

Africa File: Libya will fragment further as strongman loses support

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Libya will fragment further as strongman Khalifa Haftar loses support. Turkish military support for forces aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli delivered a potentially decisive blow to Haftar’s yearlong campaign to seize Libya’s capital on May 18. Haftar’s domestic coalition is weakening and his primary foreign backers (the UAE, Egypt, and Russia) must decide whether to prop up his failing campaign. A renewed campaign for Tripoli could likely bring violence on a scale that Libya has not yet seen as external players pour military resources into the conflict. But even if this case is averted, the freezing or ending of the Tripoli campaign is unlikely to stabilize the country. Anti-Haftar players around Tripoli will likely return to fighting each other in the absence of an external foe. In the east, Haftar’s military rule could disintegrate and yield a war-within-a-war.

Libya’s crisis has regional and global implications. The foreign players that are fueling Libya’s war are pursuing disruptive goals; Russia’s involvement in Libya is part of its effort to pressure Europe and challenge NATO, and the Middle Eastern states acting in Libya are engaged in a power struggle that is destabilizing much of the Middle East and Africa. The ongoing war and collapse of the state are setting conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to recover in Libya and again gain a strategic haven on the Mediterranean coast.

Unfortunately, Libya’s is far from the only crisis that is benefiting or will likely benefit the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis are putting unprecedented strain on many African states; governance will worsen in many cases, and the likelihood of instability and state collapse is rising. Such collapses could destabilize regions and would fuel conflict and extremism, as Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle argues in a forecast of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa.

Read Further On:

North Africa
West Africa
East Africa

Recent Critical Threats Project Publications:

Forecast: The African Salafi-Jihadi Movement After COVID-19” by Emily Estelle

Eyes on the Other Global Crises” by Emily Estelle (Originally published in RealClearWorld)

Salafi-Jihadi Ecosystem in the Sahel” and interactive graphic by Katherine Zimmerman


At a Glance: the Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated April 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of US forces in Iraq and Syria is uncertain following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and its leader’s death, though the group already shows signs of recovery. The US Department of Defense is also considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions in Africa, though support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel has been extended for now.

This is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure before the pandemic hit; now, a likely wave of instability and governmental legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where it has pressured the Malian government to offer negotiations. It is also stalemated in Somalia and Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems with these forces, with contributing nations reevaluating their commitments to foreign intervention during the pandemic.

The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and now northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

 

North Africa

Libya

Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar may lose support after his forces suffered a major setback in the campaign to seize Libya’s capital. Haftar’s forces, backed by the UAE, Russia, and Egypt, have been attempting to seize Tripoli since April 2019. Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have fended off Haftar’s advance for the past year with increasing support from Turkey. Turkish air support proved decisive on May 19, when GNA-aligned forces seized Wattiya Airbase in northwestern Libya from the Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) after weeks of airstrikes.

The LNA’s loss of Wattiya is a major military setback. The base, controlled by LNA-aligned forces since 2014, was the LNA’s only such position in northwestern Libya; its nearest airbase is now at Jufra in the center of the country. GNA-aligned forces seized an advanced Russian-made air-defense system (likely supplied by the UAE) and destroyed several others while taking the base.  The conclusion of the Wattiya campaign will also allow GNA-aligned forces and Turkish drones to turn their focus to other fronts; they will likely move next to sever the LNA supply line to Tarhouna, the LNA’s remaining stronghold on the outskirts of Tripoli. LNA forces withdrew from the Tripoli frontline the following day, citing the last few days of Ramadan. This reposition likely seeks to avoid further immediate losses and prepare for a counterattack. Recent military buildup inside Libya could supply the firepower for a renewed LNA offensive; alternately, further GNA advance could degrade support for the LNA in Tripoli. The loss of Tarhouna would likely end the LNA’s Tripoli campaign entirely. The fate of the campaign depends on if and how Haftar’s backers choose to muster support. 

