The Sahel to Mozambique: The Emerging Threat of ISIL in Africa

The Global War on Terrorism has been under a geographic transition that is culminating in a revamped African crisis in the Sahel and East. Emboldened Jihadist groups are increasingly borrowing the fighting tactics, training, and illicit financing of their Middle Eastern and Somalia based counterparts. The Islamic State has moved from the Syrian Civil war to Mozambique and the frontiers of Nigeria. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and Islamic State Central Africa (IS-CAP) are increasingly violent and threatening the expansion of their fights across the continent. The organizations are likewise playing on ethnic divides while incorporating long time rebel groups to take on Jihad for the Islamic State. The destabilization is a threat to international security and sets back critical human rights. With Nigeria in particular, media coverage has manufactured false narratives that have emboldened jihadist groups like Boko Haram. The BBC reported an increase since 2014 of female suicide bombers and kidnappings of both boys and girls after gaining international news coverage of gender-based violence for the kidnapping of the 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The short-lived hashtag “Bring back our girls” has thus, increased gender violence because such attacks are known to gain global attention, legitimizing the groups amongst other Jihadist networks. 

Legitimacy means an increase in financing that goes towards coordinated attacks and recruitment. Like Boko Haram and AQIM’s rapid growth and prestige amongst the global Jihadist network, IS-CAP is building regional power in East Africa. According to Amnesty International, in East Africa, Jihadist attacks by a group aligned with The Islamic State have increased by 300% since January 2020. The lack of global attention has allowed the ISIL group to exploit Mozambique’s governance and security weakness, including the first-ever Jihadist cross border raid into Tanzania. Since November, the ISIL East Africa offshoot has taken over a vital international port and has threatened the nation’s natural gas production and critical trade. The government reportedly could not resupply ammunition required to fight back against IS-CAP in the battle for control of Mocimboa da Praia port. The type of violence that is being carried out by ISIL, AQI, and Boko Haram has increased in coordination and lethality. 

The Jihadist group linked to ISIL and supported by IS-CAP in Mozambique have beheaded more than 50 people in a single attack on a football match in the province of Cabo Delgado in early November. A similar mass beheading occurred in April in another village in the same region. The attack comes after at least 30 civilians were killed through late September and early October, with 62 civilians kidnapped. ISIL has carried out dozens of attacks against Army barracks throughout the north and terrorist attacks in the country’s center. ISIL militants also captured Mocímboa da Praia’s district capital in August, with several failed joint offensives by Mozambique and the Tanzanian Army. Mocímboa da Praia is strategically vital as a major port city, 42km south of the town of Mute’s natural gas reserves. The insurgent movement has gained incredible traction with the first-ever over the border raid in Tanzania claimed by ISIL on October 21st. Since then, the Tanzania Army has sustained dozens of casualties. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 530,000 people have been internally displaced in Northern Mozambique since the insurgency started in 2017. Mozambique’s government has called for dire and immediate international assistance to combat the growing jihadist insurgent movement. The state has no capacity fight the emboldened Jihadist movement alone or to prevent the real threat of a regional spillover. 

As with Mozambique, Nigeria and the greater Sahel is facing a Jihadist insurgency that has increased in brutality, cohesion, and power outside of major urban centers. On November 29th, 2020, 110 farmers in the Northern Nigeria province of Borno were indiscriminately killed in an ambush attack claimed by Boko Haram. The farmers are from a local village that helped the Nigerian security forces capture a Boko Haram fighter; their regional leader cites the attack as a reprisal. Farmworkers in multiple states in Northern Nigeria have refused to work in the fields out of fear of another attack. This is causing a strain on the food supply in regions that are already under extreme pressure from COVID-19, malnutrition, and food insecurities brought on by mismanagement and corruption. Across the border in Mali, affiliated Islamist groups carried out a coordinated attack on multiple United Nations compounds and French military bases with indirect fires. Likewise, Boko Haram carried out a similar attack in March on Chadian troops in the Lake Chad region and on Nigerian Troops in Borno state in a preplanned and timed attack in two nations at the same time. An estimated 92 Chadian troops and 70 Nigerians were killed. Boko Haram has proven its ability to increase the number of coordinated attacks on multiple bases and multiple nations in a single timeframe while alluding or thwarting government responses. Since the peak of Boko Haram’s power in 2014-2015, the group of allied factions has continually overrun military outposts, targeted civilians, religious centers, and have executed NGO workers. Their ability to coordinate successful and sophisticated attacks has proven that they are rebounding as a threat to regional stability, states are losing the battle of attrition with the Jihadist groups, and they have found a way to manipulate international attention to achieve their goals. 

