Islamic State–affiliated insurgents staged multiple brutal attacks over three days this month in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, leaving about 50 civilians dead. Witnesses recounted how the extremists burned down homes and rounded up civilians in a soccer field to behead them. Insurgent violence in the oil-rich northern region since 2017 has killed more than 2,000 people and displaced more than 430,000 others. The local group, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, pledged alliance to the Islamic State Central African Province last year.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama is one of several Islamic State affiliates springing up across Africa, sparking concern among international counterterrorism groups. U.S. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the newly appointed special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, in his first address last week, said the coalition would use what it learned in Iraq and Syria to defeat the group’s growing influence in Africa. During the Nov. 10 session co-hosted by Nigeria, Sales said the coalition remains focused on preventing an Islamic State resurgence in the Middle East but called the growth of its affiliates in West Africa particularly alarming.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Sales as the new envoy after James Jeffrey resigned this month. The U.S.-led coalition of more than 80 partners has worked since 2014 to defeat Islamic State. Mauritania became its 83rd member last week.
Attacks associated with affiliates of the terror group have killed nearly 5,000 people in West Africa this year, up from 2,700 in all of 2017. The Islamic State West Africa Province, an offshoot of Boko Haram, continues to harass northeastern Nigeria, bleeding across the border into Chad and Niger. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has claimed responsibility for attacks in Burkina Faso, including an ambush that killed 20 soldiers last week. The group is also active in Mali and Niger, and the Islamic State in Somalia has operated in the country and the wider Horn of Africa region since 2015.
Homegrown Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram and other al-Qaeda affiliates also plague the continent. Sales said the region requires a response that goes beyond military force to curtail radicalization and recruitment, as well as foreign terrorist fighters and financing.
“We think it is important to quickly focus on specific, concrete efforts to help address aspects of the ISIS threat,” Sales said. “The counterterrorism capacities the coalition can help develop can be used to protect against any of those groups.”
Sales highlighted the coalition’s success in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Oct. 26 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pompeo hailed the coalition’s “great progress” and commitment to defeating Islamic State globally.
But killing extremist leaders is not a definite sign of victory, said Akinola Olojo, a senior researcher in the Lake Chad Basin program at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. He noted al-Qaeda and Boko Haram networks remain active despite the deaths of their founding leaders. He acknowledged that African countries would stand to benefit from lesson sharing and international cooperation, but whether it is effective depends on local governments and leaders.
“These plans have components that hold great potential but a lot of times the political will to implement policies and follow-through is lacking,” he said. “The real work or gamechanger must be inspired and owned by respective states.”