Islamic State’s Expansion in Africa and its Implications for Southeast Asia

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Islamic State’s Expansion in Africa and its Implications for Southeast Asia

Will the group’s call for hijrah (migration) to Africa prompt Southeast Asian Muslims to join the struggle?

Islamic State’s Expansion in Africa and its Implications for Southeast Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 15, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State (IS) group’s affiliate in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, released on its various media outlets a 39-minute propaganda video titled “A Book that Guides and a Sword that Helps.” The video called on Muslims around the world to undertake hijrah (migration) to Africa in order to build up a new base of operations there. This was followed by the release of IS’ weekly newsletter, the An-Naba (343rd Edition) which stated that the African states were “one of the fruits of IS’ blessed path” and the “land of jihad and hijrah.”

IS in Africa

Recent statistics have shown that more than half of IS’ official provinces are located in Africa. These are IS-Sinai, IS-Libya, IS-Sahel, ISWAP, IS Central Africa Province (ISCAP), IS-Mozambique, and IS-Somalia. Africa, in particular Mozambique, is the only other region where IS has been able to control territory apart from the Middle East and Marawi, Philippines. ISCAP laid siege over the strategic port of Mocimboa de Praia in August 2020, which they held for almost a year, and the town of Palma in March 2021, which they held for four days. IS-Mozambique was declared a separate wilayah (province) in May of this year.

Between January and June, almost half of IS attacks (48 percent, or 583 out of 1219) were carried out in Africa. Out of these, ISWAP was the most active African affiliate, claiming 26 percent (314) of the total IS attacks. ISWAP was formed as an offshoot of the jihadist group Boko Haram and first pledged allegiance to IS in 2015. In 2016, following an internal struggle, ISWAP split into two factions, one led by jihadist leader Abubakar Shekau and the other by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Al-Barnawi’s faction remained with IS while Shekau’s faction dissociated itself from the group.

ISWAP has since grown in strength and appears to be the largest of the IS affiliates in Africa, with approximately 4,000-5,000 members. It engages primarily in attacks and ambushes on the police and military, and also on Christian communities. Apart from its strongholds in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad area, ISWAP is reportedly making in-roads into neighboring Cameroon, carrying out attacks against Christians in June. ISWAP was suspected to be behind a church massacre the same month that saw the killing of at least 40 people in Owo, Nigeria, although the group did not claim responsibility for the attack. The group was also behind a prison break near the Nigerian capital of Abuja in which at least 800 prisoners, of which a number were high-profile jihadists, escaped.

The group is reported to have gained some local support through its efforts at governance and service provision in the region. Apart from violent activities, ISWAP is very much focused on dakwah (the propagation of Islam) and education, particularly among the youth. In January of this year, it released a video titled “The Empowerment Generation” that showcased its efforts at training youngsters and forming the next generation of its fighters.

“A Book that Guides and a Sword that Helps”

Apart from highlighting the group’s operations in the region, there are two key highlights that can be discerned from ISWAP’s video: its call for action by means of hijrah and jihad; and its focus on softer measures such as dakwah. This is in line with what is mentioned in the An-Naba (343rd Edition), which notes that ISWAP is currently undertaking two simultaneous paths: the path of tawhid to guide Muslims in their religion and the path of the mujahidin to fight against the kafir (infidels).

This is the first time IS has called for hijrah since its heyday in the 2014-2017 period. This is significant as it signals the emphasis placed on Africa and the fact that the continent is viewed as a theatre of jihad similar to what Iraq and Syria were previously. In fact, the An-Naba (343rd Edition) states that “what we see in Africa today is exactly what we saw a few years back in Iraq and Sham (Syria).”

Africa has clearly become the next epicenter for jihad and a key strategic node for IS. The group has taken advantage of poverty, religious and ethnic conflicts, and weak governance in the area. Shortly after the release of the initial video, IS released a series of short videos from its central branches in Syria and Iraq praising their counterparts in Africa and continuing the call for hijrah there. This form of tribute from IS’ central branches highlights once again the weight and emphasis IS Central is giving to Africa.

