Radical Islam seems lately not only to have overcome hurdles raised by the Western powers and local regimes in Africa. It is now a growing threat in countries where the radical Islamic phenomenon was almost nonexistent, irrelevant, or marginal a few years ago. The Islamic State (IS) and other groups have targeted problematic, unstable regimes experiencing repeated coups d’état, at loggerheads with Western military powers, suffering from economic decline, and divided from within by tribal rivalries, sectarianism, and confessionalism. There the radical Islamists have found a fertile ground where recruiting is easy, indoctrinating is even easier, and consolidating their presence has never been so straightforward. The attacks perpetrated by Islamists have increased in audacity and range of targets, sowing havoc and fear in swaths of land that central governments have traditionally neglected with no real defense. As a result, local populations have deserted their dwellings, leaving them to the Islamists’ complete control, and flocked to the different capitals, creating severe humanitarian and political crises.
The IS offensive in Africa follows precise patterns:
The Islamic State and its al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa, emboldened by successes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have simply applied the methods that were used in those countries, such as:
- In August 2020, following the detonation of a suicide car bomb at the entrance to the prison in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, IS fighters overran the prison where many of their compatriots were held with Taliban fighters and common criminals. Of the 1,793 prisoners, more than 1,025 tried to escape and were recaptured, while 430 remained inside; the rest remained at large.1
- In January 2022, hundreds of IS fighters stormed the Al-Sina’ah (Arabic الصناعة) Prison in the Ghuwayran quarter of Hasakah, the 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 IS’s 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 forces, forced the surrender of the remaining combatants.2
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 attack followed another one perpetrated in April 2022, in which more than 1,800 prisoners escaped from the Oweri Prison in southwestern Imo State.3
Attacks on prisons to free inmates have become common in Nigeria. As a result, more than 7,000 people escaped from prisons across Nigeria during 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.4
Infiltrating New Areas Far from the Central Power
Radical Islamists have taken advantage of countries suffering from domestic instability with a weak record of controlling peripheral areas far from the central power. States that never had to deal with Islamic insurgencies, or were too lenient toward radical Islam’s growing threat to their stability, now find themselves unable to cope with the mounting danger to their regimes. Countries where armed groups of extremists never attacked now cannot contend with the situation, and even with outside help, they can no longer eradicate the threat.
In a previous article,5 I noted that Africa had become the focus of IS efforts. Over the past two years, it has attacked civilian targets in 13 African states. When such states have never had to confront radical Islam, they find themselves unprepared to deal with the phenomenon. The DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), 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 governments have chosen to ignore the threat and minimize all information about the radical Islamists’ exploits and encroachment as much as possible. In extreme cases, the governments consent to the publication of details about skirmishes, battles, and manpower losses.6
Faced with the various African governments’ hesitant responses and inability to quell such insurgencies, the Islamic State and other radical Muslim organizations are pushing to expand southward and eastward from the Sahel Belt (which extends from Senegal to Sudan), where they are now conquering new swaths of land mainly populated by Muslims. It is evident from the maps of Africa that these groups are currently active in areas formerly believed to be unattainable to the insurgents (Mozambique and the DRC are examples).
The radical Muslim groups’ task is facilitated 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, and success is guaranteed.7 It appears that Burkina Faso has become a hub for IS, from which it plans and carries out operations in the surrounding states.
According to the Islamic State’s 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.
Insecurity prevails today not only in West Africa and south and southeast of the Sahel Belt, in whose northern regions Islamist radicals took root almost 10 years ago. This insecurity is intensified by ongoing attacks and the conquering great swaths of territory. The presence of foreign troops and UN peacekeepers in various countries has not stopped 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 the vital areas of the different states.
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 wave.
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4 Ibid.; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/6/nigeria-confirms-attack-by-gunmen-on-presidential-convoy