The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
January 26 Briefing
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 future of US military presence in Africa is in question. This month, the US Department of Defense is considering plans to withdraw US troops from West Africa. On January 5, a deadly attack by an al Qaeda affiliate on a US military position in Kenya highlighted the risks of an under-resourced and overstretched US footprint.
With America’s role on the continent uncertain, France and the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) formed a new joint command to combat a rapidly escalating Salafi-jihadi threat in the western Sahel. This new coalition will focus its efforts on fighting an increasingly lethal Islamic State affiliate that has wrought hundreds of casualties across Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in recent months.
This acute Islamic State threat deserves attention, but it also risks masking the full scope of the region’s Salafi-jihadi movement—to al Qaeda’s benefit. The brutality of Islamic State–linked militants in the Sahel is allowing an al Qaeda–linked group to present itself as more moderate to the beleaguered local population. This strategy, paired with alliance building against common enemies, mirrors al Qaeda’s strategy in Syria. While Islamic State militants draw the heat, al Qaeda–linked militants are positioned to pursue their ultimate goal: establishing governance— simultaneously gaining an enduring haven for the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
Salafi-jihadi groups are also set to be the beneficiaries of Libya’s civil war. The conflict is spreading in the aftermath of an international conference that sought to establish a path to peace. The war is deepening grievances and prolonging conditions that have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to establish havens in Libya in the past.
Read Further On:
At a Glance: The Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa
Updated January 9, 2020
Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the global counter–Islamic State coalition contemplates its next steps after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate and the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. US forces in Iraq temporarily halted counter–Islamic State operations on January 5 following a US strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. The uncertain future of US forces’ presence in Iraq follows a disruption in US counter–Islamic State operations in Syria in the fall of 2019. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and is reportedly close to a cease-fire deal with the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure 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, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, 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, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in fall 2019. Stalemates 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. French exhortations in the wake of the death of 13 French commandos in Mali in late November may increase European support for the G5 Sahel in the near term.
The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. 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 place 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. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.
The Libya Conflict
The Berlin conference has not ended hostilities in the country. Fighting around the country’s capital and a blockade of its oil exports continued after international stakeholders signed a communiqué pledging to pursue a cease-fire and uphold an arms embargo on Libya in Berlin on January 19. The Berlin conference establishes a path toward a cease-fire but faces many challenges, including the likely continued military support of several signatories for Libya’s warring factions.
The Berlin conference was an attempt to stop the escalation of Libya’s civil war, which has become increasingly international and is at risk of descending into violence akin to the 2011 uprising against longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi. Foreign involvement—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—has intensified in recent weeks and months. This conflict will not have a clear victor and may devolve into grinding urban combat in Libya’s populous cities, greatly harming civilians and setting conditions for rejuvenating the latent Salafi-jihadi threat.
The Libya conflict has two main axes. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, controls the country’s east and has a presence in the south. The LNA’s primary backers are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. The LNA launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in April 2019. This offensive has stalled despite Emirati air support and the deployment of hundreds of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of Sudanese fighters.
The LNA’s opponent is the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and associated militias, many from the northwestern city of Misrata. Turkey has provided drones and armored vehicles to support the GNA in Tripoli throughout 2019, helping stall Haftar’s offensive.
Foreign actors are pursuing a broad range of interests inside Libya. Several Middle Eastern states are competing to shape the future of governance in the Muslim world, particularly the role of political Islam. This competition, typified by the election and subsequent removal of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2012–13, pits Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey. Economic interests are also at stake in Libya; Turkey seeks to protect an agreement with the GNA on offshore drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, for example. Russia is pursuing various interests that include acquiring military basing, renewing or establishing economic agreements, and strengthening regional alliances.
The January 19 Berlin conference on Libya secured pledges from international stakeholders and established a path toward a cease-fire, but key challenges remain. The conference gathered representatives from Algeria, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, the Republic of the Congo, the UAE, the UK, the US, the UN, the African Union, the EU, and the Arab League. The representatives pledged to pursue a cease-fire, fully implement the long-flouted UN arms embargo, and support UN-led negotiations. Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al Serraj did not sign the declaration but reportedly agreed to send delegates to a joint military commission set to discuss a potential cease-fire in Geneva, Switzerland, in the coming weeks.
Many countries are unlikely to implement their pledges. Several signatories—notably the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey—are unlikely to cease their support for Libyan factions without significant international pressure. Haftar’s and Serraj’s refusal to be in the same room during the conference also highlighted the deepening divisions between Libyan factions. The two have mutually exclusive conceptions of cease-fire conditions. The fighting in Libya has continued and Haftar’s forces appear to be doubling down on achieving a military victory.
