When Jund al-Khilafa, or the “Soldiers of the Caliphate,” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Algeria in September 2014, the first African Islamic State affiliate was born. One month later, in October, the Shura Youth Council, a band of 300 fighters in the city of Derna, Libya, comprised largely of Libyans who had fought in the Battar Brigade in Syria’s civil war, followed suit, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. From Nigeria to Somalia, Tunisia to Egypt, and Algeria to the Sahara, between 2014 and 2016, various other Islamic State ‘cells’ — either official wilayat or unofficial affiliated groups—emerged on the African continent.
While the presence of these cells has caused concerns in its own right, they have received more attention, at least in popular discourse, following the late 2017 collapse of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq after the liberation of Mosul. Still, with few exceptions, there has been little analysis of the strength of the Islamic State’s African cells from a comparative perspective. Leveraging a compilation of best available open-source estimations along with interviews with subject matter experts, this article puts forward the first-ever overview of the approximate number of fighters in various African Islamic State cells today.
Before delving into data, it bears asking: what accounts for the relative lack of comparative study of Islamic State cells in Africa? More acutely, why, despite the fact that some of these cells have existed for nearly four years, is so little known about fighter numbers? Several explanations can be offered. First, there is an overall scarcity of detailed open-source data on many—though not all—Islamic State cells in Africa. While much writing has been on done on the Islamic State in Libya and in Egypt (Sinai), as well as on the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (formerly Boko Haram), journalistic accounts of smaller Islamic State cells are rare, and existing work only occasionally reports on fighter numbers. While it can be surmised that more detailed estimates exist in classified spaces, data available to journalists, researchers, and academics is conjectural at best, and often relayed in the form of passing comments in written pieces or as broad estimates in press conferences by military spokespeople. Second, when open source accounts do provide estimates on numbers of fighters, there are methodological issues surrounding how these estimates were derived. In general, it is difficult to arrive at estimates, particularly for small groups, because fighter numbers are constantly changing in environments in which there is already poor information, and groups often try to prevent information about their sizes from becoming public. Thus, estimates may be derived from rough calculations of initial size, casualties, arrests, movements, size of the area of operation, or changes in the methods of operation. These estimates also often fail to disaggregate a cell’s active fighters from its non-fighting supporters.