The Next Dangerous Front in ISIS’ Holy War
Philip Obaji Jr.
In recent months, Islamist militant groups in Africa allied to the so-called Islamic State have been on the rampage—attacking communities, slaughtering aid workers and seizing important government assests.
Since ISIS was squeezed out of its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East last year, its offshoots—particularly those in West and Central Africa—seem to be waxing even stronger.
In the last five months, about 100 Nigerian and Chadian soldiers have been killed in deadly attacks by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) around the Lake Chad region (an area in the Sahelian zone of west-central Africa with a freshwater lake at the conjunction of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger). Since late July, the group has murdered several humanitarian workers in Nigeria and are suspected of slaughtering French aid workers in Niger. And after a series of attacks early this year in northwestern Nigeria, the Nigerian government was forced to admit last month that the terror group, which usually operates in the northeastern part of the country, does have a foothold in the northwest region.
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The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which is active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique, has been even more deadly in 2020 than any period of its existence. In the first half of this year, about 447 people died in jihadists attacks—far more than 2019, which saw 309 attacks result in 660 deaths, according to a report by the Babel Street which cited the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.
Much of ISCAP’s attacks this year have been in rural and semi-urban communities in northern Mozambique. But last week’s attack on the commercial town of Mocímboa da Praia in which many Mozambican soldiers were killed and the local port was seized indicates that the group is extending beyond its traditional areas of operation.
One reason why ISIS-backed groups appear to be succeeding in Africa is because they adopt the approach of cultivating relationships with locals to exert great influence rather than fighting to gain territories and govern with brutality like the main Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria.
In Nigeria, for example, ISWAP—which broke away from Boko Haram in 2016 because the latter failed to heed to instructions from ISIS, which included ignoring warnings against the use of children as suicide bombers—continually assures Muslims in the conflict-hit northeastern region of its commitment to protecting them from armed elements in the region so as to win their support and loyalty.
The group learned from Boko Haram’s loss of territorial control and influence in the northeast and does not at the moment seek to acquire land, which would make it easy to target. Rather, ISWAP is taking advantage of its relationship with the locals—offering them loans and allowing them to live freely in their communities—to recruit fighters and target Nigerian security forces in a way that makes it hard for its militants to be caught, as they blend in with the local population. And the fact that dozens of Nigerian soldiers, including 20 in June and 13 in July, have been killed in recent months indicates that ISWAP’s plan is working and that the group is a major threat to the stability of the West African region.
ISWAP’s growth in Niger is another example of how it has built close ties with local communities to pursue its jihadist agenda. The U.S. felt the bad effect of this relationship when ISWAP fighters—then operating under the name Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)—ambushed American Special Forces service members in an attack on Oct. 3, 2017 that left four Green Berets dead in the southwestern village of Tongo Tongo, after a villager tipped off militants to the presence of U.S. soldiers in the area.
As I wrote for The Daily Beast after the attack