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.

Africa File: New opportunities for the African Salafi-jihadi movement

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

Surveying the state of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa is a bleak exercise. Insurgencies are entrenched or expanding across broad swathes of western and eastern Africa, with a new insurgency developing rapidly in Mozambique. The situation is more positive in North Africa, where counterterrorism campaigns have weakened Salafi-jihadi groups significantly in recent years.

Unfortunately, new opportunities for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion are on the horizon. Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle warns that several dynamics—among them the destabilization of key states and the expansion of local conflicts into regional wars—will generate a new wave of Salafi-jihadi threats in and emanating from Africa. Read more at AEIdeas.

In this Africa File:

Ethiopia. Unrest across several regional states is threatening Ethiopia’s fragile political reforms and risks destabilizing the country.

Somalia. Al Shabaab is escalating attacks in an attempt to disrupt Somalia’s upcoming elections.

Libya. Libyan security forces killed a foreign Islamic State senior leader in the country’s contested southwest.

West Africa. Islamic State affiliates are drawing defectors from rival Salafi-jihadi groups in West Africa. An al Qaeda ally will likely remain dominant in the Sahel, however.

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

Source: Author.

Read Further On:

East Africa

North Africa

West Africa


At a Glance: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated September 17, 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. This reduction will almost certainly include Africa. The US Department of Defense is considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions on the continent.

This drawdown 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, an increasingly likely wave of instability and government 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 al Qaeda–linked militants are insinuating themselves into local governance while the Malian government is preoccupied with the aftermath of a coup. An Islamic State–linked insurgency has also developed rapidly in northern Mozambique. Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are 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. Mali’s coup and its aftermath will also disrupt international and regional counterterrorism efforts and coordination.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command 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: Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, Libya, 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 basis for future attacks against the US and its allies.

East Africa

 Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s government is cracking down on opposition as ethnic clashes resume in multiple regional states, risking unrest that could destabilize the country. Ethnic clashes resumed in western Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz regional state in September, killing several dozen civilians and displacing thousands. Clashes between the ethnic Gumuz and Amhara have occurred previously in the regional state. Ethiopian troops *deployed to several districts in Benishangul-Gumuz, and the government *has sacked at least 40 regional administrators since.

The Ethiopian government also faces tension in Oromia regional state after Ethiopia’s attorney general accused a popular Oromo opposition leader of inciting violence over the summer. The attorney general’s office charged Jawar Mohammed with terrorism for alleged connections to violence across the country’s capital and Oromia in July following the murder of a prominent and politically active Ethiopian Oromo singer. Some Ethiopians have criticized the terrorism charge as the government’s attempt to control opposition.

The Ethiopian government also faces a serious challenge from Tigray regional state, a key power base for the minoritarian coalition that ruled Ethiopia for decades before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Tensions spiked in September when the Tigray administration held elections in defiance of the prime minister’s decision to delay elections until 2021 due to COVID-19. Tigray’s dominant political party has refused to join Abiy’s coalition, and some of its members may even be responsible for a 2018 assassination attempt targeting the prime minister.

Ethiopia’s destabilization could lead to the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion in the country, though the threat is currently low. Al Shabaab and the Islamic State in neighboring Somalia plotted attacks targeting Ethiopia in 2019. Abiy’s reform program has inadvertently fueled long-standing ethnic fissures, creating opportunities for Salafi-jihadi militants to exploit local grievances. Al Shabaab released anti-Ethiopian propaganda urging attacks on Ethiopian forces in August.[1]

 Somalia

Somalia’s parliament approved a new prime minister. The Somali president appointed Mohamed Hussein Roble to the position with no objection from Somali lawmakers on September 23. Roble replaced former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, whom parliament ousted in a no-confidence vote in July. Roble has committed to guiding Somalia through its upcoming political transition, as it prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2021.

Al Shabaab has increased attacks in Somalia throughout September in an attempt to disrupt elections and undermine the government’s legitimacy as elections approach. Al Shabaab has surged attacks to disrupt Somalia’s elections in the past. The group *carried out several attacks *targeting military and government officials and infrastructure in the latter half of September, primarily in southern and central Somalia.[2]

Al Shabaab’s recent attacks in southern Somalia’s Lower Jubba region are an attempt to deter a Somali *campaign to *clear a strategic roadway during the past month. Al Shabaab conducted a suicide vehicle–borne improvised explosive-device attack targeting a joint US-Somali convoy along this road near Kismayo, a southern Somali port city, in early September. The attack wounded a US solider.[3]

Al Shabaab’s campaign in central Somalia’s Galgudud region is a likely response to the Somali National Army's efforts to *retake al Shabaab–held territory. Al Shabaab reportedly *withdrew from a town in Galgudud in early September and likely fears losing additional territory. Al Shabaab may also be *renewing efforts to take control of Galmudug State’s capital.

