• The Star Staff

In bid to boost its profile, Islamic State turns to Africa’s militants

By Christina Goldbaum and Eric Schmitt

The Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate has fallen, its fighters have dispersed and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed.

But two years after it suffered stinging defeats in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group has found a new lifeline in Africa, where analysts say it has forged alliances with local militant groups in symbiotic relationships that have pumped up their profiles, fundraising and recruitment.

Many of those homegrown insurgencies are only loosely connected to the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. Still, over the past year, as violence from Islamic extremists on the African continent reached a record high, the Islamic State group has trumpeted these battlefield wins to project an image of strength and inspire its supporters worldwide.

Most recently, the Islamic State group claimed credit last week for a dayslong rampage in war-afflicted northern Mozambique, where militants with distant ties to the terrorist organization ambushed a key port town. The attack left dozens of people dead, including at least one South African and one British citizen, and set off talk on the Islamic State group’s online forums of the establishment of a new caliphate there, according to researchers.

“As an organization more broadly, ISIS is hurting,” said Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm. “To improve morale among its supporters, its leadership is seeking to elevate regional branches showing the most promise in launching attacks and maintaining a robust operational tempo.”

The siege on Palma, the town in Mozambique, was the most brazen attack yet by the local insurgency and is part of an alarming rise of brutal clashes involving militant Islamic extremists across the continent. Violence associated with those groups spiked 43% in 2020 compared with 2019, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defense Department research institution.

In recent days, tens of thousands of people who fled the assault in Mozambique have arrived in neighboring provinces and described scenes of devastating violence from the bloody ambush.

Ricardo Elias Dário, who worked in the gas-rich port town as a heavy equipment operator, could hear the gunfire from inside his red-clay home. Within seconds he grabbed his black leather jacket and sprinted with a friend, Benefica Taou, toward the nearby bush to take cover.

But as they fled, his friend was fatally struck by a stray bullet, he said, and fell to the ground. Dário barely made it.

“They were shooting everywhere, shooting everyone, even the dogs,” Dário, 35, said Thursday in a phone interview from Mozambique. “I was just running, thinking, ‘Maybe I will survive, maybe I won’t survive, but at least if I run maybe I will survive.’”

For over a decade, U.S. military and counterterrorism officials have warned that Africa was poised to become the next frontier for international terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and more recently the Islamic State group. Both organizations have forged alliances with local jihadi groups in recent years and established new strongholds in West, North and Central Africa from which they can carry out large-scale attacks, according to experts and officials in the United States and Europe.

More recently, U.S. officials have warned that even in its weakened condition, the Islamic State group remains a cohesive organization in its former strongholds in Iraq and Syria, with perhaps 10,000 fighters who have gone underground.

While battlefield defeats and the coronavirus have dented its vaunted online propaganda and recruiting operations, the Islamic State group still has a war chest of $100 million and a global network of cells outside the Middle East, from the Philippines to Afghanistan, according to U.S. and U.N. counterterrorism officials.

Iraqi security forces and their Western allies continue to hunt down pockets of fighters. Over two weeks in March, Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. and British warplanes conducted 312 airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds, in one of the largest operations against the insurgents since 2019.

Even as political leaders in Europe and the United States grapple with a new threat of domestic terrorism — from right-wing extremists and white supremacists — the fear of a suicide attack in a Western city by a lone individual inspired by Islamic State ideology lurks just beneath the surface.

Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and two dozen foreign ministers from the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a group of more than 80 nations, met virtually March 30 to address what they said was increased activity in areas once controlled by the group’s fighters.

“The threat remains,” the ministers said in a statement.

But as the Islamic State group tries to claw back in the Middle East, it has turned to new footholds in Africa where anger against corrupt governments and ill-equipped local security forces has given rise to armed groups, according to analysts.

The Islamic State group has forged ties with many of these local insurgencies in what analysts have described as a marriage of convenience: For the militants, the Islamic State brand brings legitimacy and recognition from local governments that the homegrown guerrilla movements have long craved. The Islamic State group, in turn, has been able to broadcast the local militants’ attacks as proof that their global jihad is alive and well.

In some places like northeast Nigeria, the Islamic State group effectively controls its local affiliate, the Islamic State in West Africa, and has provided it with trainers, expertise and financing, according to research by the International Crisis Group. But researchers say the Islamic State group maintains much looser ties to other militant groups like the insurgency in Mozambique, which remains a largely homegrown movement born of local grievances.

For decades there, impoverished locals had watched as elites in the capital plundered the resource-rich region of Cabo Delgado, along the Indian Ocean, which has served as a hub for illegal timber as well as drug and ivory smuggling.

Then in 2009, one of the world’s largest known ruby deposits was discovered in the province, and two years later, oil companies uncovered a natural gas deposit worth tens of billions of dollars. In a sudden — and often violent — stroke, speculators flocked to the area, locals were forced off their land, and some small-scale miners were beaten and killed.

By the time the nascent insurgency launched its first attacks in 2017, targeting police stations and local government leaders, it had widespread appeal among petty traders at the ports and disenchanted youths, local researchers say.

The violent crackdown from the Mozambican military, which was implicated in serious abuses against civilians, may have also helped the insurgency — known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a — gain more traction with locals.

But over the past year, the nature of the war has changed. The militant group has destroyed entire towns, displacing 670,000 people, killing at least 2,000 civilians and kidnapping scores of others, according to human rights and humanitarian organizations, and the U.S. State Department.

U.S. officials sent a dozen Army Green Berets to train Mozambican marines for the next two months. Portuguese officials said they would send a team of 60 troops to Mozambique, a former colony, in the coming weeks. A Mozambican military official declared on Sunday that Palma was now “safe,” and that the insurgents had been flushed out of the town.

But as the war rages on, hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Cabo Delgado are living in limbo, relying on the hospitality of family in neighboring provinces and humanitarian aid to survive. Others who migrated from impoverished parts of the country to the province for jobs related to the huge gas project have returned home after international energy companies suspended operations.

“We were afraid of the situation there, but there was work and we have families we need to feed,” said Dário, who had worked for years with a specialized transportation company in Cabo Delgado.

After fleeing last month’s attack, he hid in the bush with dozens of people for days — surviving on raw maize and water from a marsh — before a boat evacuated them to Pemba, a town 155 miles south. Once he can find the money for transportation, Dário plans to go back to his home in Beira, a city in the south, where he hopes he can find work to support his wife and five children who are living there.

“I saw old people, young people, children dying, pregnant women suffering. Even if there is no job for me at home, I would rather stay there with my family,” Dário said. “But go back to Cabo Delgado, to Palma, never.”

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