white on transparent (1)

Karpatské Námestie 10A, Bratislava, Slovakia 


The Proliferation of ISIS-Affiliated Groups in Africa: Examining the Dynamics in Mozambique, Sahel, and Puntla

2024-06-03 10:07

Fuat Emir Şefkatli

#Governance , #Sahel , #Security , #Africa , #Terrorism , #ISIS , #Mozambique , #Puntland , #Militancy,

The Proliferation of ISIS-Affiliated Groups in Africa: Examining the Dynamics in Mozambique, Sahel, and Puntland

"ISIS expands further in the Sahel, Mozambique, and Puntland, leveraging propaganda and exploiting governance issues to strengthen control."

Recent hikes in terrorist activity in specific regions of Africa are prominently reflected in numerous reports by regional and international organizations. The relevant UN report highlights that groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS are expanding, particularly in the Sahel region, the eastern part of the continent (Puntland, Semi-Autonomous Region of Somalia), and the south (Mozambique). According to the report, ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the ISIS Somalia in Puntland, and ISIS-affiliated Ansar al-Sunna in Mozambique have seen a notable increase in attacks and violent actions since the first quarter of 2024.


A distinguishing commonality among these groups is their strategic use of robust propaganda activities to garner local community support and enhance their number of militants in the regions they control. Through these means, ISIS-affiliated groups aim to transform these areas into attractive hubs for foreign fighters, thereby achieving substantial revenue through taxation (‘zakat’) and various financial sources.


Furthermore, these terrorist organizations frequently exploit governance issues within national borders and the discontent between central authority and local community. They also engage in efforts to transform societies religiously and sociologically in the areas under their control. These strategies not only serve the governance models and legitimacy pursuits of these terrorist groups but also signify the onset of a process referred to in security literature as 'Jihadist state-building.'


Moreover, the competition with Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations across the continent enhances coordination and cooperation among the ISIS 'branches', which leads to establish a 'transit terror corridor' that facilitates logistics and militant recruitment.


Push and Pull Factors

The emergence of threats from non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in Africa can be attributed to several fundamental push and pull factors. These factors can be broadly categorized into four main areas: political, economic, military, and social.


Politically, instability and fragile governance structures create a vacuum of central authority that radical groups like ISIS can exploit to gain territory and influence. Economically, issues such as poverty, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities drive the young population towards radical ideologies and the alternative resources provided by these NSAGs. Additionally, the contentious borders and ethnic diversity inherited from the colonial era serve as sources of ethnic and religious tensions, laying the groundwork for numerous internal conflicts. All in all, terrorist organizations view these divisions as opportunities to leverage local tensions, gain community support, and mobilize populations.


Militarily, weak border controls and insufficient military capacity enhance the operational mobility and flexibility of groups like ISIS. Furthermore, internal conflicts and violence result in displacement and refugee crises. These displaced populations form a potential pool of recruits for radical terrorist organizations.


The pull factors can be categorized under four subheadings. Firstly, ISIS' transnational ideology exerts a strong attraction both across the continent and internationally, particularly among the youth. These radical ideas become appealing to individuals facing injustice and poverty. Secondly, ISIS-affiliated groups strategically utilize their financial and military resources. In this context, high salaries and additional incentives increase the attractiveness of joining the organization. Third one, ISIS effectively employs propaganda and social media tools to reach a wide audience. This strategy is particularly effective in recruiting young members and militants. Lastly, ISIS' identity as a NSAG provides its regional branches with the flexibility and opportunity to collaborate with various criminal organizations. Alliances with local militia groups, gangs, and various insurgent groups enhance the operational capacity of the terrorist organization on a regional basis.


Territorial Expansion in the Sahel Region

The Sahel region has recently experienced significant political instability due to a series of military coups. Civilian governments in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have been overthrown because they were deemed ineffective in countering regional terrorist groups. Following these coups, particularly in Niger, as well as in Mali and southwestern Burkina Faso, ISGS-led attacks have persisted. For instance, since the military coup in Niger in July 2023, the frequency of terrorist attacks has tripled compared to the previous period. According to ACLED, ISGS conducted approximately 19 attacks in the first seven months of 2023, while it has averaged seven attacks per month since August. Additionally, it is observed that ISGS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) are in a phase of détente, which has the potential to turn certain areas into 'safe havens' for these terrorist organizations. This détente is facilitated by a clandestine alliance through territorial division in Burkina Faso and Mali.