Additional diplomatic meetings will supplement the UN-led track reinvigorated by Berlin. The foreign ministers of Libya’s neighbors meet in Algeria on January 23. Algeria is taking on a more active role in the diplomatic process on Libya now that its own domestic turmoil, following the ouster of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in February 2019, has waned. The Africa Union High Level Committee on Libya will also meet in Brazzaville, Congo, on January 30. The UN also seeks to begin meetings on unifying Libya’s rival legislative bodies but faces several roadblocks in these talks.
Haftar’s forces demonstrated their intent to hold their positions around Tripoli and may be opening a new front near Misrata. Likely LNA forces fired Grad rockets at Tripoli’s sole functioning airport, on which the GNA and its allies rely, on January 22. The LNA spokesman claimed the forces shot down a Turkish drone and reiterated its intent to maintain a no-fly zone over the area, forcing the airport to remain closed. Fighting at Abugrein, a key juncture leading to Misrata, flared on January 26, signaling a potential LNA advance toward the city. Many GNA-aligned forces are drawn from Misrata, a northwestern Libyan economic hub that played a key role in the 2011 revolution.
LNA-aligned tribal militias blockaded Libya’s oil export terminals just before the Berlin conference, causing a steep dive in the country’s output. The move is likely intended as leverage on the international community and underscores the LNA’s influence in Libya’s oil-producing east and southwest and the import of local grievances for Libya’s overall stability. The LNA, through loosely aligned local groups, has physical control over much of Libya’s oil infrastructure but has generally allowed oil to flow through the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), which delivers revenues to the central bank for distribution through the GNA. NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla warned that production, which has already dropped from 1.3 billion barrels per day to 400,000, could plunge to lows not seen since the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar al Qaddafi in 2011. Fuel shortages are now contributing to power shortages inside Libya but have not had a significant effect on the well-supplied global oil market.
Renewed international enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya could favor the LNA. The EU proposed resuming joint naval operations in the Mediterranean to enforce the arms embargo. This enforcement could inadvertently advantage the LNA, which can received overland supply through Egypt.
Haftar may be jeopardizing some of his backers’ support, however. Egypt’s president may be considering withdrawing support for Haftar in lieu of another LNA officer, according to anonymous Algerian and Egyptian officials. Egyptian frustrations center on Haftar’s failure to achieve a military victory in Tripoli after nine months of fighting. Haftar has also likely frustrated his Russian backers by refusing to sign a cease-fire agreement at a January 13 meeting with Serraj in Moscow.
Turkey is deploying air defenses and thousands of Syrian mercenaries to bolster the GNA’s position against Haftar’s forces. The Guardian reported that about 2,000 Syrian mercenaries were en route to or arriving in Libya as of January 15, joining approximately 2,000 fighters already there. These estimates are higher than previously reported. Turkey has deployed a small number of military advisers and has begun to establish aerial defenses in Tripoli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his military support for the GNA on January 24 after the Berlin conference, stating that Turkish military advisers deployed under a recent military cooperation agreement will train and support the forces of the internationally recognized government.
Forecast: Foreign support for Libyan militias will continue, and the Berlin process will not yield a sustainable cease-fire. The most likely case is a grinding stalemate in a configuration similar to the current front lines. It is possible but less likely that the LNA will claim an initial victory by luring Misratan forces away from Tripoli and securing defections among Tripoli-based militias. This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely very quickly. Either branch—the stalemate or the LNA advance—preserves and worsens the conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. Alternately, diplomatic efforts, particularly renewed Algerian engagement, paired with Haftar’s backers’ growing disillusionment could constrain the LNA and possibly marginalize Haftar over time. This could create space for others in the LNA camp to pursue a cease-fire, though it also increases the risk of the LNA coalition’s fragmenting. (As of January 22, 2020)
The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in West Africa
The Salafi-jihadi movement is ascendant in West Africa, particularly in the western Sahel region that includes Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Militants aligned with both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State are growing more lethal and may soon establish de facto control over a large swath of this region. Militant attacks in this region have increased fivefold since 2016. The tactics that these groups use to overrun military bases could someday enable attacks in Western capitals.
The rapid deterioration of security in West Africa is happening as the US Department of Defense considers withdrawing most, if not all, US troops from the region. This reduction could include ceasing support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, shuttering a US drone base in Niger, and reducing intelligence assets dedicated to the region.
