In today’s Africa, radical Islam seems to have not only overcome hurdles raised by the Western powers and regional governments but become a growing threat to countries where it was almost nonexistent, irrelevant or marginal a few years ago. The Islamic State (IS) and other groups have targeted unstable regimes that have experienced repeated coups d’états, conflicts with Western military powers, economic decline and divisions between tribes, sects, and religions. The Islamists have found fertile ground in such countries. Recruitment is easy, indoctrination is even easier and consolidation has never been more straightforward.
As a result, the attacks perpetrated by Islamists have increased in audacity and their range of targets, sowing havoc and fear in areas that central governments have traditionally neglected. As a result, local populations have left their homes, leaving the areas under the total control of the Islamists. The refugees have then flocked to the capital cities, creating severe humanitarian and political crises.
The IS offensive in Africa follows a precise pattern:
IS and its Al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa, emboldened by successes in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have simply applied the methods they used in those countries.
For example, in August 2020, following the detonation of a suicide car bomb at the entrance, IS fighters overran the prison in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where many of their compatriots were being held along with Taliban fighters and common criminals. Of the 1,793 prisoners, more than 1,025 tried to escape and were recaptured, while 430 did not attempt to escape. The rest remained at large.
In January 2022, hundreds of IS fighters stormed the Al-Sina’ah Prison in the Ghuwayran quarter of Hasakah, a major city in northeastern Syria. The prison, run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), held more than 3,500 IS prisoners—including hundreds of teen abductees, called “Cubs of the Caliphate.” The IS assault liberated scores, possibly hundreds, of prisoners and commandeered the terrain and adjacent neighborhoods for almost two weeks before a counterattack backed by U.S. air and ground assets forced the surrender of the remaining combatants.
In emulation of such exploits, on July 5, 2022, IS fighters stormed the Kuje Medium Custodial Centre on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital Abuja. As a result, more than 600 of the prison’s 900 inmates were able to flee. This followed a similar attack in April 2022, in which more than 1,800 prisoners escaped from the Oweri Prison in southwestern Imo State.
Attacks on prisons to free inmates have become common in Nigeria. As a result, more than 7,000 people have escaped from prisons across the country over the past 10 years. The latest incident occurred hours after more than 300 armed men riding motorcycles ambushed a security advance convoy for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the northern state of Katsina. The convoy was on its way to Buhari’s hometown of Daura, near the border with Niger.
Infiltrating new areas far from the centers of power
Radical Islamists have taken advantage of countries suffering from domestic instability that have a weak record of controlling peripheral areas far from centers of power. States that never had to deal with Islamic insurgencies, or were too lenient toward radical Islam’s growing threat, now find themselves unable to cope with the mounting danger to their regimes. Nations where armed groups of extremists have never become openly violent cannot contend with the situation; even with outside help, they cannot eradicate the threat.
Over the past two years, IS has attacked civilian targets in 13 African states. Those states that have never had to confront radical Islam find themselves unprepared to do so. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Togo, Ghana and Benin have joined the “club” that includes countries such as Mozambique, Uganda, Central Africa, Cameroon and Chad. Instead of rallying the population and fighting back, most of these governments have chosen to ignore the threat and censor information about it. Only in extreme cases do the governments consent to the publication of details about skirmishes, battles and manpower losses.
Faced with various African governments’ hesitant response and inability to quell such insurgencies, IS and other radical Muslim organizations are pushing to expand southward and eastward from the Sahel Belt—which extends from Senegal to Sudan. They are now conquering new territory mainly populated by Muslims. It is evident that these groups are currently active in areas formerly believed to be unconquerable, such as in Mozambique and the DRC.
Radical Islamist groups are greatly aided by the fact that in most of the countries they are targeting, the economic situation is so dire that, with minimal funds, they can recruit young unemployed men motivated by hatred of the ruling regime. In Benin, for example, the Islamic State offers 100,000 CFA (equivalent to 150 euros) per month to whoever enrolls in its ranks. As a result, success is guaranteed.
According to IS statistics about its own operations, published in its weekly magazine al-Naba, out of 71 attacks it initiated, 33 were carried out in Africa. In June 2022, 19 attacks were perpetrated against targets in Mozambique alone.
This insecurity is intensified by ongoing attacks and the conquest of great swaths of territory. The presence of foreign troops and U.N. peacekeepers in various countries has not stalled the radical Islamists’ momentum. On the contrary, under pressure from the jihadists, some foreign forces have chosen to withdraw, while others have decided to protect only vital areas.
As the jihadists constantly expand their activities in Africa, the process of their consolidation will ultimately undermine regimes that are hesitant or unable to withstand the shock.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.