Abstract: The Islamic State’s global insurgent brand increasingly depends on the activities of its affiliates in Africa, according to a new analysis of its attack claims in Africa. Two streams of data—the first, an 83-week aggregation of attack statistics published in the Islamic State newspaper Al Naba between December 28, 2018, and July 31, 2020; the second, an exhaustive collection of Africa-focused attack reports prepared and distributed by the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan in 2019—shed significant light on the scale and nature of the Islamic State threat to Africa. In particular, they highlight the Nigeria-based faction of Islamic State West Africa Province as a key strategic threat, noting that per the Islamic State’s own claims, it is engaging in a significantly higher intensity war than any other affiliate of the self-proclaimed caliphate, including those based in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
In March 2019, the Islamic State was declared defeated after it was routed by the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria.1 In the time that has elapsed since, the fallacy of this declaration of defeat was rendered apparent countless times—whether by mass-casualty terrorism or the Islamic State’s expansion into new lands.2 Indeed, by the summer of 2020, it had become resolutely clear that the Islamic State was a changed organization, but by no means a beaten one.
This has been most apparent on the continent of Africa. The Islamic State has had an active presence in north, west, and east Africa for years, but in 2019, the military potential of its affiliates there—especially in west and central Africa and the Sinai Peninsula—surpassed that of its residual core in the Levant. This is most starkly the case in northeastern Nigeria, where its supporters have been engaging in attacks that have exceeded the scale and complexity of those being deployed by their counterparts in Syria and Iraq for at least a year now.
Exploring the group’s insurgent prospects in Africa, this article makes an operational assessment of the Islamic State’s provincial and non-provincial affiliates on the continent based on two streams of data—the first, an 83-week aggregation of attack statistics published in the Islamic State newspaper Al Naba between December 28, 2018, and July 31, 2020; the second, an exhaustive collection of Africa-focused attack reports prepared and distributed by the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan in 2019 via an outlet called the Nashir News Agency. Through the lens of these data streams, the authors evaluate the geographic, tactical, and targeting characteristics of the Islamic State’s presence across Africa, identifying its key hotspots, emergent strongholds, and potential future trajectory.
The article proceeds as follows. After a brief discussion of the data collection and analysis methodology, the authors disaggregate the data by wilaya (province), focusing first on West Africa and the Sahel, before moving on to the Sinai Peninsula, Somalia, Central Africa, and Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria (which are considered collectively due to the comparatively low amount of Islamic State-reported activities in them).a For each location, the authors describe contemporary attack trends (based on the December 28, 2018, to July 31, 2020, Al Naba dataset), contextualize the recent history of the affiliate in question, and identify key operational dynamics (based on attack reports from 2019).
The conclusion considers the implications of this data in aggregate, holding that the Islamic State’s forays into Africa are no longer a sideshow to its operational core in Syria and Iraq. Rather, its brand as a globalized insurgency is dependent now more than ever on the military activities of its affiliates there.
This assessment is based on two complementary datasets, both of which were drawn from the Islamic State’s official propaganda output. The first dataset, which is used for high-level quantitative analysis of Islamic State attack trends in Africa between 2019 and 2020, is drawn from the aggregated weekly statistics the Islamic State publishes in its newspaper Al Naba. In accordance with the Al Naba publishing cycle, its start date is December 28, 2018. Because the authors use this dataset to track trends through both 2019 and 2020, its end data is July 31, 2020. This dataset is henceforth referred to as “the Al Naba dataset.”
The second dataset comprises every operation claim published via Nashir, the group’s official media distribution channel, in relation to Africa in 2019. Its start date is January 1, 2019, and end date December 31, 2019. For sake of clarity, this dataset is henceforth referred to as “the Nashir dataset.” This dataset was used to quantify attacks in 2019 and for the qualitative analysis of Islamic State attacks (location, type, scale, and target, etc.) deployed in/by the different wilayat.b
The Al Naba Dataset
The authors use the Al Naba dataset to ascertain Islamic State attack trends in Africa during the 83-week period between December 28, 2018, and July 31, 2020. This dataset relates how many attacks, according to the Islamic State, occurred on a weekly basis in a given wilaya in Africa. Besides total kill and casualty counts, it does not provide specific details as to what exactly those attacks looked like. That is because this dataset was drawn from already-aggregated statistics prepared and distributed by the Islamic State in its weekly newsletter, Al Naba. Specifically, these numbers originally appeared in the “Harvest of Soldiers” infographic series, which has been running on a weekly basis since July 2018.3
The Al Naba dataset’s start date is December 28, 2018, because each issue of Al Naba provides aggregated statistics for the seven days preceding its publication. Issue 163, which appeared on January 3, was the first issue of Al Naba to be published in 2019. Hence, that issue covers the period between December 28, 2018, and January 3, 2019.
