With the recent fall of ISIS’ capital, Raqqa, the most powerful, well-equipped jihadi force the world has ever seen is witnessing the crumbling of its self-declared caliphate. Although a welcome development, the group’s Middle Eastern collapse does not spell the end for ISIS. Instead, just as the group grew in the security vacuum of Syria, so a potent mix of ungoverned spaces, poverty, and a lack of opportunities for young people in many parts of Africa present a chance for ISIS to regroup, recruit, and launch large-scale attacks like the one on 14 October in Mogadishu.
Africa provides fertile ground for ISIS, whose leader announced at the end of 2016 that it had expanded and shifted its focus to the continent. Having propagated its ideology, the movement has active allies and affiliates sprouting up across Africa already. Boko Haram and a faction of al-Shabaab – groups that are masters of their topographies and can understand and exploit local grievances – have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Both movements also have a strong track record of being able to regroup in the face of defeat. The Nigerian Islamists previously governed a space the size of Wales but, having lost it to the Multinational Joint Task Force, changed their tactics and continued to unleash violence through guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab, which has lost much of its territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia, once again showed its horrific capabilities in the country’s capital earlier in the month.
What is more, ungoverned territory, weak institutions, and leaky borders make many African countries susceptible to violent extremism. Twenty-two of the 30 most fragile states are African. In many cases, a lack of skills, structures, and systems to reach communities at risk is not assisted by geography. Chad is bigger than France and Germany put together, Mali is four times the size of Italy, and Mauritania is double the area of Spain. These states also have porous borders, which mean groups can quickly export instability and extremism across neighbouring nations.
Another factor is demography. The average age on the continent is little more than 19. Africa’s young, restless populations, with little or no educational attainment and a lack of opportunities, are used as fodder by those looking to exploit sociopolitical grievances. Unless governments can provide jobs and livelihoods for young Africans, the continent’s youth will be easy targets of extremist groups.
ISIS has manpower, equipment, expertise, and money, while affiliates that have operated in Africa for years know their environments. This could provide for an explosive combination, in which the group uses its network of allies on the continent to capitalise on vulnerabilities and create safe havens from where it would continue to operate and bolster its presence. Africa may suffer more attacks like that in Mogadishu, while Western nations are at risk of a further wave of migration by those seeking safe new beginnings.
African governments, along with the international community, must act now to avert this calamity. In the short term, there is a pressing need to step up security to prevent jihadis flushed out of Iran and Syria and their weapons from pouring into Africa. Efforts must go into incapacitating ISIS partners on the continent so that groups cannot create alliances and merge forces.
But in the long run, policymakers and international actors should help African governments to strengthen their institutions. They must also work in partnership to address poverty and build sustainable economies and resilient communities, by investing in education and infrastructure and by creating jobs and opportunities. Not doing so risks allowing ISIS to create a new homeland.