This setback comes as Haftar’s support base in eastern Libya fragments. Haftar declared military rule in eastern Libya in April 27 in an attempt to consolidate his power following prior losses. This declaration was also meant to reinforce Haftar’s position against a rival within the eastern Libyan bloc, House of Representatives Speaker Ageela Saleh. Saleh revealed on April 30 that he has been pursuing a political initiative to end the conflict with Russian support. Haftar’s declaration appears to have emboldened Saleh and turned some other allies against the general, including a prominent Salafi militia commander.

Haftar’s foreign backers must respond if they want to preserve the Tripoli campaign and prevent the disintegration of Haftar’s coalition. This comes as they are already reconsidering support for the field marshal, who promised a quick victory in the Tripoli campaign that has now stretched on for 13 months. Russia’s foreign minister criticized Haftar’s April 27 announcement, reflecting growing frustration with Haftar’s ineffectiveness unwillingness to take cues from Moscow. Egypt, concerned about the security of its western border, may also be seeking alternatives to Haftar. And the UAE, which has been Haftar’s staunchest supporter even since his April 27 power grab, has called for a ceasefire and may also seek a new partner if it becomes clear that Haftar can neither seize Tripoli nor hold the east no matter his level of external support.

Forecast: Libya will continue to fragment on any of several likely trajectories.

  • GNA-aligned forces may continue their advance as Haftar’s coalition crumbles. This outcome could spawn smaller wars in the east, which will devolve into economic crisis and attempts to control LNA-captured institutions, and in the west, where LNA-aligned parties will need to either surrender or fight and intra-militia tensions will reemerge in the absence of an external foe.
  • Haftar’s backers may provide sufficient support to preserve his position temporarily and return the Tripoli fight to a stalemate, potentially in preparation for a renewed offensive (particularly if Turkish assets are drawn elsewhere). But such support is unlikely to heal rifts in the east in the long term nor increase Haftar’s chances of taking over the entire country.
  • Haftar’s backers may seek to replace him and empower alternate authorities in the east, under parliamentary speaker Ageela Salah. These newly empowered eastern leaders may attempt to strike a deal with the GNA, though it is not clear that their demands (or the UAE’s) will be sufficiently less maximalist than Haftar’s. Conflict would decrease in the short term and the current war may even end. Spoilers not represented by these factions will likely pursue their interests by force, however, so a negotiated settlement would likely falter within its first year.

All these most likely outcomes preserve and worsen the conditions that allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. (Updated May 20, 2020)

 

West Africa

 

The Western Sahel

Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliate in the Sahel, is waging a Ramadan campaign titled “Invasions of the Holy Month” targeting local and international security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The “Invasions of the Holy Month” campaign, which was announced on May 4, has included frequent IED attacks and a multi-part *attack on Malian Army positions in central Mali’s Mopti region on April 28.[1] The campaign has not included a significant inflection in JNIM’s activity or capabilities but reflects a coordinated messaging strategy. JNIM’s recent messaging has also incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic as part of an ongoing effort to turn public opinion against the French intervention in Mali. JNIM has called for the withdrawal of French forces as a precondition for negotiations with the Malian government.

JNIM’s messaging is likely most effective when it echoes acute popular grievances, including security force abuses against Fulani and Tuareg populations. JNIM claims attacks on security forces as revenge for attacks on civilians. Such abuses have spiked in northern Burkina Faso in the past two months. Burkinabe security forces allegedly executed 31 detainees in northern Burkina Faso on April 9. JNIM claimed an ambush of Burkinabe forces in Banwa Province near the Malian border on May 18 as revenge for the Burkinabe forces’ alleged persecution of Muslim in a nearby town.[2] Further human rights abuses will legitimate Salafi-jihadi claims to provide a viable alternative to flawed states.

Tensions remain high between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and JNIM. An Islamic State newsletter accused JNIM of attacking its fighters in the Sahel and criticized JNIM’s willingness to negotiate with the Malian government in early May. JNIM and ISGS have clashed across several regions of Mali following a March 12 incident that killed an ISGS leader. Clashes have decreased since mid-April, though this may be because ISGS came under increased pressure from the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel earlier in the month. Unconfirmed reports on jihadi forums claim that ISGS has sought to reduce tensions but JNIM has rejected this outreach.[3]

ISGS and JNIM have cooperated in the past but also clash over territory, economic opportunities, and personnel. The current clashes are the most severe and sustained eruption of hostilities between the groups.

