The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
Africa File: Al Qaeda’s Sahel branch threatens coastal West African states
[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’s branch in the Sahel poses a growing threat to coastal West African states. The group has established an enduring base in Mali, where support for the French-led counterterrorism mission is eroding. This base allows Salafi-jihadi militants to expand operations from Mali into neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and now Senegal. Al Qaeda–linked militants may choose to attack coastal West African countries to deter participation in counterterrorism missions and advance al Qaeda’s overarching objective of removing Western presence from the region.
In this Africa File:
- Somalia. Security is deteriorating in Somalia’s capital as the country faces a constitutional crisis. Al Shabaab is waging media and attack campaigns intended to capitalize on Somalis’ anti-government grievances.
- Kenya. Al Shabaab is exerting increasing social control in parts of northeastern Kenya.
- Ethiopia. The Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia is escalating as regional forces challenge the federal government for control of the Tigray region’s capital. Tensions over contested territory are rising between Ethiopia and Sudan.
- Sahel. Al Qaeda’s Sahel branch is expanding its networks in coastal West African countries. The group is also pressuring counterterrorism forces in Mali through attacks and propaganda while increasing its influence over civilian populations in central Mali.
- Libya. Foreign militaries are becoming increasingly entrenched in Libya and remain likely spoilers to an enduring political resolution, despite short-term progress.
- West Africa. Rahma Bayrakdar warns that al Qaeda’s Mali branch is preparing to conduct attacks in Senegal and other coastal West African countries. She argues that the group’s expansion will increase its ability to target US and European interests in this region and possibly beyond. Read on here.
- Somalia. Katherine Zimmerman argues that the Joe Biden administration should reverse the Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from Somalia to stave off a worst-case possibility: al Shabaab conducting a transnational mass-casualty attack. Read her argument here.
- Ethiopia. CTP is publishing updates on the Ethiopia crisis. Sign up to receive the latest updates by email here. Read Jessica Kocan’s latest update here and Emily Estelle’s background on the conflict here.
Read further on:
Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: February 2021
View full image here.
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 February 3, 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. 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, continued counterterrorism efforts rely 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.
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 northern Burkina Faso. Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside of 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 seeks to expand 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.
The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring states. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region.
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 swathes 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 and corruption in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend into Kenya and Ethiopia, as it claims to seek to unite the Somali ethnic group.
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 inside 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, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique bordering Tanzania, where its affiliate seized a Mozambican port in August 2020 that it still controls. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique 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 rise of the Islamic State 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 war 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.
Somalia’s security and political conditions are eroding in al Shabaab’s favor. US Africa Command withdrew troops from Somalia in mid-January. Somalia’s political tensions with neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia’s domestic crisis are disrupting security efforts as both countries support the counter–al Shabaab fight. These trends are lifting pressure from al Qaeda’s East African affiliate at a time when Somalia is facing a constitutional crisis.
Al Shabaab is capitalizing on Somalia’s constitutional crisis to appeal to Somalis’ grievances against their government. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) failed to hold federal presidential elections before the expiration of the president’s mandate on February 8. SFG President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” has remained in office, but opposition leaders have ceased recognizing him as president.
Al Shabaab *released a six-part video series from February 5 to 15 criticizing the government’s performance under Farmajo’s leadership and calling for the implementation of shari’a as the solution to Somalia’s problems. The documentaries, which the group promoted as “objective” and thoroughly researched, differ from much of al Shabaab’s propaganda by eschewing the group’s usual violent content in favor of referencing Farmajo’s past speeches. Al Shabaab *portrayed Farmajo as controlled by Ethiopia, a nod to popular concerns about foreign influence in the SFG. This portrayal coincided with recent reports of the SFG covertly sending Somali soldiers to fight in Ethiopia’s civil conflict.
Security is deteriorating in Mogadishu. Somali troops clashed with anti-government demonstrators in the Somali capital on February 19. Unrest in Mogadishu will create more attack opportunities for al Shabaab, which has been targeting government buildings and employees in Mogadishu. An al Shabaab suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu on February 13. Suspected al Shabaab militants also *murdered three women who worked as cleaners for the Ministry of Defense in Mogadishu’s Daynile district on February 14.
A former commander of Somalia’s US-trained special forces warned that the Somali military is “dissolving” along clan lines and that internecine fighting will cause the army to cede territory to al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab is exerting increasing social control in parts of northeastern Kenya. Residents in Mandera County *have reported that militants are taxing local businessmen and taking over mosques. Al Shabaab *claimed to seize a village in Mandera County on February 8. Local reports indicate the group *raided the village and *torched the office of a village chief. Mandera County’s governor *wrote a letter in January stating the group controls more than 60 percent of the county and accusing the Kenyan government of inaction. However, Kenya’s interior minister said the governor’s statements were exaggerated.
Al Shabaab has increased activity in Mandera County since November 2020. This increase coincided with an uptick in tensions between Kenya and Somalia. Somalia has *accused Kenya of meddling in its internal politics, particularly through Kenya’s backing of Jubbaland state in southern Somalia. The SFG most recently accused Kenya of supporting Jubbaland state forces *against SFG forces during clashes along the Somali-Kenyan border in late January. Al Shabaab has *conducted at least three attacks in Mandera County since these clashes.
Forecast: Al Shabaab will establish governance in new areas in Mandera County over the next few months. The group will continue intimidating local officials with violence to allow al Shabaab to preach, recruit, and extract taxes. (As of February 17, 2021)
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is attempting to retake the Tigray regional capital from Ethiopian federal forces. Federal forces seized Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, from the TPLF in November 2020. Fighting has continued primarily northwest and southwest of Mekelle despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s declaration of victory. The TPLF’s leader urged Tigray residents to continue fighting Ethiopian troops in late January.