Critical Threats, a website focusing on security and intelligence subjects, reports that ISGS has expanded its territorial control more significantly than JNIM in 2024. Related to this territorial expansion, ISGS has increased taxes on local communities to bolster its militant recruits. This rise has established ISGS as a 'hub' for foreign fighters from North Africa and Europe. However, this situation escalates the risk of potential terrorist attacks in Europe, North Africa, the Sahel, and West Africa. It is crucial to recognize that these foreign fighters are often individuals who adopt ISIS' transnational ideologies. After radicalization, they aim to plan attacks primarily in their home countries. 


A 2023 report by the UN Security Council highlights that ISGS has established a transit 'terror' corridor between Southern Europe and the Sahel. The report suggests that Morocco and Spain are primary targets, as evidenced by the arrest of an ISGS-linked militant in Rabat, Morocco, in February 2023, just before a potential terrorist attack, which reinforces these arguments.


Increasing Terrorist Activities in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

The Cabo Delgado region in Mozambique is another focal point of activity for ISIS-affiliated terrorist organizations. In this context, the intensity of terrorist actions by Ansar al-Sunna against civilians and security forces is increasing day by day. Recently, the ISIS-linked group has adopted a widely seen method to gain public support and increase the number of militants by undergoing an 'image change.' They aim to legitimize their terrorist activities under the guise of 'the dawa’ by introducing a new interpretation of Islam. Additionally, they exploit deficiencies in public services for their own benefit, providing food and clothing aid as well as security services. The Mocimboa da Praia area, in particular, stands out as a region where Ansar al-Sunna's propaganda strategy through social assistance is heavily concentrated. As mentioned above, such tactics are part of the ISIS-affiliated group's strategy to exploit local grievances and governance crises. By doing so, the organization has recently managed to attract numerous foreign fighters from Rwanda, South Africa, and Tanzania, aiming to push regional and international actors like the UN and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) out of the country.


The group's expansion phase, spreading from the central and coastal regions of Mozambique southwards, also facilitates its access to various local communities. However, this situation has led to the displacement of over 100,000 people, more than 61,000 of whom are children, according to the UN. Throughout May, Mozambican and Rwandan military units launched counter-terrorism operations in Nampula Province to halt this expansion.


Escalating ISIS Activity in the Semi-Autonomous Region of Puntland, Somalia

The semi-autonomous Puntland region in Somalia has recently experienced a surge in attacks from ISIS-Somalia. Engaged in a prolonged rivalry with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab terrorist organization, ISIS-Somalia has seized control of the strategically significant El-Miskad mountainous region. This control not only grants ISIS-Somalia access to the sea but also provides substantial operational flexibility and, more crucially, opportunities for coordination and logistical cooperation with its Yemen branch. As seen in the Sahel and Mozambique, ISIS-Somalia's expansion in Puntland facilitates the recruitment of personnel and the attraction of foreign fighters. In tandem with its territorial gains, ISIS-Somalia has intensified its propaganda efforts, which undermines counter-terrorism initiatives in the Horn of Africa. Following the announcement of the withdrawal of the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), the discourse has focused on how Somalia will address its existing security gaps. The increasing threat posed by ISIS-Somalia, alongside the persistent threat from Al-Shabaab, is a significant concern not only for the Federal Government of Somalia but also for international actors due to potential implications for maritime security. Moreover, the intensifying rivalry between Al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia has the potential to profoundly impact the security dynamics in Puntland and the broader region.


In summary, the expansion of ISIS-affiliated or ISIS-inspired groups in Africa is becoming an increasingly concrete phenomenon on a regional scale. Despite suffering significant setbacks in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, and Morocco, the organization continues its mobilization efforts across various parts of the continent. The recent withdrawal of the UN, the European Union, and the United States from conflict zones raises further questions about the potential impact on this evolving landscape.


Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet