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Expanding the Jihad: ISIS in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

March 11, 2015

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Expanding the Jihad: ISIS in Africa

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 3 (2015), Number 2 (March 2015)

For some reason, the audio recording took some policy makers by surprise. In the audio recording Boko Haram’s leader Abubaker Shekau announced his group’s “…allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims, Ibrahim ibn Awad al-Husseini al-Qurashi[1] (the other name for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader). Why this should surprise policy makers is beyond me.

For the past year, various analyts pointed out that Nigeria’s Islamists were deliberately trying to imitate ISIS. Following the capture of the northern town of Gwozo last year, for instance, Shekau declared it to be part of a new caliphate. Furthermore, in July 2014, Shekau declared his support for ISIS and praised al-Baghdadi[2]. From the perspective of Shekau, the allegiance to ISIS may well grant his movement, greater legitimacy and will help with its recruitment of better calibre jihadists allowing it to mount more sophisticated attacks, logistics and greater funding[3]. On the issue of financing, with 6 out of 10 oil fields in Syria and other such oil fields in Iraq, under its control, ISIS is in possession of a vast war chest – estimated at US$ 2 billion[4]. This can greatly finance Boko Haram’s own regional ambitions.

Shekau must be quite aware that his tactical alliances with the likes of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Somalia’s Al Shabaab have greatly assisted Boko Haram’s own lethal efficiency transforming it into a movement which initially made use of unco-ordinated attacks relying on poisoned arrows fired from bows to a sophisticated and brutal insurgency. He is no doubt hoping that the ISIS connection would allow his movement to spread its terror even more efficiently. In the immediate short-term, Shekau has already benefited from his allegiance to the ISIS leader. The ISIS leadership has already made contact with Ansaru – a faction of Boko Haram who took issue with Shekau’s leadership – urging them to reintegrate with the main body of Boko Haram. With the two factons of Boko Haram now united, expect there to be more vicious terrorist attacks in Nigeria and the West African region[5].

The movement of ISIS into Africa should hardly surprise analysts who have witnessed the increasingly global ambitions of the group – now said to have a presence in at least 60 countries – largely in the form of sleeper cells. One ISIS statement clearly articulated the primacy of the ISIS caliphate to all other Islamist groupings, “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations become null by the expansion of the khilafah’s [caliphate’s] authority and arrival of its troops to their areas[6].

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, the continent’s biggest economy and a regional hegemon in the West African region. The strategic importance of Nigeria for ISIS should therefore also not be under-estimated. As Peter Pham[7] recently noted about Boko Haram, “We have a group holding territory and shooting down jet fighters … If Nigeria collapses – it is the strong state in the region – there are no strong states to contain what would happen if Boko Haram succeeds in carving out an Islamic state in that area”.

This, too is not the full picture. Across the Sahel, and north Africa, local ISIS franchises are popping up. Two groups which have split from AQIM, Jund al-Khilafah or Soldiers of the Caliphate and the Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade have already pledged their allegiance to ISIS. In strife-torn Libya, meanwhile returning jihadis from Syria have established the al-Battar Brigade[8]. Meanwhile, in the Sinai, the Islamists of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis have also declared their allegiance to al-Baghdadi[9]. The ISIS modus operandi is quite clear across north Africa. Exploit existing grievances in a particular area, utilize returning ISIS fighters to serve as a force multiplier for existing local militias who have pledged allegiance to the group and in order to ensure command and control from ISIS central send one of the senior ISIS commanders as the leader of the local franchise. It is this strategy which was used with such devastating results when young militants of the Islamic Youth Shura Council managed to capture Darna in north-eastern Libya[10].

With Boko Haram, mounting its terrorist campaign not only in Nigeria but across West Africa and with ISIS local affiliates gaining ground in North Africa, one can clearly see a situation where the ISIS jihadists of North and West Africa make common cause.

 

[1] Nima Elbagir, Paul Cruickshank and Mohammed Tawfeeq, “Boko Haram purportedly pledges allegiance to ISIS,” CNN. 9 March 2015. Internet: edition.cnn.com/2015/03/07/Africa-region-boko-haram-isis. Date accessed: 10 March 2015.

[2] Hassan M. Abukar, “Is ISIS allied to or influencing African Jihadi Groups?” African Arguments. 28 October 2014. Internet: http://africanarguments.org/2014/10/28/is-isis-allied-to-or-influencing-african-jihadi-groups-by-hassan-m-abukar. Date accessed: 10 March 2015.

[3] Elbagir, Cruickshank and Tawfeeq, op.cit.

[4] Abukar, op.cit.

[5] Elbagir, Cruickshank and Tawfeeq, op.cit.

[6] Abukar, op. cit.

[7] Quoted in Michael J. Totten, “The ISIS of Africa,” World Affairs Journal. Internet: http://worldaffairsjournal.org. Date accessed: 10 March 2015.

[8] Abukar, op. cit.

[9] Simon Tomlinson, “ISIS opens new front in North Africa after two extremist groups in Libya and Egypt pledge allegiance to its terror chief,” Mail Online 2 December 2014. Internet: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article2853255/isis-opens-new-North-Africa-two-extremist-groups-Libya-Egypt-pledge-allegiance-terror-leader.html. Date accessed: 10 March 2015.

[10] Ibid.

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