Reports have emerged that up to 6,000 Africans who fought for the so-called Islamic State (IS) are making their way back to Africa after the group was forced out of territory previously held in Syria and Iraq. The threat posed by IS militants was raised on 11 December 2017 during a meeting on counter-terrorism organized by the African Union (AU) and Algeria. The AU’s top security official called on regional countries to prepare. The report comes as the G5 Sahel is launching operations in the West African region amidst an increase in terrorist activity in the past year.
Smaïl Chergui, the AU’s commissioner for peace and security, told the meeting “there are reports of 6,000 African fighters among the 30,000 foreign elements who joined this terrorist group in the Middle East.” He warned that African countries will need to work closely with one another to share intelligence in order to counter returning militants.
After IS seized vast swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, tens of thousands of foreigners joined the terrorist group. However, in the last year, IS has suffered a string of losses to both its territory and military capabilities. Earlier this month, Iraq declared that the country was had been liberated from IS’ control. In Syria, the terrorist group remains under pressure. The squeeze on IS in Iraq and Syria has sparked concerns that its remaining foreign fighters will return home to spread their ideology or conduct extremist actions.
Africa’s Fragile Security Situation
Africa’s security situation remains fragile as a number of countries are battling insurgencies led by major terrorist groups with links to al-Qaeda and IS. Continued insecurity in Libya and Mali, along with insurgencies in Somalia and Nigeria, have transformed areas of the continent into breeding grounds for jihadi activity – resulting in regional instability. Fighters with weaponry are able to move with relative ease through the porous borders. These regional conflicts have also spilled across borders, and have begun to impact stable nations.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s nine-year insurgency has continued, despite the Nigerian government’s announcements on numerous occasions that the terrorist group has been defeated. Although the number of attacks in the northeastern region of the country has significantly declined in the last year, and Boko Haram no longer controls major areas, suicide bombings continue to target mosques, markets and other soft targets. The Far North region of Cameroon and the southern Diffa region of Niger have been impacted by Boko Haram violence. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has remained active, and in October the group launched their deadliest attack – a truck bombing in the capital Mogadishu that killed over 500 people. The United States has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting senior al-Shabaab commanders this year, however the central government in Mogadishu has minimal control outside the capital. Al-Shabaab has continued to launch attacks near the border regions with Kenya.
In West Africa, the continued situation in Mali has increasingly impacted security across the region. Fighting has spilled as terror groups launch attacks in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Niger. In 2015, at least 81 incidents of terrorism were reported in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, with most incidents occurring in Mali. In 2016, this figure decreased slightly to 70 incidents, yet regional terrorist groups proved their operational capabilities by launching a major attack in Grand Bassam Ivory Coast in March of that year. In 2017, the number of terrorist incidents has nearly doubled from 2016, with at least 132 attacks reported as of 15 December. Furthermore, the northern Sahel region in Burkina Faso has seen a sharp rise in extremist activity this year, as terrorist groups operating in the area increasingly target local communities.
2015 – 81 Terrorist Incidents reported; most activity occurring in Mali
2016 – 70 terrorist incidents reported. While activity slightly declined, groups are becoming bolder, launching major attacks in countries not previously threatened by terrorism, like Ivory Coast
2017 – 132 incidents reported as of 15 December, with a major expansion of reported incidents in the southern region of Mali, northern area of Burkina Faso, and western Niger.
The African continent is now under increased threat from a battle between IS and al-Qaeda, as both terror groups seek to gain influence in the region. This battle has already begun; IS aims to find new territory after suffering major losses in Iraq and Syria, and al-Qaeda aims to secure its future on the African continent by expanding its operations into countries previously unaffected by terror, and forming alliances in the sub-Saharan region.
IS influence on the African continent has increased in recent years – Boko Haram has split, with one faction continuing under the al-Qaeda banner and another pledging allegiance to IS. Similarly in Somalia, a small group of IS fighters have emerged and launched attacks in the Puntland region, though officials have indicated that their influence remains minimal. Al-Qaeda has also sought to expand their influence, and have used Mali’s continued insecurity to their advantage. New groups have emerged along the southern Malian border with Burkina Faso and Niger. These groups have proven to be deadly as they have launched attacks on the local communities, kidnapping and killing locals as they attempt to spread their ideology.
While the G5 Sahel operation is a sign that West African leaders are aware of the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in the region, its impact remains to be seen as funding issues have impacted the operation.
United States experts have recently warned that two extremists movements in Africa, which have affiliated themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, could become a major threat on the continent if they come together and boost cooperation.