Forecast: The perceived illegitimacy of the Malian elections will fuel unrest with interest groups in northern Mali, possibly distracting the state from counter-Salafi-jihadi efforts and creating more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish mutually beneficial agreements with other anti-government groups. Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the Burkinabe-Malian-Nigerien tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government.

Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative.

The JNIM-ISGS clashes will likely not have a significant operational effect because French pressure on ISGS is already limiting the group’s operations in the near term. ISGS’s opposition to negotiations may increase JNIM’s palatability to local populations over time. (Updated May 20, 2020)

 

 

 

East Africa

Somalia

Al Shabaab is adapting its COVID-19 response as the outbreak worsens in Somalia. The outbreak provides an opportunity for al Shabaab to provide services and bolster its reputation as an alternative to the Somali Federal Government (SFG), though the group also risks backlash should its response appear to worsen the outbreak. Al Shabaab’s initial response to COVID-19 focused on blaming the outbreak on the presence of foreign forces and criticizing the SFG’s pandemic control measures, including mosque closures.[4] The group intensified its response in mid-May by appointing a committee to monitor the pandemic in al Shabaab-controlled territories and advise authorities. Al Shabaab also claimed that the virus has not reached areas under its control.[5]

Al Shabaab is increasing attacks targeting the African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) Halane camp in Mogadishu after claiming that Somalia’s first COVID-19 case originated from the base. Al Shabaab’s spokesman also accused AMISOM and UN representatives of deliberately spreading the virus.[6] AMISOM had temporarily locked down Halane in April after a contractor tested positive for the coronavirus. Al Shabaab fired mortars at the base on *April 26 and May 4.[7]

COVID-19 may disrupt AMISOM operations inside Somalia. A Ugandan military official announced on May 2 that Ugandan AMISOM forces will *suspend rotations in Somalia to prevent the disease’s spread.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt to capitalize on backlash to the SFG’s pandemic response to present itself as the more legitimate governing force in Somalia but may suffer its own delegitimization if its efforts—potentially including disrupting aid—are seen as causing harm in the areas it controls. The pandemic may reduce targets available for al Shabaab’s campaigns, potentially leading to fewer attacks (especially if the planned 2020 elections are postponed). The pandemic may also delay al Shabaab’s efforts to execute a spectacular attack in Kenya. (Updated April 14, 2020)


[1]“JNIM Announces “Invasions in the Holy Month,” Claims 3 Attacks on Enemy Forces in Mali and 1 in Burkina Faso,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 4, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “JNIM Claims Killing 9 Burkinabe Soldiers in Ambush Following Alleged “Dirty Mission” by Army,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 19, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “Jihadist Alleges JNIM Rejected IS’ Reconciliation Offer and Wounded Local Official,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 12, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Sermon Delivered In Somali Mosques in Shabaab-Controlled Areas Identifies Protective Measures Against Covid-19 While Decrying Mosque Closures,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 11, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “Shabaab Appoints Committee To Monitor Covid-19 Pandemic in its Controlled Territories,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 13, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “Shabaab Spokesman Suggests Foreign Forces Intentionally Spread Coronavirus in Somalia,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[7] “Shabaab Claims Shelling Halane Base Camp 2 Weeks After Last Strike, Allegedly Inflicting 14 Casualties,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

 
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Africa File: Libya crisis deepens as warlord declares military rule

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Libya crisis is worsening rapidly. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in the country’s east on April 27. Haftar is not close to controlling the country, however; his yearlong effort to seize the capital Tripoli has stalled. The fighting is displacing civilians and destroying health infrastructure, likely exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.

The war is also setting conditions for Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to recover in Libya. Meanwhile, foreign players with competing interests in Libya are fueling the conflict, which is becoming a testing ground for new weaponry (and maybe even chemical weapons).

The Libya crisis has many implications beyond its borders. Russia’s involvement in the country is part of a long-term effort to pressure Europe and contest NATO’s unfettered access to the Mediterranean while  challenging American global leadership. Libya is also a front in a destabilizing power competition between Middle Eastern states that is fueling conflict and political instability across the Middle East and large swathes of Africa. More broadly, Libya, alongside Syria, have become the laboratories for a new way of war that increasingly threatens global stability.

