The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
Africa File: African al Qaeda affiliates praise Taliban takeover
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
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Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa praised the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and reaffirmed their commitment to a similar strategy. The events in Afghanistan may energize insurgencies in Africa, where several al Qaeda affiliates are waging yearslong efforts to drive out foreign forces and collapse local governments. Al Qaeda’s leading affiliates in Africa—al Shabaab in Somalia and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen in Mali—are not on the cusp of a rapid victory but will benefit from favorable conditions over time as they seek to destroy and replace governance structures. These conditions include endemic political dysfunction and the planned withdrawal of foreign counterterrorism forces.
In this Africa File:
- Somalia. Al Shabaab drew parallels between itself and the Taliban. Al Shabaab and Somali forces are trading control of terrain in central Somalia.
- Ethiopia. The warring sides in Ethiopia’s conflict are drawing in additional forces, indicating that the conflict will continue and likely spread.
- Mozambique and Tanzania. A gunman killed five people near the French embassy in Tanzania’s capital. Mozambican and Rwandan security forces recaptured a strategic port city in northern Mozambique from Islamic State–linked militants.
- Tunisia. Tunisia’s president extended his extraordinary powers. Salafi-jihadi groups have attempted to capitalize on Tunisia’s political crisis rhetorically but have not conducted attacks in the country.
- Libya. The Islamic State in Libya claimed a third attack after a yearlong lull between June 2020 and June 2021
- Sahel. Al Qaeda affiliates see the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a validation of their approach in the Sahel.
- Lake Chad. Hundreds of Boko Haram militants surrendered to Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities, signaling the group’s continued fragmentation following the death of its leader.
- Reactions to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda affiliates outside Afghanistan, including African groups, may become energized and attempt to capitalize on the withdrawal of foreign forces. Read the analysis of regional players’ reactions to Afghanistan by the Critical Threats Project and Institute for the Study of War teams here.
- Salafi-jihadi groups in Africa. Emily Estelle joins the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ “Into Africa” podcast to discuss the dangers of overemphasizing or underselling the ties between regional groups and global Salafi-jihadi networks. Listen here.
- Salafi-jihadi groups in Africa. AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point hosted a debate on the significance of African jihadist groups joining international terror organizations. Watch the event here or listen here.
Read Further On:
Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: July 2021
Source: Emily Estelle.
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]
Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa
Updated August 26, 2021
The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across Northern, Eastern, and Western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent (Figure 1). This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism pressure relies on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 is a watershed moment for the global Salafi-jihadi movement that reaffirms the strategies of African al Qaeda affiliates and may energize ongoing insurgencies.
West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger and parts of Burkina Faso.
Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel. Meanwhile, political instability, particularly in Mali, threatens local and international counterterrorism efforts.
The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region. The death of Boko Haram’s longtime leader in May 2021 is weakening the group and benefiting the Islamic State’s Nigerian branch.
New instability in Chad, whose longtime president was killed in April 2021, may lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in both Mali and the Lake Chad Basin, where Chadian forces participate in regional counterterrorism efforts.
East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swaths of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals, where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction, corruption, and an ongoing constitutional crisis. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.
Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.
The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. The insurgency caused French company Total to shutter a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in northern Mozambique that was the continent’s largest private investment. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique also marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.
North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The Islamic State’s rise brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years.
The insurgencies in Libya and Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface. The Tunisian political crisis that began in mid-2021 poses a potential threat to the country’s gains against the Salafi-jihadi movement.
Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, signaled support for the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Al Shabaab media outlets celebrated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and drew parallels to Turkey’s presence in Somalia.[i] Al Shabaab outlets said that al Shabaab will capture Turkish vehicles supplied to the Somali government as the Taliban has captured US military vehicles in Afghanistan. Turkey *gave over 20 military vehicles to the Somali Defense Ministry for counter–al Shabaab operations on August 15. This anti-Turkish framing is a continuation of al Shabaab rhetoric and action. The group portrayed Turkey as a parasite in a statement claiming a suicide bombing targeting a Turkish-run training camp in Mogadishu in June 2021.[ii]
Al Shabaab and Somali security forces are trading control of terrain in central Somalia. The Somali National Army (SNA) and regional Galmudug State forces are waging *offensives against al Shabaab positions in the Mudug region, seizing strategic towns such as Bacadweyn and Qaycad. (See Figure 2.) Somali forces have escalated efforts to recapture towns from al Shabaab since July 12, when officials from Galmudug and Puntland states signed a joint agreement to counter al Shabaab in Mudug. Somali officials *reported that the SNA has killed over 200 al Shabaab militants in central and southern Somalia since July 2021. Al Shabaab claimed to mount a broad offensive against the SNA on August 17, killing 30 SNA troops in a single attack in Qaycad.[iii] SNA and al Shabaab have also competed for control of Amara, which al Shabaab recaptured from the SNA on August 24 and quickly lost to SNA forces on August 25. The SNA and supporting forces still aim to seize Harardhere, an al Shabaab stronghold. The US resumed airstrikes supporting Somali forces in Mudug in July after a many-month pause. The most recent US strike occurred near Amara on August 24.