Limited available information indicates that conflict is resuming around Tigray and federal forces positioned there are preparing to defend the city. Ethiopian troops are digging defensive trenches in and around the city. A blackout on February 16 may have been caused by a TPLF attack, as federal officials *accused, or by the federal government cutting power to disrupt a TPLF offensive. Reports of air strikes in towns southwest of Mekelle around February 16 may also signal the federal government’s response to a TPLF advance.
Tensions between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces are rising along the shared border. The Sudanese foreign minister accused Ethiopian forces of encroaching on Sudanese land in the disputed Fashqa triangle in mid-February. A Sudanese military official *said on February 11 that Sudan will establish permanent military bases along the border once it reclaims all Sudanese land in the disputed border territory. Ethiopia’s foreign minister *accused Sudanese forces of continuing to expand into Ethiopian land the same day Sudanese forces *claimed to regain 50,000 acres in the Fashqa triangle. Tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia previously spiked in mid-January when Sudan threatened “grave consequence” if Ethiopia continued violating Sudan’s airspace. Sudanese forces reclaimed territory in the Fashqa triangle in December 2020, taking advantage of Ethiopia’s distraction with the Tigray conflict.
Al Qaeda's Mali branch is preparing to conduct attacks in Senegal and other coastal West African countries. An al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate has established a base in Mali that allows it to project influence into neighboring countries, most notably Burkina Faso but also Côte d’Ivoire and now Senegal. Senegalese security forces arrested several members of Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) in eastern Senegal in late January. These arrests are part of a larger increase in JNIM activity in eastern Senegal and the Senegal-Mali border region in 2020–21. JNIM’s expansion into littoral West Africa will increase its ability to target US and European interests in this region and possibly beyond. Read further on JNIM activity in Senegal here.
France’s president denied reports of an upcoming troop withdrawal. French President Emmanuel Macron announced on February 16 that France will not withdraw troops from Mali imminently, contradicting reports in January of an upcoming drawdown. Macron’s reaffirmation comes as European countries, including the United Kingdom, *Sweden, and *Italy, contribute hundreds of troops to Europe’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, Task Force Takuba. Chad will also contribute 1,200 troops to the *G5 Sahel Joint Force in the tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Chad announced its troop contribution last year, but Salafi-jihadi activity in the Lake Chad region delayed the deployment.
JNIM’s media remains focused on discrediting France as the group escalates attacks in central Mali. JNIM called on France to withdraw and threatened to attack regional troop-contributing countries in a statement released ahead of the G5 Sahel summit on February 15–16. JNIM also denied that French intelligence had infiltrated JNIM to acquire a video of a February 2020 *meeting between al Qaeda leaders in Mali.
JNIM’s propaganda and frequent attacks support its larger effort to oust foreign forces from the region and prevent the Malian government from exerting control over areas of central and northern Mali where JNIM is becoming the dominant force. Recent JNIM attacks have targeted public transportation, indicating an effort to exert control over lines of communication in central Mali. JNIM is progressing toward its goal of replacing governance structures in central Mali, where it has begun both forcibly occupying and forging agreements with villages.
Forecast: JNIM will develop and gradually expand its governance apparatus in central Mali, where it will preserve its current area of operations and deepen its influence over local populations. JNIM will also expand its networks in littoral West African countries and will likely prioritize intimidation and small-scale attacks on security forces that will allow it to increase its freedom of movement in border areas. (Updated February 18, 2021)
Foreign militaries are becoming increasingly entrenched in Libya and remain likely spoilers to an enduring political resolution, despite short-term progress. Libyan delegates elected a new interim government, the Government of National Unity, at a UN-facilitated conference on February 5. The new government’s formation has averted immediate conflict among Libyan factions and their external backers. Egypt, which previously backed a parallel administration based in eastern Libya, announced support for the interim government and announced plans to reopen its embassy in Tripoli, a sign that Cairo sees an opportunity to exert influence through the new government.
The interim government has reinforced the prior Government of National Accord’s partnership with Turkey. Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah *announced plans to continue working with Turkey in an interview with Turkish state media on February 2. Turkey’s presidential spokesman stated that Turkish troops will remain in Libya as long as the Turkish-Libyan military agreement is active. Turkish personnel will continue *training Libyan troops.
Turkey’s continued presence assures the continued presence of its regional rivals. The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company closely linked to the Kremlin, supports the eastern Libya–based Libyan National Army (LNA). Wagner forces are reinforcing LNA units and have established defensive positions in central Libya. The United Arab Emirates’ financial and materiel support for the LNA is also ongoing.
Foreign military engagement in Libya has previously undermined UN-led peace processes. Libyan armed groups’ ability to draw on foreign resources has prolonged the war and preserves the option for rival factions to secure their interests militarily.
Forecast: Foreign militaries will deepen their footholds in Libya while attempting to exert influence through the interim government. Should Libyan armed groups or their foreign backers assess that they cannot secure their interests through the interim government, they will resume pursuing power through military force.
Renewed fighting would lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi militants in southwestern Libya and could create opportunities for the Islamic State to emerge from its current dormant status. The current political process also creates an incentive for the Islamic State to attack if it retains the capability. The Islamic State in Libya has targeted state ministries in Tripoli during periods of potential progress as part of a larger effort to prevent the formation of a functional Libyan state. (Updated February 18, 2021)
 “Shabaab Explores Federalization of Somalia in 4th Part of Documentary Series, Says Farmajo Irrelevant Outside Mogadishu,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 12, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.