In March 2019, the Islamic State was declared defeated after it was routed by the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria.1 In the time that has elapsed since, the fallacy of this declaration of defeat was rendered apparent countless times—whether by mass-casualty terrorism or the Islamic State’s expansion into new lands.2 Indeed, by the summer of 2020, it had become resolutely clear that the Islamic State was a changed organization, but by no means a beaten one.
This has been most apparent on the continent of Africa. The Islamic State has had an active presence in north, west, and east Africa for years, but in 2019, the military potential of its affiliates there—especially in west and central Africa and the Sinai Peninsula—surpassed that of its residual core in the Levant. This is most starkly the case in northeastern Nigeria, where its supporters have been engaging in attacks that have exceeded the scale and complexity of those being deployed by their counterparts in Syria and Iraq for at least a year now.
Exploring the group’s insurgent prospects in Africa, this article makes an operational assessment of the Islamic State’s provincial and non-provincial affiliates on the continent based on two streams of data—the first, an 83-week aggregation of attack statistics published in the Islamic State newspaper Al Naba between December 28, 2018, and July 31, 2020; the second, an exhaustive collection of Africa-focused attack reports prepared and distributed by the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan in 2019 via an outlet called the Nashir News Agency. Through the lens of these data streams, the authors evaluate the geographic, tactical, and targeting characteristics of the Islamic State’s presence across Africa, identifying its key hotspots, emergent strongholds, and potential future trajectory.
The article proceeds as follows. After a brief discussion of the data collection and analysis methodology, the authors disaggregate the data by wilaya (province), focusing first on West Africa and the Sahel, before moving on to the Sinai Peninsula, Somalia, Central Africa, and Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria (which are considered collectively due to the comparatively low amount of Islamic State-reported activities in them).a For each location, the authors describe contemporary attack trends (based on the December 28, 2018, to July 31, 2020, Al Naba dataset), contextualize the recent history of the affiliate in question, and identify key operational dynamics (based on attack reports from 2019).
The conclusion considers the implications of this data in aggregate, holding that the Islamic State’s forays into Africa are no longer a sideshow to its operational core in Syria and Iraq. Rather, its brand as a globalized insurgency is dependent now more than ever on the military activities of its affiliates there.