Western powers are promising recent successes by the Islamic State across Africa will not go unanswered, backing plans for a task force to focus on the terror group’s spread from Iraq and Syria to the African continent.
The announcement Monday following a meeting in Rome by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS comes a day before the seventh anniversary of the terror group’s proclamation of its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and two years since the caliphate’s territorial defeat in Syria.
But despite constant pressure from the U.S. military and other coalition members, Western counterterrorism officials warn that IS, or Daesh as the group is also known, has found ways not just to survive but to spread, increasingly focusing the group’s propaganda on the exploits of its African affiliates.
“We are fearing the expansion and spread of Daesh in Africa," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told reporters Monday, citing what he described as a “cry for help” from communities in countries such as Niger and Mali.
"We know that many villages have fallen in the hands of terrorists,” Di Maio said through an interpreter, adding the threat is pressing ever closer.
“We're now seeing that a number of terrorist cells are proliferating in regions such as the Sahel, where obviously the main migration routes are present, the routes of those who come to Europe,” he said.
Di Maio did not share details about how the new African task force will work to combat IS, though he noted the need for a “holistic approach,” which considered factors such as climate change and poverty that might drive some people toward extremism.
“We must step up the action undertaken by the coalition, not by shifting our focus but by increasing the areas in which we can operate … [in] the Sahel, Mozambique and the Horn of Africa," he said.
Speaking alongside Di Maio Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken backed the call for the task force to push back against IS gains in Africa.
"We strongly support Italy's initiative to make sure that the coalition against Daesh focuses its expertise on Africa while keeping our eyes closely on Syria and Iraq," Blinken said. "We heard a strong consensus."
In a communique issued after the meeting, ministers from the 83-coalition countries noted three of the coalition’s newest members — the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mauritania — are from Africa.
Three other African nations — Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Ghana — attended as observers, officials said.
As if to underscore the growing threat from IS affiliates in Africa, IS’s West Africa Province circulated a video last Friday allegedly showing fighters from the Boko Haram terror group switching sides to join with their former rivals.
"We have now joined with our Ikhwan (brothers),” a former Boko Haram fighter said in the video obtained by SITE Intelligence Group.
“We should not relent in our effort to fight the kuffar (infidels)," the speaker added, according to a copy obtained by Reuters.
The video comes less than a month after IS-West Africa first issued claims that longtime Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau died after being captured by its fighters.
U.S. officials have yet to confirm Shekau’s death, though they tell VOA the sourcing for such reports appear to be more credible than previous claims of his demise.
Yet while U.S. officials and experts say Shekau’s death would be a positive development, they caution that the danger from terror groups like IS-West Africa are far from gone.
“The Islamic State’s presence in Africa has been clear and steadily growing, even as IS Central’s power has waned,” said Jason Warner, lead Africa researcher at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
“The sheer number of IS African provinces and wings with clear staying power has arguably created an even more intractable threat from IS than we’ve seen in the past,” he added, noting the threat in Africa “is arguably at its pinnacle right now.”
Yet, other experts worry that the Defeat ISIS coalition’s focus on Africa, first suggested by U.S. officials in late 2019, may be a case of too little, too late.
“While it is good that the coalition is talking about Africa and bringing relevant countries into the discussion, any coordination seems to be still in the early stages, while the conditions on the ground are deteriorating very fast,” Emily Estelle, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.
“The proposed task force should focus its energy on backing up military success with governance success,” she added. “This is the gap that lets IS and other groups keep coming back after military losses.”
But there are questions about how much military might the coalition will be able to muster across Africa.
France this month announced it would end its counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, and the U.S. military is still in the process of a posture review that could see more of its troops leave Africa.
U.S. military officials have previously noted that the removal of U.S. forces from Somalia, ordered by former U.S. President Donald Trump, “has introduced new layers of complexity and risk.”
And a report from the Pentagon’s inspector general late last year warned the terrorist threat across Africa was expanding, despite U.S. efforts to contain it.
In a separate but related move Monday, the U.S. designated Ousmane Illiassou Djibo, a top official with IS in the Greater Sahara, as a specially designated global terrorist, describing him as the architect of a network to kidnap or kill westerners in Niger and surrounding areas.
IS in Syria
Despite the focus on IS in Africa, U.S. officials have been warning of the ongoing threat from the terror group’s core leadership in Iraq and especially in Syria, where IS has been able to revive its fortunes in areas nominally controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.
There have also been persistent concerns about the 10,000 IS fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters, being held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a situation Blinken described as untenable.
“There is some urgency,” he told reporters. "There is a need for countries to take action to repatriate foreign fighters that come from those countries, to prosecute them where appropriate, to rehabilitate and reintegrate where appropriate."
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS also expressed concerns about the terror group’s fortunes in Afghanistan, praising efforts by Kabul to counter the so-called Khorasan province.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers there was a “medium” risk of groups like IS-Khorasan regenerating the ability to threaten the West.
Intelligence assessments from the U.S. and from United Nation member states have also warned of the affiliate’s ability to threaten both Afghanistan and the wider region.
Cindy Saine, Chris Hannas contributed to this report