February 11, 2021

IntelBrief: Lethal Islamic State Affiliates in Africa Exacerbate Regional Insecurity

(AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File)

Bottom Line Up Front 

  • Similar to the trajectory followed by al-Qaeda a decade ago, the Islamic State is shifting focus from its core organization to regional affiliates.
  • Even where Islamic State affiliates have been weakened, changing conflict dynamics could reenergize franchise groups at various points this year.
  • Three Islamic State (IS) affiliates are poised for growth in the Greater Sahara, West Africa Province, and Central Africa Province.
  • Delegating greater autonomy to affiliate groups is not without risk, as too much independence could result in a franchise group gone rogue.

In a pattern similar to the trajectory followed by al-Qaeda nearly a decade ago, the Islamic State (IS) is shifting more responsibility from its core organization to its franchise groups and affiliates scattered throughout the globe.Current leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Muhammad Said Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, has maintained a low profile, emphasizing operational security and avoiding direct communication with IS lieutenants. Al-Mawla has been focused on avoiding the fate of former ISIS chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed in a raid by U.S. special forces in northern Syria in late October 2019. ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi has released four audiotapes over the past year, but these are hardly a substitute for a charismatic leader communicating to his followers.

The Islamic State maintains affiliates and franchise groups worldwide, from North Africa to Southeast Asia. In the Middle East, outside of the core group in Iraq and Syria, IS has regional branches in Yemen (IS-Yemen), Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula (Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), and Libya (IS-Libya). Each of these branches has been attenuated over the past year, although changing conflict dynamics could reenergize any or all of these affiliates at various points. In South Asia, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan has suffered setbacks in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Yet despite the loss of territory and key leaders, IS-K can still launch spectacular attacks with impunity throughout the country, including in the capital of Kabul, and peel away Taliban hardliners dissatisfied with peace talks. In Southeast Asia, IS maintains loose connections to a range of jihadist factions, particularly in the southern Philippines. As noted in a recent United Nations report, the COVID-19 pandemic has “inhibited the forces of law and order more than terrorists,” which in turn offers affiliate groups that have been weakened the opportunity to rest, recuperate, and rearm. Any of the aforementioned affiliates could be better prepared and more motivated over the next several months, particularly if COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, facilitating greater freedom of movement and more soft targets for terrorists to attack.

ThreeIS affiliates are poised for growth in Africa—Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). Each of the affiliates has proven capable of conducting classic insurgent-style attacks, including ambushes, assassinations, and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). State security forces in Africa have been overwhelmed, and even French military forces operating in the Sahel have struggled to contain the growing threat posed not just by IS militants, but also by al-Qaeda affiliates, including Jama’at Nusr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), amidst broader regional insecurity and conflict. IS has proven time and again that it is a highly opportunistic organization and will seek to expand throughout the Sahel as weak states give way to a weak region, with overlapping conflict zones contained within. Porous borders, high levels of corruption, and a raft of other governance challenges advantage jihadists. Spillover violence in the region has the potential to spread beyond Mali and to destabilize Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.

ISCAP may be the IS affiliate causing the most concern for the international community, as the group continues to demonstrate improved military capabilities and the ability to seize and control territory in Mozambique. ISCAP recently launched a cross-border attack in Tanzania, and has captured the port of Mocimboa da Praia, enabling its ability to resupply its fighters and make money through the trade or taxation on both licit and illicit commodities. Core IS has recognized the success of ISCAP and accordingly, sent funding and a reinforcement of trainers and strategists through a preexisting network of regional facilitators and logisticians. In other cases where IS core has sent funding and support, it has served as a force multiplier for local jihadist groups, evidenced by the siege of Marawi in May 2017. Delegating greater autonomy to affiliate groups, however, is a double-edged sword. Too much independence could result in a franchise group gone rogue, similar to how al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) repeatedly rebuffed directions from al-Qaeda core leadership based in South Asia. To retain cohesion, al-Mawla will have to balance competing priorities and ensure that IS affiliates remain highly active yet receptive to guidance from core leadership; this will remain a challenge for a group with weakened command-and-control and a reluctance to communicate directly with subordinates.