The Islamic State’s Signing Bonus
The group may be defeated in Syria and Iraq, but joining it still offers major dividends to local jihadis in Africa.
In late March, jihadis linked to the Islamic State seized Palma, Mozambique. Beyond attacking the town, which is strategically located near a French-led $20 billion natural gas project, the terrorists killed dozens of Mozambican civilians as well as reportedly beheaded foreign workers.
The subsequent media storm prompted widespread debate about the nature of the Islamic State’s involvement and whether the violence in Mozambique was a local or transnational phenomenon. Although some analysts have focused on the parochial nature of the insurgents’ grievances, the reality is that their apparent pledge to the Islamic State has coincided with a significant leap forward in the capabilities of the group, which is now known as the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) and is made up of affiliates in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Mozambican branch of ISCAP—known locally as al-Shabab (no relation to the Somali group) or Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah—did not always have the operational and organizational tools needed to conduct attacks on the level of what happened in Palma. Indeed, few, if any, observers expressed much concern about the then-fledgling insurgents conquering territory in northern Mozambique until their pledge to the Islamic State. The case of ISCAP is one of several examples of the benefits for jihadi groups of joining the Islamic State, which has been a force multiplier for numerous such groups operating in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria and the Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the Sahel.
Islamic State affiliation has had both tactical and strategic advantages for groups that would otherwise be predominantly focused on local objectives and would evolve gradually through indigenous tactical improvements. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as local jihadi groups enjoy the cache of the Islamic State brand as well as the resources that come along it, such as financing, training, and a worldwide social media-based propaganda platform. The Islamic State, for its part, is able to tout the success of its affiliates even while its core organization in Iraq and Syria and franchise groups in places such as Libya and Afghanistan are struggling to rebound from setbacks.
As the Palma attack exemplified, ISCAP’s tenacity has grown over time; it has attacked or captured towns in northern Mozambique, as well as some in southern Tanzania. The reported beheadings of foreigners and symbolic nature of the target area—near a natural gas project developed by the French energy giant Total—are both indicative of Islamic State influence and dovetail with the group’s narrative of an exploitative West. Beyond evidence of formal covert communications between Islamic State central and jihadis in Mozambique, U.S. Special Operations Command Africa has also asserted that the group’s core is recruiting, training, and in some cases equipping Mozambican jihadis, most likely facilitated by ISCAP’s regional network of militant ideologues and logisticians in East African countries.
The impact on the tempo of terrorist operations in Mozambique and beyond is clear. Since January 2020, nearly one-fifth of all Islamic State-claimed attacks worldwide have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa—and those attacks count for nearly five times the number of kills and casualties as operations elsewhere. The group’s affiliates now appear on the front page of its official weekly publication, al-Naba, more than the core in Syria and Iraq, demonstrating the value of these affiliates to the Islamic State’s leadership.
This story is not unusual. Sub-Saharan African affiliates writ large have consistently received a boost from the core once they have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliph. ISWAP’s Sahelian counterpart, ISGS, escalated its attacks on Malian, Nigerian, and Burkinabe troops just as central command granted it “province” status. ISWAP has also detailed in publications how Islamic State central advised the group strategically on the most effective approaches to conducting guerrilla war, including when to attack populated areas and when to retreat. There is reason to believe the Mozambique branch adapted its insurgent tactics and asymmetric warfare approach thanks in part to advice from the Islamic State core.
ISWAP also began building up-armored vehicles for suicide bombings only after Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, pledged loyalty to Islamic State chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015. The use indicates the supply of munitions from Islamic State central, which has also standardized its various provinces through their distinct uniforms, including a red headband for “special forces” in Mozambique, Egypt, Mali, and the Sahel.
But are all Islamic State affiliates created equally? Do certain branches receive more attention or resources than others, and if so, how is this determined? This is best explained by viewing the branches issue through the lens of different degrees of affiliation.
