Abstract: Although global attention toward the Islamic State has generally focused on the Middle East, the group is finding adherents throughout sub-Saharan Africa as well. Three “new” Islamic State affiliates have come to the fore: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the Islamic State in Somalia, and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. What commonalities do these three new Islamic State franchises in Africa have with one another? Where do they converge or diverge ideologically, operationally, and strategically, and more importantly, what might their presence mean in the future?

While recent news on the Islamic State centers on the siege of Mosul in Iraq, the group’s ideological hold in sub-Saharan Africa has been quietly growing, and not simply in relation to its well-known merger with Boko Haram. Indeed, over the past year-plus, three new Islamic State affiliatesa have gained prominence in sub-Saharan Africa. In West Africa, the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has gained prominence with a string of deadly attacks in September and October 2016. Simultaneously, across the continent, in the semi-autonomous northern Somali stretch of Puntland, a group known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) was recently the first Islamic State affiliate to hold territory in that county, while further south, another Islamic State affiliate known as the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU) has raised concerns.b

Besides their emergence at broadly similar times, this article examines the commonalities these three new Islamic State franchises in Africa have with one another as well as their convergences and divergences at the ideological, operational, and strategic levels. It also assesses what their presence could mean in the long-term.

Islamic State in Greater Sahara
The story of ISGS begins with the merging of two other jihadi groups: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Masked Men Brigade, which created a third group, al-Mourabitoun, in August 2013. Under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the infamous, one-eyed commander of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—al-Mourabitoun operated without any official affiliation for the first two years after its founding.1

Screen capture from October 2016 video of Murabitoun’s bay`a to the Islamic State 

However, in May 2015—and evidently taken with the pro-Islamic State tide during its brighter times of mid-2015 (the month the Islamic State took over both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria)—Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui, then a senior leader within al-Mourabitoun, issued a pledge of bay`a to the Islamic State. For his part, Belmokhtar rejected that pledge, emphasizing that Sahraoui’s bay`a was made as an individual pledge, and not on behalf of al-Mourabitoun as a group. An internecine battle within al-Mourabitoun ensued between Belmokhtar’s pro-AQIM factionc and Sahraoui’s pro-Islamic State faction. Reports suggest that the battle may have actually been physical.2 Shortly thereafter, Sahraoui and other pro-Islamic State members of al-Mourabitoun defected, forming the Islamic State in Mali, which has now become the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.3 Despite Sahraoui’s defection, his group’s May 2015 pledge to the Islamic State went unanswered. ISGS seemingly fell dormant.

However, in late 2016, the group showed itself to be far from defunct. In the last quarter of 2016, it carried out three notable attacksd near the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The first attack occurred on the nights of September 1-2, 2016, when ISGS targeted a gendarmerie in Burkina Faso near the Nigerien border and killed two guards. The second occurred about a month later on October 12. The group attacked a police outpost in Intoum, Burkina Faso, just kilometers from the Mali border, which killed three police. The third, and certainly most sophisticated, was ISGS’ orchestration of an attempted jailbreak of the high-security Koutoukale Prison in Niamey, Niger, on October 17, 2016. Though guards ultimately fully repelled the attack—killing one assailant wearing a suicide vest—the attempted prison break was important in that the prison held suspected Boko Haram affiliates and other suspected Islamist militants from the Sahara and Sahel. Apart from these larger-scale attacks, ISGS has undertaken other criminal activities.e

It is perhaps no coincidence that just weeks after the third major attack, the Islamic State finally acknowledged the bay`a that ISGS had pledged nearly 17 months earlier in May 2015. Although the Islamic State is no longer in the habit of officially “accepting” bayat,f by virtue of the fact that it posted the video of Sahraoui’s pledge (which refers to his brigade as “al-Mourabitoun,” though the pro-al-Qa`ida Belmokhtar faction of that group still exists) on its Telegram channel on October 30, 2016, it has de facto accepted the pledge.4 Yet, despite the Islamic State’s acknowledgement of its pledge, ISGS has not been declared an official Islamic State wilayat, or province.