Figure 2. Key locations in north-central Somalia: August 2021
Note: This map shows selected contested locations, not all al Shabaab or Somali military activity. For a map of key locations in this region in July 2021, see the prior version here.
SNA military offensives come amid delayed Somali elections and a fragile political and security situation in Mogadishu. The election cycle is scheduled to end on October 10, when a joint sitting of the two Somali parliament houses is expected to elect a new president for the federal government.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is investigating an attack on civilians. Somali officials reported that Ugandan AMISOM troops killed seven civilians during counter–al Shabaab operations in the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia on August 10. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni confirmed Ugandan troops killed civilians in Somalia and announced those responsible were arrested on August 19. AMISOM pledged to investigate the killings on August 11 and plans to conclude investigations by September 6.
The warring sides in Ethiopia’s conflict are drawing in additional forces, indicating that the conflict will continue and likely spread. The Oromo Liberation Army, an ethnic rebel group seeking self-determination for the Oromo people, announced a military alliance with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on August 11. The alliance raises the possibility of unrest and even fighting in the Oromo region, adding a second front to a conflict that is already fragmenting Ethiopia.
The current conflict began when the Ethiopian government intervened in Tigray in November 2020 after Tigrayan forces attacked a federal military base. TPLF forces recaptured the Tigray regional capital in June. The TPLF now seeks to expel external forces from northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region and force the Ethiopian government to recognize the TPLF as Tigray’s legitimate governing party.
Ethiopian federal forces and their allies now appear to be preparing to escalate the campaign against the TPLF. Eritrean forces, which had entered the Tigray conflict last year, are reportedly reentering the country just months after the Ethiopian government promised that Eritrean units would withdraw.
Mozambique and Tanzania
A Salafi-jihadi group may be responsible for an attack in Tanzania’s capital. A gunman killed five people, including three police officers, near the French embassy in Dar es Salaam on August 25. Tanzanian police reported that the attacker was Somali. The Tanzanian inspector general of police assessed that the attacker could have ties to the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Mozambique. On August 25, an unofficial Islamic State media outlet celebrated the attack and encouraged more lone-wolf attacks.[iv]
Mozambican and Rwandan security forces recaptured a strategic port city in northern Mozambique from Islamic State–linked militants on August 8. Militants seized Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020. Mozambican and Rwandan security forces have also *expelled militants from towns near Mocímboa da Praia. The Mozambican government reported that Palma, another northern Mozambican port, is pacified, and civilians and local officials have returned to the area. Islamic State militants had besieged Palma in March–April 2021. The Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) and Mozambican forces *overtook Mocímboa da Praia with minimal Islamic State casualties, suggesting militants have retreated but may still have the capacity to conduct attacks throughout northern Mozambique.
About one thousand RDF troops arrived in northern Mozambique to lead counterinsurgency operations in July. The Southern African Development Community deployed approximately 1,500 troops, including Angolans, Botswanans, and Zimbabweans, to Mozambique on August 9.
Islamic State publications have reflected the shift toward Rwanda and other African nations as leaders of Mozambican counterinsurgency efforts. On August 5, an official Islamic State editorial rallied Islamic State fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique to fight against the new regional alliance.[v] A pro–Islamic State media campaign incited violence against central African Christians in Rwanda on August 12.[vi]
Tunisia’s president extended his extraordinary powers indefinitely on August 23. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister, froze parliament, and announced he would temporarily rule by decree. Protests broke out in Tunisia in July both for and against the president, and the Tunisian military has signaled support for the president’s actions. Tunisia’s political crisis is also part of a regional struggle over the role of political Islam; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have voiced support for Saied over the Ennahda, the Islamist political party that has led Tunisia’s parliament. Salafi-jihadi groups have attempted to capitalize on the crisis with rhetoric targeting democracy and political Islam. [vii] Salafi-jihadi groups have not attacked in Tunisia in August, however, indicating that their capabilities remain limited even in a period of increased strain on security forces.
The Islamic State in Libya (IS-Libya) claimed a third attack after a yearlong lull between June 2020 and June 2021. An IS-Libya militant detonated a suicide vehicle–borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) outside a Libyan National Army (LNA) checkpoint in Zillah in south-central Libya on August 22, killing the attacker but no others.[viii] Zillah is located southeast of the former IS-Libya stronghold of Sirte and near oil fields previously damaged by IS-Libya attacks. This incident marked the second IS-Libya SVBIED attack in southern Libya, following a June 6 bombing that killed four LNA personnel in Sebha. IS-Libya also attacked an LNA militia near the Harouj Mountains on June 14. (See Figure 3).