A first-degree affiliation reflects that of the Islamic State’s now defunct Libyan provinces. They not only pledged loyalty to the group but actually included among themselves significant numbers of fighters transferred from Syria specifically to form Islamic State provinces in Libya on Baghdadi’s orders. The Libyan provinces maintained frequent and direct communications to the group’s core, as well as received corresponding funding, specialized training, and advising, until a massive international military coalition together with anti-Islamic State Libyan forces led to the group’s near-complete destruction in Libya.
ISWAP, in contrast, has received only several delegations of core trainers from Libya, but, more importantly, it trained key Nigerian commanders in Libya during the Islamic State’s peak. Even without a strong current Islamic State presence in Libya, the core continues to discuss strategy with ISWAP, release its photos and videos of attacks, and consult with its leaders on ideological matters. Islamic State leaders continue to provide military advice on the use of up-armored vehicles and innovative ways to employ drones. ISWAP would accordingly have a second-degree affiliation compared with that of the now defunct Libyan provinces. Importantly, the entire group, including all of ISWAP’s factions, agreed to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, although the group rarely engaged in direct exchanges of fighters with the core.
The Mozambican branch is the third degree of affiliation. This means factions of the Mozambican jihadis pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, but, unlike ISWAP, whose loyalty pledges in 2015 were released through official Islamic State social media channels, the pledges from Mozambique were informally released. Accordingly, these pledges may not necessarily be representative of all jihadi factions in Mozambique, and, as a result, there are questions about what makes the Mozambican jihadis an Islamic State affiliate after all. At a minimum, an Islamic State affiliate, or “province,” must pledge loyalty to the group’s caliph, and the caliph must accept the pledge. The Mozambican jihadis, like their Congolese counterparts, met this threshold by issuing several videos and photos declaring loyalty to the Islamic State, which the group recognized through a Baghdadi speech and subsequent claims on behalf of its Central Africa Province branches. Although a third-degree affiliation may not have led to the same harmonization as ISWAP has with the Islamic State, the benefits of its sponsorship have been seen in Mozambique, including strategy and tactics, media, and even down to uniform aesthetics.
While the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State ultimately succeeded in destroying the group’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there is no coordinated strategy for whether, and if so how, to deal with the multitude of affiliates, franchises, and branches from North Africa to Southeast Asia. This includes the groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The issue is becoming more prominent in the United States as well, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken openly discussing the possibility of further U.S. involvement to combat Islamic State affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria.
In early March, the Biden administration formally designated the Islamic State affiliates in Congo and Mozambique as terrorists, as well as their respective leaders. The United States currently has a very small contingent (roughly a dozen) of Special Forces in Mozambique for security cooperation training, but if ISCAP continues to seize and hold territory, there is growing concern that the group could begin attracting foreign fighters from throughout Africa. Portugal is reportedly sending a small number of troops to Mozambique, but beyond that, the strategy for dealing with ISCAP remains unclear, especially as the group’s own ties to the Islamic State core have come into some dispute in recent months.
The same can be said for combating Islamic State affiliates in Nigeria and the Sahel. With France’s commitment to counterterrorism being called into question, and the growing focus in the United States on great-power competition, many Africa watchers fear that Washington is seeking to move on from counterterrorism, content to allocate the bare minimum resources to deal with the threat. One possible way forward is for the United States to consider gradations of the Islamic State core and affiliates.
All terrorist organizations adapt and evolve, and the Islamic State threat in mid-2021 looks much different even than it did a mere two years ago, when the group’s last stronghold, the Syrian town of Baghouz, finally fell, symbolizing the end of its state-building project. The global coalition has correctly prioritized the Islamic State core and first-degree affiliates such as that in Libya. To defeat what remains of the group’s global network, the coalition should now undertake a wholesale reassessment of Islamic State affiliates worldwide, measuring the degree of affiliation and the respective levels of resources, manpower, and operational capabilities of Islamic State branches from the Sinai to Southeast Asia.
Jacob Zenn is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation focusing on Nigeria and Central Asia. He is also an adjunct assistant professor on African armed movements and violent nonstate actors in world politics for Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and the editor of Terrorism Monitor.