What Recent ISIS Attacks in Africa Tells Us About the Terrorist Group’s Resurgence

Increasing attacks in Africa, coupled with fresh propaganda, suggest that the global terrorist network may be seeking to re-establish itself as more than an insurgent group on the run.

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July 18, 2022
ISIS Nigeria

ISIS possibly looking to Africa to revive its former caliphate

Increasing attacks in Africa, coupled with fresh propaganda, suggest that the global terrorist network may be seeking to re-establish itself as more than an insurgent group on the run. 

Jihad, Hijra, and Africa

Even as ISIS’s former stronghold in Iraq and Syria has severely weakened in recent years, the group appears intent on rebuilding—possibly looking to Africa to revive its former caliphate. To this end, ISIS’s media apparatus has been increasingly focused on its operations in Africa, launching what appears to be a new campaign to encourage fighters to pursue jihad in and hijra (migration) to Africa.

The increased attention ISIS has afforded for its franchises in Africa raises many concerns. Chief among them is encouraging other fighters to go to Africa to perform jihad, whether that be by way of fighting members of the military, burning Chrisitan villages, or promoting ISIS’s fundamentalist doctrine. 

If ISIS’s promotion of Africa as a destination for jihad proves to be sustained and successful, the group may continue to build its ranks, alliances, and reach in the region, which could in turn result in more violence and pose a threat to any form of foreign presence. And if this push is not contained soon, the group is likely to continue to gain more physical territory and control, enabling it to reach closer to major targets, such as government, commercial, and/or nonprofit assets operating in Africa.

Rise of attacks in the region 

There has been a steady increase of ISIS-claimed attacks in multiple parts of Africa, which precede fresh propaganda campaigns. The attacks have primarily taken place in several parts of Mozambique and the Sahel region of central and western Africa

According to our intelligence, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a total of 182 attacks in Nigeria between January 1 and July 6, 2022, with 87 percent of these attacks occurring in Borno state. In the same period last year, there were 44 ISIS-claimed attacks with 86 percent of them occurring in Borno.

Attacks in Mozambique and Nigeria

ISIS fighters in Africa have focused their attacks on Christian villages and members of the militaries in Nigeria and Mozambique. These attacks are often publicized in Al-Nabaa, a weekly magazine published by ISIS official outlets on Telegram and Rocketchat, as well as their forums. The magazine was first released in 2021, and focuses on the group’s militant activities and religious messaging from the group’s doctrine.

In al-Nabaa’s June 23 release, the group claimed to have killed and injured a total of twenty-two members of the Nigerian Armed Forces; in another incident, they claim to have killed at least thirty-three others, ten of who were members of the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces, and twenty-three of who were Christian residents.

One of the most notable, recent operations was the break into Kuje prison, a government-run “medium-security prison” facility in Abuja, Nigeria. News outlets reported that over 800 prisoners were released and 400 of them were “at large,” with several people killed during the operation, including one prison guard. 

In a detailed statement, ISIS remarked that this operation was part of a “series” titled “Breaking the Walls”—in reference to an operation that was launched by former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to free prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison and al-Hout Prison in al-Taji in 2013. The Abuja, Nigeria prison break operation aimed to free what ISIS labeled in its Amaq News Agency release as “captured Muslims,” who the group claimed were imprisoned for “nearly a decade.”  

These attacks demonstrate ISIS’s capabilities in Africa, with notable levels of sophistication in terms of target planning and execution—or at least an adept ability to exploit local grievances and vulnerabilities. In many ways, this is an alarming reality, especially as ISIS continues its campaign to push its fighters to pursue Africa for hijra and jihad.

Media campaign

Over the past several months, ISIS’s official media outlets have focused in large part on highlighting the military operations in Africa. For instance, on April 17, ISIS’s official media unit al-Furqan released the second audio message featuring the group’s new spokesperson, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, who delivered greetings from ISIS’s newest leader to fighters in western Africa. Almost exactly two months later, on June 16, 2022, ISIS published an article in its weekly magazine al-Nabaa, dubbing Africa a “land of hijra and jihad.” 

On June 23, ISIS fighters in Syria released a video also titled “Africa the land of Hijra and Jihad,” addressing their “brothers” in Africa, praising them for their continued fight against “the crusaders” and other perceived enemies. Four days later, ISIS fighters in Iraq released a similar video, offering support for the fighters in Africa, calling them “lions” to describe their bravery. 

Such publications and releases have outlined two main purposes for ISIS’s followers to seek Africa as a destination for hijra and jihad: to promote Islam (in accordance with ISIS’s teachings), and to escape the alleged injustices that Muslims face from their “oppressive” leaders.

Among the ways in which the group has sought to promote Islamic teachings was by establishing various administrative entities with alleged ties to Islam, such as Diwan al-Hisbah (English: “Accountability Office,” or “Islamic Police”), Hay’at al-Amr bil Ma’arouf Wa al-Nahy A’an al-Munkar (English: “Committee of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”), and Hay’at al-Zakat  (English: “Alms Committee”). 

Such agencies attempt to show supporters that ISIS can provide financial support for those in need, and project a sense of security and law and order. This is the same approach that ISIS took in its early days following its establishment in 2014 and 2015—a focus on promoting governance and infrastructure as opposed to a singular focus on the militant insurgency.

The future of ISIS in Africa

ISIS’s existence in Africa is not new in the continent. The group was able to create a footprint for itself by grabbing on to Boko Haram (meaning “Western Education is Forbidden” in English) in 2015. After securing a Baya’a (pledge of allegiance) from Boko Haram’s leader Abu Bakr Shekau, ISIS was able to employ Boko Haram’s militant training and territorial knowledge to plan and execute attacks in the region, likely at least in part affording ISIS more momentum to metastasize elsewhere on the continent. 

While Boko Haram gained much notoriety during the years following its absorption into ISIS—especially after committing various acts of violence, most notably the kidnapping of over 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria—ISIS’s media apparatus traditionally focused most of its spotlight on its more infamous chapters in countries like Iraq and Syria, where its state building initiative was proving successful (financially and reputationally). 

However, since the 2019 demise of its caliphate, if its media strategy is an indicator of the group’s aspirations, a strong argument can be made that ISIS is seeking a version of that former state in Africa. Though it is highly unlikely to realize what it did in Iraq and Syria years ago in Africa today, ISIS’s calls for hijra to Africa, its portrayal of governing functions in Africa, and its increasing attacks on the continent suggest that the global terrorist network may be seeking to re-establish itself as more than an insurgent group on the run. 

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