Recent arrests have indicated that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s presence in East Africa is growing, with officials indicated that they are recruiting young Kenyans for jihad abroad and raising fears that some of them will return to threaten the country, which has already been affected by Somali-based al-Qaeda aligned al-Shabaab.
Kenyan intelligence agencies estimate that around one hundred men and women may have gone to join IS in Libya and Syria. This has triggered concerns that some may chose to come back in order to stage attacks on Kenyan and foreign targets in a country that has already been the victim of regular, deadly terrorism. According to Rashid Abid, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, which is based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, “there is now a real threat that Kenya faces from IS and the danger will continue to increase.”
The first al-Qaeda attack in Kenya was the 1998 US embassy bombing and the most recent large attack was a university massacre in Garissa in 2015. The IS threat however is new and as yet ill defined. In March, four men appeared in court accused of seeking to travel to Libya in order to join IS. Then in early May, Kenyan police announced the arrest of a medical student, his wife and her friend. All three have been accused of recruiting for IS and plotting an anthrax attack. At the time, two other medical students were said to be on the run. Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet described a countrywide “terror network” linked to IS and led by Mohamed Abdi Ali, a medical intern at a regional hospital, “planning large-scale attacks” including one to “unleash a biological attack…using anthrax.” Three weeks later, police announced the arrest of two more members of “the ISIS (another acronym for IS) network that is seeking to establish itself in Kenya in order to conduct terror attacks against innocent Kenyans.” Police indicated that they had found “materials terrorists typically use in the making of IEDs” – homemade bombs – as well as “bows and poisoned arrows.”
While some experts have dismissed the suggestion of an imminent large-scale attack in Kenya, they have noted that the threat of IS radicalization, recruitment and return in the East African nation is genuine, with one foreign law enforcement official, who has examined the anthrax allegation, disclosing that “we cant see either the intent to carry out such an attack nor any real planning of it…But there is something in it: there is IS here, mainly involved in recruitment and facilitation.” Other officials also note that the recent arrests show that radicalization continues to be an issue affecting the entire country. While officials note that recruitment into Somali-based al-Shabaab remains the primary danger, there are increasing credible reports that other groups, such as IS, are gaining ground.
For now, Kenyan authorities have struggled to manage the return of their nationals from Somalia, where hundreds of Kenyans make up the bulk of al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters. In the future, experts have noted that that they will also likely have to deal with returning IS extremists as well as self-radicalized “lone wolf” attackers who have been inspired by the group’s ideology and online propaganda.
On 9 June, unity government force surrounded the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s Libyan bastion Sirte, where clashes have erupted as the Unity Government attempts to oust the militant group. The jihadist group, which moved into the North African country in 2014 amidst chaos that followed the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi, has become yet another player in the lawless country, where rival authorities and militas are battling for control of territory and major oil reserves.
- 19 November – The United States indicates that it is “concerned” by reports that radical extrmeists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, after having already seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. News reports emerge indicated that the eastern coastal city of Derna is emerging as an IS stronghold.
- 27 December – A car bomb explodes outside the diplomatic security building in the capital city Tripoli. The attack, which is claimed by IS, causes no casualties.
- 27 January – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel that kills nine people.
- 15 February – IS releases a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, all but one Egyptians, that the jihadist say they filmed in January. Egypt carries out air strikes on IS in Derna
- 20 February – IS claims responsibility for suicide car bombings in Al-Qoba, which is located near Derna. Those attacks kill 44 people, with IS stating that the attacks are to avenge losses in the air strikes.
- 19 April – A new video depicts the execution-style killing of 28 Christians originally from Ethiopia.
- 9 June – IS announces that it has captured the city of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli.
- 12 July – The group acknowledges that it has been pushed out of Derna after weeks of fierce fighting with members of the town’s Mujahedeen Council.
- 13 November – The US bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time and states that it has killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials later identify him as the head of IS in Derna.
- 7 January – A suicide truck bombing at a police school in Zliten, east of Tripoli, kills more than fifty people in what is the worst attack to take place in Libya since the 2011 revolution. IS claims responsibility for the attack.
- 5 February – US officials disclose that the number of jihadists has almost doubled in Libya to about 5,000.
- 19 February – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp located near Sabratha, west of Tripoli, kills about fifty people.
- 24 February – Some 200 jihadists briefly occupy the centre of Sabratha, however they are later ousted by militas.
- 30 March – The head of Libya’s United Nations-backed unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, arrives at a naval base in Tripoli, despite the hostility of rival authorities.