Though the question of why it took so long for the Islamic State to acknowledge ISGS’s bay`a has percolated in various outlets, three factors are likely at play. First, the newly proven capacity of ISGS to carry out deadly attacks, as highlighted by its two notable efforts in October 2016, signaled to the Islamic State that ISGS was more than just a nominal fighting force. Second, the Islamic State’s losses of land in Syria, Iraq, and Libya throughout 2016 have highlighted its vulnerabilities. Yet, because of its concomitant need to appear viable and expanding, ISGS was likely viewed as a welcome addition to forward that illusion.

Third, the Islamic State’s decision to recognize ISGS was likely simultaneously informed by the disarray plaguing its other affiliate in the region, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly (and to a degree, currently) known as Boko Haram. Since coming under the leadership of Abubakr Shekau in 2009, the group had always been aligned with al-Qa`ida. Yet, in March 2015, Shekau pledged bay`a to the Islamic State, which it accepted, transforming Boko Haram— at least nominally—into the first (and still only) sub-Saharan African Islamic State wilaya, known as Wilayat West Africa. Yet the marriage remained fraught. Shekau’s interpretation of takfirism, or the justifications by which Muslims can rightly be attacked in the orchestration of jihad, conflicted with that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.g Moreover, Shekau’s roguish and erratic demeanor, coupled with his general insubordination to al-Baghdadi also caused friction, reciprocated when at least eight letters that Shekau had sent to al-Baghdadi went unanswered.5

In light of these tensions, the Islamic State announced in August 2016 that Shekau had been replaced by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, believed to be the son of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf. For his part, Shekau rejected the change in leadership, asserting that he remained in charge of ISWAP/Boko Haram. Though he has remained largely silent since then, Shekau recently resurfaced in late December 2016, asserting that, contrary to statements from the Nigerian government, the group had not been driven from its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest.6

Presently, ISWAP has two factions: the al-Barnawi-led faction that controls territory in the Lake Chad Basin area in northern Borno state and the Shekau-led faction, which controls land in central and southern Borno state, including in the group’s historical stronghold of the Sambisa Forest. Since the split, though, distinguishing in a refined manner the nature of activities between the two factions remains difficult. What is clear, though, is that the Islamic State image in West Africa has been both burnished and tarnished. On one hand, it has shown itself capable of remaking the contours of ISWAP’s leadership. On the other, Shekau’s rejection of the change signals that the Islamic State is, in fact, not entirely omnipotent in its wilayat.

And yet, despite there being now two other Islamic State affiliates in the same broad, though not exact area of operation as ISGS, there has been little evidence that either of the ISWAP factions (Shekau’s or al-Barnawi’s) has actually had any interaction with the Islamic State’s newest faction in the region, ISGS.h Yet, given that cooperation between the Islamic State’s wilayat is rare—except between Iraq and Syria—the lack of coordination between ISGS and ISWAP is perhaps unsurprising.

The Islamic State in Somalia (Abnaa ul-Calipha)
The second relatively new Islamic State affiliate in sub-Saharan Africa is known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS). The group, which emerged in 2015 when it broke away from al-Shabaab, is led by Abdulqadir Mumin. Somali by birth, Mumin spent years in Sweden and the United Kingdom, gaining citizenship in the latter, where he earned a reputation as an extremist cleric. In 2010, he returned to Somalia to fight inside al-Shabaab. Once in Somalia, he was sent to the relatively remote northern Puntland region—distanced from al-Shabaab’s primary area of operation, much further south near Mogadishu—in 2012 to attract recruits. When his supervisor there, Mohamed Said Atom, surrendered to the Somali government in 2014, Mumin took control of the al-Shabaab-affiliated outpost.7