Al Shabaab’s targeting of security forces in Galgudud’s neighboring Hiraan region is likely aimed at preserving the group’s freedom of movement. Al Shabaab *killed the leader of a local militia in Hiraan’s Beledweyne in mid-September. The group also claimed targeting an African Union Mission to Somalia base in Bulo Burde in late September.[4] The group may be trying to contest control of the road between Beledweyne and Bulo Burde, which could increase its ability to threaten Galmudug’s capital.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will sustain or increase its current attack rate across Somalia as the country prepares for legislative elections on November 1. The group will attempt *assassinating government officials and targeting security forces with explosive devices, including police intended to safeguard polling stations, as it has done previously. (As of September 30, 2020.)

 

North Africa

Libya

International Salafi-jihadi militants remain active in Libya, but the Islamic State’s non-Libyan leadership has been attrited. The Libyan National Army (LNA) *raided an Islamic State in Libya (IS-Libya) cell in Sebha in southwestern Libya on September 15. The attack killed four reported IS-Libya militants, including two Saudis and one Australian. LNA spokesman Ahmad Mismari announced on September 23 that the LNA killed an IS-Libya leader in the September 15 raid. The LNA originally identified the leader as Abu Abdullah al Libi, also referenced as Abu Abdullah al Iraqi, but a subsequent investigation *identified him as Abu Muaz al Iraqi.

Abu Muaz al Iraqi was the last reported non-Libyan in IS-Libya’s leadership. He was in a top leadership position, though his exact position has not been confirmed. The LNA *claimed to have killed an Islamic State emir in their report on Abu Muaz’s death. Abu Muaz may have held a leadership position as an Islamic State commander and military advisor. Originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, Abu Muaz traveled to Syria and then to Libya in 2014. He became an IS-Libya commander after the death of Wisam al Zubaydi, also known as Abu Nabil al Anbari, who was killed in Derna in northeastern Libya in 2015. Al Zubaydi was emir of IS-Libya at the time of his death. If Abu Muaz was Abu Wisam’s replacement, IS-Libya may have lost another emir.

IS-Libya’s loss of foreign leadership may weaken the group’s link to the Islamic State’s central command. A shift to local leadership could potentially alter the group’s strategy and mitigate perceptions of foreignness that have hindered IS-Libya’s ability to cultivate a substantial support base in Libya. The leadership loss could also fragment the group, however, or weaken its ties to other African Islamic State affiliates whose support could help the Libyan branch rebuild. Future Islamic State media dealing with Libya will likely indicate if the Libyan affiliate retains lines of communication to the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State has been based in the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya since militants retreated from coastal Libya in 2016–17. The group has downshifted to a rural insurgency and has not recovered close to its former strength. The Islamic State claimed killing 18 Libyan security personnel from August 2019 to August 2020 in its al Naba publication on August 27.[5] This is a stark decrease compared to IS-Libya claiming to cause 187 casualties from 2017 to 2018.[6] IS-Libya’s decrease in operational capabilities is likely due to a lack of recruitment and access to resources, a change in its base of operations, and counterterrorism efforts by Libyan and international security forces.  

The LNA’s counter–Islamic State operations must be considered as part of the LNA’s political campaign. The LNA has historically presented itself as a counterterrorism force to gain public and international support. LNA Commander Khalifa Haftar has branded his political opponents as “terrorists” while conducting operations against designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. The LNA has paired counter–Islamic State operations in the Fezzan region with an overarching effort to control the region’s key military, economic, and transportation sites. The LNA advanced into the Fezzan in early 2019 as a shaping operation for its abortive effort to seize Tripoli, which began in April 2019 and lasted more than a year.

The LNA is now trying to mitigate its coalition’s fragmentation in eastern Libya by cementing its control of oil infrastructure and military sites in central and southwestern Libya. The counterterrorism campaign in southwestern Libya is a supporting effort. Anti-LNA protests erupted in LNA-controlled Benghazi and surrounding areas in early September, and LNA forces responded violently to protesters. This crackdown follows the erosion of Haftar’s political coalition following the failure of the Tripoli campaign.

Haftar’s LNA remains a political force because of its strategic positioning in central and southern Libya and control of much of Libya’s crucial oil infrastructure—leverage enabled by support from Russian private military companies responsive to the Kremlin. Russian Wagner Group mercenaries aligned with the LNA entered al Sharara oil field, Libya’s largest, in June and have remained since. The LNA’s control of oil infrastructure has allowed Haftar to strike independent deals with Libyan factions and remain a spoiler in negotiations between the country’s rival governments.

