The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.
February 25 Briefing: West Africa at Risk of Becoming Salafi-jihadi Haven
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The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the verge of gaining a valuable and secure safe haven in West Africa. This haven will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to develop and deploy external attack capabilities that they will ultimately turn on the US and its allies. Salafi-jihadi groups in West Africa also have an opportunity to pursue a large-scale governance project—a major step toward the Salafi-jihadi movement’s overall goal that will mitigate the effects of the destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Mali’s president cited Afghanistan as a model when he announced the opening of negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders this month. These talks are effectively a capitulation to facts on the ground: Salafi-jihadi groups are establishing de facto control over large swaths of territory in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger by deterring local militaries and widening societal fissures. At the same time, the US Department of Defense is considering withdrawing troops from West Africa and ending critical support for a French-led counterterrorism mission there. On current trajectory, the Salafi-jihadi movement will gain an enduring haven in the Sahel from which to plot attacks, raise money, and indoctrinate a new generation to support its global mission for years to come.
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At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa
Updated February 25, 2020
Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and is close to an agreement with the Taliban. The future of Iraq, and US forces’ presence there, is uncertain. 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.
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 conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. 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.
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. 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 the 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 intelligence and logistics support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel.
The Malian government is attempting to address the crisis by opening negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita acknowledged on February 10 that his government had contacted senior leaders of the AQIM-affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM).
The Malian government is also taking steps to implement a 2015 peace agreement with armed groups in northern Mali, but this implementation is unlikely to affect Salafi-jihadi activity. Malian Army troops deployed to the northern regional capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu on February 10 and 18 respectively as part of the agreement. Malian troops will likely confine their operations to population centers and bases, allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to retain freedom of movement across rural areas in northern Mali. The peace agreement also does not include armed groups in central Mali, which has become the epicenter of violence in recent years.
French and Nigerien forces targeted Salafi-jihadi support zones in central Mali and western Niger. French forces killed approximately 50 JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants and destroyed dozens of vehicles in a two-part operation around Mopti in central Mali between February 9 and 17. The operation follows several other French-led operations in Mali as France seeks to build European support for a new special operations taskforce in the Sahel. A joint French-Nigerien operation killed more than 100 militants and seized bomb-making equipment in western Niger, a response to a series of devastating ISGS attacks on Nigerien military outposts in recent months.
JNIM blamed France for a massacre of civilians in central Mali. JNIM accused the Malian Army of committing a February 13 massacre targeting Fulani civilians in central Mali’s Mopti Region and blamed France for supporting the Malian government. The attack, which killed more than 30 people, is the latest in a cycle of ethnic violence that Salafi-jihadi groups have stoked and exploited to gain popular support. The same village was the site of a large massacre in March 2019.
Salafi-jihadi groups are collaborating across organizational divides to take control of terrain across the western Sahel. JNIM and ISGS compete for recruits but share objectives and may have coordinated a campaign to isolate Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. This unity of purpose across divisions makes the Sahelian Salafi-jihadi movement resilient. ISGS’s higher-profile attacks have made it the target of counterterrorism pressure, allowing al Qaeda–linked groups to present themselves as more moderate and build local governing alliances (a la Syria).
Militant activity is reaching new parts of Burkina Faso. Militants conducted the first rocket attack in the country’s southwest, targeting a ranger station, on February 17.
JNIM continued a joint messaging campaign with al Shabaab. JNIM praised al Shabaab for its jihad in East Africa and signaled brotherhood with the group on February 13. Al Shabaab released a similar message in late January praising JNIM’s attacks on security forces in the Sahel. Al Qaeda General Command messaging supports both JNIM and al Shabaab and emphasizes their alignment with al Qaeda’s strategic priorities.
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. Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated February 25, 2020)
The Lake Chad Basin
Salafi-jihadi groups are isolating populated areas in northeastern Nigeria and expanding their zone of de facto control. Boko Haram militants cut off electricity to Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, in mid-January. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) claimed to have set fire to 20 government buildings in Borno State on February 10. Such attacks are intended to delegitimize the Nigerian government and present Salafi-jihadi groups as alternative governance providers for local populations.