While for now, Islamist rebels who are operating in Libya and have proclaimed allegiance to IS, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, have traded little more than praise over the Internet, along with probably some fighters and weapons. However experts are now warning that this could change and may develop into a regional threat. According to a former CIA analyst, “they could decide that instead of fighting to achieve their immediate local objective they decided to shift their focus and go after Western interests,” adding, “for instance, Boko Haram attacking the French soldiers of Barkhane, or the Americans in Cameroon.” The former refers to a French anti-terror operation that is currently taking place in the Sahel region of central Africa. While the former analyst noted that such cooperation could take place, he added that both groups are likely not yet there.
Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS earlier this year, and renaming itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), appears for now to be more of a rebranding move, which came as the group was forced out of territory, which it had previously held in northeastern Nigeria. Experts however are warning that it could also be a transition into a larger global jihadist agenda. Movements that are geographically isolated can benefit from adopting the initials, symbols and rhetoric of the most feared Islamist extremist organization in the world. Over this past year, IS has been able to hold large swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, despite an ongoing coalition bombing campaign. Furthermore, it has also carried out deadly attacks in the region, including blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt, and has inspired attacks on Civilians from Paris to London to California.
This move to a larger global jihadist agenda is already being seen within boko Haram, specifically in the attacks that it has carried out over the past few months, and in the way that it has begun to market itself. Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS and its renaming could enable the terrorist group to recruit foreign fighters. It is highly likely that Boko Haram has gained some advise on military tactics, as experts have noticed that despite ongoing military operations in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks have become increasingly coordinated. In turn, the latest Boko Haram videos released by the group are of a more professional quality then older videos. They also carry the insignia of IS. Sources have disclosed that while the numbers remains small, there are indications that the flow of fighters towards Africa has already begun. Last month, two young French people were arrested in Tunisia as they were trying to reach zones controlled by IS in neighbouring Libya. Furthermore, experts have reported that in the April edition of its magazine, Dabiqu, IS called on volunteers to consider joining Boko Haram “if you can’t join the caliphate.”
In Libya, experts have noted that groups that have professed loyalty to IS have expanding rapidly, with some increasing their numbers from 200 to 2,000 members over the past year. Their growing power, fuelled by the post-Kadhafi political and security chaos that currently exists across Libya, has resulted in great concern for European officials. One expert has noted that if ties between Boko Haram and IS evolve further, this could develop into Boko Haram militants being trained in Libya, if IS gains further ground in the country.
30 April— Last week, the European Union agreed to triple the funding dedicated to patrolling the Mediterranean for illegal migrant ships. The EU has also doubled the emergency aid to front-line member states Italy, Greece and Malta, which deal with a massive influx of migrants coming across the Mediterranean. The new allocation of 50 million euros per year will be dedicated to reception centres for migrants, medical aid, or additional staff dealing with the influx. It is part of an overall EU fund for migration and asylum issues.
The EU also will send more naval ships from its member states to the region stem the growing migration crisis that has left countless dead as they seek to reach Europe from Africa. The governments also agreed to develop plans to combat the smuggling rings that have made a lucrative trade of bringing people to Europe. The UK offered to send a warship to patrol between Sicily and the Libyan coast. Germany, France, Ireland and other nations have offered ships as well.
EU leaders said the Frontex mission— which secures the external borders of the union, including from illegal immigration, human trafficking and terrorist infiltration— would now have the authority to conduct rescue missions in international waters.
The decision was made days after one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the sea. Last Sunday, a ship carrying 550 people capsized. The Italian Coast guard recovered 9 bodies and 144 survivors. Nearly 400 people reportedly remain missing. If this number is confirmed, it will be the single worst refugee catastrophe in history. Yet despite the dangerous incident, the next day, ships from the EU’s Triton rescue programme clashed with people smugglers over the rescue of 250 migrants 110 kilometres off Libya. The smugglers reportedly fired on the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Tyr in their attempt to recover the empty wooden boat from which the migrants had been rescued. An Italian tugboat was trying to take the wooden boat in tow when the smugglers raced in on a speedboat and sped away with the empty migrant boat.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that since the start of the year and 21 April, approximately 1,750 have perished in their attempts to illegally migrate to Europe over the Mediterranean. In the same period in 2014, that number was 56. Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM, says that smugglers appear to be loading each boat more migrants, and are operating without fear of punishment.
