Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

The Islamic State Sets Its Sights on Africa

U.S. officials fear that Africa’s Sahel region is becoming a melting pot of terrorist groups.

By , , and
A silhouette of a soldier who's looking out over a sandy expanse and rock faces.
A silhouette of a soldier who's looking out over a sandy expanse and rock faces.
A British soldier leaves the Hombori area aboard a Chinook helicopter during the start of the French Barkhane Force operation in Mali’s Gourma region on March 28, 2019. Daphné Benoit/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Amazing news from Jack: We have tricked Robbie into becoming a Formula 1 fan, so send him all of your favorite racing memes. And, because we know you’re as excited for the return of competitive cycling with the Giro as we are, here are some great helicopter tracking shots of Dutch racer Mathieu Van Der Poel annihilating the competition on sprints.

Okay, back to work now.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The Islamic State is on the rise in Africa, Biden makes nice with ASEAN, and Finland takes one big step closer to NATO membership.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Amazing news from Jack: We have tricked Robbie into becoming a Formula 1 fan, so send him all of your favorite racing memes. And, because we know you’re as excited for the return of competitive cycling with the Giro as we are, here are some great helicopter tracking shots of Dutch racer Mathieu Van Der Poel annihilating the competition on sprints.

Okay, back to work now.

Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The Islamic State is on the rise in Africa, Biden makes nice with ASEAN, and Finland takes one big step closer to NATO membership.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


After Failures in Middle East, Islamic State Finds Success in Africa

If the Middle East was the birthplace of the Islamic State, Africa is where the terrorist group is now undergoing its biggest growth spurt.

Top U.S. counterterrorism officials and diplomats met with their foreign counterparts in Marrakech, Morocco, this week for an annual gathering of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, where the attendees acknowledged the terrorist group was gaining ground fastest in Africa.

Like a phoenix from the ashes. After years of military failures in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State affiliates—as well as other insurgent and criminal groups that have adopted the Islamic State brand—have expanded control and stepped up their attacks on civilian and military targets in some of the most politically unstable regions of West Africa. These groups often exploit local grievances and poor governance to muscle their way into power in regions of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

The official lines. There was a litany of grim quotes from top U.S. and foreign officials coming out of the gathering in Marrakech this week, which included representatives from some 80 countries. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita warned that the Sahel region of Africa is now “home to the world’s fastest-growing and most deadly terrorist groups.”

“Most troubling is the ISIS affiliates that are currently active in the sub-Saharan continent because the numbers are extraordinary, and they have a lot of territory to play around with,” Doug Hoyt, the acting deputy U.S. envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told Voice of America ahead of the international gathering.

ISIS’s rise in Africa by the numbers. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 48 percent of global terrorism deaths in 2021, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2022 report released by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The Islamic State in West Africa affiliate is estimated to have around 5,000 fighters in its ranks across Nigeria and Niger, as well as neighboring Cameroon. Another branch, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which operates near the Gulf of Guinea, has an estimated 1,000 fighters. An Islamic State affiliate in Mozambique has an estimated 1,200 fighters, and the Islamic State also has a smaller presence in Libya and Somalia.

Insert “Mission Accomplished” banner here. Despite the grave warnings, European countries that have long kept a military presence in West Africa supporting counterterrorism campaigns—namely France—are drawing down their mission after heated disputes with a new ruling junta in Mali that took power in a coup in 2020.

Denying that a counterterrorism campaign ended in failure, shortly before it ends in failure, has become a time-honored tradition for Western leaders, and Mali proved no exception: French President Emmanuel Macron denied that France’s counterterrorism mission in Mali failed as French troops withdrew and the terrorist groups gained ground.

It didn’t help that the U.S. and European counterterrorism strategy was to band with brittle, autocratic, and coup-prone governments in the region to fight the terrorists, even when it was those poorly governed autocracies that provided the breeding ground for terrorism’s spread in the first place.

And guess who’s filling the vacuum? There’s still a sizable U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. But a new player has entered the arena with Western countries withdrawing: none other than Vladimir Putin.