Visualized in Figures 6 and 7, this dataset shows high-level attack trends in Africa in 2019 and 2020.c
The Nashir Dataset
The authors use the Nashir dataset—which, disaggregated by wilaya and relating detailed information about individual attacks claimed by the Islamic State, is rich with tactical, geospatial, and targeting data—to develop an understanding of the full spectrum of Islamic State operations in Africa in 2019. This spectrum includes anything from its affiliates’ sporadic raids in southern Libya to their more consistent, higher impact operations in northeastern Nigeria. The authors are able to do this because this dataset comprises a complete sample of detailed Islamic State operation claims relating to Africa in 2019, all of them prepared by its Central Media Diwan (i.e., not the provincial affiliates themselves, which, as officially designated affiliates of the Islamic State, do not have their own media presence).4
These claims were collected by the third author exclusively from Telegram, a privacy-maximizing social media platform favored by violent extremists for propaganda distribution (among other things).d In 2019, two outlets were charged with distributing all official Islamic State communications: the Nashir network, which was tasked with disseminating materials produced by central and provincial media units; and the Amaq News Agency, which essentially acted as its newswire service. Operating alongside these was a separate, supporter-run dissemination hub called the Nashir News Agency (note: despite the name, this entity is distinct from the Nashir network, which is internal to the Islamic State).5 The Nashir News Agency aggregated all posts from both Nashir and the Amaq News Agency on a minute-by-minute basis. It was from this hub, the Nashir News Agency, that the Nashir dataset was compiled.
Prior to the analysis, the authors filtered the Nashir dataset so that it only contained operation claims published in 2019 in relation to Africa. This involved removing all photo, audio, and video files. This was done to help avoid duplication. Photo, audio, and video content only cover a small number of attacks and only provide supplementary coverage of attacks claimed in statements. Moreover, until June 2020 when the Amaq News Agency stopped publishing news bulletins altogether, the Islamic State almost always issued duplicate claims for its attacks—one prepared by the Central Media Diwan and one by the Amaq News Agency. To avoid accounting for duplicates, all Amaq News Agency claims were also removed from the dataset. In total, this cleaning process resulted in the exclusion of some 5,248 pieces of content from the corpus, leaving 453 Central Media Diwan-prepared and Nashir News Agency-disseminated operation bulletins relating to Islamic State activities in Africa in 2019. Each of these was then manually processed by the authors to make sure that no duplicates reports found their way into the dataset.
After this, each bulletin was coded according to several criteria, among them:
- Week and date of the attack;
- Longitude and latitude of the attack location (as visualized in Figure 2);
- Wilaya, country, and region to which the report relates (as visualized in Figures 2, 3, and 4);
- Weapons used in the attack;
- Attack type (i.e., ambush, assault, assassination, bombing, etc.);
- Target (i.e., Nigerian Army, Egyptian Federal Police, etc.);
- Target type (i.e., military, intelligence, civilian, government, etc.) (as visualized in Figure 5); and
- When mentioned, number of kills reported.
This data from the posts on the Nashir News Agency is visualized in Figures 1 to 5.
Correlating the Datasets
While the two datasets are structurally distinct and of a moderately different size (453 attacks are recorded in the Nashir dataset versus 595 in the Al Naba dataset), they correlate closely, as indicated in Figure 1. The Islamic State’s explanation for the numerical discrepancy is that not all attacks are separately claimed through Central Media Diwan bulletins for reasons of operational security.6 Furthermore, some attack claims in the Nashir dataset mention two or more different locations. In the Al Naba dataset, they are listed separately.7
Notwithstanding this variance, the correlation between the two datasets is clear from Figure 1. Based on it, the authors are confident that the two datasets are reflective of each other with regard to the quantitative evolution of the threat during the period the datasets overlap.
Validity of the Data
Given the provenance of both sets of data, it is important to approach them with a highly critical eye. They were, after all, disseminated by the Islamic State with a distinct strategic intent in mind: to demonstrate the reach of its global affiliates and amplify their kinetic capabilities. That being said, it would be wrong to dismiss them simply because they are ‘propaganda.’ As the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, which was formed in 2014 to combat the Islamic State, has itself conceded, the Islamic State’s attack reporting is largely accurate as an indicative measure,8 even if it obfuscates at times and exaggerates at others. Hence, provided they are treated as strategic indicators of activity trends and not definitive evidence of specific operations, the utility of these data points as analytical markers is significant.
