Africa File

The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics. 

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 Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, made gains and weathered setbacks in Africa in 2019. The destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Syria, the killing of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and a decline in high-profile terrorist attacks in the West were significant but temporary defeats for parts of the movement. But the movement remains set to expand by exploiting the continent’s numerous governance and security crises in 2020. The West inaccurately sees those high-profile but limited successes, primarily against the Islamic State, as having severely degraded the movement overall, leading to a general relaxation of global counterterrorism efforts. That phenomenon, coupled with the possibility that several large African states that had been pillars of security in the region might fully or partially collapse, offers the Salafi-jihadi movement unprecedented opportunities to expand and gain power in Africa.

In Libya, a battle for the capital, Tripoli, may become a regional conflagration as foreign states—among them the UAE, Russia, and Turkey—deepen their involvement. The current round of fighting, which began when aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an assault on Tripoli in April, is widening societal fissures and setting conditions for prolonged insurgency that will undo years of counterterrorism progress.

In the western Sahel, security is collapsing and Salafi-jihadi groups are growing more lethal. Islamic State–linked militants conducted their deadliest ever attack on the Nigerien army on December 11, killing more than 70 soldiers in the latest in a series of devastating attacks. A four-fold increase in Salafi-jihadi attacks since last year is causing a massive humanitarian crisis. The Salafi-jihadi threat to neighboring countries is rising.

Salafi-jihadi groups have footholds and opportunities for expansion beyond these areas. Strong Salafi-jihadi groups with ties to al Qaeda and Islamic State leadership hold significant terrain in Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. The Islamic State declared new affiliates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique this year.

Ongoing political transitions in large states raise the risk of large-scale instability in regions where the Salafi-jihadi movement is already established. A worst-case outcome in either Sudan (transitioning to new leadership), Algeria (facing the fallout of a contested election), or Ethiopia (approaching a contentious election amid rising violence) raises the possibility of new and major instability that will stoke the Salafi-jihadi threat.

The US and its allies must recognize that successes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have not translated into success against the larger Salafi-jihadi movement. They have had little effect, in particular, on the large and growing components of that movement in Africa. The African Salafi-jihadi groups are poised to present a greater and more challenging threat to the West than the Levant-based Islamic State and al Qaeda organizations if current trends continue in 2020 and beyond.

Below, please find a selection of Africa-focused analysis from the Critical Threats Project team and our partners in 2019. The biweekly Africa File will resume in January 2020. We hope that you enjoy these publications and look forward to continuing the conversation next year. You can always send feedback to [email protected]


On the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

  • Beyond counterterrorism: Defeating the Salafi-jihadi movement.” The US must reframe its approach against the Salafi-jihadi movement to sever the movement’s ties to local Sunni communities and offer these communities a viable alternative to terror groups. (Katherine Zimmerman, American Enterprise Institute, October 8)
  • With or without Baghdadi, Salafi-jihadis are winning the governance game.” Salafi-jihadi groups succeed in certain conditions—when communities face such existential threats that they have no choice but to accept Salafi-jihadi governance. Salafi-jihadi groups are taking advantage of exactly these conditions around the world today. Local Salafi-jihadi groups do not remain local but instead underpin the global insurgency, which if left unchecked, will continue to harm Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, October 31)
  • Chaos in Sudan and the rest of North Africa threatens all of us. The US administration is turning away from Africa at a time when more engagement is crucial. Northern Africa is undergoing a second tectonic shift less than a decade after the Arab Spring. The worst-case scenarios have one clear set of victors: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their Salafi-jihadi brethren. (Emily Estelle, Los Angeles Times, May 11)
  • Practice makes perfect. Why we should care about terror attacks in Africa.” Local al Qaeda and Islamic State branches, such as those in western Africa’s Sahel region, are improving their capabilities in what amounts to local practice for a global jihad. Once these groups win the local “near war,” they will seek to attack Europe and even the US. Defeating or even weakening these groups will be much costlier in the future. (Katherine Zimmerman, AEIdeas, November 8)


