IS continues to expand significantly in Sub-Saharan Africa
During the course of 2020, IS continued to grow its bases in sub-Saharan Africa with some of its branches increasingly claiming more attacks and casualties than the previous year. Concurrently, they ramped up its propaganda machine, targeting the wider African continent by promoting terrorist operations and declaring war on its traditional rivals in addition to other obvious targets including Christians and aid agencies. Our analysis of IS’ official media channels – al-Naba and Nashir News Agencies – in addition to other sources, IS attack claims have risen by a third in the Lake Chad Basin area, located in northeastern Nigeria, Chad and eastern Niger. Meanwhile, attack claims from IS’s so-called “Central Africa Province”, also referred to as “Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiyah – based in geographically separated northern Mozambique and the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo – have more than tripled. This branch also extended its reach into Tanzania in 2020. In the Sahel region – Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger – a downward trend in the frequency of claimed attacks against government and foreign forces was observed in 2020. This decrease was likely accounted in the emergence of an inter-jihadist conflict between IS elements with the local al-Qaeda affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
Lake Chad – ISWAP
Overall, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which is mainly active in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state, has maintained its operational tempo despite an apparent increase in Nigerian Army counter-insurgency operations yielding varying degrees of success. During the course of 2020, ISWAP claimed 978 casualties in 272 separate operations – a casualty figure more than a third higher than in 2019. These casualty figures have not been corroborated by official or media sources, though it is largely assessed that this figure may have been an exaggeration – a common occurrence by the group. This rise in activity comes despite efforts from local governments to stamp out IS and its local jihadist rival Boko Haram.
In April, the Nigerian, Chadian and Niger armies launched a joint operation against jihadists after a mass-casualty and high-profile attack on Boma island in Lake Chad, resulting in over a hundred Chadian soldiers killed. Following “Operation Wrath of Boma”, which was repeatedly mocked as a failure by ISWAP and wider IS-related media, the Nigerian military announced a new military strategy of massing troops in “super camps” ostensibly to better protect them from jihadist forces. The strategy, which was also derided by IS, has so far failed to rein in the violence.
The targets of ISWAP’s attacks have largely been local armed forces, several of which have had extremely high death tolls such an assault in March in Nigeria’s northeastern Yobe State that allegedly killed up to 100 soldiers. Another attack in Borno in June allegedly killed 90 government-backed militiamen. Mainstream media and official reports have corroborated the high casualties in both instances. In November and December IS claimed two boat bomb attacks against Chadian soldiers in Lake Chad, claiming the blasts killed killed scores of troops. These operations, such as those of the other African branches, have been heavily promoted by IS with front-page spreads in al-Naba dedicated to the affiliate’s alleged exploits.
The other main target of the group has been Christians and aid workers, with the group officially declaring war on humanitarian agencies in August. An October audio message from IS’s spokesman hammered in an anti-Christian message, accusing aid agencies in Africa of covertly seeking to convert poor Muslims. Over the past year ISWAP has claimed 15 attacks on Christians, Christian villages, churches and aid workers via its distinctive statements. The group has released several gruesome videos claiming to show the killing of abducted Christians and aid workers. ISWAP’s propaganda this year has also sought to flaunt its power and influence. The group has gloated about briefly taking over towns and published images of militants freely conducting religious outreach.
Sahel – ISGS
The other branch of IS’ “West Africa” province – based in the Sahel – experienced a downward trend in its claimed attacks against local and foreign troops during 2020. This branch, which is known in the media as the so-called “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara”, “ISGS”, or “Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya” has undoubtedly been sidetracked as a result of infighting with the al-Qaeda affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
ISGS, however, did belatedly claim many operations with high casualty counts, particularly against JNIM, via its weekly paper al-Naba – a media behaviour it also followed from the previous year. It should be noted that in 2019, it claimed – via the Nashir News Agency – 243 casualties in 18 attacks. Whilst in 2020, the group claimed 171 casualties in 13 attacks. Furthermore, IS media stopped issuing timely attack claims from the region in February, following a three-month burst in activity at the end of 2019 that saw IS militants carry out a string of devastating hit-and-run raids on remote military bases. The last of these raids took place in January in western Niger and killed at least 89 soldiers. The end of regular IS reporting from the Sahel coincided with the start of the conflict with JNIM in Mali and Burkina Faso. This may have been exacerbated by pre-existing communication challenges on the ground. Since then IS’s claims from the region have largely been confined to al-Naba, which has semi-regularly published lengthy round-ups of ISGS attacks against JNIM and French-backed regional forces. The articles have reported that up to 500 JNIM fighters have been killed in the jihadist infighting this year and claimed numerous largely low-level operations against French and local security forces.
Some of the major operations claimed via al-Naba, include an attack in western Niger that killed six French citizens and claims that IS militants have killed at least five French soldiers over the year in different incidents. At the same time, IS has continued to regularly promote ISGS’ impact in its propaganda. In January, during its unprecedented surge, a 30-minute video was released showing off combat footage from the base attacks. However much of this year’s media output has been dedicated to lashing out at JNIM.
A November interview in al-Naba with ISGS’s leader laid out a timeline of the conflict and reiterated charges that JNIM had “betrayed” a truce and that it has been colluding with the government. Prior to the start of the fighting, IS had been highly critical of JNIM holding talks with the Malian government that ultimately led to a prisoner swap in October. Al-Qaeda supporters and media groups online have accused IS of freezing its operations against local and foreign troops in the country to focus on fighting JNIM.
Central Africa – ISCA
The IS branch that has seen the most growth over the past year has been its so-called Central Africa province – also referred to as “Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiyah”, which operates in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and, more recently, Tanzania. Through their media channels, IS reported 355 casualties in 65 operations – more than triple the previous year’s toll of 94 deaths in 41 attacks in the three countries. IS claimed the majority of casualties in the DRC, but larger attacks in Mozambique.
The Mozambique-based militants gained international attention this year when they briefly seized the town of Mocimboa de Praia in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province in March. This branch has since claimed scores of attacks on the military, including allegedly downing a helicopter in April and a subsequent short-lived second takeover of Mocimboa de Praia in August. The branch also expanded its reach into southern Tanzania in October, weeks after it reported clashes with the Tanzanian military in Mozambique. Local media has pointed the finger at the militants for two massacres of around 50 villagers in April and November, but IS has not claimed responsibility for the incidents.
IS has been keen to flaunt the rapid rise of its Mozambique affiliate, which was only first announced in June 2019. In July 2020, an al-Naba editorial taunted Western countries backing Mozambique’s government. The group has also released footage of militants taking over a village in the region. Meanwhile, IS affiliates in the DRC remained active in the Nord Kivu province near the border with Uganda – a region that is home to several rebel groups, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). IS’s biggest attack in the DRC this year was in October when the group claimed responsibility for the jail break in Beni city that led to the escape of over 1,000 prisoners. Authorities have blamed that incident and many others in DRC on the ADF; however, local source reporting firmly attributed the attack to ISCA. Meanwhile, ISCA also claimed eight attacks on Christians and their villages over 2020, including an attack in November that killed 21 people in the Beni region.