In 2018, when the Islamic State began losing its “territorial caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s leadership knew that the organization would have to depend on external “provinces” (called wilayat) to keep its global project thriving. The provinces would launch attacks and remain loyal to ISIS, and ISIS could claim that that the “caliphate” might no longer be expanding, but it was remaining. With setbacks in Afghanistan and the Philippines, Africa emerged as the only continent where ISIS could operate like it did in Syria and Iraq during its heyday. So long as ISIS thrives in Africa, the dream of the global caliphate remains alive.
Not only can ISIS conduct sophisticated attacks in Africa, it also can occupy territories and overpower armies. Moreover, with rapidly increasing populations, historical narratives about reviving pre-colonial Islamic states, and challenges resulting from weak governance and security forces’ abuses, ISIS finds fertile ground on the continent. While foreign policy often focuses on geopolitical competition in Africa, especially between the United States and China, the emergence of the Islamic State as a power player on the continent – on top of al Qaeda’s presence there since as early as Osama bin Laden’s 1990s stay in Sudan – means the Islamic State will be a force that governments, armies, aid organizations, multinational corporations, and, of course, civilians will inevitably have to confront.