Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the world’s deadliest terror group Daesh – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – died during a recent United States-led operation in north-western Syria.
Despite his death and the territorial losses of Daesh since 2015, the group’s franchises in Africa remain active and are a cause for concern. Affiliates of Daesh have adapted to the local dynamics on the continent and continue to challenge states in the Sahara, Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, Central and Eastern parts of Africa.
The continent is likely to remain a strong focus of the new Daesh leadership, given its strategic value to the group’s goal of ‘remaining and expanding’. This may signal an increase in activities in Africa, and expansion of influence and attacks.
Based on past trends, the rivalry between Daesh and al-Qaeda could also play out across the continent. This would be especially so if al-Qaeda could portray al-Baghdadi’s death as a victory for its side and re-attract individuals who left due to the Daesh caliphate’s temporary appeal.
Eliminating their leaders sets terror groups back, but isn’t a measure of success in the struggle against terrorism. Targeted killings of leaders should not outweigh the more important task of addressing root causes and enhancing counter-terrorism responses in affected countries.
Al-Baghdadi committed suicide when he reached the dead end of a tunnel while being chased by members of an elite group of US soldiers. The US welcomed the development as a milestone and US President Donald Trump declared that ‘the world is now a much safer place.’
Daesh may have suffered a blow but there is still a long way to go on the road towards more effective counter-terrorism. The suggestion of a safer world was unsurprisingly accompanied by doubts from US allies such as the United Kingdom, France and Japan. In the words of a former Daesh fighter interviewed in an Iraqi prison, ‘al-Baghdadi’s death makes no difference and the world is more dangerous than before.’
In Africa, Daesh affiliates abound with sympathisers from North Africa to the Sahel and from the Lake Chad Basin to the Horn. Daesh has lauded attacks in the north-eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Mozambique.
Notably in the Lake Chad Basin, Daesh propaganda has covered many attacks by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In March 2015, al-Baghdadi personally approved ISWAP’s pledge of allegiance and then recognised a leadership change when ISWAP split from Boko Haram. In late 2018 al-Baghdadi authorised ISWAP to execute one of the group’s leading figures, Mamman Nur. Daesh also recognised the pledge made by members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in October 2016.
Before al-Baghdadi’s death, Africa was already of high strategic importance and became a platform for Daesh’s expansion and rebuilding after its demise in Iraq and Syria. The continent’s significance was further demonstrated in the number of foreign terrorist fighters who travelled to Iraq and Syria – an estimated 10 000 from North Africa alone.
Africa has been a battleground for the rivalry between al-Qaeda and Daesh as each competes for spheres of influence. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may see an opportunity in the exit of al-Baghdadi, with whom he fundamentally disagreed over the approach to jihad and the realisation of a caliphate.
The question of a successor was settled days after al-Baghdadi’s death when Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was announced leader. Little is known about him but an audio message that followed the announcement reiterated that Daesh was now at the forefront of Europe and West Africa. This indicates the focus of the new leadership.
The targeted killings of key leaders are often accompanied by the idea that terror groups will diminish in capacity. But this strategy doesn’t prevent day-to-day operations and assaults by affiliates in Africa, nor will it address terrorism’s root causes. Meanwhile, in the short term, attacks persist. On 2 November, at least 53 soldiers and one civilian were killed in the Menaka region of Mali. Daesh claimed responsibility.
Terror groups have remained resilient despite the deaths of their leaders. In north-east Nigeria, when Boko Haram’s first leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed in 2009, it was thought that this could signal the end of the group. But his followers regrouped under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau.
Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 didn’t prevent the progression of the al-Qaeda franchise globally. In fact the following year, al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to the group. Similarly, the drone strike that killed former al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane in 2014 didn’t reduce the group’s influence or its ability to inspire more devastating attacks in the Horn of Africa.
Al-Baghdadi had a cult of personality. His followers are still heeding his call made in a video released in April to sustain the vicious campaign of violence in various countries. The physical caliphate no longer exists, but there is a virtual one defined by an ideology that transcends time and geographical space. Foreign fighters who joined al-Baghdadi’s caliphate have already been flowing back to countries in Africa, with Tunisia accounting for the highest number.
In the wake of al-Baghdadi’s death, African states need to cooperate with the Global Coalition Against Daesh to neutralise the threat posed by the group’s affiliates on the continent. Regional and global cooperation should be firmed up and intelligence strengthened. Criminal justice frameworks that address terror cases and ensure human rights must be improved.
Law enforcement agencies need the technological tools to detect, intercept and disrupt planned terror operations in a timely manner, and in compliance with international law. Last but not least, the socio-economic deprivation and governance challenges affecting communities must be remedied.
Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS and Martin Ewi, Regional Observatory Coordinator, ENACT, ISS
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