Terrorist organizations appear to be tightening their grip on multiple regions of Africa, despite ongoing efforts by the United States and its allies to degrade their capabilities and limit their reach.
The findings, part of a new report released Tuesday from the Defense Department inspector general, come as U.S.-led efforts have been forced to adjust, and in some cases, scale back activities because of the coronavirus making its way across the continent.
“The United States and its international partners made limited progress,” Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in the quarterly report, citing setbacks against affiliates of both al-Qaida and Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS.
Rather than slow terrorist groups down, the report warned the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, appears to have given many of them new opportunities to expand.
“The pandemic exacerbated many of the underlying conditions that foster VEO (violent extremist organization) growth, including economic and food insecurity,” O’Donnell wrote, pointing to assessments by the United Nations that in some areas, terror groups “capitalized on the virus to undermine state government authority and continue their attacks.”
Warnings about the resilience of al-Qaida and IS affiliates in Africa are not new. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, warned U.S. lawmakers months ago that such groups were “on the march” and getting increasingly ambitious.
"If ISIS can carve out a new caliphate, or al-Qaida can, they will do it," he said in March.
In a report released in July, the Defense Department Inspector General reported that terrorist activity in Africa, “appears to be outpacing U.S., European and African efforts to counter it.”
Despite some successes, including a French-led operation in June in northern Mali that killed the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with help from the U.S., several officials worry that terror hot spots in Africa are only getting hotter.
One area of concern is eastern Africa, where U.S. military officials say as many as 10,000 fighters with al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab continue to enjoy freedom of movement, enabling them to carry out attacks at what the inspector general report describes as “historically high levels.”
Data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project found that al-Shabab carried out 608 attacks during the three months from April through June, up from 568 such incidents during the first quarter.
At the same time, poor weather conditions and a lack of resources limited the U.S. to just seven airstrikes against the terror group, compared to 33 during the first three months of the year.
U.S. military officials also expressed concerns about western Africa, where al-Qaida and IS affiliates managed to expand their operations into the western Sahel and to northern regions of several coastal countries.
In particular, U.S. Africa Command said both IS-West Africa and Boko Haram benefited from the spread of the coronavirus, wreaking “havoc” on communities forced to self-quarantine.
The report also warned of growing dangers in northern Africa, specifically from IS in Libya, which had been relatively quiet until May.
“ISIS-Libya resumed small-scale attacks in the southern desert region,” O’Donnell said.
A recent United Nations report, based on member state intelligence, said IS-Libya likely has just a few hundred fighters.
But at least one intelligence service warns the group may be growing, gathering as many as 1,400 fighters under its banner.
And while U.S. officials believe the smaller estimate is more accurate, there are growing concerns that the ongoing civil war in Libya, and the influx of thousands of mercenaries and foreign fighters, could create conditions that might allow IS to thrive.
U.S. Africa Command estimates that as of the end of June, more than 7,000 Syrian fighters had flocked to Libya, most with the help of Russia or Turkey.
U.S. officials believe a growing number of Syrian fighters may have previous links to terror organizations, though many of them are likely fighting in Libya for financial or personal reasons.
Most of the Syrian fighters, about 5,000, appear to be fighting with Turkish mercenaries and troops to back Libya’s Government of National Accord.
But Africa Command officials warn that many of them are “inexperienced, uneducated and motivated by promises of considerable salary,” saying reports of theft, sexual assault and other misconduct have increased in areas where Turkish-backed Syrian fighters have been deployed.