IS-Libya’s recent SVBIED attacks are an indicator that the group is gaining strength. Its activity remains constrained to remote areas of Libya, however. One risk is that militants will seek to return to Sirte, the central Libyan coastal city that the Islamic State previously controlled. Security is contested in Sirte, and clashes between rival militias could create opportunities for militants to gain a foothold.
Libyan leaders may use the attack to delegitimize their political opponents before national elections in December 2021. A pro-LNA parliament leader *accused the Muslim Brotherhood of facilitating the August 23 attack—a common LNA refrain. The messaging is likely targeted at LNA rivals, such as former Defense Minister Salaheddin al Nimroush, whom the internationally recognized Libyan government appointed to lead a new security force on August 11.
Figure 3. Libya locator map
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) see the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a validation of their approach in the Sahel. On August 23, AQIM—al Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate—and JNIM issued a joint statement congratulating the Taliban for its victory in Afghanistan.[ix] JNIM’s emir, Iyad Ag Ghaly, had praised the Taliban’s perseverance as a model for success in an August 10 statement a week before the fall of Kabul.[x]
JNIM escalated attacks and rhetoric against the UN force in Mali. JNIM claimed nine attacks against United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) troops from July 26–August 14 throughout central Mali.[xi] The group claimed these attacks were in support of Muslims living in northern Mali who suffer at the hands of MINUSMA and have previously protested against MINUSMA presence. JNIM also conducted a VBIED attack that killed at least 15 Malian soldiers in central Mali’s Mopti region on August 19.
Chadian troop withdrawal may provide opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel. Chad announced on August 21 plans to withdraw 600 troops from the Mali–Burkina Faso–Niger border region. Chad deployed 1,200 troops to the tri-border region in February to help French and Malian forces combat JNIM and Islamic State activity. The withdrawal of Chadian forces, which are the most effective Sahelian force participating in regional counterterrorism efforts, will lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in the Lake Chad and Sahel regions.
Read more about how Chadian withdrawal threatens West African counterterrorism efforts here.
Salafi-jihadi groups have escalated attacks against civilians in the Sahel. Gunmen *attacked Burkinabe security forces as they relocated civilians from a village in northern Burkina Faso on August 18, killing 65 civilians and 15 Burkinabe security forces. The perpetrator of the attack is unclear, and multiple Salafi-jihadi groups are active in this part of Burkina Faso. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is responsible for some of the most lethal attacks against civilians throughout the Sahel region in recent years. Some indicators point toward Ansar al Islam, a JNIM-aligned Burkinabe group that lacks a media presence. A Mauritian newspaper reported that JNIM claimed the attack, though the group has not issued an official statement. JNIM has claimed previous Ansar al Islam attacks but is not likely to claim responsibility for an attack that caused high civilian casualties. JNIM presents itself as more lenient than ISGS by eschewing large-scale attacks on civilians.
Read a study of Ansar al Islam’s origins and objectives here.
ISGS continues to target civilians in Tillabéri Region in western Niger, likely to gain resources and pressure civilians not to cooperate with authorities. Suspected ISGS militants most recently attacked a Tillabéri mosque during prayer time on August 20, killing 17 civilians. The group also killed at least 37 civilians in an attack in a nearby town on August 16. The increase in attacks on civilians *correlates with the start of the rainy season in June, as Salafi-jihadi groups have since targeted *civilians working in fields.
Hundreds of Boko Haram militants surrendered to Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities. Boko Haram has been fragmenting since its leader’s death in May 2021. Some militants and commanders have defected to the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA), but many others have turned themselves in under an ongoing rehabilitation program. The Nigerian government claims that over 1,000 militants have surrendered. Cameroon also reported dozens of surrenders.
The Boko Haram defections solidify ISWA’s position as the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in the Lake Chad Basin. ISWA has established governance structures, including *implementing new taxation laws, in areas where Boko Haram was previously the more active group. ISWA is already conducting consistent attacks in northern Cameroon and will likely cement and expand its presence in northern Nigeria, southern Niger, and northern Cameroon.
[ii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Official for Banaadir Region Speaks on Camp TURKSOM Suicide Bombing, Portrays Turkey as Parasite,” June 15, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[iii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims 30 Deaths in Single Attack in Central Somalia, Repulsing Attacks on Positions in Bay and Mudug,” August 18, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[ix] SITE Intelligence Group, “AQIM and JNIM Issue Joint Statement Congratulating Taliban, Promoting its Victory as Justifying Jihad,” August 23, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[x] SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Leader Discusses Perceived French Military Failure and Taliban Success, Calls on Lone Wolves to Strike Enemies,” August 10, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.