Home / Articles / Jihadist Groups in Sub-Saharan Africa: Assessing the Threat
As the Biden administration surveys the litany of foreign policy challenges that exist—Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea, to name a few—counterterrorism in sub-Saharan Africa likely falls outside of its top priorities. Throughout the Trump administration, there were high-level discussions on troop redeployments and how best to transition away from counterterrorism operations in order to prepare for great power competition. Sub-Saharan Africa was expected to be deprioritized more than any other region by these redeployments, despite the area becoming fertile ground for jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Special operations forces (SOF) were deemed too valuable for American force projection to be utilized in security cooperation efforts in Africa. In December 2020, then-President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, which was completed in January 2021 when they moved to Kenya, even though United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) warned of al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab’s resilience and adaptability in the face of U.S. counterterrorism operations. Al-Shabaab has remained aggressive, demonstrating the capability to launch spectacular attacks, including an operation against a U.S. base in Kenya as the relocation was underway, killing three U.S. Department of Defense personnel. French President Emmanuel Macron, too, has publicly questioned France’s commitment to keeping troops in West Africa, where it has long maintained a sizeable military presence.
The timing of these decisions could not be worse. The consideration given to drawing down Western military forces from sub-Saharan Africa during 2021 is occurring while many of the jihadist groups active in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and southern and central Africa are surging, as demonstrated by their increased attack tempo, growing control of territory, and releases of propaganda videos highlighting battlefield gains. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State command a network of affiliates and franchise groups from Mali to Mozambique.
U.S. security cooperation programs in countries like Chad are critical for building the capacity of partner forces tasked with counterterrorism operations in the region. But after nearly two decades of non-stop deployments, the Pentagon is now grappling with how and where to reallocate resources, and sub-Saharan Africa is not viewed as essential. Without high levels of Western assistance, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support, many of the security forces operating in the Sahel risk being overmatched. Porous borders, poor governance, and the ubiquity of the illicit economy are structural factors that favor violent non-state actors.
Even when progress has been made against terrorist groups in Africa, short-term gains have often been tenuous and easily reversed. For example, Nigeria is notorious for announcing that it “defeated” Boko Haram by capturing its hideouts and removing the group from territories it conquered, but, time and again, the group has returned stronger than before. France, too, retook virtually all jihadist-controlled territory in Mali in 2013, but, less than a decade later, the jihadists are entrenched in Mali as well as neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. For its part, al-Shabaab was driven from Mogadishu years go, but it still maintains the capacity to carry out highly lethal attacks in the city.
Western policymakers have repeatedly declared both al-Qaeda and ISIS weak and defeated without factoring in that reducing their core territories in South Asia and the Middle East, respectively, does not necessarily have a decidedly negative impact on regional branches. While it is true that the core leadership of both organizations suffered a series of setbacks in 2020, their affiliate groups in sub-Saharan Africa have grown stronger. Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel and al-Shabaab in Somalia have accelerated their operational tempo, demonstrating an impressive range of operational and organizational capabilities. ISIS affiliates Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) were progressively featured more frequently in core ISIS propaganda last year according to a report by the United Nations published in mid-February 2021.
On February 24, an attack killed Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when a UN convoy was ambushed by rebels. The attack was not attributed to ISCAP, which is active in the DRC, but it demonstrated the ability of non-state actors to operate in failed states with relative impunity. In Nigeria, on February 23, ISWAP launched multiple operations against Nigerian security forces in Borno, including suicide attacks, claiming to kill and wound dozens. ISWAP also captured a Nigerian military base for the first time in several years just days earlier.
In fact, one of the curious aspects of ISWAP and ISCAP’s recent successes, including the latter’s October 2020 jailbreak in Congo freeing more than 1,000 inmates and capturing a key Mozambican port weeks earlier, is that ISWAP has not released photosets or videos of some of its major attacks, whereas previously it would be expected to do so. In Mozambique, ISCAP has significantly decreased its propaganda production in recent weeks. One explanation for this change is that these two groups are aware of U.S. and allies’ destruction of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq and are being more cautious about revealing the extent of their territories in sub-Saharan Africa to avoid drawing back U.S. attention when it is focused elsewhere. ISIS propaganda was critical to leading the United States to intervene in Syria and Iraq, especially when Americans were killed. The recent decision by ISWAP and ISCAP to limit propaganda output could be a deliberate attempt to keep Western militaries at bay.
Al-Qaeda in Africa, like ISIS, seeks to eventually control territory, and, in significant parts of the Sahel and Somalia, al-Qaeda’s affiliates have already achieved this goal. In contrast to ISIS, JNIM is attempting to call for negotiations that would involve foreign forces, primarily France, to withdraw from the Sahel. These demands appear to be based closely on the model for negotiations being pursued by the Taliban in Afghanistan. If JNIM achieves this, then it would not be unforeseeable for al-Shabaab to follow its—and therefore the Taliban’s—lead. The result would be several regions where jihadists make significant gains in governance, although as noted above, jihadist groups are more cautious about openly holding territory and featuring it in propaganda for fear of increased counterterrorism pressure. Where they do seek to hold territory, they are doing so incrementally. Likewise, even when they have flirted with negotiations, jihadists have been careful to avoid any actions that would make them appear to legitimize the international community.
The success enjoyed by jihadist groups in sub-Saharan Africa is juxtaposed with struggles encountered by al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates elsewhere. Overall, their core leaderships have been weakened. Because of that, both organizations have sought to rely more on the momentum of their respective affiliates. One thing is clear: Al-Qaeda and ISIS are ascendant in sub-Saharan Africa, and they both want the United States and its allies to remain focused elsewhere.
Western countries have grown complacent with the threat posed by jihadist groups in Africa because, for the most part, these groups have been consumed by local rivalries and are content to focus on parochial issues. Attacks have not been launched beyond the immediate regions where they operate. However, as the July 2019 arrest of an al-Shabaab member in the Philippines charged with plotting a 9/11-style attack in the United States demonstrates, the calculus of some of these groups could change. If other African jihadist groups also seek to shift focus to external operations, then the United States and its allies will regret their growing indifference to the enduring nature of the threat posed by JNIM, al-Shabaab, and the range of ISIS affiliates active in the region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.