Islamic State in Central and Southern Africa a Threat to Vulnerable Christian Populations

By Jay Church

04/08/2021 United States (International Christian Concern) –When the Islamic State (IS) found itself forced out of the Middle East in 2019, it quickly regrouped in Africa. Capitalizing on widespread economic woes and pockets of unrest and dissatisfaction, IS today has found new life as a catalyst for violence in Africa—violence that often involves or targets Christians simply for their faith.

Though IS’s rapid rise in Africa may surprise some, its targeting of Christians should not. IS has a long history of targeting Christian communities wherever it goes, whether in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or Africa. The founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a radical extremist who, in 2005, advocated “the killing of infidels by any method.”

Al-Zarqawi’s brutal methodology called for the death of anyone who did not align with his theological views—something that his organization carried out even after he died in 2006. IS is responsible for the displacement of millions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more as it carries out its jihadist mission around the world.

Unfortunately, the death toll keeps climbing as IS grows in size and influence across Africa. 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. Similar groups in Egypt and Tunisia followed suit shortly after.

Today, there are many more affiliates all around Africa, including in the central and southern parts of the continent. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique are home to two of these affiliates. Both have grown deadlier over the last several years, and both deserve not only studied attention but also a swift and devastating response by an international military coalition like that which took down IS in the Middle East.

Islamic State Influence in Central and Southern Africa

Analysts debate the exact contours of IS control over its affiliates in central and southern Africa. Some suggest that IS overstates its influence in the region and that its local affiliates operate with a great deal of autonomy and in the pursuit of local agendas rather than the establishment of the global caliphate sought by IS.

There is merit to this perspective—IS seems to be headquartered in the Middle East despite having lost its territory there, so its geographic removal from the conflicts in Africa likely creates a more local-centric command structure. Also, local strategies in some African affiliates suggest a connection to al-Qaeda, another terrorist group. In some instances, African affiliates have rebelled against direct commands from IS headquarters, suggesting that there are limits to IS control.

Still, IS is growing in Africa. Analysts believe that a new power-sharing structure is emerging between IS and al-Qaeda, its historical opponent. The combination of al-Qaeda techniques with IS extremism has proven possibly more lethal than either by itself. And though there have been isolated incidents of African affiliates refusing orders from IS headquarters, affiliates typically follow orders closely and IS regularly claims credit for affiliate attacks.

The exact timing of Islamic State Central Africa Province’s (IS-CAP) founding is unknown but IS’s leader confirmed its existence in August 2018—the year before the fall of IS in Syria in 2019. It has two main hubs in the region—in DRC and Mozambique—from which it launches attacks that have claimed thousands of civilian lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more in recent years.

The Impact of Islamic State on Christian Communities

Christian communities stand out among the others as a particular target of IS violence in Africa. In contrast to the Middle East, where Christianity has long been a small, persecuted minority, the majority of central and southern Africa’s population practices Christianity. Though less prevalent in the north, Christianity is practiced by 49% of the population continent-wide.

Christianity’s prevalence in the region makes it particularly repugnant to IS, which seeks to create a global Islamic caliphate at the expense of all other religious practices. In a statement after the recent attacks on the northern Mozambiquan town of Palma, IS boasted that its affiliate had killed dozens of security personnel—and Christians, including westerners from what the statement termed “Crusader nations.”

This rhetoric around the Palma attack is consistent with the IS mode of operation that emphasizes its desire to eradicate Christianity from its areas of control at all costs. While the eradication of Christianity is by no means the only motivation in these attacks—the attack in Palma struck perilously close to and shut down a gas plant run by the French energy giant Total, another target of local IS animus—IS considers the extermination of Christianity nonnegotiable.

General disaffection may be fueling IS activity in Africa today, but as IS grows across the continent IS will increasingly turn its attention to the destruction of Christians and their communities.

Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa has spoken out on the threat that IS poses to Christianity in Mozambique, where he served as head of the Pemba diocese for over six years before being reassigned in February. “It was an extremely searing experience, an experience of the cross, an experience of suffering,” he said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need.

IS’s local affiliate in Mozambique burned several chapels and attacked a catholic church in a spate of attacks over Holy Week in 2020. Militants attacked the church on Good Friday and killed 52 young people when they refused to join the militants, according to Lisboa. “To us they are true martyrs of peace because they would not agree to take part in the violence, in warfare, and that is the reason why they were murdered.”

Bishop Lisboa asked local missionaries to leave the area as the attacks increased. “[The militants] were starting to attack churches, and the violence was taking on a religious dimension,” he said. “I have to keep [the missionaries] safe.”

Crafting an Effective International Response to the Islamic State

So far, the international response to the threat posed by IS in Africa has been lackluster. The response falls well short of the overwhelming international response that finally ended IS’s territorial claims in the Middle East.

The threat posed by IS in Africa is real, but not the same as that posed several years ago by IS in the Middle East. There, the command structure was centralized, the land controlled by IS was concentrated in one area, and the local population was almost universally opposed to IS rule. In Africa, however, the command structure is fluid and decentralized. IS appears in isolated pockets seemingly at random throughout the continent. Many local affiliates have managed to win significant portions of the local population over to their side, complicating security operations.

There is even evidence to suggest that IS and al-Qaeda may have established some working relationship on the continent despite years of animosity in the Middle East. Such a union would mean the joining together of the world’s two most dangerous terrorist organizations. If an international response to IS in Africa is to be successful, it must consider IS’s new amorphous nature and act accordingly.

For interviews, please contact Alison Garcia: press@persecution.org.

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