West Africa Province
It is in West Africa and the Greater Sahara that supporters of the Islamic State, fighting under the banner of Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya (West Africa Province, henceforth ISWAP), have the largest and most sophisticated presence. In 2019, attacks claimed under that moniker occurred in no fewer than six countries—Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
As shown in Figure 6, ISWAP’s reported activities occurred at a steady pace across 2019 and the first six months of 2020. The relatively steady trajectory of its attacks data indicates that it deployed operations with a high degree of regularity throughout the 18 months in question. While the cumulative casualties line in Figure 7 is less regular, it too climbs at a fairly consistent pace. (The occasionally steep inclines indicate points at which ISWAP carried out particularly impactful operations, like its June 9, 2020, massacre in Gubio LGA (local government area), in which it killed dozens of civilian non-combatants as a punishment for their purportedly starting a self-defense unit in order to protect their community from attacks and cattle from being stolen.9 In any case, it is clear that in late 2019, there was a jump in the tempo of ISWAP attacks and the rate of casualties inflicted by the group, which has since been sustained as shown by a steeper gradient since then in the West Africa curves in Figures 6 and 7. Even though it is nominally a single, unified entity, ISWAP consists of two distinct elements that are defined by the geographical remit of their operations; one is active around the area of Lake Chad, and the other, which is also known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), is active in southeastern Mali, western Niger, and northeastern Burkina Faso (the area known as Liptako-Gourma). The first originated in 2002 as Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li-Da’wah wa-l-Jihad (JAS, also known as Boko Haram).10 When its then leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to then Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015, JAS became a part of the Islamic State.11 In August 2016, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (a son of JAS’ founder, Muhammad Yusuf) deposed Shekau and became ISWAP’s leader, leaving Shekau and some loyal fighters to continue on as JAS.12 In the 18 months that followed, ISWAP was greatly weakened. Indeed, it took it over a year to rebuild its strength and once more conduct strategically significant attacks against local security forces. In March 2019, Abu Mus’ab was replaced by Abu ‘Abdullah al-Barnawi as wali, but unlike Shekau, the former Barnawi did not leave to create a new faction.13 Currently, the Lake Chad-centric faction of ISWAP is active primarily in the areas around the lake in the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe, and as of February 2020, its size was estimated by the United Nations to be around 5,000 fighters.14 Note that this figure excludes those in Shekau’s post-ISWAP offshoot.
The origins of the Liptako-Gourma subgroup, which is also commonly referred to as ISGS, can be traced back to May 2015, when one Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui and his Mali-based faction of fighters pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.15 Notably, the pledge was not recognized until October 2016 and was not formally accepted by the Islamic State’s central leadership until April 2019.16 e Once it was, al-Sahraoui’s group was folded into ISWAP. It claimed its first attack under this banner on April 12, 2019. Due to the fact that its theater of operations was distinct from that of the Nigeria-based ISWAP faction, it is still commonly referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, even though, in the bureaucratic nomenclature of the Islamic State central authority, it is part and parcel of ISWAP.17 In any case, after its inception, it launched several deadly attacks across the region, but it was not until its ambush on U.S. special forces near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger in October 2017 that it gained global notoriety.18 f Writing in the August 2018 edition of CTC Sentinel, Jason Warner and Charlotte Hulme estimated its size to be around 425 fighters.19 Based on the recent tenor of its operations, though, it would appear to be a good deal larger now.
Per the authors’ data, ISWAP—that is, both the Lake Chad-based faction and the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger-based faction—claimed some 186 attacks in 2019. Of these, 177 occurred in the area of Lake Chad at the hands of Barnawi’s faction and the remaining nine were deployed farther west, in the Sahel, at the hands of Sahraoui’s subgroup. In any case, the collective total constitutes 41 percent of all attacks in Africa claimed by the Islamic State that year. The claims were distributed fairly evenly over the course of the year, though there was a slight decrease in reported activities in July, August, and September 2019, in which just six, 10, and 11 attacks were reported, respectively. This could have been due to the fact that seasonal rains encumbered ISWAP operations, or it may have been a result of a temporary change of strategy. In any case, in the majority of ISWAP’s attacks (94 percent), its fighters reportedly targeted local military forces. Notably, though, Christians were overtly targeted nine times toward the end of 2019, with a spike of attacks around Christmas. This came on the back of a declaration at the end of September 2019 that a new front would be opened against Christians residing in Borno state in particular.20
In terms of their tactical characteristics, most of ISWAP’s operations were conventional and semi-conventional assaults on military bases. Suicide bombings took place only as suicide vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). In total, five such attacks were claimed in 2019—three in Nigeria, one in Burkina Faso, and one in Niger. Judging by the Islamic State’s claims over the number of people killed, ISWAP was by far the most impactful in terms of numbers of individuals killed or injured of all the Islamic State’s African affiliates, something indicated starkly in Figure 7. Indeed, on no fewer than 28 occasions, it reported the killing of at least 15 people.