Smuggling has become increasingly lucrative, and in Libya, which is divided by opposing governments and spiralling ever deeper into chaos, the market is thriving. One anonymous smuggler says, “A fishing boat worth 40,000 dinar, (£20,000) can be sold for smuggling for £100,000. It’s an unimaginable amount of money. The boats are brought in from Egypt, they’re bad quality and you load it with 90 or 100 people, and some of them get there and others will die.” The operations are run through a complex criminal and tribal network; the UN estimates that smuggling is worth over £100m a year. Despite the dangers, new migrants–“cargo”– arrives daily.
The migrants often originate in sub-Saharan Africa. They pay repeatedly to be taken to the next stage of migration. The migrants are often hidden in cargo trucks and not given food or water for days. In the dessert the smugglers use hidden trails, and will sometimes abandon the migrants in the middle of the desert, telling them, “follow these power lines and eventually, you’ll reach a city”. Many die en-route.
For those that do make it, many aim for Libya’s coastal waters. The anonymous smuggler reported that the areas of Sabratha and Zuwarah, west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border, are under the control of smugglers. They use the official sea ports for smuggling immigrants, and load people from the port docks. He says he tells each migrant the risk before they embark. If they pay more, they are allowed onto a better quality boat. They are offered discounts if they choose to get on an overcrowded or less seaworthy boat.
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini was tasked to ask the United Nations for permission to use air and naval power to destroy smugglers’ boats along the Libyan coast before they can use them. Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, disagrees with plans to mount military strikes against the boats. He argues that while smugglers use the boats to conduct criminal activity, targeting them could unintentionally harm Libyan fishermen, further weakening Libya’s economy. Although Ban has vocalised his opinion, he cannot prevent the UN Security Council from approving the strikes.
In Libya, the groups controlling Tripoli have said they will confront any EU operation that seeks to attack sites used by people smugglers. Muhammed el-Ghirani, Foreign Minister of the unrecognised Tripoli-based government, says his group has repeatedly offered to help deal with migrants, but their proposals had been rebuffed. International governments recognise only the Tobruq based government, led by Libyan President Abdullah al-Thani. It is so far unclear what the Tobruq government can do in a region that is controlled by opposing forces. It is likely that stemming the flow of migrants is incumbent upon finding a peaceful solution to Libya’s political chaos.
11 March – New research conducted at Columbia University suggests that climate change was a critical factor in the 2011 Syrian uprising. The research also warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades.
Three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, however only 2.5% of that water is potable freshwater, and nearly 70% of that is trapped in glaciers. Every living thing that requires freshwater for survival relies on 0.37% of the total global water supply. In many places, water consumption has begun to exceed local water recharge. The World Bank estimates that 2.8 billion people live in areas afflicted by high water stress, and they expect this figure to rise through 2050, when the human population crosses 9 billion. The UN estimates that at current rates, as many as 700 million people may become “water refugees”, forced to migrate due to water scarcity by 2025.
The Syria conflict, which has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions, is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change. The 2011 conflict was preceded by a record drought that ravaged Syria between 2006 and 2010. The drought caused an exodus of farmers and herders into cities that were already strained form poverty and a growing number of refugees from Iraq. The research, found in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the timing of the uprising is unlikely to be a coincidence. The study combined climate, social and economic data relating to the “Fertile Crescent”, a crucial agricultural and herding area which spans parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq. The region has warmed by between 1 and 1.2C since 1900, and rainfall in the wet season has diminished by an average of 10%.
In Syria, the ruling al-Assad regime encouraged the development of water-intensive export crops such as cotton. Water scarcity was then worsened by the illegal drilling of irrigation wells that dramatically depleted groundwater which would have otherwise provided valuable reserves, the report said. The drought’s effects were immediate. Agriculture production, a quarter of Syria’s economy, plummeted by a third. Livestock decreased significantly and the price of cereal doubled. As many as 1.5 million people fled from the country to the city.Further, these impacts were coupled with rapid population growth, from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million today amongst the rising population, nutrition-related diseases among children increased dramatically. Lead author of the report, Colin Kelley, says, “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability.”
Demand for basic commodities such as wheat and copper is expected to rise over the next two decades. Chatham House think-tank has warned that relatively small shocks to supply risk can cause sudden price rises and trigger “overreactions or even militarised responses.”
The report also sites that Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq are among those most at risk from drought because of the intensity of the drying and the history of conflict in the region. Beyond the Middle East, drought can be found in other regions where conflict have emerged, including Afghanistan and East African countries such as Somalia and Sudan, and parts of Central America – especially Mexico, which is afflicted by crime, is politically unstable, short of water and reliant on agriculture.