External involvement in local conflicts can prolong and deepen them, particularly when civil wars become multisided proxy conflicts, writes Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle in RealClearWorld. This dynamic causes conflicts to spread and merge; Libya’s war is becoming increasingly entangled with Syria’s, setting up a larger security crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. Prolonged conflicts destroy responsive governance and deepen popular grievances—exactly the conditions that extremists like Salafi-jihadis need to thrive.

Extremist groups in turn provide justification for intervening states (including those seeking to upend the world order) to mask their actual intent. This vicious cycle is making conflicts harder to resolve and chipping away at the global order and will keep doing so while COVID-19 consumes the world’s attention.

 

Read Further On:

North Africa
West Africa
East Africa

Recent Critical Threats Project Publications:

Eyes on the Other Global Crises” by Emily Estelle (Originally published in RealClearWorld)

Salafi-Jihadi Ecosystem in the Sahel” and interactive graphic by Katherine Zimmerman


At a Glance: the Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated April 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of US forces in Iraq and Syria is uncertain following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and its leader’s death, though the group already shows signs of recovery. The US Department of Defense is also considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions in Africa, though support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel has been extended for now.

This is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure before the pandemic hit; now, a likely wave of instability and governmental legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where it has pressured the Malian government to offer negotiations. It is also stalemated in Somalia and Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown.

The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and now northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

 

North Africa

 

Libya

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar declared military rule in eastern Libya. Haftar announced the military’s formal takeover from nominal civilian authorities in eastern Libya on April 27, citing popular will. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) already had de facto control of the east. This move is likely a bid to gain a level of international recognition—or at minimum permit a level of international indifference—that will allow him to gain access to Libya’s economic resources, including exporting oil.

Russia’s foreign minister signaled disapproval for the announced military takeover and emphasized Moscow’s sustained contact with all factions in Libya’s conflict. Russian private military contractors are fighting with Haftar’s forces in the battle for Tripoli, but Moscow has never acknowledged their presence. The Kremlin seeks to be kingmaker in Libya and is backing Haftar and Qaddafi-era figures for potential leadership.

Haftar’s announcement may also be an attempt to project strength following setbacks in his yearlong campaign to seize Tripoli. Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and backed by Turkey *seized several towns west of Tripoli from the LNA on April 13, threatening a key LNA airbase. GNA-aligned forces also launched a campaign to seize the Tripoli suburb of Tarhouna, a key LNA position and source of manpower 45 miles southeast of Tripoli, on April 18. LNA forces rebuffed the initial attack. Clashes have also continued on a front nearer to central Libya, where the LNA seeks to pressure the key GNA-aligned hub of Misrata but has not been able to sustain forward progress.

Russian mercenaries are accused of using chemical weapons in Tripoli. The GNA’s interior minister accused the Wagner Group of using “nerve gas” in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, where Wagner is fighting in support of the LNA. The Wagner group is a proxy of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Observers reported shells emitting smoke on the Tripoli front line and hospitalized fighters with symptoms consistent with a poison gas attack. The allegations are unconfirmed, and there is no consensus among observers on the type of chemical weapon that may have been used.

Such an attack in Libya could indicate a chemical weapons transfer from Syria, underscoring the deepening connections between the two conflicts. The use of chemical weapons by a Russian contractor would indicate that Russia seeks to use the Libyan theater to advance its effort to normalize chemical weapons use. If so, Russia may have decided to do so now to counteract new pressure in Syria after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons attributed responsibility for a chemical attack in Syria to the Assad regime, Russia’s client, for the first time since the war began in 2011. Haftar’s forces also have possible incentive to use chemical weapons to break an increasingly grinding stalemate that threatens the LNA’s ability to sustain operations in Tripoli.

Prison breaks may help Salafi-jihadi groups reconstitute. More than 400 prisoners escaped or were released in Sabratha and Surman following GNA-aligned militias’ takeovers of the cities. These prisons likely contained members of the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadi groups.