Geographically speaking, there are few discernible patterns in relation to ISWAP’s Greater Sahara faction, the activities of which were fairly sporadic and widely dispersed throughout 2019. However, in the context of its Nigeria-based counterpart, the story is markedly different, with attacks tightly clustered throughout northeastern and southwestern Borno State and, to a lesser degree, in the eastern part of Yobe State. This kind of clustering, which is simultaneously concentrated and locally dispersed, suggests that in 2019, ISWAP fighters in that part of Nigeria enjoyed greater freedom of movement than most other locations in which the Islamic State has an operational presence in Africa. This is likely due to two reasons: one, ISWAP, due to the historic activities of its previous iterations, has been active in Borno State for many years now and, hence, is deeply entrenched in the region and familiar with its unique human and geographic topology; and two, in the second half of 2019, it was able to take advantage of the Nigerian military’s newly minted “super camp” strategy, which meant the army secured bigger towns and cities in the region with a hefty military presence but left their rural environs relatively unchecked and vulnerable to ISWAP attacks.21
After ISWAP, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sayna’g (Sinai Province, henceforth IS-SP) was the group’s second-most active provincial affiliate in Africa in 2019. Notably, this meant that the single country in Africa with the most amount of Islamic State-reported attacks was Egypt. As Figure 6 shows, moving into 2020, IS-SP’s reported activities continued at a regular pace, though with much less consistency than their equivalent at the hands of ISWAP. This suggests that its operational roster may have been driven more by a greater degree of opportunism than in the context of West Africa, something that would be consistent with the historically less conventional, lower-intensity nature of its operations on the Peninsula. Notably, while IS-SP generally reports a similar amount of activity to ISWAP, the reported impact (i.e., the number of killed and injured) of its operations has consistently been significantly lower, as indicated in Figure 7. Notwithstanding this substantial discrepancy in average reported casualties, the fact that quite so much activity—moreover, activity that shows no signs of abating—is being claimed by the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula cannot be ignored.
Egypt has an exceedingly long pedigree when it comes to jihadism. It is, after all, the place where Sayyid Qutb’s takfiri ideology first originated and the birthplace of innumerable jihadi ideologues—among them, current al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and doctrinal heavyweight Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir.22 From a kinetic standpoint, the region most affected by jihadi insurgency in recent years has been the Sinai Peninsula, wherein a group calling itself Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) was formed in January 2011 to fight against the Egyptian state.23 In November 2014, ABM pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, making it one of the group’s first wilaya outside of Syria and Iraq.24
Since then, IS-SP has consistently been one of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s most active provincial affiliates. In the last five years alone, it was responsible for several deadly terrorist attacks, including the 2015 bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268, where 224 people were killed, and the assault on a Sufi Mosque in Rawda in 2017, causing more than 300 deaths.25 In 2019, according to Islamic State claims, it carried out some 160 attacks—that is, 35 percent of the entire 2019 Nashir dataset. Most of these attacks targeted the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) or federal police, though in three cases the target was not explicitly stated. Contrasting sharply with the reported impact of ISWAP’s attacks, 10 or more casualties were reported by the Islamic State in just six of these attacks. This reflects the fact that IS-SP’s operations were almost exclusively limited to roadside ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Indeed, there were only eight complex assaults reported over the entirety of 2019. Geographically speaking, based on the Islamic State’s own claims, the vast majority of IS-SP’s attacks were deployed in and around the cities of Rafah and ‘Arish in northeastern Sinai near the border with the Gaza Strip. On only one occasion that year did IS-SP attack further south near the city of Suez.
Throughout 2019, the locations of attacks claimed by IS-SP implied an expansion of the area of operations toward the west, around the city of Bir al-Abd. In June 2020, this area became a new stronghold of the group after deadly clashes near the village of Rabaa (20 kilometers west of Bir al-Abd). IS-SP continues to hold four villages despite the Egyptian Air Force launching airstrikes targeting its positions.26 This marks a big change in terms of capturing and holding territory, as prior to that date, it has not appeared to seek a long-term control over controlled areas.