The Mumin-initiated defection leading to ISS began when the Islamic State launched a wide-ranging social media campaign attempting to convince al-Shabaab to switch allegiances from al-Qa`ida to the Islamic State, making overtures to form Wilayat Somalia.8 Al-Shabaab leaders angrily refused, especially given that dissent in al-Shabaab’s ranks had been brewing for years—particularly in 2012 and 2013, under the leadership of Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane9—and the invitation from the Islamic State deepened fissures. In September 2015, Abu Ubaidah, the leader of al-Shabaab, sent out an internal memo stating that not only did his group reject the Islamic State’s overtures and pledged to remain loyal to al-Qa`ida, but it would kill its own members and members of the Islamic State if they promoted the split.i

Back in Puntland, and serving as a relatively autonomous al-Shabaab commander in the Galaga mountains, Mumin began to consider himself the commander of a separate entity, despite having no battlefield experience. Feeling physically and increasingly ideologically distanced from al-Shabaab, Mumin pledged bay`a to al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State in October 2015. That same month, he began recruiting soldiers in the Galaga hills area, especially among members of villages who have felt aggrieved by the government of Puntland. Though interviews with early defectors suggest that Mumin’s pro-Islamic State contingent originally had as few as 20 followers, it is now believed that the group has between 100 and 200 fighters. Importantly, the Islamic State has not officially acknowledged Mumin’s pledge of bay`a, nor is ISS an official wilaya.10

Nevertheless, operationally, ISS has arguably been the most powerful of the new Islamic State affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa. On October 26, 2016, approximately 50 members of ISS seized the port town of Qandala in the Bari region of Puntland, making the town the first territory the Islamic State has held inside Somalia. This was particularly worrisome as Qandala’s location would have given the group port access on the Gulf of Aden and potentially afforded it proximity to linkages with Yemen. As of late December 2016, however, Qandala is reported to have completely fallen to Somali maritime forces.11 Regardless, ISS’s holding of the town, even for a short time, could be interpreted as an important symbolic victory for the group.

Beyond simply denying the Puntland Islamic State affiliates physical land, security forces inside Puntland are pushing back. A court in Puntland sentenced two locals to death for suspected links to the group in November 2016,12 and in December 2016, seven of its members were killed by Somali forces in the Bari region.13 For its part, an African Union-led meeting of security chiefs from around East Africa in early December 2016 took seriously the presence of the Islamic State in Somalia, noting that it was “aggressively seeking to establish its influence … in northeastern Somalia.”14

The Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (Jahba East Africa)
The third important, and even newer, Islamic State-affiliated group in sub-Saharan Africa is Jahba East Africa, which is also known as the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU). Like the Islamic State in Somalia, ISISSKTU is a splinter group of al-Shabaab. Jahba East Africa was reportedly initiated by Mohamed Abdi Ali,15 a medical intern from Kenya who, along with his wife, was subsequently arrested in May 2016 for plotting to spread anthrax in Kenya to match the scale of destruction of the 2013 Westgate Mall attacks.16 As the group’s name suggests, ISISSKTU counts among its ranks citizens from the aforementioned countries. Thus, given that the group is composed of East African citizens who had previously been part of al-Shabaab, ISISSKTU is thought to contain elements of al-Shabaab that were once described as that group’s “foreign fighters.” Like the Islamic State, Jahba East Africa emerged when fighters previously loyal to al-Shabaab sought to realign with the Islamic State. Jahba East Africa pledged bay`a to the Islamic State on April 8, 2016.17 To date, al-Baghdadi has not yet accepted.

