The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
Africa File: Common threads in Mali, Libya, and Mozambique
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Three failing African states took dramatic turns in the past two weeks—one toward uncertain progress and two even further from stability. The trajectories of Mali, Mozambique, and Libya will shape the African Salafi-jihadi movement and will interact with other negative trends—including destabilizing geopolitical competition—to fuel conflicts with regional and extra-regional implications.
In Mali, a military junta assumed power following a coup d’état against the democratically elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, on August 18, marking the country’s second coup in the past decade. The coup follows long-running protests calling for Keïta’s resignation due to corruption and poor governance. Keïta’s administration has also been blighted by its inability to contain a spreading Salafi-jihadi insurgency in northern and central Mali, where militants have helped stoke cyclical intercommunal violence.
This Salafi-jihadi insurgency is a likely beneficiary of Mali’s unrest. With attention focused on the capital, Salafi-jihadi groups will deepen their de facto control of vulnerable communities in northern and central Mali with little resistance. They will likely also expand in other West African states, several of which may soon face their own political crises. Mali’s coup will likely hamper international counterterrorism efforts in Mali, removing the pressure that has disrupted Salafi-jihadi groups’ leadership even while failing to stop their entrenchment and spread.
The political crisis in Mali is already taking on a regional dimension as the junta angles to delay the transition to civilian control sought by regional leaders. The Mali crisis may intensify an emergent trend of growing external involvement in the Sahel. The region risks falling victim to destabilizing competitions that have militarized the Horn of Africa and prolonged the Libya conflict. Turkey’s recent military agreement with Niger and Russia’s deepening ties to Sahel states are warning signs that the Russo-Turkish competition, and Turkey’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will intensify in West Africa.
For more on the Sahel, read:
- Katherine Zimmerman, “Interactive graphic: Salafi-jihadi ecosystem in the Sahel.”
- Emily Estelle, “How Ansar al Islam gains popular support in Burkina Faso.”
- Katherine Zimmerman and Alix Halloran, “Warning from the Sahel: Al Qaeda's resurgent threat.”
In Libya, a proxy conflict pitting Turkey against Russia, Egypt, and the Gulf states nearly transformed the country’s civil war into an overt regional war in June. Libya’s rival eastern and western administrations separately declared cease-fires on August 21, lowering the immediate risk of conflict. The cease-fire announcements are in part the product of intensive diplomatic efforts by the US and others but also reflect Russia’s use of private military contractors to deter a Turkey-backed advance.
The Libya cease-fire is unstable. The self-described Libyan National Army, long bolstered by its foreign backers, lost clout following military defeats but retains the ability to spoil a national cease-fire. A cease-fire may also crumble at the subnational level as the UN-recognized administration struggles to manage popular protests and control semi-independent militias.
The terrorism threat has faded to the background as Libya’s war has grown more international. Prolonged instability has allowed the Islamic State in Libya to begin rebuilding following major counterterrorism losses since 2016, however, and Libya’s trajectory creates favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement to renew its base in the country in the coming years.
For more on Libya, read:
- Emily Estelle, “Warning update: Egypt’s Libya threat risks larger Mediterranean war.”
- Emily Estelle, “Don’t let Russia dominate Libya.”
- Emily Estelle, “A strategy for success in Libya.”
In Mozambique, the Salafi-jihadi movement has made a rapid rise. The country’s military is preparing to recapture a port city in northern Mozambique from Islamic State-linked insurgents. Militants seized Mocímboa da Praia on August 12, their third and longest period holding the city. The insurgency draws on local grievances that the military campaign to recapture the city will likely exacerbate. These grievances are fueling militants’ efforts to control populated areas and establish governance. The Islamic State will likely leverage Mozambique as a propaganda victory, demonstrating the continued resonance of its message despite its losses in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Mozambique insurgency will likely have regional effects. Salafi-jihadi activity may spillover into neighboring Tanzania, where the government has already begun to respond to the deteriorating security situation. The conflict may also draw in South Africa. The Mozambican government’s inability to address the insurgency increases the likelihood that neighboring countries and other external players will become embedded in the conflict.
For more on East Africa, read:
- James Barnett, “A Salafi-jihadi insurgency could spread to Tanzania.”
Mali, Libya, and Mozambique demonstrate to different degrees the intersection among state fragility, geopolitical competition, and the Salafi-jihadi threat. Mali and Mozambique risk becoming hosts to disruptive rivalries like those that have prolonged and deepened Libya’s war. Collapsing governance across all three countries will help the Salafi-jihadi movement establish enduring havens that will strengthen the movement globally.
For more on the relationship between damaging geopolitical rivalries and the Salafi-jihadi movement, see CTP Research Manager Emily Estelle’s new report “Vicious cycles: How disruptive states and extremist movements fill power vacuums and fuel each other.”