Days later, another band of Islamist armed men crashed through a famous giraffe nature park in Koure, Niger, just 56 km from the country’s capital. They fired from motorcycles and killed eight people, including six French humanitarian workers.
The two attacks on opposite sides of Africa are among the many violent episodes that are shaking the continent in what experts call a breakout year for extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida or the Islamic State. Less than two years after the fall of the Islamic State̵
At least three Islamist uprisings are rising over wide stretches of territory, from the Sinai desert to the scrub areas of the western Chad basin to the picturesque villages of the Indian Ocean and resort islands of the southeast. The spike in terrorist attacks reflects a steady, if less dramatic, rise in Islamist violence in parts of Syria and Iraq, driven by Islamic fighters who slipped away after the caliphate’s defeat and are now regrouped.
The resurgence threatens to undermine one facet of President Trump’s re-election to the electorate: his oft-repeated claim of victory over the Islamic State. While Trump presided over the final stages of the U.S.-led military campaign to destroy the physical caliphate, efforts to contain the group and its violent ideology are pending, according to current and former counter-terrorism officials and independent analysts.
The rise in violence comes as the Trump administration moves to cut US troop uses and threatens to limit support for local governments on the front lines in the fight against Islamist militants. The White House is considering steeper cuts in US military forces in Africa despite warnings from some analysts that the reduction could further hamper efforts to control extremist progress.
“ISIS is not dead,” said Robert Richer, the CIA’s deputy director of operations under the George W. Bush administration, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “We destroyed the caliphate, but they are now appearing in several places. Meanwhile, the worldwide coalition to fight ISIS no longer exists. ”
Trump has fought for his counter-terrorism successes at almost every campaign event, often with reference to the Islamic State in the past. “We wiped out 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Conference in August.
But other officials say the threat has simply shifted to new regions and different forms. In the 18 months since the fall of the Islamic State’s last Syrian stronghold, the group’s African subsidiaries have experienced dramatic gains in territory and recruits as well as in firepower, according to a study published in August in the CTC Sentinel, a magazine published by the Fighting Terror Center at West Point.
“Instead of an asymmetric, opportunistic uprising, a large number of warriors are attacking a large number of soldiers using weapons of a similar or larger caliber,” said Charlie Winter, senior researcher at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. at King’s College London, and a co-author of the study. “And they have shown a decent ability to maneuver.”
‘God of Jihad’
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump promised a quick and resounding defeat for the Islamic State. In rallies and interviews, he promised to “carpet-bomb” parts of Iraq and Syria that the militants had.
After his election, however, his White House advisers adopted with minor adjustments the strategy that had been in place by the Obama administration in 2014. Supported by a coalition in more than 80 countries, the United States provided air force and intelligence support to Iraqi troops and Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters who liberated terrorist-held cities one by one. About half of the caliphate’s land holdings – including parts of Mosul, the eastern capital of the Islamic State – had been liberated when Trump took office in 2017.
Trump’s prosecution of the war was praised by many counterterrorism experts, as was the administration’s efforts to find and kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up when they were beaten in a corner by US special forces in October 2019. The aggressive hunting for the leader also marked a continuation of tactics in place since the Bush administration’s last year.
“The biggest success story for us in the last dozen years is the way we created a leadership crisis in the global jihadist movement by effectively removing any senior leader,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and senior adviser to four U.S. presidents. . “We have become very good at what the world of counter-terrorism calls ‘beheading.’ ”
But while U.S. and allied forces tightened promises on Baghdadi’s supporters in Iraq and Syria, other White House policies undermined efforts to defeat violent Islamist militant ideology globally, according to Riedel and other counter-terrorism experts. Trump surprised his own security advisers by twice announcing – and then returning – a decision to unilaterally withdraw US forces from Syria and signal the abandonment of US-allied Kurdish fighters still fighting thousands of Islamic State militants fleeing, as the caliphate crumbled.
Meanwhile, Trump’s rhetoric against Islam and bans on Muslim immigrants gave the militants a propaganda gain that reinforced a “basic al-Qaeda message, which is that America is against Islam,” Riedel said.