Officially acknowledged as an overseas territory of the Islamic State in December 2017, Wilayat al-Sumal (Somalia Province, henceforth IS-S) comprises a small grouping of former supporters of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (HSM) who defected under the leadership of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min.27 Believed to number in the low hundreds of active fighters, IS-S has remained a steady but small presence in Somalia in the years since its inception, primarily targeting—with a small number of exceptions—members of the local government and the Somali security forces. Its relatively small size has not, however, stopped the Islamic State from investing a significant amount of time and energy in amplifying its activities,28 which throughout its existence have primarily been confined to the coastal region of Bari in northeastern-most reaches of Somalia, and Mogadishu and its environs.29
As Figures 6 and 7 indicate, based on the tenor of its activities through 2019 and the first six months of 2020, it would appear that IS-S has reached what is for now its growth capacity. That is to say that it is engaging in, relative to other Islamic State affiliates at least, a low-intensity insurgency focused on consolidating resources and supporters in remote regions while simultaneously signaling resolve and presence through a low impact but (thanks to the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan) highly visible roster of attacks.
Across 2019, IS-S was reported by Islamic State media to have deployed some 59 attacks, which constitutes 13 percent of the total set of claims issued by the Islamic State in relation to Africa that year, according to the Nashir dataset. The only notable trend in terms of how they were distributed was that they occurred regularly but in low numbers—that is to say, there was a steady trickle of attack reports with no clear period of intensification or deceleration. From a targeting perspective, IS-S’ operations in 2019 were primarily geared toward striking local police forces—specifically, 36 attacks (61 percent) were launched against the police—with a further 13 (22 percent) hitting military and intelligence assets and 10 targeting civilians and local government officials. For the most part (57 percent of the time), these attacks were characterized by fairly crude methods, something that was enabled by the fact that they tended to target specific individuals, often when they were unarmed and off-duty.30
Central Africa Province
The Islamic State’s officially designated Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiyya (Central Africa Province, henceforth IS-CAP) is composed of two separate factions active in two separate regions, the easternmost reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique.31
Figures 6 and 7 indicate that IS-CAP’s reported activities occurred through 2019 and the first six months of 2020 at a fairly regular pace, intensifying slightly in the months of April and May 2020. Consistent with this, there was simultaneously a moderate increase in the number of casualties (killed and injured) being reported. It would appear then that the threat posed by IS-CAP was beginning to consolidate by the summer of 2020, having slowly built momentum in both the DRC and Mozambique in the course of the previous 12 months.
While IS-CAP was only formally recognized by the Islamic State’s central leadership in April 2019, its roots can be traced back to October 2017 when a video emerged in which militants identifying themselves as members of Madinat al-Tawhid wa-l-Muwahhidin (“The City of Monotheism and Monotheists”) (MTM) claimed to be part of the global Islamic State insurgency. As pointed out by Caleb Weiss in FDD’s Long War Journal at the time, despite its lofty ambitions, the group seemed to be operationally marginal and geographically isolated.32 Just under 18 months later, what had long appeared to be nothing more than an embryonic threat had metastasized into an officially recognized and active wilaya of the Islamic State.
It was not until April 2019 that the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan issued the first IS-CAP activity report, relating details about an attack in the DRC, specifically near the city of Beni.33 Beni is the municipal center of a region in the northeast of the DRC near the border of Virunga National Park and Uganda. Remote, largely impoverished, and still wracked by outbreaks of the Ebola virus, it is fertile ground for insurgents seeking to establish a foothold. Accordingly, across 2019, almost all of IS-CAP’s attacks in the DRC claimed in Islamic State media were located in the Beni region.
In the context of Mozambique, IS-CAP’s presence was only formally conceded in June 2019, when it issued a report on its first-ever attack in the country: an assault on the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces (FADM) in Mitopy in the Mocimboa da Praia District.34 Though the Mozambican government at the time denied there was any presence of the Islamic State in the country, IS-CAP claimed another attack there one month later on July 5, 2019, when it reported that its fighters had launched a complex assault on an FADM base in Nangade, killing and wounding a number of soldiers and seizing a significant amount of weapons. In the months that followed, according to the Islamic State’s own claims, IS-CAP attacks continued to occur in Mozambique with relative regularity.