Operationally, Jahba East Africa has proven to be more of an ideological threat than a physical one. Its most notable attack was on a convoy from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in April 2016, registering as the first time that an Islamic State affiliate had claimed an attack in Somalia.18 Beyond this, there have been scant other claims of violence. Instead, despite the attacks from al-Shabaab, Jahba East Africa continues to take a hard line against its former parent group, issuing statements such as one in July 2016 that claimed:

“Al-Shabaab has become stubborn, arrogant and refuses to accept the Khalifah. Today, Al-Shabaab ONLY jails and kills innocent Mujahideen from East Africa. Today, Al-Shabaab is weak, and everyday Mujahideen from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are leaving to join the Khalifah. Today, Al-Shabaab is in GREAT crisis.”19 

Finally, before proceeding to comparing the newly created affiliates, it should be noted that al-Shabaab’s leader in Kenya, Ahmad Iman Ali,20 also pledged bay`a to the Islamic State in September 2016, though an acknowledgment from the Islamic State has not been forthcoming.21 As observers have noted, it is unclear if this group will merge with one of the other pre-existing Islamic State affiliates in the Horn or attempt to stake its claim as a third Islamic State-driven center of power. Thus, counting the two Boko Haram/Islamic State in West Africa affiliates; the Islamic State in Greater Sahara; the Islamic State in Somalia; the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda; and now, the Islamic State in Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa now boasts at least six pro-Islamic State groups, only three of which were detailed in this piece.

Similarities and Differences between the Affiliates 
How then do these three newer and lesser-known sub-Saharan African pro-Islamic State groups compare to one another? All three demonstrate some degree of commonality. First, each emerged as breakaway groups when the leadership of their predecessor groups decided to remain loyal to al-Qa`ida. Moreover, all three groups emerged around the same time, in mid-2015, just as the Islamic State was exhibiting the height of its power. Third, none of the groups are particularly large, nor are they very well-understood.

Yet, there are indeed notable differences between the three Saharan and sub-Saharan African Islamic State affiliates. For one, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara might be thought to be slightly more institutionalized than those Islamic State affiliates in the East African region. This is the case for two reasons. First, it is the only one of the “new” Islamic State affiliates whose bay`a to the Islamic State has actually been acknowledged. Second, ISGS is the only one of these groups to have carried out multiple attacks. It is important to recall, however, that the Islamic State in Somalia is the only group to have held occupied (i.e. not desert) territory in the form of the town of Qandala—even though, as of this writing, it does not currently hold it—a fact that might encourage the Islamic State to accept its bay`a soon.

What does the current operational environment suggest for the future of these new Islamic State-affiliated groups in Africa? While speculative, it could be argued that as the Islamic State’s fortunes decline—with the likely fall of Mosul in 2017 and impending attack on the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa—so too might these groups’ loyalty to the Islamic State. Two options exist: if the Islamic State’s global fortunes decline significantly, the three aforementioned groups could just as easily reestablish an al-Qa`ida allegiance, or members could reintegrate themselves back into the “parent” group, theoretically leading to a contraction in the number of Islamist insurgencies on the continent. On the upside, given the small number of fighters in each of the three pro-Islamic State groups under discussion, there is seemingly little room to splinter further, unlike the much larger al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups that gave birth to them.

In light of this, what should we expect to be the nature of interaction between Islamic State-affiliated groups and al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups on the ground? Answers are mixed depending on the region. In the Horn, more conflict between Islamic State-affiliated groups and al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups seems likely. First, al-Qa`ida-affiliated al-Shabaab is already known to have attacked and killed many of its pro-Islamic State defectors. Second, it is not at all likely that al-Shabaab leadership will soon reverse course to support the Islamic State’s overtures. Conversely, in the Sahara and Sahel, antagonism between ISGS and other al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups in the Sahara and Sahel seems somewhat less likely given that there appears to be little bad blood between Sahouri’s ISGS and its parent group, Belmokhtar’s al-Qa`ida-affiliated al-Mourabitoun. Moreover, some analysts have interpreted the openness of Yahya Abu el Hamman Okacaha, the leader of al-Qa`ida’s Sahara branch, toward maintaining open lines of communication with Saharoui as evidence of potential cooperation between the two groups.22 More broadly, as C.I.A. Director John Brennan has suggested, it is potentially the case that the further afield groups move from the “heartland” of Syria and Iraq, the more likely that collaboration between Islamic State-affiliated groups and al-Qa`ida-affiliated groups might be.23

