Overshadowed for months by Russia’s war in Ukraine, the ever-present threat from Islamic State is again being thrust onto the global stage, with the United States voicing hope that it is not too late to prevent the terror group from turning yet another continent into a dangerous playground.
Officials from 85 countries and a handful of organizations, including the Arab League, NATO and Interpol, are in Marrakech, Morocco, this week for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’ first ministerial in Africa.
Co-hosted by Morocco and the U.S., the meeting will focus on “ways to sustain pressure on ISIS remnants globally,” according to a State Department statement issued Tuesday. But U.S. officials who spoke to VOA prior to Wednesday’s ministerial said that much of the focus will be on Africa, where the threat from Islamic State, also known to coalition members as ISIS, IS and Daesh, has been percolating.
“It’s a very serious threat,” said Doug Hoyt, the acting deputy envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. “We’re talking thousands [of fighters].”
“Most troubling is the ISIS affiliates that are currently active in the sub-Saharan continent because the numbers are extraordinary, and they have a lot of territory to play around with,” he said.
Growing West African presence
U.S. and Western military and counterterrorism officials have warned for years that the IS banner, if not the group’s ideology, has been catching on in parts of Africa, particularly West Africa.
The strongest and largest IS affiliate in Africa, according to many officials and intelligence shared with the United Nations, is IS-West Africa, based in Nigeria.
Having muscled out the area’s al-Qaida affiliate, Boko Haram, IS-West Africa is thought to have as many as 5,000 fighters across Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.
Another affiliate, IS-Greater Sahara, operates with as many as 1,000 fighters in Benin, Ghana and Togo.
And IS-Mozambique, buoyed by as many as 1,200 fighters from the local group known as Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a, is also growing, according to information provided to the U.N., building on notoriety from its brief capture of the key port of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020.
More recently, the U.S. has raised concerns about the ability of IS-Mozambique to access the international financial system through facilitators in South Africa.
Intelligence shared with the U.N. finds that other IS affiliates, while smaller, continue to hold on in countries such as Somalia, where IS fighters number in the low hundreds, and Yemen.
The terror group has also managed to maintain a foothold in Morocco and in Libya, where almost two-thirds of its members are thought to come from eight other African nations.
Yet aside from Libya, IS’ growth has been fueled by what Western officials describe as a sound and savvy strategy that continues to rely on locals.
“Governing in some of these territories is a challenge, and I don’t see it turning around,” the State Department’s Hoyt told VOA.
“What we’re seeing ISIS do is look at local grievances, start recruiting based on that, and suddenly, they’re (the recruits are) part of a greater caliphate,” he said.
“They’ve got the people and the populations to draw on locally,” Hoyt added, warning that “the numbers are getting bigger.”
The coalition’s desire to focus on the terror group’s spread across Africa is not new.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broached the idea in November 2019.
And last June, the coalition announced the formation of an African task force, noting the need for a “holistic approach” instead of one based primarily on leveraging military force.
Targeting Islamic State
Heading into the ministerial, U.S. officials were adamant that military force alone would not likely be effective.
“It’s not going to be military hardware, tanks,” Hoyt said, emphasizing that the coalition is applying lessons from efforts to defeat and degrade IS in Syria and Iraq. “We’re not going to get pulled into any local war or skirmish or anything like that.
“We are talking about civilian-led capacity building. That’s border security. That’s collection of biometric evidence. That’s information sharing. That’s a focus on the judicial processes,” he said.
U.S. officials also emphasized that the new efforts to counter IS’ growth across Africa will be designed to complement existing efforts by the coalition’s European partners and the various African nations themselves, including efforts in Nigeria, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There will also be a focus on growing the coalition.
Already, Benin is set to join the coalition’s 17 other African members, and others will be welcome even if they choose not to join.
“We’re looking at observers sometimes, partners that … can’t necessarily join the coalition for various reasons but that are key players,” said Dexter Ingram, acting director of the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“Look at a country like Mozambique,” Ingram told VOA. “Mozambique, basically, when it came to fatalities last year, it was in the top 10 worldwide when it comes to terrorist attacks. Well, they’re not part of the coalition, but we want to make sure that we’re talking with them — that they’re at our meeting to focus on Africa and have a seat at the table.”
And the sales pitch, especially in Africa, Ingram said, is that countering IS does not always have to be a heavy lift. Sometimes it just involves making use of capabilities that already exist.
“What we want to do is take information that’s low-hanging fruit and connect the dots,” he said. “If we get a fingerprint and it connects to a fingerprint off a bomb in Iraq or Mozambique or Mali, and that connects to a taxi driver in the U.K. [Britain] or in Prague, that’s a win.”