After the defeat of ISIS and the fall of its alleged “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, Africa was the haven in which the remnants find what they were looking for. By forging alliances with local armed groups, they succeeded in providing a new platform that supplies the organization with money and terrorists. The group used attacks by local militants as evidence that it was still alive.
In late March, jihadists linked to the Islamic State captured Palma, a coastal town in northeastern Mozambique. Besides attacking the town, which is strategically located near a $ 20 billion natural gas project led by France, terrorists have killed dozens of Mozambican civilians and reportedly beheaded foreign workers.
The media storm that followed the attack sparked a widespread debate about the nature of the Islamic State’s involvement and whether violence in Mozambique was a local or transnational phenomenon.
Some analysts focused on the rebels’ grievances, but their apparent pledge of allegiance to ISIS coincided with a major leap forward in the capabilities of the group, now known as the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province. It includes subsidiaries in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Mozambican branch, known locally as Al-Shabab (not related to the Somali community) or Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a, did not have the operational and organizational tools required to launch attacks on the level of what happened in Palma.
Indeed, few observers have expressed grave concern about the nascent rebels’ occupation of northern Mozambique and their allegiance to ISIS. The case of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province remains one of several examples of the benefits accruing to jihadist groups from joining the Islamic State, which has been a reinforcing factor for many of these groups operating in sub-Saharan Africa, including ISIS’s West Africa Province, The Islamic State in Nigeria, and the Islamic State in the Sahara Desert in the Sahel.
Affiliation with the Islamic State created tactical and strategic advantages for groups that would have mostly focused on local goals and would gradually develop through local tactical improvements. The relationship has been mutually beneficial, as local jihadist groups enjoy the Islamic State brand and the resources that come with it, such as funding, training, and a global propaganda platform based on social media. The Islamic State continues to be able to promote the success of its affiliates even as its main organization in Iraq and Syria and its affiliates in places like Libya and Afghanistan struggle to recover from setbacks.
The Palma Thabit attack also highlighted ISIS’s Central Africa Province and its growth over time. It has attacked and captured towns in northern Mozambique, as well as towns in southern Tanzania.
The reported beheadings of foreigners and the symbolic nature of the target area (near a natural gas project developed by the French energy giant Total) demonstrate the influence of the Islamic State and are consistent with the group’s narrative of the exploitative West.
In addition to evidence of secret official communications between the Islamic State center and the jihadists in Mozambique, the US Special Operations Command in Africa emphasized that the core of the group was the recruitment, training, and in some cases equipping, of Mozambican jihadists. ISIS’s Central Africa Province will likely facilitate this through its regional network of militants and logicists.
The impact on the pace of terrorist operations in Mozambique and beyond is clear. Since January 2020, nearly a fifth of the attacks declared by the Islamic State worldwide have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. These attacks leave nearly five times the number of dead and wounded from operations elsewhere. The organization’s affiliates now appear on the front page of its official weekly outlet, Al-Naba, more than the core nucleus in Syria and Iraq, which indicates the value of these groups affiliated with the leadership of the Islamic State.
This is not an unusual story as sub-Saharan branches largely received a boost from the source once they pledged allegiance to the caliph of the Islamic State.
The counterpart of ISIS’s West Africa Province, the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in the Sahel stepped up its attacks on Malian, Nigerian and Burkina forces, when the Central Command granted it the status of “boycott”. West Africa Province also explained in the posts how the Islamic State Center strategically advised the group on the most effective methods of waging guerrilla warfare, including when to attack populated areas and when to withdraw. There is reason to believe that the Mozambican branch has adapted its insurgent tactics and asymmetric approach to warfare on the advice of the nucleus of the Islamic State.
And ISIS in West Africa began building armored vehicles for suicide bombings only after Abu Bakr pledged allegiance to Boko Haram’s leader, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2015.
This indicates the supply of ammunition from the ISIS center, which has identified its various branches through distinctive uniforms, including the red head band of the “Special Forces” in Mozambique, Egypt, Mali and the coast.
But are all branches of the Islamic state equal? Do some branches receive more attention or resources than others, and if so, how is this being determined? The best explanation for this is found by examining the branches from the perspective of different degrees of belonging.
The relationship of the branches to the nucleus
The first-degree affiliation is mirrored in the now defunct ISIS Libyan provinces. Not only did they pledge allegiance to the organization, but also included large numbers of fighters who had been transferred from Syria specifically to form the Islamic State’s provinces in Libya on the orders of Al-Baghdadi. The Libyan provinces maintained frequent and direct contacts with the group, as well as receiving corresponding funding, specialized training and advice, until a huge international military alliance with the Libyan forces against ISIS led to the almost complete destruction of the group in Libya.
In contrast, ISIS’s West Africa Province received only several delegations of key trainers from Libya, but trained key Nigerian leaders in Libya during the heyday of the Islamic State’s strength.
Even in the absence of a strong Islamic State presence in Libya, the center continues to discuss the strategy with ISIS’s West Africa Province, publishing photos and videos of the attacks, in addition to consulting among leaders on ideological issues. Islamic State leaders are still providing military advice on the use of armored vehicles and innovative ways of using drones. Accordingly, ISIS’s West Africa Province will have a second-class affiliation compared to the now dissolved Libyan provinces.
Most importantly, entire groups, including all factions of ISIS’s West Africa Province, agreed to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, even though the group rarely engaged in a direct exchange of fighters with the core.
The Mozambican branch reflects the third degree of affiliation. This means that the Mozambican jihadist factions have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. However, unlike the Islamic State in West Africa, which announced its pledge in 2015 through the official social media channels of the Islamic State, the announcement of Mozambique’s pledges was unofficially.
Accordingly, these pledges may not necessarily be representative of all jihadist factions in Mozambique. As a result, there are questions about what makes the Mozambican jihadists ultimately subordinate to the Islamic State. At the very least, the Islamic State branch, or “Muqata”, must pledge allegiance to the group’s caliph, and the caliph must accept allegiance.
The Mozambican jihadists, like their Congolese counterparts, took this step by issuing several videos and pictures declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, which was recognized by the organization through Al-Baghdadi’s speech and subsequent announcements on behalf of its branches in the Central African Province.
Although the third-degree affiliation may not have led to the same coordination that ISIS’s West Africa Province achieved with the Islamic State, its benefits have been seen in Mozambique, including strategy, tactics, the media, and down to the details of uniforms.
While the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ultimately succeeded in destroying the group’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there is no coordinated strategy as to whether and how the many affiliates and branches from North Africa to Southeast Asia will be dealt with.
The threat of the Islamic State in 2021 appears to be very different from what it was only two years ago, when the last stronghold of the organization fell in the Syrian town of Al-Baghouz, which was a symbol of the end of the state-building project. The international coalition has prioritized the core Islamic State and first-class affiliates such as those in Libya.
To defeat what was left of the organization’s global network, the Coalition must now conduct a comprehensive reassessment of ISIS-affiliated groups around the world, measuring the degree of affiliation, resource levels, manpower and operational capabilities of ISIS branches from Sinai to Southeast Asia.
Translation by Internationalist 360°