Both regions posses different solutions to defeating the Jihadist threat. Assistance to Mozambique should be in the form of an immediate deployment of a peace-keeping force from the African Union, supported by the United States and international partners. A multilateral force that is headed by African states would give legitimacy, while western support would call attention to the emerging global humanitarian crisis. Private military firms have contracts in Mozambique, such as The Russian-based company Wegner. Their contract has failed to bring security and is centered on protecting foreign natural gas companies, of which, Mozambique has the worlds fourth largest.. The threat of violence from Islamic State-linked organizations is centered on ethno-tribal attacks on communities and military outposts rather than multinational companies. Establishing Security for Mozambique is critical at this point before long term development or human rights programs can even be thought of. Unlike Nigeria, the nation does not have a robust network of companies extracting natural resources that can be used to fund counter-insurgency operations, the training of troops, or secure its borders from transnational

Jihadist movements from Central Africa and East Africa. The situation is exceptionally dire and will require a base level of security before any form of humanitarian aid or reform can be discussed. From 1989 to the present, peacekeeping missions have been reactive to great humanitarian crises such as genocide or the complete collapse of a state. Mozambique is heading in a collapsing direction, the world should respond before it comes to that point in which more lives are lost and the state becomes a success story that emobldens Jihadist networks across Africa. 

The Sahel differs from Mozambique because of military and economic ties with past colonial powers, France and England. Further the region is considered to be of great strategic importance to the EU, the United States, and China. The Issue of Corruption has severely limited their ability to drive economic growth, combat Islamist insurgencies, and provide essential goods and services for the local population. Governmental officials, the military, and police forces have little general trust amongst the population over the mismanagement of state resources and personal interactions. The corruption is at all levels of government, from the Ministers, the Inspector General of Police to the street cops demanding bribes. Theft of public money and forign aid resources remains the largest driver of insecurity. For the Sahel states to end systemic corruption, a civilian oversight committee with the power to investigate, prosecute, and terminate (firing) at federal, state, and local levels. The oversight bodies will be evenly represented by the communities they serve, such as ethnic (tribal), religious, gender, age, and language. Age (18-26) is essential for this policy to inspire youth involvement in politics and build future trust in governance. Voting and term limits should be used to prevent corruption culture within the civilian oversight bodies Term limits will also minimize corruption and individual or group power. The aid will require meaningful investigation and prosecutions of abuses committed by the military and police forces in the cities and rural areas. Additionally, the investigation and conviction of government employees involved with bribery and illegal siphoning of public funds and foreign aid should be carried out by independent monitors.


  • Aaron Minkoff

    Aaron Minkoff is an Army Veteran, University of California at Berkeley Alumni, and the senior editor for the George Washington University graduate student publication the International Affairs Review. Aaron holds a bachelor's degree in Global Studies peace and conflict with a regional focus of the Middle East. He is a graduate student at the Elliott School of Foreign Affairs with a major focus in Security Policy Studies. Aaron's awards include The President's Distinguished Scholar Award from West Valley College and the Army Combat Infantry Badge. He is also an Alumni of the Salzburg Austria Global Citizen seminar and a recipient of the Israeli-Palestine Perspectives trip.

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