- 31 May – UN special envoy Martin Kobler calls on all of Libya’s armed groups to untie against IS.
- 4 June – Unity government forces say that they have retaken a jihadist air base, Al-Gordabyia, which is located south of Sirte.
- 5 June – Sarraj rules out an international military intervention on the ground.
- 9 June – Unity government forces enter the centre of Sirte where clashes continue with IS.
A senior US official disclosed on Friday that there are signs that Nigeria-based Boko Haram militants are sending fighters to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Libya, adding that there is increased cooperation between the two jihadist groups.
According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there have been “reports” that Bok Harm fighters were going to Libya, where IS has established a large presence, effectively taking advantage of the ongoing security chaos. He disclosed that “we’ve seen that Boko Haram’s ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh (IS),” adding that there have also been reports of material and logistical aid. Speaking to reporters in Nigeria, Blinken further stated, “so these are all elements that suggests that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off.” While little is known about the extent of cooperation between the two radical Islamist groups, Western governments are increasingly becoming worried that IS’ growing presence in North Africa, coupled with its ties to Boko Haram, could herald a push southwards into the vast, lawless Sahel region, ultimately creating a springboard for wider attacks across the region. According to Blinken, the United States is helping Nigeria in its fight against Bok Haram with armoured vehicles. However he declined to comment on a request by the West African nation to sell it aircraft. Earlier this month, US officials revealed that Washington wants to sell up to twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria in recognition of President Muhammadu Buhari’s army reforms. Congress however still needs to approve the deal. While under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the US had blocked arms sales, partly due to human rights concerns, Blinken has indicated that Nigeria has made several requests for military hardware, adding, “we are looking very actively at these requests.” Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama had earlier disclosed that the government had set up reporting mechanisms inside the military to monitor human rights, which should convince the US Congress to approve the sale. Furthermore, while Blinken has indicated that the military under president Buhari has made “important efforts” in order to address human rights, he noted that the US was “troubled” by an Amnesty International report, which was released earlier this month, that children were dying in military detention. The Nigerian army has rejected the report. Blinken disclosed that Washington was also concerned about an alleged army massacre of Shi’ites in northern Nigeria in December, during which, according to residents, hundreds were killed. He added that a state commission to probe the killings should provide a “transparent and credible report.”
A British official has also warned that Boko Haram jihadists are likely to step up cooperation with IS should the latter extremist group gain a stronger foothold in Libya.
IS first seized part of Syria and Iraq, however it later built up a foothold in Libya, exploiting a security vacuum. Speaking at a security conference in Nigeria, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond stated that “if we see Daesh (IS) establish a stronger presence in Libya, that feels much more to people here like a direct communications route, that is likely to step up the practical collaboration between the two groups.” Hammond added that “the intent is clearly there, the evidence of hard collaboration is still pretty sketchy.”
At the conference, which was attended by Nigeria’s neighbors and Western powers, a number of African leaders also warned that stability in lawless Libya was key to fighting Boko Haram and improvising security in the region.
In a speech, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the army had almost recaptured all territory it had lost to Boko Haram, noting however that the jihadist group still often stages suicide bombings. He added, “what remains is to dislodge the terrorist from their hideout in the (northeastern) Sambisa Forest and safely liberate the Chibok girls and other victims of abduction,” referring to a group of 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Buhari also stated that Nigeria’s army was respecting human rights when dealing with civilians, a condition from the US to fulfill requests to sell aircraft and other arms.
On 13 May, the United Nations Security Council disclosed that it is alarmed by Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, adding that it is throwing its support behind a Nigerian-led regional summit to confront the threat.
In a statement, the 15-member Council disclosed that it welcomed President Muhammadu Buhari’s “crucial initiative” to hold the Summit on 14 May, which will be attended by regional leaders as well as French President Francois Hollande. It adds that the summit should help develop “a comprehensive strategy to address the governance, security, development, socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis.” The Council also expressed “alarm at Boko Haram’s linkages with the Islamic State” and voiced “deep concern that the activities of Boko Haram continue to undermine the peace and stability of the West and Central African region.” Last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS and Nigerians have ben reportedly fighting in lawless Libya. The group also has ties with al-Qaeda-linked groups that operate in the wider Sahel region. The Council also renewed its call for regional countries Cameroon, Chad and Niger in a multinational joint task force to “further enhance regional military cooperation and coordination” to root out Boko Haram. It also demanded that Boko Haram “immediately and unequivocally cease all violence and all abuses of human rights” and “release all those abducted” including the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.
The Council statement was drafted by the United States as a show of support for President Buhari on the eve of the meeting.
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.