Finally, it is important to remember that despite the outcropping of these three “new” Islamic State-affiliated groups, none really rivals the major al-Qa`ida-aligned affiliates on the continent, which dominate in terms of number of groups, number of adherents per group, and length of time in operational area. Nor do such groups present any real challenges to either of the Islamic State-aligned Boko Haram factions. Nevertheless, with the uncertain future of the Islamic State globally, observers should stay vigilant about the current and future activities of these three new Islamic State affiliates, whose presence and activities seems likely to grow, at least in the short term.     CTC

Dr. Jason Warner is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an associate at the Combating Terrorism Center. He holds a Ph.D. in African Studies from Harvard University. Follow @warnjason

Substantive Notes
[a] It should be noted that although this article refers to these groups as “Islamic State affiliates,” this terminology is used in a colloquial (not technical) sense. Indeed, only one group, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, has actually received acknowledgment from Islamic State leaders, thus meeting the reciprocal requirements of a true “affiliate.” While the other two have pledged bay`a, the fact that Islamic State leaders have not accepted them suggests more tenuous links between the two groups. Nevertheless, after much consideration, the author believes that “affiliate” more accurately captures the relationships between the groups than alternatives such as “ally,” “sympathizer,” or “adherent.”

[b] Despite the fact that this article refers to these groups as the “Islamic State in X,” these nomenclatures are derivatives of Western media and analytical practices and not always reflective of the names by which the groups refer to themselves. Instead, when referring to themselves, the ISGS has previously called itself both “the Greater Sahara Division” and “al-Mourabitoun” (though a distinct branch from the Belmokhtar-led, al-Qa`ida-affiliated al-Mourabitoun that is contemporarily better known by that name); Boko Haram under Shekau has historically referred to itself as “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” “Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya,” and “Wilayat West Africa;” ISS has referred to itself as “Abnaa ul-Calipha;” and the ISISSKTU self-references as “Jahba East Africa.”

[c] After Sahraoui’s defection, the shura council of al-Mourabitoun declared Belmokhtar the new leader of the group in August 2015. Under his leadership, al-Mourabitoun has been firmly allied with al-Qa`ida.

[d] Despite these notable attacks, others have argued that ISGS has, in fact, carried out many other attacks without claiming responsibility. “West Africa Analysis: Islamic State recognizes ISGS as West African affiliate following increased attacks in recent months, despite 17 month silence,” Max Security, November 17, 2016.

[e] The group is believed to have kidnapped and to still be holding a Romanian national, abducted by Sahraoui’s contingent in Tambao, Burkina Faso in 2015, just before it officially split from Belmokhtar’s contingent of al-Mourabitoun. Moreover, ISGS seems to understand its area of operation to be quite wide, having issued threats, for example, against the United Nations in Western Sahara as well as civilians and other targets of the Moroccan state. Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State’s Sahara branch claims first attack in Burkina Faso,” Long War Journal, September 4, 2016.

[f] While the Islamic State has not released any statements declaring that it no longer officially accepts bay`a, the last one that it accepted was by the group now recognized as Wilayat al-Kavkaz on June 23, 2015, despite pledges from other potent Islamic State sympathizers.

[g] Indeed, although al-Baghdadi has his own interpretation of takfirism and has justified the circumstances under which Muslims can be killed, Shekau’s less nuanced vision, which broadly fails to offer a clear distinction between Christian and Muslim targets, was a point of contention. Freedom Ohuoha, “Split in ISIS-Aligned Boko Haram Group,” Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, October 27, 2016.

[h] Despite Shekau’s “ouster,” even his offshoot group seems not to have fully renounced its allegiances to the Islamic State. Given that both he and al-Barnawi seem to be in broad agreement that al-Baghdadi is the caliph—even after the split—this indeed signals some potential for reconciliation between the two factions. Freedom Ohuoha, “Split in ISIS-Aligned Boko Haram Group,” Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, October 27, 2016.