Forecast: The most likely case is a grinding stalemate that settles in the Tripoli suburbs, prolonging the humanitarian crisis and exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. Such a stalemate, or the less likely but possible loss of LNA’s Wattiya airbase northwest of Tripoli, could degrade the LNA’s cohesion and reduce support for the war in its base in eastern Libya. This would introduce new conflict and create opportunities for dormant Salafi-jihadi groups to reemerge in the east.

Alternately, the LNA will bring sufficient pressure on Tripoli and Misrata to lure Misratan forces away from Tripoli and secure defections among Tripoli-based militias, enabling either an extension of the LNA’s military takeover or a negotiated settlement. This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely quickly. Even if Haftar gains international recognition and access to Libya’s economic resources, he lacks the capability to unify and stabilize the country, especially against externally backed opposition.

All the most likely outcomes—stalemate, LNA fragmentation, and LNA Pyrrhic victory—preserve and worsen conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. (Updated April 28, 2020)

 

West Africa

 

Sahel

Clashes continued between Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) despite an ISGS official’s overture to end the intra-jihadist fighting. An April 10 audio recording allegedly from an ISGS official suggested that ISGS and JNIM should exchange prisoners and cease clashes.[i] The message was addressed to JNIM Deputy Leader and Macina Liberation Front Lead Amadou Koufa.

However, clashes have continued throughout the Malian-Burkinabe border region since this message. Some reports indicate that leaders of the Burkina Faso–based group  Ansar al Islam may be attacking ISGS, indicating that Ansar al Islam may have broken past ties with ISGS to formally align with JNIM.

ISGS and JNIM have cooperated in the past but also clash over territory, economic opportunities, and personnel. The current clashes are the most severe and sustained eruption of hostilities between the groups. JNIM and ISGS will likely deconflict and potentially resolve their dispute  over time.

Salafi-jihadi activity contributed to low turnout in the second round of Mali’s legislative elections on April 19. Likely JNIM militants attacked electoral officials and voting stations in northern and central Mali. JNIM militants also kidnapped candidates from multiple parties, including an opposition party leader, before the first round of voting. The elections are an important step in the implementation of Mali’s 2015 peace agreement and can be seen as an “attempt to renew the legitimacy of the national parliament and the current government” as it faces the overlapping challenges of the pandemic, economic woes, ethnic violence, and a Salafi-jihadi insurgency.

JNIM has woven COVID-19 into its propaganda narratives about the French intervention in Mali. The group expressed hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would weaken European troop-contributing countries and cause the fragmentation of the French-led military coalition in the Sahel on April 10.[ii] Subsequent attack claims have continued this narrative thread.[iii] JNIM media seeks to amplify the group’s call for French forces to withdraw as a precondition for negotiations with the Malian government. JNIM has not yet released a statement on COVID-19 that relates to its efforts to provide alternative governance inside Mali.

The French defense minister confirmed on April 24 that US and UK support for the French security mission in the Sahel, which includes intelligence, supply, and logistics, will continue for at least the coming months.

 Security force abuses against Fulani and Tuareg populations reinforce Salafi-jihadi narratives and will drive populations to tolerate or support Salafi-jihadi groups in self-defense. Burkinabe security forces allegedly executed 31 detainees in northern Burkina Faso on April 9. Reports also surfaced of mass graves for Tuareg and Fulani civilians executed in a security sweep in western Niger in late March and early April. JNIM has begun to claim attacks on security forces as revenge for such abuses; further human rights abuses will legitimate Salafi-jihadi claims to provide a viable alternative to flawed states.

Forecast: The perceived illegitimacy of the Malian elections will fuel unrest with interest groups in northern Mali, possibly distracting the state from counter-Salafi-jihadi efforts and creating more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish mutually beneficial agreements with other anti-government groups. Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the Burkinabe-Malian-Nigerien tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government.

Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated April 14, 2020)

 

 

East Africa

Mozambique

An Islamic State–linked insurgency continued to escalate in Mozambique, where militants recently announced their intent to establish a caliphate. An Islamic State–linked news agency alleged that the militants downed a military helicopter in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado Province on April 8.[iv] Security officials also reported that militants had killed more than 50 civilians for refusing recruitment on April 7.

