Between January and June this year, the Islamic State in West Africa carried out 305 attacks.
By Abdou Cissé
“A show of force” were the words of Wassim Nasr, France24 journalist and specialist in jihadist movements, to describe the July 5 raid of the Kujé prisons, at the gateway to Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria.
Late at night, insurgents of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) launched a “coordinated attack on three fronts” against the prison where jihadists had been incarcerated for more than a decade.
At the end of this very bold operation, which lasted 50 minutes according to the Islamic State propaganda agency, between 600 and 900 prisoners were released, among them leaders of the jihadist group in Nigeria.
The spokesman for the Nigerian correctional service, Umar Abubakar, acknowledged three deaths within the ranks of loyalist forces, two policemen and a prison guard.
According to Rida Lyammouri, senior researcher at the Moroccan think tank, Policy Center for the New South (PCNS), the raid, which is “the first claimed by the Islamic State (IS) in the capital and the most sophisticated outside its usual area of operations in the north-east” of Nigeria, is just one illustration of the meteoric rise of the jihadist group in Africa in recent years.
In June 2014, the “Caliphate” was proclaimed by Abu Mohamed Al Adnani, the then spokesman for the Islamic State.
The first African allegiances to this jihadist organisation led at the beginning by the Iraqi Abu Bakr al Baghdadi date from the same year, with the affiliation of “Jund al Khilafa” (Soldiers of the Caliphate) in Algeria, “Majlis Choura Chababal Islam” (Islamic Youth Advisory Council) in Libya and “Ansar Bait al Maqdis” (Supporters of Jerusalem) in Egypt.
The year 2015 marked the embrace of the jihadist movement in sub-Saharan Africa.
In May of that year, Abubakar Shekau, who took control of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria after the death of its founder in 2009, pledged his allegiance to the group.
In the Sahel, members of Al Murabitoune (The Almoravids), a jihadist group affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), decided to answer Al Baghdadi's call.
Surge of African provinces
With the loss of its territories in Syria and Iraq due to the intervention of an international coalition consisting mainly of France and the United States on the one hand, and Syria's allies such as Russia and Iran, on the other, against the jihadists, the Islamic State accentuated its policy of expansion towards other continents.
Thus, by 2019, a new province was being created in Central Africa.
In this region, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) from Uganda claimed their first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) under the Islamic State banner in April 2019.
Two months later, they were followed by “Ansar al Shabab” in the north of Mozambique, precisely in the province of Cabo Delgado.
From then on, the jihadist group's activities on the African continent soared.
“For the past three years, the official provinces of the Islamic State have been growing in strength, particularly in the Lake Chad and Sahel region,” explains Damien Ferré, director of Jihad Analytics, a company specialising in the analysis of global and cyber jihad.
“This was first visible at the media level with the group paying particular attention to operations in these two areas, notably via its weekly magazine +al-Naba+. For example, in 2021, +al-Naba+ devoted 28 out of 52 front pages to Africa, far ahead of Iraq, which remains the most active official province of the Islamic State,” Ferré adds in an interview with APA.
According to this specialist of the Islamic State, in terms of military operations, the number of attacks carried out by the group has increased tremendously over the past 36 months, particularly in Nigeria which has gradually witnessed the professionalization and the capacity of strikes of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISAW).
“But'', he says, ''this is also the case in the Sahel and Mozambique where the group has even managed to hold a town for several months.”
What about ADF?
“Between 2020 and 2022, activities linked to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) were reported outside the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly in Uganda, where they ordered several IED attacks, and in Rwanda, where a dozen people linked to the ADF who were preparing attacks in Kigali were arrested,” says Fiston Mahamba Wa Biondi, a Congolese journalist and specialist on this jihadist group.
He notes the professionalization of the group since its allegiance to the Islamic State.
“The ADF fighters have aligned themselves and have been active like other international movements during the Islamic State's calls to action. As part of this approach, the ADF carried out the biggest operation to release prisoners, including a hundred of their members,” Biondi says.
In Mozambique, the same logic is followed by Ansar Al Sharia, which, after the offensive of March 2021 that allowed it to occupy for a few days the port city of Palma, more than 2,000 kilometres north-east of Maputo, has emerged as a real threat to the security of that part of the country and to foreign investment in the hydrocarbon sector.
At first, the authorities did not want to call on foreign assistance to deal with the insurgents.
But they eventually changed their minds.
Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent troops to fight the jihadists.
This strategy paid off in the short term, as it allowed the town of Mocimboa da Praia, which had been controlled by the armed Islamists for a year, to be retaken.
But this did not put an end to the insurgency.
The jihadis have just returned to their favourite game: guerrilla warfare.
Retreating in the bush, they multiply attacks against civilians and only come into contact with the armed forces when they are sure to be victorious.
This capacity for resilience led to their being made a province in May 2022, after an offensive against the Mozambican army in Quiterajo, in the town of Macomia, 2,400 kilometres north-east of Maputo.
Until then, the group was attached to the Southern African province under the authority of the Congolese jihadist, Musa Baluku.
''What we can observe is that since then, there have been interesting changes. Not so much in terms of tactics and capabilities on the ground, but in terms of propaganda. In the month of June alone, there were twenty-two (22) claims, which is completely unprecedented for Mozambique,” a security source says.
The Sahelian branch of the Islamic State, which was until March 2022, a dismemberment of the West African province, has received the same treatment, covering at least three countries, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Despite the death of its emir, Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui, in an August 2021 operation by the French army in northeastern Mali, not far from the border with Niger, the jihadist group is attempting to resurface with a series of attacks against civilians and pro-government Tuareg movements.
On the night of 11-12 June, the town of Seytenga, in the province of Séno, 276 kilometres northeast of Ouagadougou, was the target of an attack attributed to Islamic State jihadists.
The official death toll was 79 civilians.
The gruesome attack also displaced more than 16,000 people within Burkina Faso.
Tributes and calls for “hijra”
The Islamic State in West Africa was responsible for 305 attacks from January to June 2022, according to a Jihad analytics count.
This makes the province the most active after Iraq, which has seen 337 attacks.
Until April, Nigeria was the most active province with a total of 162 attacks, ahead of Iraq by 38 points.
"For the first time in the history of the jihadist group, Iraq is no longer the country where the Islamic State claims the largest number of operations," Damien Ferré notes on Twitter.
These "performances" have earned the African jihadists tributes from their "brothers" in other provinces.
"It is possible that as a result there will be an increased number of foreign supporters of the EI trying to reach the African provinces...", he predicts.
There are already calls for this.
Vincent Foucher, a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), evokes the meaning of this theme in military Islam.
“It is a call to break away from normal society to join the true believers,” explains this specialist of the Islamic State in the Lake Chad region.
“The new leaders of the Islamic State must have understood that shifting the focus from Iraq and Syria in an official way would be beneficial for its presence in the whole world,” deciphers Tomasz Rolbiecki, an independent analyst who also works on the Lake Chad region.
“In my opinion, this has a double objective: to focus on Africa, which has a real potential for the development of the EI, particularly in areas where it is already active, and to ease the pressure on Syria, where the group is being hunted down and is waiting for better days to rebound,” Ferré adds.
But should these appeals be followed by effect as was the case in 2015 after the designation of Sirte, located 400 kilometres east of Tripoli, in Libya, as the third capital of the jihadist organization, after Mosul and Raqqa.
"The flows, if there are any, will be mainly regional and not necessarily as large as that," says Vincent Foucher, who nevertheless believes that "the rise of the African franchises of the EI is still laborious''.