France and the G5 Sahel states formed a new military coalition to focus on fighting Islamic State–linked militants. French President Emmanuel Macron hosted G5 Sahel leaders (from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) on January 13. The summit sought to respond to the growing Salafi-jihadi threat in the Sahel and rising backlash, including from political leadership, against the French presence in the region. The summit also followed a helicopter crash that killed 13 French commandos in Mali in December.
The leaders announced a new “Sahel Coalition” that will join French and G5 Sahel forces under a shared command. The coalition will operate in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mail, and Niger, and prioritize fighting Islamic State–linked militants (the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS). The new coalition is intended to have greater ability to operate across borders than the G5 Sahel joint force. Leaders also emphasized the importance of US support for counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, signaling an effort to prevent the withdrawal of US forces from the region.
This debate continued to play out in the UN on January 15, where US representatives called for the reduction and reevaluation of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, citing a failure to implement the country’s 2015 peace agreement and subsequent violence against civilians. French and Russian representatives called for continuing the peacekeeping mission. France also seeks to encourage greater European involvement in the Sahel via a new international special operations task force. Chad also indicated plans to deploy a battalion to the tri-border area, in addition to existing Chadian participation in the UN peacekeeping force.
ISGS continued a series of lethal attacks targeting Nigerien security forces. Militants on motorbikes overran an army base in Chinagodrar in western Niger on January 9, killing at least 89 people before French fighter jets scrambled to disperse the attackers. ISGS claimed the attack and a subsequent raid targeting border guards in the same part of Niger. ISGS conducted a similarly devastating attack on a remote Nigerien army outpost on December 11, killing more than 70 soldiers. Residents fled Chinagodrar en masse after the attack, contributing to an already massive internal displacement crisis in the Sahel.
[Note: The Islamic State claims ISGS attacks under its “West Africa Province,” the name also used for the Islamic State–linked group based in northern Nigeria; ISGS and the Nigerian group are distinct. They may be growing closer, however. ISGS media has previously been published by the Islamic State–linked Amaq News. The Islamic State West Africa Province published its first officially branded video of ISGS operations in early January.]
Recent clashes between ISGS and the AQIM affiliate in the Sahel—Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM)—may be linked to the rising influence of a JNIM deputy leader based in central Mali. Amadou Koufa, a JNIM deputy leader and the commander of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), has become increasingly prominent in JNIM in the past year, possibly in part due to the deaths of other senior JNIM leadership. JNIM’s media organization released a speech from Koufa calling for the Sahel’s Muslims to support JNIM on the seventh anniversary of the French intervention in Mali on January 18. Koufa is a central figure in the Salafi-jihadi movement’s penetration of Fulani communities in the tri-border region and its spread into Burkina Faso.
Koufa and ISGS leaders are adopting different strategic approaches. Koufa has demonstrated willingness to accommodate local customs and allies, while ISGS has taken a harsher stance. This strategic divergence layers onto a competition for recruits and resources in central Mali. Koufa’s relative flexibility has pushed some defectors toward ISGS, while Koufa’s popularity similarly won defections from ISGS in fall 2019.
This divergence is part of a larger trend also visible in northern Burkina Faso. JNIM is capitalizing on rising violence in northern Burkina Faso by promoting itself as the defender of local populations. JNIM’s emphasis on defending civilians may also be intended to distinguish it from ISGS, which is responsible for a recent uptick in civilian casualties in the region.
Al Qaeda’s General Command lauded JNIM and called for attacks on American servicemen and contractors in Mali. The January 18 statement also praised JNIM’s attacks on French and local security forces. The statement also references al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, al Shabaab. The call to attack Americans in Mali is likely related to al Shabaab’s January 5 attack on a US base in Kenya, which killed three Americans.
High-casualty attacks continued in northern Burkina Faso. Salafi-jihadi militants killed more than 30 civilians at a market in Sanmatenga province in north-central Burkina Faso on January 20. The attack is part of a dramatic spike in civilian casualties in Burkina Faso. ISGS has claimed some attacks. Hundreds of civilians fled the area after the January 20 attack, adding to a crisis that has already displaced half a million people in Burkina Faso.
