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‘Islamic State in Africa’ explores nine militant Islamist groups

This book takes a comprehensive look at the rise of Islamic State affiliates operating on the continent

For many African countries, violence linked to militant Islamist groups is a pressing security threat. These armed extremist groups amplify grievances and intercommunal differences to recruit new members and foster anti-government sentiments. Civilian communities often bear the brunt of this violence, as virtually none of these groups enjoy widespread popular support.

Militant Islamist violence in Africa reached new heights in 2021, sustaining a decade-long trend. But the pattern is not uniform across the continent. In North Africa, Mozambique and the Lake Chad basin — an area comprising parts of Nigeria, eastern Niger, Chad and Cameroon — violence declined in 2021. But militant Islamist violence in the Sahel — comprising parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger — nearly doubled.

Where are Islamic State groups active?

In “The Islamic State in Africa,” Jason Warner, Ryan O’Farrell, Héni Nsaibia and Ryan Cummings provide the first comprehensive account of nine African militant Islamist groups. Each group proclaims ties to the Islamic State. The authors ask why allegiance to the Islamic State has persisted in Africa despite the group’s decline in Iraq and Syria, particularly after the 2019 death of founding leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. To address this puzzle, the authors investigate the emergence and evolution of Islamic State groups in Africa.

Readers will learn about the group’s background before jumping deeper. Nine case studies offer a close look at Islamic State affiliates in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, the Lake Chad basin, the Sahel, Somalia, Congo and Mozambique. These cases explore the Islamic State affiliates’ varying trajectories. The group identifies its affiliates in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and Somalia as wilayat, or provinces, of the Islamic State. Other groups — the Sahel, Congo and Mozambique — are “wings” or “affiliates.” The Islamic State never accorded Islamist militants in Tunisia affiliate status, only referring to them abstractly as Jund al-Khalifa, or “soldiers of the caliphate.”

How do you analyze disparate groups?

Fitting these diverse cases into a single analytical framework poses a challenge. To do so, the authors identify three distinct historical periods related to when a particular group pledged allegiance, or bayah, to the Islamic State. They compare the groups’ activities before their pledge, then the period after a pledge was made but remained unacknowledged and, ultimately, the period after the Islamic State’s acknowledgment. The authors then deploy three separate analytic frames for each period to explore the groups vis-a-vis the Islamic State.

The terminology poses a challenge

At times, these concepts distract from the major contributions of the book. The first of those frames, “democratization of jihad,” requires the authors to address the confusing choice of democratization as a term. They explain that it’s not about a greater degree of democracy or decision-making power within groups. Instead, when the Islamic State emerged on the global scale, it presented an alternative for militant Islamist groups. Having two global Islamist militant networks with which to align themselves “democratized” jihad, according to the authors.

In some cases, this appears significant. In Algeria and Somalia, militants broke away from al-Qaeda to form an alternative. The narrative is less clear in other cases. Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example, followed a trajectory driven more by internal divides than global alliances.

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In the Sahel, there are already many different groups of aspiring Islamist militants. Elsewhere, including Mozambique and Congo, al-Qaeda is absent. In Libya and Tunisia, direct links and fighters’ experiences in Iraq and Syria appear to have influenced the decision to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State — as did the direct efforts by the group’s leaders to establish a province in Libya.

Given this variety of motivations, context and connections, it is unclear how “democratization” emerged as the best term to capture these dynamics. “Diversification” or “multiplication” might perhaps have offered a clearer picture.

“Affiliate utility validation,” a second frame, refers simply to how the Islamic State viewed the group pledging bayah to al-Baghdadi as contributing to Islamic State goals. However, Islamic State goals have shifted over time, causing perceptions to change concerning a specific group’s usefulness to the group’s cause. This allows the authors to identify a wide range of Islamic State justifications for acknowledging a group as an affiliate, depending on the strategic drivers at the time.

Are these local or global groups?

Are African Islamic extremists primarily acting locally? Or are they operating at the behest of larger global militant networks? The authors deploy their concept of “sovereign subordinates,” a third frame, to navigate this debate. They argue that Islamic State affiliates are subordinate to the group in principle, but each makes sovereign decisions over much of their activities and territories. The primacy of sovereignty puts the authors largely on the local side of this debate. Yet certain editorial and stylistic decisions obscure this position.

Perhaps the most glaring example is the book’s title, which conjures an image of a centralized and singular Islamic State coming to Africa, marking a new frontier in the global war on terror. This view risks mischaracterizing the groups — and ultimately, misdiagnosing effective policy prescriptions for those engaged in counterterrorism efforts.

The authors appear to realize this risk, arguing in the conclusion for the need to contextualize counterterror responses to local conditions. They state: “Nor, despite the focus of this book, do we advocate trying to address these particular affiliates primarily through the lens of their affiliation with the Islamic State.” One wonders, then, how the tacit promotion of the Islamic State lens might have an impact on efforts to reduce extremist violence.

Different audiences will appreciate this resource

Overall, the book offers a wealth of information, contributing a great deal to the scholarly body of work focused on militant Islamist groups in Africa. The laudable compendium of detailed case studies will appeal to anyone looking to explore these contexts. The organization of the volume is clear, offering opportunities for the book to be used in classrooms. The cases also will undoubtedly be of use to policymakers in Africa and beyond. This important book offers digestible accounts of militant Islamist groups and their African contexts — a complicated puzzle that may be unfamiliar to many in the general public.

Daniel Eizenga, PhD, is a research fellow with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, where his work focuses on militant Islamist groups in Africa. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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