However, security forces’ abuses will likely drive some of the population toward the insurgency despite its brutality; Mozambique’s president confirmed some human rights abuses during counterinsurgency operations following accusations by the country’s opposition party. Local grievances are directed at the government and security forces and multibillion-dollar hydrocarbon projects run by foreign companies in the area.

A recent uptick in the scale and brazenness of attacks indicates a drastic increase in the capabilities and tactical skill of Salafi-jihadi militants in Mozambique. The militants have also begun making overtures to local populations by avoiding civilian casualties, redistributing looted goods, and emphasizing their alliance with local populations against elites seen as corrupt. The Mozambican government’s reliance on heavy-handed security measures and foreign mercenaries to combat the insurgency risk inflaming these grievances.

Forecast: ISCA will take control of a northern Mozambican population center and declare it a part of the Islamic State’s caliphate this year, possibly during the upcoming Ramadan period. (As of April 14, 2020)

Somalia

Backlash to the Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) pandemic response may reinforce al Shabaab’s claim to provide alternative governance. Hundreds of civilians *protested against *police brutality in the enforcement of the COVID-19 curfew in Mogadishu on April 25.

Al Shabaab’s messaging on COVID-19 aims to strengthen the group’s claim to provide responsive governance in Somalia. The group held a consultative forum with community leaders that included discussion of COVID-19 in mid-March. Al Shabaab has directed blame for the pandemic toward the SFG’s foreign partners, including foreign troops present in Somalia; an al Shabaab leader also celebrated the pandemic’s effects in the US and Europe on April 1.

Al Shabaab may increase attacks in Mogadishu to underscore the SFG’s weakness in this period. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) *locked down its Halane base camp in Mogadishu after a contractor tested positive for the coronavirus, which will temporarily limit its ability to support security provision in the capital. Al Shabaab has increased attacks in Mogadishu since the group’s emir took direct control of operations in the city earlier this year.

Al Shabaab “opened the month of Ramadan” with a double suicide bombing at a Ugandan AMISOM base.[v] Militants *detonated two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices at a Ugandan base in Barawe in southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region on April 24. The attack is the latest in a series of attacks targeting Ugandan positions in Lower Shabelle in April. Al Shabaab will likely sustain a high operational tempo throughout the Muslim holy month.

AFRICOM released its first quarterly report investigating allegations of civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes in Somalia. AFRICOM assessed that an airstrike that killed two al Shabaab militants in February 2019 in southern Somalia likely killed two civilians and injured three others. AFRICOM announced a plan to release quarterly reports on its investigations in late March, coinciding with an Amnesty International report accusing AFRICOM of underreporting civilian casualties. AFRICOM has contested Amnesty International’s account, noting that nonmilitary organizations lack access to necessary information for post-strike investigations and underscoring its already stringent measures to limit civilian harm. The AFRICOM reporting also aims to counter al Shabaab propaganda, which frequently falsely accuses AFRICOM of attacking civilians.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt to capitalize on backlash to the SFG’s pandemic response to present itself as the more legitimate governing force in Somalia but may suffer its own delegitimization if its efforts—potentially including disrupting aid—are seen as causing harm in the areas it controls. The pandemic may reduce targets available for al Shabaab’s campaigns, potentially leading to fewer attacks (especially if the planned 2020 elections are postponed). The pandemic may also delay al Shabaab’s efforts to execute a spectacular attack in Kenya. (Updated April 14, 2020)


[i] “Alleged Audio from IS Official in Mali to JNIM Commander Acknowledges Fighting Between Groups,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 10, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ii] “JNIM Claims Killing Nearly 30 Malian Soldiers in Raid on Military Base in Bamba,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 13, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] “JNIM Claims Killing 5 Burkinabe Soldiers in Attack in Sollé,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 16, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iv] “’Amaq Video Shows Mozambican Military Helicopter Allegedly Shot Down by ISCAP Fighters in Quissanga,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 20, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[v] “Shabaab Claims 2 Suicide Bombings at Ugandan base in Barawe in 1st Operation During Ramadan,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 24, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

 
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