The Fight Against Jihadists Is Shifting to Africa

7 MINS READFeb 28, 2019 | 10:30 GMT
Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces walk past civilians at a screening area for evacuees from the Islamic State's embattled holdout in Baghouz, Syria, on Feb. 26, 2019.

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces walk past civilians at a screening area for evacuees from the Islamic State's embattled holdout in Baghouz, Syria. With the Islamic State on the way out in Syria and Iraq, Africa could become front and center for militants and counterterrorism operations alike.

  • As the United States and its partners dial down operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and contemplate a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the focus of global jihadist activity will shift to Africa.
  • Because external powers do not have the same interests in Africa as they do in the Middle East, counterterrorism operations there will likely draw in different actors who could fight at a different intensity.
  • While the United States will likely maintain its pressure on al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, other theaters such as the Sahel and Sahara will likely witness more counterterrorism operations from countries like France.
  • The suppression of jihadist groups in the Middle East may, in turn, make African theaters a more appealing destination for foreign fighters and financiers.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

When 9/11 kicked off the global war on terrorism, the main focus of counterterrorism efforts was al Qaeda-linked groups operating in the Middle East and South Asia. Close to two decades later, the United States and its allies are still involved in efforts to suppress al Qaeda and its offspring in Iraq and Afghanistan — albeit perhaps not for much longer. After an exhausting effort, the United States is signaling a shift elsewhere as the Islamic State (which rose from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq) has suffered a comprehensive reverse, while Washington has sat down for talks with the Taliban as a precursor to a possible withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan over the next several years.

The Big Picture

Since 2001, many countries have participated in the global war on terrorism, conducting operations against jihadist militant groups around the world. One major recent surge in this battle centered on the Islamic State, which attempted to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But now that the caliphate has collapsed and security forces are fighting the last remaining elements of the group in its heartland, the global landscape of jihadist militancy is shifting once more — particularly to Africa.

But just as extremist activity has waned — in relative terms — in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Islamist militancy has increased in different parts of Africa, particularly following the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's government in Libya, which created a power vacuum that sparked increased jihadist activity in the Sahel and Sahara. The escalation of Mali's conflict in 2012, when lingering jihadists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) combined with local Tuareg tribes, has led to a situation in which several new successors operate from Algeria and Libya all the way to Burkina Faso. But before these groups came to the fore in the Sahara and the Sahel, two other groups were already active: al Shabaab in Somalia, which appeared in 2006, and Boko Haram, which emerged in 2009 before evolving into the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). More than a decade on, these two groups are still stalking the continent. As a result, Africa has now become home to some of the most active jihadist groups in the world. That, in turn, appears set to shift the focus — for militants and those battling them alike — to the continent, even if local factors are likely to make the battle there very different than in the Middle East.

A Different Battle

From the perspective of jihadist groups, Africa may bring renewed opportunities for them. With the Islamic State on the wane in its heartland, the Sahel, Sahara and East Africa may attract an increasing number of foreign fighters. What's more, groups operating there may also witness a surge in support from foreign financiers who had previously directed their funds to the Middle East. Nevertheless, Africa's emergence as a prominent area for militancy illustrates more the repression of al Qaeda and Islamic State activity in the Middle East and Afghanistan than it does an uptick in jihadist operations on the continent. The biggest surge in militancy in Africa actually occurred between 2006 and 2012 — but that was at a time when the activities of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan drew more of the world's resources. Naturally, the Islamic State captured even more of the globe's attention when it burst onto the scene, seizing Mosul in 2014. But even if jihadists in Africa have grabbed fewer international headlines like their brethren in the Middle East, they invariably have proved themselves resilient through the years, despite a number of African-led security operations, as well as Western-led interventions.

A map showing areas of Islamist militancy in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

With less need for counterterrorism resources in the Middle East or Afghanistan, Africa's stubborn militant movements are likely to come more onto the radar of external powers, as well as become a magnet for foreign fighters no longer able to battle in the Levant. That, however, does not entail that the conflict between militants and the states intent on eliminating them will proceed in Africa as it did in the Middle East. In the latter, the conduct of Western counterterrorism operations has dovetailed with other geopolitical imperatives. Accordingly, Western countries have worked with and through their local allies, reinforcing their regional position and guaranteeing a stable environment for economic interests. Those same interests simply don't translate to the African theater. For one, the global economic importance of the Sahel, Sahara and Somalia is much more limited than that of the Middle East, which is a hub of oil production and transit activity. This means that over time, states different from those that have spearheaded activities in the Middle East and South Asia, especially the United States, may come to prominence in countering terrorism in Africa. And with a different set of regional interests involved in the global fight against militancy, the African theaters might not attract the same degree of interest in future global counterterrorism operations.

More of a Local Fight?

External actors other than the United States traditionally have taken the lead against militants in the Sahel and Sahara. Since its intervention in Mali in 2013, the most prominent outside power in the conflict has been France. Paris' deep historical ties to the Sahara and Sahel, as well as its wealth of military experience in the area, have put it in the driver's seat when it comes to counterterrorism efforts in most of the continent's theaters, although it has also received support from the United States and European allies. But because it possesses fewer total resources than the United States, France has also worked to play a supporting role for local governments by enhancing local and regional capabilities, such as through the G5 Sahel Force. Nevertheless, the weaknesses of African security forces have forced Paris at times to act directly through its Operation Barkhane.

Now that the caliphate is no longer, the Sahel, Sahara and East Africa may become the destination of choice for foreign fighters — a fact that is unlikely to escape the notice of outside powers.

France's central role in Africa does not preclude U.S. engagement on the continent. The United States has been particularly active in the Horn of Africa, where it maintains the ability to rapidly engage in counterterrorism operations from its base in Djibouti. Thanks to this presence, the United States has supported continued operations against al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia. In the years to come, such efforts are only likely to intensify. Meanwhile in West Africa, the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) has continued to develop regional logistical capabilities that indicate a longer-term commitment to supporting counterterrorism operations there. Nevertheless, the United States is unlikely to be front and center in pursuing jihadists in Africa. The country's military planners have displayed a reluctance to dig in too deeply, particularly after a militant attack on the U.S. Green Berets in Niger, while Washington also views some of these groups as less of a direct threat to the United States — meaning it can delegate the bulk of the responsibility for counterterrorism operations in the area to France.

Now that the caliphate is no longer, the Sahel, Sahara and East Africa may become the destination of choice for foreign fighters — a fact that is unlikely to escape the notice of outside powers. Ultimately, however, militant groups might find the time and space to hone their capabilities, particularly if external powers feel less geopolitical imperative to devote resources to stabilizing areas of Africa in which the jihadist threat is highest. That's something that could further destabilize local states — and even travel back up the transnational jihadist network to inflict harm on Europe and the United States themselves.

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