Militant activity has focused on Yobe State, which borders the epicenter of activity in Borno State, in early 2020. Suspected Boko Haram militants destroyed telecommunications infrastructure in a neighboring state in mid-February, likely to facilitate the attempted takeover of a nearby town.
Counterterrorism measures often worsen the grievances that enable Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in Nigeria. Suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a military checkpoint in Borno State on February 9. Victims were reportedly stranded due to a military-imposed curfew. The military also disputed casualty reports.
ISWA continues to support the Islamic State’s global messaging campaigns. ISWA threatened revenge for the killing of former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on February 14.
Hostilities continued in Libya after the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a cease-fire. The UK-drafted resolution, which passed on February 12 with Russia abstaining, called for a commitment to a “lasting ceasefire” according to terms determined by Libyan military representatives at prior talks in Geneva.
Foreign involvement is a key driver of Libya’s war. Foreign support—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—for Libyan belligerents has intensified in recent weeks and months. 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. Russian mercenaries have made the Tripoli fighting more lethal and have also helped the LNA take control of much of Libya’s oil infrastructure. LNA-aligned forces have been blockading Libya’s oil exports to gain leverage in negotiations since January.
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. Turkey now provides military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA. Turkey’s president confirmed the death of two Turkish soldiers in Libya on February 25.
The LNA escalated its efforts to pressure the GNA economically and militarily, derailing peace talks. The LNA shelled Tripoli’s commercial port on February 18, narrowly missing a gas tanker. Regular clashes and shelling have continued on the Tripoli front and south of Misrata. GNA representatives temporarily stopped negotiations between GNA and LNA officials after the strike on Tripoli’s port and are now calling for the LNA to withdraw from the area around Tripoli as a condition in talks.
Parliamentarians from the Haftar-aligned government in eastern Libya separately refused to participate in the political negotiations set to begin in Geneva on February 26. Reports of LNA mobilizations northwest of Tripoli indicate that the LNA may be preparing to open another front.
The EU is moving to increase enforcement of the arms embargo on Libya, but uneven enforcement will favor the LNA. EU governments agreed to resume Mediterranean Sea patrols to interdict illegal arms shipments by the end of March. Arms embargo enforcement will disrupt shipments from Turkey to the GNA but will not affect UAE shipments to the LNA through Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Italian officials seized a Lebanese-flagged vessel accused of trafficking weapons from Turkey to Libya at an Italian port on February 3.
Forecast: Foreign support for Libyan militias will continue, and the UN-brokered peace 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, particularly if arms embargo enforcement disproportionally affects Turkey.
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 paired with Haftar’s backers’ growing frustration 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. (Updated February 25, 2020)
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.
Al Shabaab overran two military bases southwest of Mogadishu, demonstrating a high degree of operational planning and coordination. The group conducted twin attacks targeting Ugandan African Union Mission to Somalia and Somali military bases in *Qoryoley and *El Salini southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region on February 19. Al Shabaab combined vehicle-borne explosives and small arms to overrun the bases, looting weaponry and vehicles. Somalia’s president fired the army chief of staff over Somali military casualties at the El Salini base.
Al Shabaab is attempting to undermine the Kenyan police’s ability to gather intelligence by targeting the Kenyan National Police Reserve in rural Kenyan counties. Al Shabaab carried out three attacks against police reservists in six days. The National Police Reserve is an auxiliary police force active in rural areas with limited police presence.
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)
Ethiopia may destabilize due to ethnic-based violence in upcoming elections. An ethno-nationalist armed group assassinated a security official and bombed a pro-government rally for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia’s Oromia region on February 21 and 23. Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, signed a peace agreement with the Oromo Liberation Front, formally declared a terrorist organization, in 2018. Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections are set for August 29, 2020.
For more on US interests in Ethiopia, see Emily Estelle’s 2018 testimony, “Ethiopia’s Strategic Importance: US National Security Interests at Risk in the Horn of Africa.”