Days later, a different band of Islamic gunmen broke out in a famous giraffe wildlife park in Koure, Niger, just 35 miles from the country’s capital. By shooting from motorcycles, they killed eight people, including six French aid workers.
The two attacks on opposite sides of Africa are among dozens of violent episodes that rock the continent in what experts call a rupture year for extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Less than two years after the fall of the Islamic State̵
At least three Islamic uprisings are spreading across vast swaths of land, from the deserts of Sinai, to the thickets of the western Lake Chad basin, to quaint Indian Ocean villages and tourist islands in the southeast. The spike in terrorist attacks mirrors a steady, albeit less dramatic, increase in Islamist violence in parts of Syria and Iraq, led by Islamic State fighters who fled after the defeat of the caliphate and have now regrouped.
The resurgence threatens to undermine one aspect of President Trump’s re-election address to voters: his repeated claim to victory over the Islamic State. As Trump presided over the final stages of the US-led military campaign to destroy the physical caliphate, the effort to contain the group and its violent ideology has failed, according to current and former counterterrorism officials and independent analysts.
The escalation of violence comes as the Trump administration moves to reduce the deployment of US troops and threatens to reduce support for local governments at the forefront of the battle against Islamist militants. The White House is considering more drastic cuts to US military forces in Africa, despite warnings from some analysts that the cuts could further hinder efforts to control extremists’ advance.
“ISIS is not dead,” said Robert Richer, the CIA’s deputy director of operations during the George W. Bush administration, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “We have destroyed the caliphate, but now they are popping up in numerous places. Meanwhile, the world coalition to fight ISIS no longer exists.”
Trump defended his counterterrorism successes in almost every campaign event, often referring to the Islamic State in the past. “We have wiped out 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate,” he said in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention in August.
But other officials say the threat has simply shifted to new regions and different forms. In the 18 months since the fall of the Islamic State’s last Syrian stronghold, the group’s African affiliates have seen dramatic gains in territory and recruits, as well as firepower, according to a study published in August in CTC Sentinel, a published journal. from the Center for Combating Terrorism in West Point.
“Instead of an asymmetric and opportunistic uprising, it is a large number of fighters, attacking large numbers of soldiers using weapons of similar or higher caliber,” said Charlie Winter, senior researcher at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. at King’s College London and co-author of the study. “And they have shown a fair amount of maneuverability.”
‘The godfather of jihad’
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump promised a swift and resounding defeat of the Islamic State. In demonstrations and interviews, he promised to “carpet bomb” parts of Iraq and Syria held by the militants.
After his election, however, his White House advisers adopted, with minor adjustments, the strategy that was put in place by the Obama administration in 2014. Backed by a coalition of over 80 countries, the United States has provided power. air and intelligence support for Iraqi troops and Arab Kurdish and Syrian fighters who liberated one by one city controlled by terrorists. About half of the caliphate’s land holdings, including parts of Mosul, the eastern capital of the Islamic State, had been vacated when Trump took office in 2017.
Trump’s pursuit of war has been praised by many counterterrorism experts, as has the administration’s effort to find and kill the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up when put in the air. squeezed by US Special Operations Forces in October 2019, as the leader also marked a continuation of the tactics in place since the last years of the Bush administration.
“The biggest success story for us over the past twelve years is how we have created a leadership crisis in the global jihadist movement, effectively eliminating every senior leader,” said Bruce Riedel, former CIA official and senior adviser to four. presidents of the United States. . “We’ve gotten very good at what the counterterrorism world calls ‘beheading’.”
But even as US and allied forces tightened the noose on Baghdadi’s followers in Iraq and Syria, other White House policies undermined the effort to defeat violent Islamist militant ideology globally, according to Riedel and other counterterrorism experts. Trump surprised his own security advisers by announcing twice – and then reversing – the decision to unilaterally withdraw US forces from Syria, signaling a abandonment of US-allied Kurdish fighters who were still fighting thousands of escaped Islamic State militants. while the caliphate was crumbling.
