The ISIS presence in Africa has grown significantly over the past year, especially in Libya, Tunisia, and the Sinai. The ISIS announced its merger with a wing of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (“ABM”) late last year, turning the group into one of its so-called “provinces.” ISIS’ growth in Libya and Tunisia has been fueled mainly by young jihadists. Fighters returning to their home countries from Iraq and Syria have provided a pool of resources for ISIS. As of this writing, ISIS has a major presence in the city of Sirte and significant contingents in Benghazi and Derna, as well as elsewhere in Libya. While Ansar al Sharia in Libya and Tunisia have not defected to ISIS, the “caliphate” has successfully poached some members and leaders from these groups. For example, Ansar al Sharia Libya’s chief sharia official in Benghazi joined ISIS earlier this year.
ISIS gained a significant footing in West Africa by merging with Boko Haram earlier this year. The first indications of the ISIS-Boko Haram relationship could be seen in the latter’s propaganda, which has been typically poor. Over the past several months, Boko Haram’s propaganda became significantly better, showing multiple signs of ISIS’ influence. ISIS likely sent a team to Nigeria to improve Boko Haram’s media capabilities and to negotiate the alliance. Boko Haram now calls itself the Islamic State in West Africa, or the Islamic State’s Province in West Africa.
In Algeria, a small group of AQIM commanders has defected to ISIS. Prior to their defection, virtually no one had even heard of them. However, ISIS’ Algerian arm has already committed some attacks, including the beheading of a French hostage last year.
ISIS’ “provinces” in Africa are part of an international network, so their operations are not confined to the continent. For instance, Libya and Tunisia have probably contributed more jihadists, on a per capita basis, to the jihad in Iraq and Syria than any other countries. This facilitation pipeline has existed since the height of the Iraq War. ISIS has used this recruiting network to build its presence in North Africa by sending some key leaders and fighting units back to their home countries. Saudis, Yemenis and other nationalities have also been identified as being among ISIS’ main leaders in Libya.
ISIS’ expansion in Africa is not just aimed at growing support from local recruits, but is also part of its ongoing effort to attract foreign fighters from around the world. Through mid-2014, the Islamic State was focused on recruiting foreigners for its battles in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the group has increasingly called for foreign fighters to join its cause in African hotspots. When announcing its merger with Boko Haram, for example, the Islamic State’s spokesman specifically called on new recruits to join the “caliphate” in West Africa if they could not make the trip to the heart of the Middle East or elsewhere. “All Muslims, you should all come to your State, for we are calling on you to mobilize for jihad,” ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani said in March. He continued: “We incite you and call upon you to immigrate for jihad and to immigrate to your brothers in West Africa.” Just in the past few days, a Libyan ISIS fighter released a message calling on recruits to join him in North Africa. Similarly, there have been some limited efforts to turn the Sinai into a destination for foreign fighters
There is evidence that at least one potential American recruit saw Libya as a viable destination for waging jihad on behalf of ISIS. The FBI has alleged that Specialist Hasan R. Edmonds, a member of the Army National Guard in Illinois, intended “to travel overseas and fight on behalf of” ISIS. The investigation allegedly revealed that Edmonds was willing to join ISIS in North Africa. “I am fine being in Egypt, Sham, or Libya to be honest akhi [brother],” the defendant said in one conversation, according to the FBI. “I just want to answer the call.” Edmonds reportedly wanted to join ISIS’ ranks in Derna, Libya. Authorities have also charged Jonas Edmonds, Hasan’s cousin, with “planning an attack at a military base in Northern Illinois where Specialist Edmonds had been training.” Of course, other Americans have been drawn to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There is a possibility that more of them will seek out jihad in Africa instead.
A notorious terrorist who helped recruit the 9/11 suicide pilots has reportedly helped ISIS grow its footprint in Egypt. According to a credible report, Mohammed Zammar, who helped recruit al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell for the 9/11 plot, has joined ISIS. Zammar had been imprisoned by the Assad regime in Syria, but was freed as part of a prisoner exchange with ISIS. In return for securing his freedom, Zammar joined ISIS and reportedly helped the organization woo Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in the Sinai to its cause. Zammar even traveled to the Sinai to close the deal. This is troubling because it means that a jihadist who is adept at recruiting Westernized jihadists is traveling freely. It is possible that Zammar could once again help recruit young jihadists for a special operation in the West.
Al Qaeda has two official, regional branches in Africa: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Shabaab in Somalia. The leaders of both organizations have sworn bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The leaders of both organizations remain openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir. While AQIM and Shabaab are often called al Qaeda “affiliates,” al Qaeda refers to them as “regions” or “branches.” Osama bin Laden also used the phrase “regional areas” to describe al Qaeda’s presence in various places. This terminology helps to better understand how al Qaeda is actually organized. Each regional emir oversees al Qaeda’s efforts in his designated area. So, AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) is in charge of al Qaeda’s efforts in North Africa, west of Egypt, stretching down into Mali. Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Diriye (a.k.a. Sheikh Ahmad Umar and Abu Ubaidah), is generally in charge of al Qaeda’s efforts in Somalia and East Africa.