Yemen: the first country to run out of water?
On the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, which has been beset with conflict and instability for years, is likely to become the first country in the world to run out of water. Experts believe that Sana’a, the nation’s internationally recognised capital (although the president has recently moved his operations to Aden), will run dry by 2025, causing extreme water scarcity for its 2 million residents and leading to a potential exodus. The majority of Yemen’s water resources are used to grow khat. Khat is a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant, but accounts for 40% of the nation’s water supply. Within the nation, between 70-80% of rural conflict stems from water-related disputes.
Water as a weapon
Water has become both a weapon and a military objective during. During Libya’s civil war in 2011, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces shut-off two-thirds of Tripoli’s water supplies, leaving almost half the country short of water. In Syria, rebels have targeted the water system in their fight against the Assad regime. In 2012, terrorist insurgents in Afghanistan poisoned a well near a girls’ school in Afghanistan in order to punish those receiving an education. Similarly during the conflict in Darfur, number of wells were poisoned as part of a campaign to intimidate local residents.
A report on Global Water Security, published in 2012 by the United Sates Director of National Intelligence, states that that the demand for water would lead to an increased risk of conflict in the future. The Pacific Institute, which tracks water-related conflicts, has reported an increase in the number of violent confrontations that have recently occurred over water.
Nearly 1.2 billion people in the Middle East and Africa live in regions where water is a physical scarcity. However the some argue that hostilities may not just emerge over water itself, but water shortages will become a catalyst for other critical issues. The lack of water is likely to worsen problems by driving up the prices of food, impacting economies and costs of living, and forcing migration. This could lead to armed conflict to secure valuable water resources. In this regard, experts believe that conflict over water scarcity may take the form of local intra-state battles rather than nation-on-nation battles. The key take-away: battles of these types are becoming increasingly likely. Poor governments may lack the funding or infrastructure to support growing water needs, and wealthy countries have sometimes been lax with protecting their water supply, leading to contamination. The global market is so interwoven that water shortages can affect exports of commodities around the world. For example, the United Kingdom imports as much as 40% of its food. It is therefore incumbent upon international governments to address water scarcity before water related conflict becomes the norm.
In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has metastasised into one of the most horrific fighting groups of this century. The group has become renowned for rampant murder, the pillaging of villages and cities, widely publicised beheadings, the theft of oil and artefacts, and more recently of human organs.
Since they appeared on the world stage, ISIS has come to remind many of a combination of the worst villains Hollywood has ever imagined. More terrifying, the group’s combination of savvy marketing and recruiting, has resulted in numerous would-be fighters attempting to travel to ISIS strongholds to join the group.
The Debate: What does ISIS want?
ISIS seeks to form a caliphate that extends to the Mediterranean Sea. Their ideology has sparked numerous debates on whether they are a political group with a religious foundation, or a religious groups with a political foundation.
There is no denying that ISIS perceives themselves as an Islamic group; it’s in their name. However ISIS has modified their interpretation to create their own version of Islam. Their brand of Islam is a combination of fundamentalism similar to Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, but it is coupled with “violent Salafism” which deviated from evangelical Salafism in the 1960s and 70s. Further, the group has enacted a series of its own rulings or “fatwas” that are often in direct contradiction to Islam (for example, the burning of humans is strictly forbidden in ever interpretation of Islam—except for that which is held by ISIS).
ISIS has based its ideology on an apocalyptic message. Their magazine, Dabiq refers to a city in Syria that is said to be a site of great fighting during Armageddon (Malahim). The magazine states, “One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.” However the mention of this end-times battle is not found in the Qur’an. It is believed to be in one of the “lesser” Hadiths. This is an important point: in Islam, the Hadith is a collection of stories recounted of the prophet Muhammad. Each Hadith, over time, has been studied carefully to determine whether it can be verified and whether it is consistent with the Prophet’s teachings. Greater Hadiths are those which have extensive historical and scholarly evidence to support them. Lesser Hadiths have limited evidence to support them.
Despite their religious ideology, at the core of ISIS beliefs is an equal mix of political ideology. ISIS conducts itself as a state; collecting taxes and implementing its own version of judicial law and social controls. It grew out of region wide crisis in Iraq and flourished in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Here too, their political ideology has been the source of great debate. Some argue that US intervention was responsible for the creation of ISIS; others argue that former Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki institutionalised sectarian division in the nation, instigating a violent response among militant Sunni groups which already existed in the nation. The political goal of ISIS is to restore Sunni Islam to a place of (at least) equality, and their political message initially gained the support of non-militant Sunni Muslims who were marginalised by the nation’s government. In addition, ISIS often calls for the erasure of the Sykes-Picot lines which, in 1916, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control or influence.