Meanwhile, Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric and the ban on Muslim immigrants delivered a propaganda victory to the militants, reinforcing a “core message from al-Qaeda, which is that America is against Islam,” Riedel said. .
“This will come back to haunt us,” Riedel said. “We may have made it very difficult for them to operate, but their message is still very, very strong and we are not doing much to fight that message.”
Even before Baghdadi’s death, the Islamic State was beginning to adapt to changing circumstances. Under the former leader, the group’s main followers in Iraq and Syria had begun the transition from an enclave of land-owning terrorists to an underground insurgency. In his final video message, Baghdadi also symbolically passed the baton to the “wilayat”, or regional affiliates of the group, signaling that they would now take on a more important role as leader of the global movement.
But even Baghdadi may have been surprised by the strength displayed by the group’s African offspring in the year following his death.
Most surprising is the growth of Islamist groups in West Africa, home to two Islamic State affiliates and a branch of al-Qaeda, which operate and often compete in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
While Islamist militants have been active in the region for years, the problem has worsened dramatically over the past two years. Violence in the region killed 4,825 people in 2019, the highest in at least a decade, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that compiles reports on such incidents around the world. By October, this year’s death toll had risen to 5,365, already ensuring that 2020 will be far more deadly. State security forces killing civilians in pursuit of extremists have exacerbated the bloodshed, human rights groups say.
Equally alarming, militants are staging attacks closer to big cities and reaching coastal states. In June, fighters with Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin – al-Qaeda’s affiliate known as JNIM – struck an army outpost on the northern border of Côte d’Ivoire, killing 14 soldiers in the first major attack in the country in four years.
Meanwhile, two different affiliates of the Islamic State – the Islamic State in West Africa and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – have collectively killed hundreds of government soldiers while claiming de facto control over remote areas of Niger and the northeastern state of Borno. of Nigeria.
Extremists have even turned national parks into battle zones. In addition to the attack on the giraffe park in Niger, militants have gone wild in Burkina Faso’s wildlife reserves, forcing the rangers to abandon their posts. The violence has forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes and has destroyed or closed 3,600 schools, according to UN figures.
Earlier this year, Islamic State and al-Qaeda groups in West Africa had shown signs of cooperation, or at least devolution, as their followers tried to divide territory. The apparent détente has faded in recent months as groups see themselves increasingly as rivals, analysts say.
“ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region are squabbling over the question: ‘Who can be the godfather of jihad in West Africa?'” Said a North African counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
On the southeastern coast of Africa, the rise of an Islamic State-related uprising has been equally dramatic. A group calling itself the Province of the Islamic State of Central Africa has claimed responsibility for dozens of raids on towns and villages in northern Mozambique, including tourist islands that are favorite spots for international celebrities.
U.S. officials say the attack on Mocimboa da Praia in August involved a sophisticated and multifaceted military assault by well-armed Islamists who defeated and defeated the local government garrison, which fled the city and, six weeks later, failed to she was still back.
The extremists have been able to exploit the weaknesses of ill-equipped local governments to fight the well-armed and geographically dispersed insurrections. Traditionally, the United States has provided support to African counter-terrorism units, including military advisers and special operations forces.
In November, the US military began flying Reaper drones from an airbase in the desert region of Agadez in Niger. Hundreds of American soldiers work on the 17-acre facility, which took four years to build and costs about $ 110 million. The troops, together with local partners, are mainly focused on surveillance and intelligence missions.
“We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa,” AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend said at the opening of the base. “Building this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”
Yet Pentagon officials acknowledge that they are now evaluating plans for withdrawal from West Africa, pending the results of a review of the position overseas ordered by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.
West African leaders and European allies have urged the United States to stay, saying that intelligence and training provided by American soldiers are critical to the fight against extremism. A levy would give a “significant” blow to the effort, said a French military officer focused on the Sahel, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In addition to weakening the fight against Islamists, the official said, a withdrawal would mean that the United States “will lose influence in Africa” at a time when China and Russia are rushing to close the gap.
“Disengagement when all of West Africa is concerned,” he said, “will be perceived as disinterest.”