Islamic State menace rising in Africa, experts warn

December 14, 2015, 4:31pm

A screen shot taken from a video released in October 2014 by the Nigerian Boko Haram shows Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatening Cameroon. Picture: AFP PHOTO  

AFP on Business Day Live

WASHINGTON — Two African extremist movements affiliated with the Islamic State group could become a major threat on the continent if they come together and boost co-operation, US experts warn.

For now, Libyan Islamist rebels that have proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State and Boko Haram in Nigeria have traded little more than praise over the internet, along with probably some fighters and weapons. Boko Haram has renamed itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (Iswap).

But if they changed gears they could be a true regional danger, the experts warned.

"They could decide that instead of fighting to achieve their immediate local objectives they decided to shift their focus and go after Western interests," said Michael Shurkin, a former CIA analyst and specialist on central Africa at the Rand Corporation.

"For instance, Boko Haram attacking the French soldiers of Barkhane, or the Americans in Cameroon," he added. The former refers to a French antiterrorist operation in the Sahel region of central Africa.

"We can easily imagine really terrible scenarios, but I don’t think we are there yet," he added.

"For instance the shift between Boko Haram and (the Islamic State) in West Africa looks like a rebranding, a marketing tool. But it could be a real transition to a kind of global jihad agenda," he said.

Movements that are geographically isolated can benefit greatly from adopting the initials, rhetoric and symbols of the most feared Islamist extremist group in the world.

The Islamic State has been able to hold broad swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, maintain an army, blow up a Russian airliner over Egypt and inspire attacks on civilians from Paris to London to California.

Mainly, it could enable the African groups to recruit foreign fighters seduced by the reputation of the Islamic State, said Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council.

The numbers are still tiny, but there are indications that the flow of fighters towards Africa has already begun, with two young French people arrested in November in Tunisia while trying to reach zones controlled by the Islamic State in Libya.

In the April edition of its magazine Dabiq, published online in English, the Islamic State calls on volunteers to consider joining Boko Haram "if you can’t join the caliphate", Mr Pham said.

Allegiance to the Islamic State had also allowed the Nigerian group, whose six-year insurgency has claimed 17,000 lives, to receive advice on military tactics. "The attacks are more co-ordinated," he said.

The latest Boko Haram videos were of professional quality and carried the insignia of the Islamic State, which boasted communications specialists who could put propaganda films worthy of Hollywood on the internet, Mr Pham added.

In Libya, groups that had professed loyalty to the Islamic State had expanded rapidly, going from 200 to 2,000 members over the past year, he added.

Their growing power, fuelled by the post-Gaddafi political and security chaos that exists in Libya, has European authorities worried to the extent they have started flying reconnaissance planes over their bases. Jacob Zenn, a specialist in jihadist groups for the Jamestown Foundation, said ties between Boko Haram and the Islamic State militants could soon evolve from the sphere of communications towards seeing Boko Haram people trained in Libya.

"If Libya becomes a hub to sub-Saharan Africa as Raqa is to other parts of the world, then in 2016 or 2017 Iswap could also carry out a new type of attacks in Nigeria or West Africa under the training and coordination of (the Islamic State) in Libya," he added. Raqa is the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria.

Like other experts, Mr Zenn believes that tighter control by Turkey of its border with Syria or setbacks for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq could encourage would-be global jihadists — who number in the thousands — to turn to Africa as a battlefront.