Islamic States Cells in Africa

A recent study by the Counter Terrorism Centre in West Point concludes that the Islamic State (IS) has nine regional branches in Africa and commands roughly 6,000 fighters across the continent. With the IS being wiped out in Syria and Iraq, its four-year-old presence in Africa may become its main base of operations and recruitment.

The largest IS affiliate is the Islamic State West African Province with an estimated 3,500 fighters. This IS cell is a result of a split within the Boko Haram, a terrorist group that has ravaged northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad area. Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the IS in 2014 but differences between Boko Haram’s leader and the IS led to the latter anointing a son of a Boko Haram founder, Abu Mus'ab alBarnawi, as the leader of ISWAP. Al-Barnawi took about 4,000 fighters with him and today operates in the Lake Chad region. The remainder of the Boko Haram, now about 1500 fighters, remains in Nigeria.

The second largest IS affiliate in Africa is the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM) or Ansar Jerusalem which operates in Egypt’s Sinai region. ABM, created during the Arab Spring, was initially a part of Al Qaeda. In 2014 it declared support for the IS and carried out a number of terror attacks, including bringing down a Russian Metrojet airliner and killing 224 people. The report estimates ABM’s ranks to number 1250, but admits the evidence is fuzzy. The third largest affiliate is the Islamic State in Libya with about 500 fighters. The Libyan cell arose when a few hundred Libyans who had fought for the IS in Syria and Iraq returned in 2014. A year later the ABM captured the city of Sirte and reached a peak size of 5,000 fighters. Subsequently it was driven out of Sirte by US-backed Libyan government forces and has shrunk to its present size.

A third North African IS affiliate is the Islamic State in Greater Sahara. This cell was originally a faction of an Al Qaeda affiliate, Al-Mourabitoun, which switched allegiance to the IS in 2015. However, other AlMourabitoun leaders rejected the move and the IS fighters broke off and formed the Islamic State in Mali, later changing the name to its present form. In 2017, the cell made global news when it ambushed a group of US and Nigerian soldiers in Niger and killed nine of them.

Other affiliates include the Islamic State in Somalia, Islamic State in Tunisia, Islamic State Misr, Islamic Stage Algerian Province and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. These each have less than 150 fighters and have only shown sporadic ability to carry out attacks. The report says none of them are likely to experience “significant growth” in the near future. Nigeria and Egypt have been carrying out brutal but effective counterterrorism operations against the two largest IS cells. In other places, rival jihadi groups keep the IS in check. The Islamic State in Somalia, for example, is inhibited by the presence of the much larger and Al Qaeda affiliated rival, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen.


August 28, 2018

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.