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“The Arc of Jihad”: The Ecosystem of Militancy in East, Central and Southern Africa

“The Arc of Jihad”: The Ecosystem of Militancy in East, Central and Southern Africa
1st November 2021 ICSR Team
In Reports

The full report can be accessed here. An overview of its findings can be found here.

Please read on for the Introduction.


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the launch of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in April 2019 to promote the presence of ISIS associated elements within Central, East, and Southern Africa.
US State Department, 10 March 2021

According to the Global Terrorism Database, terrorism has steadily been on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa since 2004. The years that followed saw the establishment of two notable al-Qaeda affiliates: the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the forerunner of al-Shabaab, in Somalia in 2006 and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007, based primarily between the borders of southern Algeria and northern Mali. Within a short period of time, the ICU and its predecessors had posed enough of a threat to draw the United States, Ethiopia and the region at large into a military intervention in Somalia.

By 2018, sub-Saharan Africa surpassed North Africa and the Middle East in terms of the number of casualties as a result of terrorist attacks perpetrated by militant Islamists. This shift coincided with the collapse of Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which led the group to begin making overtures for regional wilayats in Africa. In doing so, Islamic State (IS) had to contend with devoted al-Qaeda affiliates, which led to deadly clashes, but also was able to capitalise on emerging factions, aspiring IS insurgents and extremist networks.

Between 2015 and 2019, IS acquired four affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel: in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso the Islamic State in Greater Sahara; in Nigeria the Islamic State West African Province; in Somalia the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS); and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP). As a result, since 2015 the number of incidents involving battles with security forces, explosions and remote violence against civilians has been on a steady increase, with 2020 marking the deadliest year across the Sahel, West, Central and East Africa.

Somalia has historically been the focal point of Islamic extremism in East Africa. From the early al-Qaeda network in the 1990s to al-Shabaab in the present, East Africa and particularly Somalia have been central to the global jihadist movement, especially toal-Qaeda. Against the backdrop of IS incursions across the continent, Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2018 stated:

“Let us establish in East Africa a solid foundation for Islam and jihad, to support its Ummah everywhere, and to punish those who violate its sanctuaries and assault its sanctities … My brothers the mujahideen in East Africa! You must understand the great responsibility that lies upon your shoulders. You are not fighting a local war, but you are facing a campaign of the modern Crusader and its ally Israel, which endeavours to take control over the Horn of Africa and the head of the Nile, and to suffocate Islamic jihad in East Africa and the rest of the world.”

Nonetheless, the recent declaration of the establishment of formal IS affiliates in Central and East Africa comes as a surprise since neither the DRC nor Mozambique have strong links to the traditional Islamic world and because it breaks with the historical dominance of al-Qaeda in the region.

Aiming to reach a better understanding of IS’s incursion into sub-Saharan Africa and the international nature of the region’s militant networks, this report studies the militant Islamist ecosystem in East, Central and Southern Africa. Unpacking the historical and ideological trajectory of militant networks across borders in the region, it details the centrality of Somalia as the region’s hub for militancy, from where it has spread from country to country.

While the aim of this study is not to negate local factors contributing to the rise of Islamist insurgencies, it is prompted by the sudden rise of IS in the DRC and Mozambique leading to questions about the extent to which these insurgencies have been propelled by transnational factors.

Section one of the report introduces the methodology and framework to conceptualise our understanding of extremist networks within the context of affiliations and our research methodology. Section two analyses transnational factors that gave rise to emerging factions and extremist networks in East Africa. Section three critically addresses ongoing debates around what constitutes IS affiliates, as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Alhu-Sunna wa Jamma (ASwJ) controversially came to be recognised as groups by IS. Sections four and five look at the insurgencies in the DRC and Mozambique respectively, explaining their historical trajectories, international connections, affiliations with IS and how they are evolving militarily and in terms of their propaganda and operational capabilities. Finally, section six explores the evolution of extremist networks sympathetic to IS in South Africa and their involvement as one of the transnational factors contributing to the insurgency in Mozambique.

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