The group also stresses the importance of jihad as an obligation until the Shariah (Islamic law) and hudud (penal system under Islamic law) are enforced and the need to avenge the kafir who continue to insult Muslims. ISWAP is also portrayed as a vanguard that will protect the religion, lives, property, and respect of Muslims as opposed to one that will harm them.

ISWAP continues to place its emphasis on the propagation of religion through outreach activities and dakwah sessions. In the video, there are a number of scenes where the group shows preachers delivering lectures to crowds of people, including children, and engaging them with quizzes and nasheed (Islamic religious songs) sessions. Security analyst Mina al-Lami notes that the message IS (and ISWAP) is trying to deliver is that as soon as it takes control of a certain territory no matter how small, it rushes to implement Shariah, unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Also, ISWAP showcases its governance capabilities by showing a newly formed Dewan Hisbah (moral police committee) which, in their own words, functions to “protect Muslims from anything that might corrupt them” and “guides them (Muslims) toward goodness and the truth.” A section in the video also shows ISWAP’s zakat (tithe) department, which is tasked with the collection and redistribution of alms to the needy.

Implications for Southeast Asia and Beyond

Shortly after the release, both the video and the newsletter were translated into Bahasa Indonesia and released on IS media platforms. The group’s efforts at producing translated materials of its propaganda signal its interest in attracting a wider audience to partake in its efforts in Africa, as it did during the height of its activity in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017.

For Southeast Asians to be attracted to join IS affiliates in Africa, there would likely need to be three conditions. The first would be an Islamic narrative that seeks to show that Africa is the land of jihad and hijrah, and that it is permissible to go there – as seen previously when the Caliphate was declared in 2014 in Iraq and Syria. Second is the need for charismatic leaders. Past examples include Malaysian Muhammad Wanndy and Indonesian Bahrumsyah who were able to influence and attract Southeast Asians (especially Malaysians and Indonesians) to make their way to the Syrian and Iraqi conflict theatres. In the case of Bahrumsyah, his appearance in a 2014 IS propaganda video titled “Join the Ranks” produced by the Al-Hayat Media Center was crucial in influencing Southeast Asians to make their way to Syria. The third condition would be the formation of a Southeast Asian group similar to that of Katibah Nusantara, which was formed in Syria catering to the needs of Southeast Asian fighters there. This group would be able to facilitate the travel of individuals, assist in communicating with IS Central, and plot attacks.

In 2021, Malaysian national Ahmad Mustakim was convicted and jailed in Somalia for being a member of Al-Shabaab. In the case of Southeast Asians, many go to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for religious education and work, and there is a possibility that those who are radicalized might be tempted to join IS from there. In fact, Ahmad Mustakim made his way to Africa in 2009 while studying in Yemen. The challenge for the Southeast Asian security apparatus would be having a record of its citizens who are in MENA countries given the fact that radicalized individuals would probably seek to enter the IS-controlled areas via routes that are easily accessible.

Apart from travel to Africa, another possible consequence of this call would be the activation of African cells in Southeast Asia. Between 2014 and 2019, members of African terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, Al-Shariah Al-Tunisia, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in Malaysia, some of whom were plotting attacks in foreign countries. In light of this, the security services should be aware of the possibility of radicalization and recruitment among the African population already in Southeast Asia.

Should there be a similar declaration of a Caliphate in Africa as seen previously in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, and if steps are not taken to curb terrorist movements, Southeast Asia might see the movement of its citizens to Africa. The conditions in Africa would be seen as favorable for IS to declare a Caliphate as compared to the Khorasan wilayah due to the Taliban’s control in Afghanistan and their commitment to keeping to the Doha agreement. On the other hand, factors that might dissuade Southeast Asians to go to Africa include the cost to travel, distance, language, and unfamiliarity with the region.

ISWAP’s call for hijrah and jihad clearly signifies the continued expansion of IS’ worldwide network as demonstrated after 2014 in Iraq and Syria. Whether Africa or parts of Africa will become the next Iraq or Syria remains to be seen, but security agencies must be vigilant as the IS threat remains potent despite its apparent focus on the African continent. With the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan in 2021, the continuing threat from Al-Qaeda, and the resilience of IS worldwide, the threat of terrorism is likely to remain a key aspect of insecurity in Southeast Asia and globally for many years to come.