November 18, 2020

IntelBrief: The Islamic State Remains Active throughout Sub-Saharan Africa

FILE - In this file image taken from video released by Boko Haram (Boko Haram, via AP, File).

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Islamic State’s external province in Congo and Mozambique coordinates ISIS core on attack claims, but also the timing of attacks.
  • The ISIS spokesman’s October speech calling for prison break operations preceded a successful prison break by jihadists in Congo and an attempted prison break ISIS fighters in Mozambique.
  • Although speeches by ISIS leaders frequently contain bluster, there are subtle messages intended for ISIS militants and supporters globally.
  • ISIS fighters in Congo will increase attacks following the prison break, while jihadists in Mozambique will continue their incursions into Tanzania. 

On November 10, Mozambican officials announced that ‘terrorists’ had twice attempted to break into the Mieze prison in Cabo Delgado province. Since Cabo Delgado has become the main area of operations for Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP)’s Mozambican fighters, the attackers were almost certainly from ISCAP. Moreover, this government announcement came after ISCAP’s Congolese fighters conducted a major prison break in Beni, Congo that freed more than 1,300 prisoners, including some hundreds of jihadists. ISCAP’s latest prison break operation in Congo and the attempt in Mozambique also followed Islamic State spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quraishi’s call in an October audio speech for Islamic State to conduct prison break operations. Such operations have historically been an important way for Islamic State to replenish fighter ranks and win fighters’ enduring loyalty. Al-Quraishi also was not short on praise of ISCAP in that speech. He, for example, stated ‘we bless to the lions of the caliphate in Mozambique,’ told the ‘Muslim masses’ in Congo ‘to fight the tawaghut (infidels),’ and compared the strength of ‘the lions of the caliphate in the Provinces of West and Central Africa’ to mountains. 

The Congo prison break was almost certainly planned locally, but, coming only days after al-Quraishi’s speech suggests that the speech affected the operation’s timing. The operation was also claimed by Islamic State immediately, which indicates there were well-established communication lines between ISCAP fighters in Congo and Islamic State’s central leadership. One could surmise that ISCAP had communicated with Islamic State leaders before the prison break and then received a green-light for the operation’s launch from Islamic State leadership. There are also other indications that al-Quraishi’s speech involved coordination with Islamic State fighters and supporters elsewhere in the world. For example, the speech noted that Islamic State had received new pledges of loyalty from external jihadist groups, but left open details about where they came from. As Islamic State is known to exaggerate, but not necessarily outright lie about its external alliances, it would seem al-Quraishi was sending a subtle message to external supporters. 

Indeed, several weeks after the speech, a pledge of loyalty to Islamic State ‘caliph,’ Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, from Rohingya jihadists in Myanmar’s Arakan [Rakhine] State was released on social media platforms. Although Rohingya Islamist militant groups emerged in 2016, they had historically disassociated themselves from al-Qaeda or Islamic State. This new group, therefore, was likely a jihadist spin-off from those militants. Although it remains unlikely that Islamic State will recognize Arakan as a formal province, at least until the Rohingya jihadists actually control territory, Islamic State can now claim some Rohingya jihadist operations in Myanmar.

One of the reasons why Islamic State recognized ISCAP as a province in April 2019 is that the militants in Congo and Mozambique had already pledged loyalty to then ‘caliph,’ Abubakar al-Baghdadi, and demonstrated they were capable of holding territory. Since April 2019, Islamic State has certainly not regretted naming them as a province. The jihadists in Mozambique have seized territory in the north of the country, especially around Cabo Delgado province, and even increasingly incurred into Tanzania since October. This has most recently prompted South Korea to issue a travel warnings to its citizens about southern Tanzania. Other countries are likely to follow. Meanwhile, the jihadists in Congo have carried out sporadic high-profile attacks, even though they have not seized as much territory as their allied fighters in Mozambique. The prison break in Congo will, however, lead to not only formerly imprisoned jihadists rejoining ISCAP, but also other criminals who have now been freed. This boost in ISCAP’s manpower can be expected to lead to an increase in attacks in Congo in the weeks and months ahead. Islamic State, which is no longer as strong as it once was in the Levant, will no doubt relish claiming more of these ISCAP attacks to portray the caliphate’s continued global reach.