On the Russian Challenge in Africa

  • Don’t let Russia dominate Libya.” American interests are under attack in Libya, whether we realize it or not. Adversaries and allies alike are attempting to install a dictator. In doing so, they’re undermining US credibility and challenging American leadership of the international order. (Emily Estelle, The Wall Street Journal, December 3)
  • Russia is intervening in Libya. Should we care?Russia may claim to pick up the counterterrorism mantle in Libya, but we should not allow ourselves to be fooled there as we were in Syria. The Kremlin frequently uses counterterrorism as a justification for establishing military positions that serve other objectives, and its approach—enabling harsh crackdowns and bolstering repressive anti-Islamist regimes—worsens the conditions that strengthen Salafi-jihadi insurgencies over time. (Emily Estelle, RealClearDefense, November 13)
  • The Kremlin’s inroads after the Africa summit.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is succeeding in exploiting Russia’s campaign in Africa to support his strategic objectives. (Nataliya Bugayova et. al., Institute for the Study of War, November 8)
  • The Kremlin’s campaign in Africa.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s investments in Africa are strategic, despite their limited scope and results, and will likely have important long-term consequences. (Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, Institute for the Study of War, August 23)


On West Africa

  • How Ansar al Islam gains popular support in Burkina Faso.” The Salafi-jihadi groups’ under the radar approach masks the breadth and depth of their penetration into local communities and obscures the long-term threat they pose to the region and to the US and its partners. Ansar al Islam’s activities in Burkina Faso demonstrate this phenomenon and show how permitting instability and conflict to fester for years—as in Mali—allows Salafi-jihadi groups to spread beyond the immediate conflict zone to infect neighboring states. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, May 9)
  • The US is handing over the counterterrorism mission in West Africa to local partners. But to some, those partners are worse than the terrorists.” Retaliatory ethnic violence in central Mali is driving recruits to Salafi-jihadi groups and allowing them to expand across West Africa. These groups have exploited the violence to gain support by promising justice and protection to vulnerable communities. Collective punishment responses by security forces worsen this trend. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, March 25)
  • Salafi-jihadi militants target Christians in Burkina Faso.” Militants with ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State are attacking Christians in Burkina Faso as part of a larger effort to destabilize the country and take control of Muslim communities. (Emily Estelle and Isabelle Nazha, Critical Threats Project, August 5)
  • The US cannot ignore the Islamic State’s largest African affiliate.” The US is relying on an incapable and distracted partner to combat the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA) in West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin. ISWA is more dangerous than Boko Haram. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, February 4)


On North Africa

  • Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will be the winners of the Libyan civil war.” The latest bout of Libya’s multiyear civil war is creating conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi militants to regain strength in the country. The conflict worsens grievances that fuel Salafi-jihadi recruitment while weakening or distracting local forces that would otherwise fight Salafi-jihadi groups. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, April 10)
  • Algeria’s future: What follows Bouteflika? The path to a fundamental change in the Algerian system of governance is narrow and hindered by a stagnant economy and an entrenched power structure. Many of the possible scenarios lead to bad outcomes that could create conditions for a future insurgency by neglecting—and likely worsening—popular grievances. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, April 5)
  • In Algeria, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” The not unlikely worst-case scenario—the destabilization of Algeria, or even its collapse—would dramatically worsen the Salafi-jihadi threat, open another North African coastline to mass migration to Europe, and send ripples of instability through regions already wracked by conflict and poor governance. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, March 11)


On East Africa

  • A Salafi-jihadi insurgency could spread to Tanzania.” An emerging Islamic State–linked insurgency in Mozambique may spill into the country’s larger neighbor, Tanzania, risking broader destabilization and the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi threat in East Africa. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, November 19)
  • Sudan’s dictator just fell: What comes next?The outcome of Sudan’s political transition has implications for regional stability and the Salafi-jihadi movement in northern and eastern Africa. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, April 12)
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