Islamic State 2021
Possible Futures in North and West Africa
The Islamic State (referred to in this report as ISIL) has seen its prospects in North and West Africa grow increasingly dim since early 2015. ISIL has experienced significant losses in North Africa in the past year, especially in Libya, which was once ISIL’s most valuable territory outside of Syria and Iraq, and was home to the group’s unofficial African capital. Meanwhile, the Nigerian militant group popularly known as Boko Haram, which is ISIL’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), has experienced major internal schisms, as different factions vie for resources, compete for the attention of ISIL’s senior leadership, and renew longstanding personal, ideological and strategic disputes.
But despite these setbacks, ISIL continues to pose a threat to North and West Africa, and is capable of mounting high-profile terrorist attacks in the region and beyond. Additionally, continued political instability and conflict in countries like Mali and Libya could undermine counter-ISIL efforts, and provide the group an opportunity to rebuild its networks and mount a resurgence. Indeed, two recent occurrences — the reemergence of ISIL in northern Mali and the group’s temporary takeover of the town of Qandala in Puntland (a region in northeastern Somalia) — illustrate ISIL’s ability to exploit ungoverned spaces and fragile states. It is possible that ISIL’s global decline could also paradoxically help the group in North and West Africa, as state and non-state actors shift resources from combatting ISIL to other seemingly more urgent issues, giving ISIL the breathing room it needs to regenerate.
Several factors will have a fundamental impact on ISIL’s future trajectory in North and West Africa:
- The future of ISIL’s Sirte network: In order to survive and rebuild in North and West Africa, ISIL will likely need to preserve at least some of the militant infrastructure it developed during its year-plus in control of the Libyan city of Sirte. The Sirte network has been a key bridge between ISIL’s Syria-Iraq leadership and its African allies, and ISIL has relied heavily on the Sirte network to maintain its patronage of its provinces (as ISIL refers to its affiliates) in the region. While ISIL has lost its foothold in Sirte, the group may be able to preserve some of the jihadist apparatus that had ruled and administered the city.
- ISWAP’s organizational dynamics: ISWAP’s internal schisms threaten to cripple the group and weaken, if not sever, its ties to ISIL. The loss of its Nigerian province would be a major blow to ISIL’s expansion efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa, and would further tarnish the group’s brand. Conversely, if ISWAP remains in ISIL’s orbit, ISWAP could provide ISIL with a vehicle through which to expand its presence into other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Senegal and Mali.
- The resilience of ISIL in northern Mali: ISIL’s recent resurgence in northern Mali gives the group a new foothold at a time when it is struggling elsewhere in the region, and across the globe. But ISIL’s presence in Mali remains tenuous, as both regional and French security forces, as well as rival al-Qaeda militants, will likely target ISIL.
- Political stability in North Africa: ISIL’s prospects in North Africa hinge to a considerable extent on the future of the region’s politics, especially in Libya. Ongoing tensions between rival political and armed factions in Libya continue to threaten to escalate into a high-intensity civil conflict, with destabilizing effects for the rest of the region. Spillover from Libya would test Tunisia’s already fragile young democracy. Algeria’s political future is similarly uncertain, given the lack of a clear successor to the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Political turmoil could provide ISIL with the opening it needs to rebuild its flagging networks.
This section now outlines ISIL’s current capabilities and future prospects in each of the six countries/regions examined in this report.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His professional focus is on understanding how violent non-state actors (VNSAs) are transforming the world, and how states are in turn trying to adapt to this challenge.