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Islamic State is expanding in Africa

African, Mozambique, Mocimboa da Praia, Guardian, Africa, Islamic State

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Islamic State is expanding in Africa

According to the latest media reports, Islamic State now has its first outpost in southern Africa after the capture of a key port in Mozambique. Commenting on the re-emergence of Islamic State, prominent counter-terrorism expert Robert Spencer said, “The desire to restore the caliphate is not discarded after setbacks. The service of Allah is not negated by setbacks. The jihad continues, and will continue, while the world yawns and tends to other matters”.

Mozambique has become the latest African stronghold of Islamic State (IS) after well-armed insurgents captured a strategic port in the north of the country.

Fighters affiliated to IS overran the port of Mocimboa da Praia after several days of fighting earlier this week. The town is now under Sharia law, according to The Times.

The latest reports say government troops are still battling to regain control of the town and hundreds of reinforcements have been rushed to the battle, the Guardian reported, on Sunday. Mercenaries from Russia and South Africa have also been in combat for the government, said the report.

The Mozambican defense minister, Jaime Neto, said that the extremists had infiltrated parts of the port and “attacked the town from the inside out, causing destruction, looting, and the murder of defenseless citizens”, according to a report from the local Zitamar news agency.

A conflict has been bubbling in the region for three years with local jihadists who align themselves with the Islamic State franchise – called the Islamic State Central Africa Province – growing in confidence and military strength. Since 2017, monitoring groups say more than 1,500 people have been killed and at least 250,000 displaced from their homes in the area, reports Al Jazeera.

Cabo Delgado is a Muslim majority province and the Islamic militants have been able to exploit local grievances and economic hardship to rally fighters around the IS flag. Almost 20% of Mozambique’s 32 million population are Muslims.

The loss of the town is a severe blow to impoverished Mozambique. It is in the gas-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado where energy giants, such as the French-owned Total, are planning to develop offshore gas projects worth up to $60 billion (R1 trillion), according to Al Jazeera.

Islamic State in the African continent

When Jund al-Khilafa, or the “Soldiers of the Caliphate,” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Algeria in September 2014, the first African Islamic State affiliate was born. One month later, in October, the Shura Youth Council, a band of 300 fighters in the city of Derna, Libya, comprised largely of Libyans who had fought in the Battar Brigade in Syria’s civil war, followed suit, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. From Nigeria to Somalia, Tunisia to Egypt, and Algeria to the Sahara, between 2014 and 2016, various other Islamic State ‘cells’—either official wilayat or unofficial affiliated groups—emerged on the African continent.

While the presence of these cells has caused concerns in its own right, they have received more attention, at least in popular discourse, following the late 2017 collapse of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq after the liberation of Mosul. Still, with few exceptions, there has been little analysis of the strength of the Islamic State’s African cells from a comparative perspective. Leveraging a compilation of best available open-source estimations along with interviews with subject matter experts, this article puts forward the first-ever overview of the approximate number of fighters in various African Islamic State cells today.

Before delving into data, it bears asking: what accounts for the relative lack of comparative study of Islamic State cells in Africa? More acutely, why, despite the fact that some of these cells have existed for nearly four years, is so little known about fighter numbers? Several explanations can be offered. First, there is an overall scarcity of detailed open-source data on many—though not all—Islamic State cells in Africa. While much writing has been on done on the Islamic State in Libya and in Egypt (Sinai), as well as on the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (formerly Boko Haram), journalistic accounts of smaller Islamic State cells are rare, and existing work only occasionally reports on fighter numbers. While it can be surmised that more detailed estimates exist in classified spaces, data available to journalists, researchers, and academics is conjectural at best, and often relayed in the form of passing comments in written pieces or as broad estimates in press conferences by military spokespeople, Second, when open source accounts do provide estimates on numbers of fighters, there are methodological issues surrounding how these estimates were derived. In general, it is difficult to arrive at estimates, particularly for small groups, because fighter numbers are constantly changing in environments in which there is already poor information, and groups often try to prevent information about their sizes from becoming public. Thus, estimates may be derived from rough calculations of initial size, casualties, arrests, movements, size of the area of operation, or changes in the methods of operation. These estimates also often fail to disaggregate a cell’s active fighters from its non-fighting supporters.

