The Africa File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
February 11 Briefing
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The Sahel region of West Africa is becoming an enduring haven for the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Al Qaeda–linked militants in the Sahel have pressured authorities into negotiations and are gradually establishing governance across an area spanning parts of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. A potential US military drawdown in West Africa could undermine an existing French-led counterterrorism mission and allow Salafi-jihadi groups to more easily establish a de facto emirate in the Sahel. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has shifted its mission in West Africa from degrading to containing violent extremist organizations, according to a Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General report released on February 11.
Salafi-jihadi groups are aware of the US policy environment, and a recent uptick in attacks and statements targeting the US may be intended to encourage an American drawdown. Al Qaeda leadership lauded al Shabaab’s January 5 attack on American personnel in Kenya and called for similar attacks on servicepeople and contractors in West Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which helps finance the Salafi-jihadi governance-building project in the Sahel, called for attacks on US interests in response to the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan in early February.
Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel pose a growing threat to littoral West African states. An early February attack in Benin near the Burkinabe border underscores the continued threat following the kidnapping of French tourists and the murder of their guide in 2019. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will visit Senegal on a three-country Africa tour in the coming week, in part to reinforce Senegal’s position as a “bulwark” against spreading regional instability.
Previously dormant Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel and neighboring regions have resumed activity in recent months, another indicator of their increased freedom of movement. The Islamic State in Algeria claimed a suicide bombing targeting a military position in the country’s far south, its second claimed attack since November following a more than two-year silence. Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked militant group based in Nigeria, has claimed its first two attacks since 2013. A previously unknown militant group in Mali near the Mauritanian border also surfaced to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s new leader.
The civil war in Libya, which borders the Sahel, will also benefit Salafi-jihadi groups. The conflict has continued unabated despite UN-led efforts to broker a cease-fire. The war is deepening grievances and prolonging conditions that have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to establish havens in Libya in the past.
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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, 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.
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 Western Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger)
The Salafi-jihadi movement is ascendant in the western Sahel region that includes Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Militants aligned with both 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 and are concentrated in central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and western Niger. 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. France and the leaders of the G5 Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) recently announced a new military coalition to focus on fighting Islamic State–linked militants.
The Malian government opened negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita acknowledged on February 10 that his government had contacted Iyad ag Ghali, the emir of AQIM-affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), and Amadou Koufa, the leader of JNIM’s contingent in central Mali. Keita cited the Afghan jirga as an example and emphasized the untenable level of violence in the Sahel. He said that counterterrorism operations would continue. Keita signed a decree establishing a new security mission in northern Mali in late January. The Malian Army also deployed forces to Kidal in northern Mali on February 10. The deployment is considered an important piece of implementing a long-stalled 2015 peace agreement between the Malian government and armed groups in northern Mali.
Salafi-jihadi activity increased in a Malian region bordering Mauritania. JNIM raided a Malian military position at Sokolo in Segou region on January 26. A video circulating online showed militants in Nampala, in Segou region near the Mauritanian border, pledging allegiance to the new leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi. The group could be a JNIM splinter and is likely connected to long-standing AQIM-linked Salafi-jihadi networks in the Segou region.
JNIM may be attempting to resolve tensions with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). An AQIM-linked cleric released two pamphlets responding to Islamic State sympathizers’ criticisms of JNIM practices and calling for unity among Salafi-jihadi groups. The pamphlets follow reports of heightened tensions between JNIM and ISGS, including clashes and defections.
Salafi-jihadi militants are threatening Gulf of Guinea states. Militants attacked a police station in Benin near the Burkina Faso border on February 9. The attack occurred near a cross-border national park system in which militants kidnapped French tourists and murdered a Beninese guide in May 2019.
High-casualty attacks targeting civilians continued in northern Burkina Faso. Militants killed more than 30 people in an attack in Tongomayel in Soum Province on January 26 and murdered 20 others in Séno Province on February 2. (For more on JNIM’s effort to capitalize on rising violence to gain popular support in Burkina Faso, see the January 9 Africa File.)
Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government. ISGS’s attacks on civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated February 11, 2020)
The Lake Chad Basin
Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked militant group based in Nigeria, claimed its second attack in 2020 after claiming no attacks since 2013. Militants clashed with Nigerian security forces in Kaduna State, northwest of the capital Abuja, on February 5. Both sides claimed dozens of casualties, which may be inflated. Ansaru also ambushed a Nigerian army convoy escorting a local leader in Kaduna on January 15.