The LNA force engaged in countering the Islamic State is also seeking to control oil infrastructure in Libya’s southwest. The LNA’s 116 Infantry Battalion, also known as the Sebha battalion, announced on September 15 its intent to resume oil production at al Sharara. This same unit is responsible for the aforementioned raid targeting the Islamic State on the same day.

Forecast: Continued and worsening fragmentation in Libya preserves and worsens the conditions that allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. The Islamic State will likely remain dormant but may resume intermittent attacks targeting LNA personnel or local LNA-aligned militias, possibly to stoke tensions and prolong political dysfunction. These will likely be small-scale attacks given the group’s personnel losses and limited resources. (Updated September 29, 2020.)

 

West Africa

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) will ultimately lose its battle with al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) for dominance in the Sahel. ISGS and JNIM began clashing with one another in late 2019, ending years of coexistence. Fighting has intensified since, and each group has inflicted severe casualties. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA)—which includes ISGS—released a video encouraging JNIM militants to defect and join the Islamic State in late September.[7] ISWA has escalated its media coverage to present itself as a victor over JNIM. JNIM maintains a stronghold throughout the western Sahel region, however, and has continued regular attacks in Mali since hostilities with ISGS began.[8] While both sides have suffered high casualties and JNIM suffered defections to ISGS, JNIM’s position in Mali is not fundamentally at risk.

Militants from Abubakr Shekau’s Boko Haram faction are defecting to ISWA in Nigeria. [Note: The Islamic State uses the “ISWA” designation for its Lake Chad Basin branch and its Sahel branch, also known as ISGS.] Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau received recognition from the Islamic State in 2015 and rebranded his group as ISWA. A Boko Haram faction led by then-emir Abu Musab al Barnawi split from Shekau’s group in 2016, keeping the ISWA title and gaining the Islamic State’s recognition. ISWA has become the more powerful faction. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari reported that at least 80 Boko Haram militants allegedly defected to ISWA on September 22.

Both the Sahel and Lake Chad factions of ISWA are attacking foreign aid workers across West Africa. ISGS (the ISWA branch in the Sahel) *murdered six French aid workers south of Niger’s capital on August 9. ISWA militants based in the Lake Chad Basin region also raided a Red Cross office in southeastern Niger’s Diffa region on September 29. Attacks on Western aid workers are intended to drive Western presence out of the region and fit a trend toward brutal propaganda from Islamic State affiliates in West Africa. The attack on the Red Cross office may also have been intended to gain resources or take credit for governance delivery to local populations.

Forecast: ISGS will draw greater counterterrorism pressure than JNIM because of its high-profile attacks. ISGS/ISWA will appear to strengthen rapidly in the coming year, particularly if the two ISWA factions begin to coordinate or (in the worst case) form a shared area of operations crossing southern Niger. ISGS’s growth will be limited by the brutality of its strategy, however, which will draw local backlash and international attention. ISWA in Lake Chad may see its territorial control erode after an expansion period, as it shifts away from efforts to win popular support through governance.

JNIM will maintain a stronghold in the Sahel despite losses to ISGS/ISWA. It will benefit from reduced counterterrorism pressure and the Malian political crisis that will likely draw security forces toward Bamako. JNIM will continue to embed itself in northern and central Malian communities and will likely begin to quietly establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the coming year. (Updated September 29, 2020.)


[1] “Shabaab Explores History of Somalia-Ethiopia Conflict in Part 1 of Video Documentary,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 3, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “Shabaab Highlights Attacks on Ethiopian Forces, including January 2019 Ambush, in 2nd Part of Video Documentary,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 18, 2020, translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “Shabaab Reports U.S.-Somali Forces Killing Civilians in Mosque, Claims Nearly 30 Civilian Casualties in Attacks in Dusmareb,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 24, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “In Formal Claim For Suicide Bombing On U.S.-Somali Patrol, Shabaab Vows To Concentrate Ops On ‘American Crusaders,’” SITE Intelligence Group, September 7, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Shabaab Reports U.S.-Somali Forces Killing Civilians in Mosque, Claims Nearly 30 Civilian Casualties in Attacks in Dusmareb,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 24, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “In Operation Statistics for Past Year, IS Documents Over 15,500 Casualties in 4,700+ Attacks,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “IS Re-Releases Military Statistics for 2017-2018 from Naba 148 as Standalone Publication,” SITE Intelligence Group, October 1, 2018, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[7] “IS-Aligned Al-Battar Media Promotes Sahel Division of ISWAP, Urges JNIM Fighters Break Ranks and Join,” SITE Intelligence Group, September 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[8] “Pro-AQ News Agency Reports JNIM Ambush on Malian Ary in Segou, Affiliate Counters IS Claim Regarding Clashes,” SITE Intelligence Group, August 4, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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