In total, eight percent of all the Islamic State’s reported attacks in Africa in 2019 were carried out by IS-CAP. Five percent took place in the DRC, with a further three percent occurring in Mozambique, bringing the collective total to 37 attacks between April that year, when IS-CAP’s existence was made public, and December that year (23 in the DRC and 14 in Mozambique). In the DRC, all 23 attacks targeted the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC), and there was a relatively low degree of tactical variance, with ambushes on convoys and assaults on military bases occurring most of the time. In Mozambique, IS-CAP primarily targeted the FADM (with all the attacks on the military occurring in the district of Cabo Delgado), attacking it on 10 out of 14 occasions (71 percent of the time) in 2019, according to the Islamic State’s own claims. The attacks mostly comprised assaults on army bases. Islamic State statements made clear that the other four operations (29 percent) were directed against both combatants and non-combatants in what were described as “Christian” villages.
Libya Province, Algeria Province, and Tunisia
In addition to the above geographies, the Islamic State also reported limited activities in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria in 2019 and 2020. Due to the extreme irregularity with which they occurred, they are considered on a collective basis for the purposes of this assessment. Before proceeding, it is worth noting that Libya and Algeria emerged as provinces (Wilayat al-Tarablus, Wilayat al-Barqah, and Wilayat al-Fezzan) and province, respectively, in 2014. Libya’s three were consolidated into one in 2018, with Algeria essentially becoming defunct aside from a few sporadic activities. While the Islamic State’s network in Tunisia explicitly surfaced as far back as 2014, it never bestowed upon them provincial status.35
In total, the Islamic State claimed eight attacks in Libya, one in Tunisia, and one in Algeria in 2019.36 As Figures 6 and 7 indicate, this low level of activity continued into the first six months of 2020, during which just 10 attacks were reported by Al Naba (nine in Libya and one in Algeria). Whether their collective inactivity across most of the last two years was borne of internal decision-making or a result of external military pressures remains to be seen, but it would be imprudent to dismiss the Islamic State’s Libyan capabilities anytime soon.
In any case, in 2019, aside from some temporal clustering of attacks in Libya—seven of which reportedly occurred within the same five-week period—there were no other distinct patterns in the rate at which these incidents occurred, suggesting that they were driven by opportunism as much as anything else. In terms of targeting, there was a clear trend in the data, with all incidents reported by the Islamic State to have struck military assets, not targeting any civilians, primarily with light arms. Consistent with this opportunistic quality, all operations were marked by a comparatively low degree of complexity.
As things stood by the end of 2019, the Islamic State seemed to be on the back foot in Libya, at least compared to 2014-2016, with inactivity also characterizing its presence in Tunisia and Algeria. While the Islamic State drew many thousands of recruits from Tunisia, it has always had an ambiguous stance as to its presence in the country—it has not, for some reason, declared its own province there even though it officially recognized its presence in Tunisia as far back as 2014.37 In view of this, its relative inactivity there is not especially surprising. The same is true of Algeria, wherein its active support base has always been small and confined to remote parts of the country. In the context of Libya, though, it would appear that a measure of strategic restraint is being applied at present. Having once been considered a ‘back-up’ option should the caliphate project fail in Syria or Iraq,38 Libya ceased to present the Islamic State with meaningful opportunities in 2016-2017 when its fighters were defeated in the cities of Benghazi and Sirte and forced to go to ground in the southern desert region of Fezzan.39
Contrary to what some claimed in the months since the last vestiges of the territorial caliphate in Syria were liberated in 2019, the Islamic State is far from defeated. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where for several (but not all) affiliated groups there has been a marked upward curve of claimed cumulative attacks and casualties. (See Figures 6 and 7.)
The above assessment contends that this dynamic is especially clear in northeast Nigeria and the surrounding region, where ISWAP is engaging in operations that are increasingly audacious, staggeringly brutal, and worryingly akin to what ISIL, as it was known at the time, was doing in Syria in early 2014.h Moreover, while IS-SP’s operations are generally less lethal than those of ISWAP, they are almost as regular and showed no signs of abating through the first half of 2020. While the IS-CAP’s efforts to agitate in Mozambique and the DRC are currently occurring at a lower tempo than its West African counterparts, the strategic threat posed by its network in the region is increasingly undeniable.i And that is not to mention the collective capabilities of the Islamic State’s affiliates in North and East Africa, which, while they are—for the time being at least—less intense and lower impact than what is occurring in West and Central Africa, suggest they remain a persistent, albeit more limited, strategic challenge.