The Libya conflict is contributing to escalating tensions between NATO members in the Eastern Mediterranean. The French Navy dispatched warships to the Eastern Mediterranean in late January as “guarantors of peace” in a naval standoff between Greece and Turkey. Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2019 establishing new maritime boundaries that would give Turkey ownership of waters and resources Greece currently claims.
Foreign involvement in Libya’s civil war—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—has intensified in recent weeks and months. Foreign arms are a key driver of the Libya conflict, which 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, 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 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. Turkey now provides military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA.
The first round of UN-brokered cease-fire talks failed. The UN mission for Libya proposed follow-up talks in Geneva on February 18 after indirect talks between LNA and GNA officers yielded no agreement. Political and economic meetings will also convene in Cairo, Egypt. A British-drafted UN Security Council resolution is also held up by disagreement over language condemning support for mercenaries in Libya. Russian officials, who have not acknowledged the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries, sought stronger language about “foreign terrorist fighters” in reference to Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries.
Foreign-backed hostilities continued on two fronts, but the front lines remained largely static. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the number of Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in Libya increased. Syrian fighters reportedly participated in clashes against the LNA on the southern outskirts of Tripoli. The LNA also continued to pressure GNA-aligned forces around key checkpoints leading to Misrata city. The LNA advance on Misrata is likely intended to fix the strongest GNA-aligned forces, which are mostly from Misrata, in defense of their home city while straining their supply lines.
An oil blockade by LNA-aligned forces continues to disrupt Libya’s oil exports. LNA-aligned tribal groups, which stopped production from facilities in the country’s south and east just before the Berlin conference, will reportedly release their demands on February 13. The losses from the blockade thus far exceed $1 billion.
The number of migrants attempting to leave Libya increased. The UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of migrants intercepted in the past month increased fivefold compared to the same period in 2019. Migrants face terrible conditions inside Libya, including immediate risks from the current fighting around Tripoli. An airstrike destroyed a migrant center in the Tripoli area in July 2019, killing dozens and injuring more than 100 people.
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 Islamic State in Algeria resumed explosive attacks against Algerian security forces and has shifted its focus of operations to the south. A militant detonated a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) targeting an Algerian military base in the country’s far south near the Malian border on February 9, killing one soldier. The Islamic State’s Algeria province claimed the attack. The group last claimed a clash with Algerian security forces in southern Algeria in November, the group’s first claimed attack in more than two years.
The attacks indicate a potential shift in focus to southern Algeria as opposed to the country’s more populated north, where the Islamic State has concentrated its limited efforts in Algeria in the past. Islamic State militants conducted a series of IED attacks targeting Algerian security forces in 2015–16.
The al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia is largely stalemated, but conditions—including political instability and the planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces—are evolving in al Shabaab’s favor. Al Shabaab has recently intensified its efforts targeting American interests and Kenya, including a January 5 raid on a US-Kenyan military position that killed three Americans. The US Department of State and FBI are currently partnering with Kenya to establish the first overseas joint terrorism taskforce.
Al Shabaab’s emir expelled two key lieutenants from the group’s executive council over disagreements over the targeting of civilians, according to Somalia’s intelligence agency. The purge, which al Shabaab has not confirmed, may have involved Mahad Karatay—the head of al Shabaab’s Amniyat secret police—and another senior commander. The dispute may be related to a high-casualty suicide bombing in Mogadishu in December, which killed more than 100 civilians and has incited public demonstrations against al Shabaab. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack but stated that it targeted Turkish and Somali security forces and has since sought to shift blame to the Somali government.
An escalating political dispute in southern Somalia will likely disrupt counter–al Shabaab coordination between the Somali Federal Government (SFG), state officials, and Kenya. Tensions have escalated in the Gedo region of southern Somalia’s Jubbaland State since federal officials and forces took control of the region from state officials in early February. The takeover follows a long-running dispute rooted in the SFG’s fraught relationship with its member states. Internecine clashes have broken out, and SFG officials have threatened to “invade” Kenya to retrieve an allegedly Kenyan-backed rogue state minister.
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)
 “AQIM calls to support jihad, target U.S. interests as means to liberate Palestine and foil Trump plan,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 7, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.