As a continent with enough conflicts of its own, it’s tempting to dismiss what’s happening in Iraq and Syria as somebody else’s problem. This is a mistake. As the Islamic State expands – and it’s already doing so – Africa is a prime target, with the continent particularly vulnerable to its subversive ideology. By SIMON ALLISON.
A few months ago, a map circulated around social media purporting to show the territorial expansion plans of the Islamic State, the particularly brutal militant group that is currently causing so much havoc in Iraq and Syria. The scope of its ambition was enormous: the whole of the Indian sub-continent was covered in signature black, as was Eastern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and the top half of Africa.
The map was later found to be a fake, probably an unofficial wish-list compiled by tech-savvy IS supporters. But the principle holds: the threat posed by IS is not limited to the Middle East. Its objectives are global, which is why world powers are so anxious to stop it in its tracks by arming Kurdish paramilitaries and bombing targets in Iraq.
So just how worried should Africa be?
Africa, of course, already has plenty of issues with terrorism and radical Islam. There’s Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (the area known to the rest of us as North Africa). And these groups are just the tip of the violent fundamentalist iceberg. Surely, surely, things can’t get much worse.
But things can get worse – and they already have.
It didn’t take long for IS to make its presence felt on the continent, with two clear examples of how we can expect its influence to spread here.
The first was in Libya, just a few weeks after IS took all that territory in Iraq and declared themselves an Islamic Caliphate. On July 22, the group’s leaders made the decision to send its Libyan fighters home. There they would help Ansar al-Sharia, a like-minded group, to fight off both government troops and other militias for control of Benghazi, the crucial eastern port city. It is no coincidence that shortly after this decision was reached, Ansar al-Sharia was able to assert control over much of the city, and declare it an independent Islamic Emirate.
IS’s slick propaganda operation and its extreme radical positioning has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many from African states. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, estimates suggest that there are 200-800 Algerians fighting in Syria alone, along with 600-1,000 Libyans, 1,000-3,000 Moroccans, and 1,000-3,000 Tunisians (these figures include African fighters in the ranks of other opposition groups. However, as the biggest, richest and best-organised group, it is fair to assume that the majority are there under the IS banner).
African governments are terrified, with reason, of what might happen should their nationals fighting in Syria choose to come home and challenge the status quo – especially if they bring some of IS’s vast war chest with them. The Islamic Emirate of Benghazi is one recent example, but historically too this has been a problem. Just look at how Tuareg soldiers, returning to Mali after long service in Gaddafi’s army, inflamed the nascent rebellion there; or how Al Shabaab has leveraged the experience and contacts of scores of fighters trained and battle-hardened in Afghanistan.
But the influence of IS doesn’t need to be this direct to be dangerous. Its ideology and strategy – markedly different to Al Qaeda in several respects, particularly its gratuitous use of brutality and its emphasis on the occupation of territory – has already inspired Boko Haram to change the way it does things. Over the last few months, Boko Haram has moved away from hit-and-run attacks and started to occupy villages and towns in north-eastern Nigeria.
Boko Haram too has declared this newly-carved out territory to be part of an Islamic Caliphate, although its leader, Abubakar Shekau, has carefully refrained from pledging allegiance to IS directly. Suddenly, Nigeria is facing a secessionist movement rather than a terrorist organisation, and its soldiers are fighting a civil war rather than an insurgency (it is a war which Nigeria appears to be losing, on current form, as Boko Haram continues to take more territory).
This perhaps is the greatest danger posed by the rise of IS. Its successful operations in Syria and Iraq are a template that other groups will follow, with Boko Haram being one of the first examples. IS has shown that Islamist militant groups are at their most dangerous not when they are challenging for authority over the state, but when they are challenging the existence of the state itself.
So yes, Africa is highly vulnerable to the spread of IS – both directly, through fighters and money and alliances, and indirectly as the likes of Boko Haram learn from and copy IS successes. These are dangerous times. DM
For more on this, read Simon Allison’s paper on the subject: ‘The Islamic State: Why Africa should be worried’, published by the Institute for Security Studies.
Analysis: In Nigeria, Boko Haram follows in the footsteps of Iraq’s Islamic State on Daily Maverick
Photo: Sunni fighters carry RPG missiles launcher and machine guns as they take up position in Fallujah city, western Iraq, 05 January 2014. According to media reports, militants from the Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have taken full control of Iraq’s city of Fallujah and large areas of Ramadi, two key cities in the western province of Anbar, after government forces cleared out an anti-government Sunni protest camp. EPA/MOHAMMED JALIL