The uptick in attacks is pushing the Burkinabe government toward security policies that will likely worsen the overall situation, benefiting Salafi-jihadi groups. The Burkinabe parliament voted to arm and train local vigilantes to fight Salafi-jihadi groups. This initiative could empower militias already accused of human rights abuses against rival ethnic groups. Such abuses are a key driver of support for Salafi-jihadi groups, which have exploited a cycle of ethnic violence to position themselves as defenders of vulnerable local populations. JNIM is explicitly capitalizing on this dynamic by conducting retaliatory attacks on security forces accused of extrajudicial killings.
Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the tri-border area in the next six months. ISGS’s attacks on civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Unchanged since January 9, 2020)
Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked militant group based in Nigeria, claimed its first attack since 2013. Militants ambushed a Nigerian army convoy escorting a local leader in northern Nigeria. Ansaru had announced its return and launched a new media outlet in October 2019.
The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in East Africa
Al Shabaab is leveraging its new ability to project force into Kenya to target Americans in line with al Qaeda’s overarching guidance. Al Qaeda praised al Shabaab’s first attack against US forces in Kenya as part of a broader campaign against Western and Israeli interests. Al Qaeda’s al Sahab Media Foundation praised the January 5 al Shabaab attack on a US naval position in Kenya, which killed three Americans, as part of its global “Jerusalem will never be Judaized” campaign in response to the Trump administration’s December 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohammed Rage reiterated the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, saying that the Manda Bay attack occurred under the direction of al Qaeda Emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
The Manda Bay attack continued a surge in al Shabaab attacks targeting foreign forces in the Horn of Africa, a campaign that the group’s media arm has promoted heavily. The group’s spokesman, Rage, also called for sustained attacks on US targets in response to the Trump administration’s support for Israel. US Africa Command officials have assessed that al Shabaab intends to attack American targets, including in the continental US, but that military pressure on the group has hindered its development of this external attack capability.
A January 22 New York Times report sheds light on the Manda Bay attack and highlights vulnerabilities exploited by al Shabaab. Militants infiltrated the compound’s poorly defended perimeter and launched a surprise attack that destroyed a taxiing surveillance aircraft, killing two American contractors and severely wounding another. The attackers killed an American soldier in a subsequent gunfight and caused millions of dollars in damage to aircraft and infrastructure. The attack highlights the risks incurred by under-resourced US forces in Africa, including delayed crisis response and medical evacuation. AFRICOM officials also assessed that Kenyan facilitators helped Somalia-based militants conduct the attack. [For more detail on the Manda Bay attack and preceding events, see the January 9 Africa File.]
Al Shabaab is also targeting Turkish personnel in Somalia. The group claimed responsibility for a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack targeting Turkish engineering contractors and Somali security personnel in Afgoi, 18 miles southwest of Mogadishu, on January 18. An al Shabaab statement emphasized that the group had designated Turkish government employees as legitimate targets. Al Shabaab also claimed to target Turkish personnel in a December 28 VBIED attack in Mogadishu, which killed scores of civilians. Al Shabaab has since challenged official casualty figures for both attacks as part of an ongoing effort to delegitimize the Somali Federal Government.
Al Shabaab is also promoting media narratives intended to exacerbate backlash to foreign involvement in Somalia. The group released two articles in the past month alleging civilian casualties caused by US air strikes. Al Shabaab also promoted a January 16 attack on a foreign company that it accused of “plundering” Somali resources in the northern Puntland State.
A senior al Shabaab foreign fighter defected to the Somali Federal Government in 2019. Zubair al Muhajir, an Ivorian national who had lived in London, is a former member of al Shabaab’s Shura Council. He was detained in 2013 amid a dispute between senior leaders and a subsequent purge initiated by the group’s late emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Zubair al Muhajir accused al Shabaab of hypocrisy and cited a dispute over the payment of zakat as a reason for his defection.
Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt a spectacular attack in Kenya in the first half of 2020. The group will also sustain a campaign of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of a broader campaign to disrupt the planned 2020 elections. (Unchanged since January 9, 2020)
 “ISWAP claims credit for attack on Nigerien military base in Chinagodrar, reports 100 killed,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “After claiming 100 Nigerien deaths in Tillaberi military base attack ISWAP claims killing 14 border guards in same region,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
 “JNIM official calls Muslims of Sahel to support group in speech for 7th anniversary of French military operations in Mali,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 21, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
 “Al-Qaeda praises Shabaab for Manda Bay raid, calls for attacks on “Zionist-Crusader Alliance” interests,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 20, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
 “Shabaab leadership urges fighters in East Africa make U.S. interests their “first priority” in speech on Manda Bay raid,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 8, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.