“It’s coming back to haunt us,” Riedel said. “We may have made it very difficult for them to operate, but their message is still very, very strong, and we are not doing much to combat that message.”
Even before Baghdadi’s death, the Islamic State began to adapt to changing circumstances. Under the former leader, the group’s core followers in Iraq and Syria had begun to transition from a land-owning terrorist enclave to an underground uprising. In his latest video message, Baghdadi also symbolically sent the torch to the group’s “wilayats” or regional subsidiaries, signaling that they would now take on a more prominent role as leaders of the global movement.
But even Baghdadi could have been surprised at the strength that the group’s African offspring showed the year after his death.
Most striking is the growth of Islamist groups in West Africa, home to two affiliated Islamic states and an al-Qaeda branch that operates and often competes across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
While Islamist militants have been active in the region for years, the problem has worsened dramatically over the past two years. Violence in the region killed 4,825 people in 2019 – the highest in at least a decade, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that reports on such incidents around the world. By October, the number of accidents this year had risen to 5,365, which already ensured that 2020 would be far more deadly. State security forces killing civilians in the hunt for extremists have exacerbated bloodshed, human rights groups say.
Equally alarming, militants carry out attacks closer to major cities and drive into coastal states. In June, fighters with Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin – al-Qaeda’s branch known as JNIM – hit an army outpost at the northern border of Côte d’Ivoire, killing 14 soldiers in the country’s first major attack in four years.
Meanwhile, two different subsidiaries of the Islamic State – the Islamic State in West Africa and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – have jointly killed hundreds of government soldiers, claiming de facto control over remote areas of Niger and Nigeria’s northeastern Borno.
Extremists have even turned national parks into combat zones. In addition to the attack on the giraffe park in Niger, militants have ravaged through animal sanctuaries in Burkina Faso and forced farmers to give up their positions. The violence has forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes and destroyed or closed 3,600 schools, according to UN data.
Earlier this year, Islamic State and al-Qaeda groups in West Africa had shown signs of cooperating or at least falling into conflict as their supporters sought to cut off territory. The apparent detente has disappeared in recent months as groups increasingly view each other as rivals, analysts say.
“ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region are fighting the question: ‘Who can be the godfather of jihad in West Africa?’ Said a counter-terrorism official in North Africa who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak in public.
On the southeast coast of Africa, the emergence of a rebellion linked to the Islamic State has been just as dramatic. A group calling itself the Islamic State of the Central African Province has claimed responsibility for dozens of raids on towns and villages in northern Mozambique, including resort towns that are favorite places for international celebrities.
U.S. officials say the attack on Mocimboa da Praia in August involved a sophisticated, diverse military attack by well-armed Islamists that overran and outmaneuvered the local government garrison that abandoned the city and six weeks later had not yet returned.
The extremists have been able to exploit weaknesses in local governments that are ill-equipped to fight insurgencies that are well-armed and geographically dispersed. Traditionally, the United States has provided support to African counter-terrorism units, including military advisers and special operations forces.
In November, the US military began flying Reaper drones out of an air base in the Agadez desert region of Niger. Hundreds of American soldiers are working on the 17-acre facility, which took four years to build and cost approx. $ 110 million. The troops, along with local partners, focus largely on surveillance and intelligence missions.
“We are working with our African and international partners to address security threats in West Africa,” said AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend as the base opened. “The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”
Still, Pentagon officials acknowledge that they are now considering plans to withdraw from West Africa pending the results of an overseas attitude statement commissioned by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.
West African leaders and European allies have called on the United States to stay and say the intelligence and training provided by US troops is crucial to the fight against extremism. A downsizing would provide a “significant” blow to the effort, said a French military officer focusing on the Sahel, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In addition to weakening the fight against Islamists, the officer said, a withdrawal would mean the United States “will lose influence in Africa” at a time when China and Russia are rushing to fill the gap.
“Disconnection when the whole of West Africa is concerned,” he said, “will be perceived as disinterest.”