As the second half of 2020 unfolds, it is critical that military and counterterrorism policymakers recognize what is at stake in Africa. The Islamic State is not just fighting a low-grade insurgency on the continent; in at least two countries, it has been able to seize and hold territory and subsequently engage in pseudo-state activities.40 In Nigeria, for example, ISWAP is known to have major presence in the town of Baga, a place that, per the official Nigerian government line, was recaptured in January 2019.41 However, after the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum was attacked in July 2020, it was revealed that the Nigerian soldiers were present only in a local military base.42 Similarly, in Mozambique, IS-CAP is gaining more strength by the month. In March 2020, it managed to take over two towns in Cabo Delgado Province in just 48 hours, a clear sign that it enjoys more than just a foothold in the area.43 This became even clearer in August 2020, when the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, with its population of over 100,000, was seized by IS-CAP after days of clashes with Mozambican soldiers.44 In the Sinai Peninsula, the situation is similarly troubling. In July 2020, IS-SP attacked, seized, and held onto four villages near the city of Bir al-Abd in the north of Sinai Governorate.45 In late August 2020, after a weeks-long standoff with the Egyptian military, IS-SP remained in control of at least two of the villages.46 Notwithstanding the fact that this area is relatively small, the fact that the Islamic State currently controls it should not be undervalued, as it could easily serve as either a staging area for other attacks, a safe zone for it to fall back on, or a place to indoctrinate locals in the ideology of the group—if not all three of these options.
On account of the persistent threat posed by these three African wilayat—not to mention the relatively stable presence of the Islamic State’s affiliates elsewhere on the continent—it is paramount that strategic policymakers and military practitioners consider the threat posed by the Islamic State in Africa as a priority, not just a sideshow of the activities of its remnants in Iraq and Syria. CTC
Tomasz Rolbiecki is an undergraduate student at the University of Gdansk. Follow @TomaszRolbiecki
Pieter Van Ostaeyen is a historian, Arabist, and Ph.D. student at the University of Leuven (Belgium). He is a visiting fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels and member of the editorial board at ICCT The Hague. He is the author of Van Kruistochten tot Kalifaat (2015) and Staat van Terreur. De Jihadistische Revolutie (2016). Follow @p_vanostaeyen
Dr. Charlie Winter is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and an associate fellow at International Centre for Counter Terrorism. He is co-author of The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement. Follow @charliewinter
© 2020 Tomasz Rolbiecki, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Charlie Winter
[a] Note that while Tunisia was one of the first territories outside of Syria and Iraq in which the Islamic State claimed to have an official presence, the organization has so far refrained from establishing a province there. The reasons for this are unclear.
[b] The authors draw on two datasets rather than one because the Al Naba dataset covers a significantly longer period of time and is, consequently, more up to date. The Nashir dataset, while smaller, is more detailed and therefore allows for a much higher degree of analytical granularity. In working with these complementary datasets, it builds on other recent scholarship on the Islamic State in Africa like Jacob Zenn, “ISIS in Africa: The caliphate’s next frontier,” Center for Global Policy, May 26, 2020, and Wassim Nasr, “ISIS in Africa: The end of the ‘Sahel exception,’” Center for Global Policy, June 2, 2020.
[c] Figures 6 and 7 are derived solely from the Al Naba dataset and contain no data from the Nashir dataset. But, as Figure 1 indicates, there is a high degree of correlation between the Al Naba dataset and the Nashir dataset. This suggests that, notwithstanding the fact that Al Naba usually reports a higher number of attacks than Nashir, the statistics it quotes are grounded in more than just rhetoric.
[d] It is worth noting that this stream of data was not affected by Europol’s joint action to disrupt Islamic State networks on Telegram in November 2019. While the Islamic State supporter ecosystem was left severely depleted by those actions, the Nashir News Agency’s ability to provide a continuous flow of Islamic State news and propaganda was left unimpeded. For more on the Europol action, see Amarnath Amarasingam, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with an Official at Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit,” CTC Sentinel 13:2 (2020). For more on how Telegram is used by VEOs and their supporters in the West, see Bennett Clifford and Helen Powell, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-speaking Islamic State ecosystem on Telegram,” GWU Program on Extremism, June 2019.
[e] However, in March 2019, prior to al-Baghdadi’s acceptance of the pledge, the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan published a photo of seven fighters, titled “Soldiers of the Caliphate in Burkina Faso.” This was the first indication of a possible integration of ISGS into the Islamic State’s structure. See Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “The End of the Sahelian Anomaly: How the Global Conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida Finally Came to West Africa,” CTC Sentinel 13:7 (2020).
[f] The footage from the Tongo Tongo ambush was later used in the Islamic State’s propaganda release. See Islamic State, “Then It Will Be For Them A [Source Of] Regret – Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah,” via Jihadology, January 10, 2020.
[g] Although, technically speaking, the Sinai Peninsula is part of Asia, the authors are including it in the current analysis because Egypt is an African country.
