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Contextualizing the Islamic State's Gains in Africa

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READMay 21, 2015 | 08:00 GMT
Rubble remains July 27, 2010, at the former headquarters of Boko Haram destroyed in 2009 by the police and military in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri in Borno state.
Rubble remains July 27, 2010, at the former headquarters of Boko Haram destroyed in 2009 by the police and military in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri in Borno state.

This week, militant groups in Mali and Tunisia pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. Because militant groups in Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria have made similar pledges, some in the media believe there is a wave of Islamic State militancy sweeping across Africa.

But when examined a little more carefully, it becomes clear there is not a new surge of jihadism. In fact, every group in Africa that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State already exists, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, or is a splinter of an existing group, such as the Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui faction of al-Mourabitoun in Mali (formerly the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). Every one of these African groups has been involved in terrorism or insurgency for years. Furthermore, on a global level, Islamic State franchises have only emerged in areas of the world where there is history of jihadist activity.

Some of the confusion about the Islamic State in Africa stems from the misperception that the Islamic State is a single, hierarchical organization. However, there is no evidence to suggest that it has direct control over allied groups. In a bid to portray such direct control, the Islamic State does label loyal groups wilayats, or provinces. But in practice, the Islamic State's structure is similar to the three-tiered structure of its parent organization, al Qaeda.

The Islamic State Core

The most profound structural difference between the Islamic State and al Qaeda is its central structure. The al Qaeda core organization was a small, professional vanguard dedicated to attacking the United States and other faraway enemies that supported governments in the Muslim world. It sought to excise foreign influence from the region — copying the tactics that worked to force U.S. troops out of Lebanon in the 1980s and out of Somalia in the early 1990s. The al Qaeda core was transnational and never really sought to control territory; it believed it was futile to attempt to establish an Islamic State before the United States had been weakened. Instead, it pledged allegiance to the leaders of Muslim countries, including to Omar al Bashir in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary to operate freely. Al Qaeda hoped to spark mass uprisings among the Muslim population, and it worked to train and support a number of regional militant groups to foment local struggles.

The Islamic State, however, has attempted to seize and control a core territory they call the caliphate, or the Islamic State. The Islamic State's strategy is to expand the area under its control to include all of Iraq and Syria, then neighboring countries and eventually the entire world.

Regional Franchises

As noted above, al Qaeda worked locally by training and empowering regional militant groups. In many cases, local groups adopted the al Qaeda name — for example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad took on the name al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (often called al Qaeda in Iraq) and the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of these groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were close ideologically to the al Qaeda core. Others had a more strained relationship with the al Qaeda core, including al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually broke away to become the Islamic State.

Regardless of ideological differences, that local groups assumed the al Qaeda name helped to promote the image that the group's core was a potent global force. The Islamic State now uses the same assumption, and because of the Islamic State's dramatic successes in Iraq last summer, the group has become the exciting new jihadist brand. Consequently, other militant groups have begun pledging allegiance to it.

Regardless of ideological differences, that local groups assumed the al Qaeda name helped to promote the image that the group's core was a potent global force.

Some of those groups have had closer interpersonal and ideological linkages to the Islamic State core than others. For example, the Islamic State's Wilayat Barqa in Libya has long had close ties to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq because of the Libyan fighters and supplies sent to Syria to help the resistance movement.

Indirect Support

The groups that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State are jihadist franchises: locally owned and operated but employing a global brand name and enjoying some general operational guidance. There is no evidence that the Islamic State has provided any sort of material, financial or operational support to these franchise groups. Neither have we seen the transfer of specific tactics, techniques and procedures from Iraq and Syria to the areas where these franchise groups operate.

Perhaps the most noticeable collaboration between the Islamic State core and its franchise groups has been in the realm of public relations. The Islamic State's media team has assisted or has directed the media efforts of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi (formerly known as Boko Haram), Wilayat Barqa and Wilayat Sanaa in Yemen.

This collaboration could change, and we could begin to see the Islamic State core begin to provide more funding, training and direction to these franchises. But currently, the group is preoccupied with its battles in Iraq and Syria and simply does not have men, money or materiel to send to franchise groups. As the Syrian and Iraqi governments, other Syrian militant groups, Iran, Hezbollah and the U.S.-led coalition attack the self-declared caliphate, its capabilities will continue to be hampered.

As for the Islamic State franchise groups, it is important to recognize that merely adopting the Islamic State name does not magically provide them with any new capabilities. They may change their tactics — as did Jund al-Khilafah, a splinter group from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that beheaded French citizen Herve Gourdel shortly after pledging their allegiance to al-Baghdadi in September 2014 — but that does not make them any more capable. In places like Nigeria and the Sahel, the groups now aligned with the Islamic State are weaker than they were in the past when they operated with impunity and controlled important pieces of territory.

It is also significant that most of the Islamic State franchises have split off from al Qaeda franchise groups, weakening them. In many places, such as Syria and Libya, jihadists aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State are even fighting each other.

Grassroots Jihadists

Al Qaeda had a long history of sending operational commanders to organize and help grassroots jihadists to conduct major attacks. They used this model for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and several other plots. However, counterterrorism measures taken following the 9/11 attacks have made such attacks less feasible. It has been several years since there has been an attack planned in this way. Instead, jihadist organizations are increasingly turning to the leaderless resistance model because even relying on fighters trained in the Middle East or South Asia to carry out attacks has become more difficult.

A series of arrests in Belgium in January 2015 uncovered a group of jihadists returning to Europe from Syria that appears to have been trying to set up a militant network across several European countries such as Belgium, Greece, France and the Netherlands. The case is under investigation, and it is still unclear whether the group was acting of their own volition or whether Islamic State leaders had instructed them. Either way, the group's arrest illustrates the challenges of sending fighters from Syria and Iraq to organize and conduct attacks in the West.

As noted elsewhere, jihadist ideologues began calling for a leaderless resistance operational model as early as 2004. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula echoed that call in 2009, and the al Qaeda core adopted it in 2010. The Islamic State called for jihadists to adopt the leaderless resistance model in September 2014, when it asked jihadists living in the West who could not move to conduct attacks in their countries of residence.

This operational model has many advantages. It allows the Islamic State, through just a bit of public relations effort, to take credit for attacks conducted in places like Canada, Australia, Denmark and the United States without having to expend any manpower or money. Even when these operations fail, which they often do, the media coverage they generate is a win for the Islamic State.

Understanding the actual structure of the Islamic State makes it clear that the group's capabilities are not expanding. Even with the recent spate of allegiances to the Islamic State declared in Africa, the state of global jihadism has not changed.

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