In 2020, the Islamic State changed tack on its branding efforts. After years of focusing its global media efforts on the activities of its enterprise in Syria and Iraq, last year saw the group shift focus onto its pursuits in Sub-Saharan Africa more than anywhere else. To be sure, it published more attack reports about the activities of its core in the Middle East (581 in Syria and 981 in Iraq, to be precise), but the lion’s share of its photo and video propaganda was devoted to the exploits of provincial franchises in the Lake Chad Basin and the Greater Sahara and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique. Given that it also claimed on average five times as many confirmed kills and casualties per attack in West and Central Africa as were reported from either Syria or Iraq, it would appear that the caliphate’s expanded presence in Africa is not just window dressing.
The role of the Islamic State’s central leadership in shaping activities in preexisting insurgencies from West Africa to East Asia is a subject of a healthy and worthwhile debate. Too often, the Islamic State’s claims to have established a global network of wilayat (literally, provinces) are taken uncritically. When the group says it has inaugurated a new province in a given country, the wilayah designation often ends up distorting said affiliate’s actual strategic trajectory and capabilities. For example, while its foothold in Nigeria is a well-established reality now, the situation is markedly less clear when it comes to its alleged activities in the DRC and Mozambique. Indeed, while some level of linkage between militants in these states and the central bureaucratic authority of the Islamic State is undeniable—consider for one the steady stream of imagery and reporting emerging from the DRC via its closed communications network —many observers have called into question the extent to which it should actually be considered a part of the Islamic State.