[i] For its part, the al-Shabaab internal security service, known as the amniyat, has been known to arrest its members who sympathize with ISS. Moreover, a senior official of al-Shabaab in the Middle Juba region of Somalia, who was known to be sympathetic to the al-Shabaab/Islamic State merger, was ambushed and killed by other al-Shabaab members. See Jason Warner, “Choosing Alliances, Creating Fissures: How the Emergence of ISIS in Africa Affects the Relationships Between Boko Haram, Al-Shebab, and Al-Qaeda,” OE Watch: Foreign News & Perspectives of the Operational Environment 6:10 (2016): pp. 54-56.

[1] “Al-Mourabitoun,” Counter Extremism Project, November 2016.

[2] “West Africa Analysis: Islamic State Recognizes ISGS as West African Affiliate Following Increased Attacks in Recent Months, Despite 17 Month Silence,” Max Security, November 17, 2016.

[3] Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State recognizes oath of allegiance from jihadists in Mali,” Long War Journal, October 31, 2016.

[4] Author communication, U.S. government analyst, 2016.

[5] Thomas Jocelyn, “Jihadists argue over leadership of Islamic State’s West Africa province,” Long War Journal, August 4, 2016.

[6] “Abubakar Shekau: Boko Haram has not been crushed,” Al Jazeera, December 29, 2016.

[7] “Who is this Islamic State’s Abdulqadir Mumin in Somalia,” The East African, September 2, 2016.

[8] For more on the social media campaign to convince al-Shabaab to switch allegiances, see Thomas Joscelyn, “Shabaab’s leadership fights Islamic State’s attempted expansion in East Africa,” Long War Journal, October 26, 2015.

[9] Christopher Anzalone, “The Resilience of al-Shabaab,” CTC Sentinel 9:4 (2016).

[10] Harun Maruf, “Somali Officials Vow to Retake Somali Town,” Voice of America, October 28, 2016.

[11] Abdulkadir Khalif, “Somalia: Islamic State Militants Lose Control of Somali Town,” The East African, December 7, 2016.

[12] “Puntland Sentences Two ‘ISIS’ Fighters to Death,” Somaliland Monitor, November 21, 2016.

[13] Connor Gaffey, “Somalia: Seven Militants Killed in First Military Clash with ISIS-Aligned Forces,” Newsweek, December 5, 2016.

[14] “Operational Conclusions: Fourth Meeting of the Heads of Intelligence and Security Services of the member countries of the Djibouti Process,” African Union Peace and Security, December 7, 2016.

[15] “Islamic State in Somalia – Islamic State Somalia / ISS / ISISS,” Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, 2016.

[16] “Kenya police ‘foil anthrax attack’ by ‘IS-linked group,’” BBC, May 4, 2016.

[17] William Watkinson, “ISIS expands as new jihadi group Jahba East Africa pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” IB Times, April 12, 2016.

[18] Sunguta West, “Jahba East Africa: Islamic State Alters the Dynamic of Somalia’s Conflict,” Terrorism Monitor 14:9 (2016).

[19] Aaron Y. Zelin, “New Statement from Jahba East Africa: ‘From the Heart of Jihad,’” posted on Jihadology, July 4, 2016.

[20] For more information, though dated, on Ali, see Bill Roggio, “Shabab names new leader of Kenyan branch,” Long War Journal, January 13, 2012.

[21] “Jahba East Africa (Islamic State / ISIS Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda / ISISSKTU),” Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, 2016.

[22] Jacob Zenn and Abdou Cisse, “How al-Qaeda will benefit from the Islamic State’s ‘Greater Sahara Province,’” Terrorism Monitor 15:1 (2017).

[23] For more, see Paul Cruickshank and Brian Dodwell, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with John Brennan, Director, CIA,” CTC Sentinel 9:9 (2016).

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