[h] Consider, for example, two of the attacks ISWAP conducted in the space of just four days in June 2020. In the first, which took place on June 9, it raided a village near the city of Gubio (as mentioned above), killing dozens of civilian non-combatants. In the second attack, which occurred on June 13, it assaulted the city of Monguno, seizing control of large swathes of it for a period of a few hours. These are just two of the more than two dozen operations ISWAP reported in the month of June alone. See “Fighters kill dozens, raze village in Nigeria’s Borno state,” Al Jazeera, June 10, 2020, and ICRC, “Operational update on Monguno attack: 16 civilians evacuated to Maiduguri for surgical care,” reliefweb, June 15, 2020.
[i] This meant that by August 2020, it was capable of attacking, capturing, and holding the port of Mocímboa da Praia in northern Mozambique—a staggering achievement for an insurgency that only dates back as far as 2017. Jason Burke, “Mozambique army surrounds port held by Isis-linked insurgents,” Guardian, August 16, 2020.
 Eleanor Beevor, “ISIS militants pose growing threat across Africa,” IISS, June 2, 2020; Jeff Seldin, “Pushed to the brink again, Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate claims deadly attacks,” Voice of America, May 12, 2020.
 For an example infographic, see the second page of Islamic State, Al Naba #239, via Jihadology, June 18, 2020.
 For more on the role of the Central Media Diwan in reporting the activities of the Islamic State’s overseas territories, see Daniel Milton, Pulling Back the Curtain: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Media Organization (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018).
 For more on the Nashir News Agency, see Laura Smith, “Messaging app Telegram centrepiece of IS social media strategy,” BBC, June 5, 2017. For more on the Amaq News Agency, see Rukmini Callimachi, “A News Agency with Scoops Directly from ISIS, and a Veneer of Objectivity,” New York Times, January 15, 2016.
 See, for example, the 216th issue of Al Naba, in which the Islamic State reported 15 previously unclaimed attacks in Burkina Faso. Islamic State, “Harvest of Burkina Faso,” in Al Naba #216, via Jihadology, January 9, 2020.
 See, for example, the 164th issue of Al Naba, in which three separate locations are reported (the Monguno-Mairari road, the Marte-Kirenawa road, and Damasak). In the Central Media Diwan statement dated to 30 Rabi al-Thani 1440 (January 6, 2019), they are reported together. Islamic State, Al Naba #162, via Jihadology, January 11, 2019.
 Sean O’Donnell, Steve Linick, and Ann Calvaresi Barr, “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General report to the United States Congress,” Department of Defense, May 11, 2020, p. 20.
 Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui, “Announcing a new amir and giving bay’ah to al-Baghdadi,” via Jihadology, May 13, 2015.
 For the recognition of Sahraoui’s pledge, see Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State recognizes oath of allegiance from jihadists in Mali,” FDD’s Long War Journal, October 31, 2016. The pledge was also recognized in Al Naba. Islamic State, Al Naba #53, via Jihadology, November 3, 2016. For the acceptance of the pledge by al-Baghdadi, see Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Hussayni al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi, “In the Hospitality of the Leader of the Faithful,” via Jihadology, April 29, 2019.
 Islamic State, “O mushrikin, did you think we would forget,” Al Naba #201, via Jihadology, October 26, 2019.
 For more on the “super camp” strategy, see Jacob Zenn, “The Humanitarian Dilemma Around the Military’s Super 21 Camp’ Strategy in Nigeria,” Council for Foreign Relations, September 5, 2019, and “Nigeria’s ‘super camp’ strategy questioned as Islamic State fills the void,” Africanews, September 16, 2019.
 Qualitative observation from authors’ dataset.
 Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State claims first attack in Mozambique,” FDD’s Long War Journal, June 4, 2019; Robert Postings, “Islamic State arrival in Mozambique further complicates Cabo Delgado violence,” Defense Post, June 13, 2019.
 For more on the emergence of the Islamic State’s network in Tunisia, see Aaron Zelin, “Not gonna be able to do it: al-Qaeda in Tunisia’s inability to take advantage of the Islamic State’s setbacks,” Perspectives on Terrorism 13:1 (2019).
 Aaron Y. Zelin, Your Sons Are at Your Service. Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), p. 174.
 Andrea Beccaro, “ISIS in Libya and beyond, 2014-2016,” Journal of North African Studies, March 29, 2020; Aidan Lewis, “Islamic State shifts to Libya’s desert valleys after Sirte defeat,” Reuters, February 10, 2017.
 “[The Egyptian military retakes three villages from Daesh in Sinai],” Khabar Masr, August 26, 2020.