Despite the Russian president’s costly war in Ukraine, Moscow is eager to wind its tendrils around the region, beefing up its presence in Mali with military advisors and mercenaries operating for the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group—who, by the way, are already implicated in war crimes such as staging atrocities to blame on France.

More worrying is the fact that the new Russian friends of Mali’s government don’t have the numbers or expertise to actually stave off the growing rise of terrorist groups (let alone any affinity for human rights concerns).

As one senior U.S. diplomat told us previously: “A thousand Wagner folks ain’t going to fill the security void in Mali. … They may be killing terrorists, but they are also killing so many civilians.”

This, in turn, likely creates new recruits for those terrorist groups. And the cycle begins again.


Let’s Get Personnel

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to consider the nominations of Bridget Brink to be ambassador to Ukraine, Alexander Laskaris to be ambassador to Chad, and Elizabeth Richard to be top counterterrorism envoy.

Heather Hurlburt is set to take over as chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. Hurlburt was previously at the New America think tank and served in the Clinton administration.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has tapped Rob Johnson to lead the ministry’s new Office for Net Assessment and Challenge, an in-house think tank that will help with war-gaming and red-teaming British strategies, as well as “rigorous” assessments of U.K. combat power.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

ASEAN dines in D.C. Leaders from Southeast Asia are descending on Washington for a two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As a group, they’ll meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, top U.S. commerce and trade officials, and American business executives.

Deepening economic ties, broader investments in energy, securing the seas, and COVID-19 recovery are at the top of the docket, according to a senior administration official. Behind the scenes, the administration is also pushing ASEAN members away from China’s orbit and closer to the United States, a long-term and diplomatically tricky campaign to pull off.

Pyongyang lockdown. North Korea fully locked down (even more than usual) on Thursday after the country’s authoritarian government confirmed its first coronavirus case more than two years into the pandemic, a purportedly perfect record that experts have called into question.

The outbreak forced North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to don a mask in public, and it coincided with the firing of three suspected ballistic missiles toward the sea, the country’s 16th missile launch so far this year. China has pledged “full support” for North Korea to handle the outbreak.

Expansion teams. Finland’s president and prime minister said in a joint statement today that the country is in favor of joining NATO “without delay.” Mark this down as another way in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine totally backfired. Finland joining would give the 30-nation alliance another member on its northern flank and double the length of NATO territory bordering Russia. Neighboring Sweden will likely follow suit.

The move comes after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited both Finland and Sweden and pledged security support this week, amid Russian incursions into Finnish and Swedish airspace in recent days. Karen Donfried, the State Department’s top official for Europe, told Congress on Thursday that U.S. security guarantees for Finland and Sweden in the interim period between announcing their intention to join and actually joining still need to be worked out.


Snapshot 

A tank is pictured from above, on grass, beside soldiers.

A Ukrainian army tank drives over an infantryman during a training exercise to teach infantry to survive during scenarios when they are confronted by a Russian tank, near Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, on May 9. John Moore/Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Thursday, May 12: G-7 foreign ministers’ two-day meeting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine begins in Weissenhaus, Germany.

Friday, May 20: Biden departs for a four-day trip to Japan and South Korea, his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region as commander in chief.


Quote of the week

“Drivel of tommyrot.”

How the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, described the latest speech from the Russian ambassador at the U.N. Security Council. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Russian tanks in the wild. Somebody on the internet made a video of a destroyed Russian tank in a David Attenborough-style narrated nature video. You have to watch it, especially for this golden line: “Like Pacific Salmon, Russian tanks migrate long distances from the abyss of Russia to end their lives in Ukraine’s beautiful fields.”

Slightly stronger than caffeine. Swiss police found 500 kilograms of cocaine—more than $50 million worth of it—in containers for coffee bean bags at Nestle’s Nespresso factory, authorities said on Thursday. But don’t worry: Nespresso said in a statement that there’s no cocaine in their coffee pods.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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