The question of what ISIS really wants has made it difficult to know how to deal with them. ISIS governs itself as an extreme Islamic caliphate, organises like a modern state, and fights like a guerrilla insurgency.
Impact of Global Politics
ISIS is believed to have amassed over 200,000 fighters, with potential members coming from as many as 90 nations. As stated earlier, ISIS has developed a savvy social media presence, and nations are stopping people on a near daily basis from travelling to the region.
Despite a US led coalition of forty nations that have agreed to fight ISIS, the battle against the terrorist group has become. However since the initiation of the coalition in August 2014, ISIS has continued to grow.
In part, ISIS has thrived because of the complexity of international politics. The main fighting forces on the ground are the Kurdish Peshmerga, who belong to a political movement known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has sought an autonomous Kurdish state in parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government reached its zenith in 2005 when the PKK conducted a series of bombings, leading them to become a designated terrorist group in Turkey, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The EU Court removed its status as terrorist organisation in April 2008. However, the designation by the US and Turkey has brought with it problems of arming the PKK; the only group that has successfully battled ISIS on the ground.
To add to the complexity, another nation that has a vested interest in defeating ISIS is Iran, which is on the US “enemies” list. As such, Iran, with over 500,000 active troops, is not a member of the coalition. Iran has been facing heavy sanctions that have been put in place by the west; the US has taken the lead in negotiating nuclear reduction in Iran. The US believes that Iran could use nuclear infrastructure to build weapons which could be a direct threat to Israel. Iran maintains that the facilities are part of their energy infrastructure.
In Iraq, the Iraqi military fell apart with alarming speed when ISIS first came onto the scene. It has been reported that when ISIS militants sought to overtake a region, the generals left first, leaving the soldiers uncertain of what to do; and so they left as well. Under Maliki, it is believed that the Sunni members of the army were unhappy to fight for a nation that had alienated them. With a new president in place, the 350,000 member army is currently being trained by Western forces in order to engage in battle against ISIS. However in the meanwhile, Shiite militias have been remobilised to fill the vacuum, however their presence has left Sunni Muslims in a precarious situation.
The Syrian army is believed by many to be the most likely to contain the ISIS threat. In early February, Syrian forces together with the Kurdish fighters repelled an ISIS advance in north-eastern Syria. However, Syrian troops have been divided between fighting in a protracted civil war and fighting ISIS forces. This has decreased their ability to focus on a single target.
Why are more Arab ground troops not involved?
ISIS has overtly stated that they seek to gain ground in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In North Africa, ISIS has established a presence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and along the Libyan coastline. In mid-February, Egyptian conducted airstrikes against ISIS positions in Derna, Libya, following the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptian nationals. Shortly after the airstrikes, Egyptian President Sisi called for a joint Arab military force to tackle extremist groups in the region, and called for a United Nations mandate for foreign intervention in Libya. Sisi’s call raises an important question: why have Arab nations —particularly those at greatest risk from ISIS— not sent in ground troops to fight ISIS?
In short, many Arab militaries have not acted as fighting forces for some time. For example the Egyptian army had not engaged in ground war since the three-day border war with Libya in 1977. Further, the Egyptian military has not been deployed to a foreign nation since the North Yemen civil war of the 1960s, where it was defeated. The story is similar for many militaries in the region. Another problem arises from the history of Arab cooperation in defence. Divisions along political lines (Turkey and the Kurds, for example), prevent full trust and therefore full cooperation. Western analysts espouse hope that the GCC Peninsula Shield, a 40,000-strong force made up of countries in the Persian Gulf, will be deployed to fight ISIS, however the group is designed to prevent political unrest in existing regimes. It is a force for suppression, not battle. The GCC Peninsula shield was most recently deployed to quell unrest in Bahrain in 2011. Their targets were unarmed, disorganised civilians. It is unlikely that they are prepared to engage in battle against armed, methodical militants.
This does not mean that the battle against ISIS cannot be won. However it will require renewed training of security forces, the updating of weaponry, and the combined efforts of both Middle Eastern and Western forces. The biggest advantage that ISIS has is the political divides that keep forces from uniting. As long as nations around the world debate whether to send forces, or to interfere on sovereign land, or base their involvement on political conditions, ISIS will continue to thrive.