Growth of Islamic State in the Sahel Threatens Christian Communities

By Jay Church

03/29/2021 United States (International Christian Concern) – When an international coalition cornered Islamic State (IS) in Baghuz, a small town in eastern Syria, in early February 2019, it seemed at first glance that the radical Islamist group was on its last legs. In a sense, it was—after all, IS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria had fallen from the 40,000 square miles it controlled in late 2014 to a scant 1.5 square miles around Baghuz. And on March 23 coalition forces managed to wrest even that small territory from IS control, eliminating the last of IS’s territorial claims in the region and crippling IS operations in the process.

But now, two years after its defeat in Baghuz, IS has emerged as a significant threat to international peace and stability once more—this time in Africa.

The extent and depth of IS influence in the many regional conflicts plaguing Africa is sometimes debated, though there is consensus that IS presents a growing problem on the continent. In some instances, terror groups seem to follow patterns more aligned with al Qaeda than IS and occasional IS hesitancy to claim responsibility for attacks conducted by its affiliates suggests an emphasis on the authority of the local command structure rather than IS headquarters in the Middle East.

Regardless of the finer points of IS influence over African terror groups, it is clear that the threat of the IS in Africa is growing and, if allowed to metastasize further, will lead to widespread instability, deepened poverty, and significant loss of life across the continent.

Early History of the Islamic State in Africa

IS gained its first footing in Africa towards the end of 2014 when IS was at the peak of its influence in the Middle East. Beginning with the Algerian Jund al-Khilafa in September 2014, terror groups across north Africa were the first to pledge allegiance to IS. A group of fighters in Libya pledged allegiance to IS in October 2014, while groups in Egypt and Tunisia followed suit shortly after.

Today, there are many more affiliates all around Africa, including in Nigeria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique. Each affiliate presents a unique danger to the society where it operates, though none of them is as large or as deadly as IS’s affiliates in the Sahel.

Islamic State Influence in the Sahel

The disproportionate impact of the rising IS threat in Africa on Christian communities is nowhere as clear as in the Sahel. A variety of factors have led to years of violence and conflict in the area, a situation worsened by IS’s open goal of eradicating Christianity from their area of control.

The Sahel is home to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the largest IS affiliate in Africa. ISWAP, in northwest Nigeria, broke off from the Boko Haram terror group in August 2016. Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015 under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau—the formation of ISWAP as a separate entity came after Shekau refused to accept an IS command to transfer leadership of the group to Abu Musab al-Barnawi. ISWAP has grown in regional power and influence since the split.

A study of IS activity in the Sahel reveals two truths about IS activity in Africa.

First, the circumstances of ISWAP’s original formation show that IS headquarters in the Middle East gives direct orders to at least some of its affiliates in Africa—something that suggests authority and command rather than simple ideological alignment. Shekau’s refusal to follow IS’s command and his ability to keep much of his fighting force after ISWAP split off suggests that it has limited authority, but the fact that the command was given at all indicates that IS desires to control operations in Africa.

This level of control raises the concern that IS may use its African affiliates to orchestrate coordinated attacks across the continent. In one gruesome example of this danger, ISWAP released a video in 2019 in which its fighters slashed the throats of ten victims and shot another in revenge for the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A voice-over on the video states that the victims were all Christians, and that their death should serve as a warning for other Christians in the area.

“Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge,” the narrator says.

According to expert Abdulbasit Kassim via the New York Times, the killing was likely in response to a direct demand from IS headquarters and was released along with similar revenge videos from several other IS affiliates.

Second, terrorist activity in the Sahel indicates that IS and al-Qaeda are aligning, at least regionally, despite fighting each other in the Middle East. Such a union could be dangerous for the global fight against terror as it would mean the joining together of the world’s two most dangerous terrorist organizations.

Underscoring the danger of this alignment, ISWAP has had great success mimicking al Qaeda tactics even while taking direction from IS. In fact, many of its attacks on Christian communities can be attributed to its efforts to befriend and blend in with nearby Muslim communities rather than extort them like IS did. ISWAP even gives loans to young entrepreneurs and recruits fighters by providing infrastructure and social assistance to locals in need.

It is a technique stolen right out of the al-Qaeda playbook, and ISWAP is using it to grow into the largest IS affiliate in Africa. Writing for Foreign Policy, journalist Philip Obaji Jr. argues that ISWAP is using this technique to support Fulani herdsmen in their attacks on Christian farmers, where ISWAP views the farmer-herder conflict as “another opportunity to target Christians, who they view as a key obstacle to establishing an Islamic State in West Africa.”

Crafting an Effective International Response to the Islamic State

As IS continues to grow in strength and depth across Africa, the international community must consider its response . With terror expanding rapidly throughout the continent and the current response proving inadequate, the international community would do well to keep several things in mind.

First, there needs to be some kind of response, and it must grapple with the methods and means IS affiliates are using in Africa. Current engagement falls far short of the international response to IS in the Middle East. Ignoring the rise of IS in Africa now would be a critical error, as would ignoring IS’s stated goal of eradicating Christianity and western influence from the continent. IS is focused and committed—the international response to IS should be too.

Second, any effective response must involve a robust coalition capable of handing a dynamic, international enemy. IS in Africa is an amorphous entity comfortable with operating across borders and operating under a decentralized command structure. Any solitary attempt to quash IS will shift the problem elsewhere, ultimately making the problem worse.

The Christian communities that ISIS decimated in Iraq and Syria are still struggling to recover, even years later. IS may have failed to maintain its territory in the Middle East, but the impact of its temporary occupation are felt strongly to this day. The same fate could befall Africa’s Christian communities if the world chooses to not respond now as IS rises across the continent.

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