Al Qaeda designates certain operatives to work on what it calls “external operations,” or “external work,” which includes spectacular terrorist attacks against Western interests. Osama bin Laden ordered al Qaeda’s regional emirs, including the head of AQIM, to coordinate their efforts with the deputies he put in charge of al Qaeda’s “external work.” The al Qaeda deputy in charge of “external operations” from 2010 until his capture in September 2011 was Yunis al Mauritani. Al Mauritani was recently sentenced to a lengthy prison in his home country. Bin Laden set forth a specific chain of command to oversee “external operations.” Yunis al Mauritani reported to Atiyah Abd al Rahman (then al Qaeda’s general manager), who answered to bin Laden himself.In his letters to Rahman, Bin Laden stressed that each of al Qaeda’s “regions” must coordinate all “external work” with his deputies. He even wanted Rahman to inform “the brothers in Yemen” (AQAP) “that working in the sea, even within the territorial waters of the [Arabian] Peninsula, is to be considered external work that requires coordination with you.” In another declassified document, bin Laden made it clear that al Mauritani was “in-charge of the external operations in Africa, except the Islamic Maghreb states, starting from Libya to Mauritania, which is under the control of brother Abu Musa’b ‘Abd-al-Wadud [the emir of AQIM], and the African horn, which is under the control of the Emir of Al-Shabaab Mujahideen Movement.”
Osama bin Laden ordered each of al Qaeda’s branches, including AQIM in Africa, to identify recruits capable of launching attacks inside the U.S. “It would be nice if you would ask the brothers in all regions if they have a brother distinguished by his good manners, integrity, courage, and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.,” bin Laden wrote to his top manager, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, in May 2010. Bin Laden explained that an operative selected to attack the U.S. should be able to “live there, or it should be easy for him to travel there.” And each regional emir “should tell us this without taking any action and also tell us whether or not [the chosen operative] is willing to conduct a suicide operation,” bin Laden wrote. Bin Laden continued: “It would be nice if you [Rahman] would send two messages – one to Brother Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd-al-Wadud [the emir of AQIM], and the other to Brother Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi [the emir of AQAP] – and ask them to put forward their best in cooperating with Shaykh Yunis in whatever he asks of them.” Al Qaeda’s founder wanted AQIM to help pay for the operations: “Hint to the brothers in the Islamic Maghreb that they provide [Yunis al Mauritani] with the financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.
Some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, including those tasked with overseeing external operations, have come from Africa. Saleh al Somali was al Qaeda’s external operations chief until his death in late 2009. Somali’s jihadist pedigree stretched back to al Qaeda’s earliest efforts in eastern Africa, when the terror organization trained Somali militia to attack American forces. At the time of his death, Somali’s close ties to Shabaab were considered especially problematic, given Shabaab’s ability to recruit Americans.
The aforementioned Yunis al Mauritani was al Qaeda’s external operations chief from 2010 until his capture in 2011. Al Mauritani “participated in the formation” of AQIM. He joined the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), AQIM’s predecessor, in 2001 and was sent by GSPC’s leadership to cement their deal with al Qaeda in 2007. In 2010, he was in charge of a plan, backed by bin Laden, “to ostensibly damage the economy of Europe.”
The biographies of terrorists such as Somali and Mauritani show that al Qaeda has used its presence in Africa to build a deep roster of talent.
Senior al Qaeda operatives embedded within Shabaab’s ranks have planned attacks in the West. As I testified before this committee in July 2011, senior al Qaeda operatives have held some of Shabaab’s most important positions since its earliest days. And these operatives have been responsible for plotting attacks against Western and other foreign interests. One of these leaders, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was killed in 2011. Authorities found plans for attacking London in Fazul’s possession. A group known as the “London Boys” was trained by Fazul and reportedly tasked with executing attacks in the UK.
AQAP’s leaders are now al Qaeda’s general management team and they have worked closely with Shabaab, as well as with AQIM. Given that AQAP has led al Qaeda’s attempts to attack the U.S. Homeland in recent years, it is possible that the group will seek to employ al Qaeda’s African assets against the West. In previous testimony, I highlighted the close ties between Shabaab and AQAP. Since that time, AQAP’s emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was named al Qaeda’s global general manager. This role gives him broad power across all of al Qaeda’s branches. (Indeed, this is the same position that was held by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who is discussed above.) Al Qaeda documents first published by the Associated Press also show that Wuhayshi has been in close contact with the leadership of AQIM.
In addition to its two official branches, there are a number of other jihadist groups in Africa that are part of al Qaeda’s international network. The most significant organizations include: Ajnad Misr (Egypt), Ansar al Din (Mali), Ansar al Sharia Libya, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (which has been inactive of late), Ansaru (Nigeria), Al Mourabitoun (North Africa and Mali) and the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade (Tunisia). Just recently, another new group called Al Muhajiroun (the “Emigrants of East Africa”) was established. In its founding video, the group says it “owes allegiance” to the emir of Shabaab and Ayman al Zawahiri.
By Thomas Joscelyn
the Long War journal