Bearing in mind these limitations, the authors gathered open-source information from news organizations, think-tanks, governments, and international organizations, identifying the minimum and maximum estimates of the number of fighters in various Islamic State cells for all months for which data was available, from an individual cell’s founding to the present (July 2018). Importantly, they attempted to present a representative “universe” of fighter estimates at various points in time, even if, occasionally, they were not wholly convinced that these estimates were accurate. The authors then conducted informal interviews with subject matter experts in order to formulate the best current estimate of fighter numbers. The estimates presented below are for Islamic State fighters involved in active fighting as opposed to individuals involved in non-kinetic operations, such as supporters, recruiters, financiers, or those living under the rule of an Islamic State affiliate.

The resulting estimates are tentative at best. Even for the intelligence-collection agencies of advanced nations like the United States, estimating numbers of fighters is notoriously difficult. Using only the open-source domain—and relying to a significant degree on the authors’ own judgments as subject matter specialists—means that these attempts are far more the result of an art than a science. Thus, given the data’s limitations and the challenges of drawing inferences about fighter numbers from a narrow set of indicators, this is only an incipient attempt at understanding the comparative threat of Islamic State cells in Africa.

The next-largest non-Islamic State-affiliated jihadi group is the coalition of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimi (JNIM) based in the Sahara, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s affiliate in Mali, which was estimated to have 800 active fighters in April 2018 by the U.S. Department of Defense, a figure in line with an estimate by subject matter expert Héni Nsaibia in early July.

Finally, though the group is now mostly defunct, it bears noting that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which was led by Joseph Kony, now has an estimated 100 fighters or fewer.

According to estimation, there are around six thousand Islamic State fighters spread across nine cells within the African continent, which themselves vary dramatically in size. The largest, the Islamic State West Africa Province (al-Barnawi group), has an estimated 3,500 jihadist fighters, while cells of the Islamic State in Algeria and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, each have fewer than 25 fighters.

Given the above, what does the future hold for the Islamic State’s fighter presence in Africa? The Islamic State West Africa Province is increasingly on the back foot with the more or less effective counterterrorism tactics undertaken by the Nigerian government and the Multinational Joint Task Force, and the Egyptian regime’s brutal counterterrorism tactics against the Islamic State in Sinai—which are now causing a humanitarian catastrophe, according to Human Rights Watch—likely will dissuade others from moving to join the Islamic State-Sinai.

In Libya, geography and the presence of rival militant organizations are oft-cited barriers to Islamic State expansion. The greatest opportunities for growth are in the smaller cells in Sub-Saharan Africa: namely, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara and the Islamic State in Somalia. Precisely because these cells are small and under-targeted, the presence of even dozens of additional fighters has the potential to engender significant proportional growth. Already, both ISGS and ISS have proven themselves to be capable of meaningful violence. With fewer than 200 fighters, the Islamic State in Somalia occupied the Somali port town of Qandala for nearly two months from October to December 2016, while just a handful of the Islamic State in Greater Sahara’s soldiers were responsible for the deaths of four US service members in the Tongo Tongo ambush in October 2017, marking the biggest U.S. military loss in Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1993 Black Hawk Down attack. However, while proportional growth may occur, neither of these cells is likely to match the Islamic West Africa Province or the Islamic State-Sinai in absolute fighter numbers.

In brief, the Islamic State is expanding its footage in the African continent with the notorious agenda of establishing the Caliphate. A similar jihadist expansion agenda is underway in Asia – more precisely in the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, while these jihadist groups have already established a strong foothold in the European nations – especially in Britain. To my understanding, radical Islam has already taken a monstrous shape in the United Kingdom while radical Muslims are gradually advancing towards establishing caliphate under the garb of Sharia rule.

An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow his on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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