Ten years after its inception, IS finds new sanctuary in Africa

Ten years ago, al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But after being largely defeated in the Middle East, the terrorist group has found new places to regroup around the world.

IS jihadists are currently active in at least 28 countries across the African continent.
Lina Jaradat
IS jihadists are currently active in at least 28 countries across the African continent.

Ten years after its inception, IS finds new sanctuary in Africa

Ten years ago, jihadist militants were on the rampage in Syria and Iraq. With territory the size of the United Kingdom under his control, the leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a rare public appearance in Mosul and declared a Caliphate, demanding that Muslims worldwide pledge their allegiance and submit to his authority. While neither the Caliphate declaration nor the call for support held any semblance of legitimacy, IS’s actions were unprecedented and proved to be debilitating for international security.

Whilst its fighters were massacring thousands in Iraq and Syria and forcing millions into its medieval rule, IS sought to eliminate northern Iraq’s minority Yazidi community while publicly beheading Western hostages on high-definition videos. The scale of IS’s accomplishments, the shocking nature of its violence, and its claim to have established a state-like entity triggered the biggest global movement of foreign fighters ever recorded.

Ultimately, more than 50,000 people from over 110 countries around the world travelled to join IS in Syria and Iraq. The ripple effects were felt far and wide as terrorist groups across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia flocked to join the IS cause, becoming wilayat or states within the group’s Caliphate project.

At this point, ten years ago, IS may have enjoyed a short-lived sense of momentum. Within weeks, the United States had begun intervening militarily in Iraq and Syria while mobilising a similarly unprecedented international coalition of dozens of countries dedicated to combating and defeating the IS threat.

That coalition, which eventually gained 87 country members, committed resources to fight IS on the ground while combating the group’s financing, its propaganda and its international recruitment, as well as supporting the stabilisation of territories liberated from its terrorist rule. As those efforts got underway and worked to curtail IS’s influence in Iraq and Syria, the group inspired and coordinated a global campaign of terrorist attacks that killed thousands on every continent except Antarctica.

By early 2019, after four-and-a-half years of effort, parallel military campaigns in Iraq and Syria had captured every inch of IS territory, rendering IS’s ‘state’ there effectively defeated. Tens of thousands of IS militants had been killed or captured, and to all extents and purposes, the group had virtually disappeared from the battlefield. Since then, much of the international focus and attention on dealing with a ‘sustainable’ or ‘durable’ defeat to IS has faded away, as other issues took to the fore, including wars in Ukraine, Sudan and Gaza, as well as broader issues of great power competition, regional de-escalation and diplomatic re-engagement.

From the perspective of tackling the threats and challenges posed by IS, this loss of focus in recent years has been deeply problematic for several reasons. Firstly, IS’s Caliphate declaration on 29 June 2014 transformed the terror group into something global, leaving its heartlands in Iraq and Syria vitally important but far from determinative of the group’s survival. Second, physical or tangible territory does not define IS’s perception of its ‘state’ or ‘Caliphate.’ In fact, IS first declared a ‘state’ in Iraq in 2006, and although it proved very short-lived, that ‘state’ has survived and only grown in the 18 years since, according to IS.

Consequently, the territorial victories proclaimed in Iraq and Syria in 2018 and 2019 were far from mission accomplished, as the IS threat has dispersed around the world and merely evolved in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands. In truth, there are now more IS groups in existence, active in more countries and with more territory under their control than ever before. Far from having dealt IS a crippling defeat, the terrorist organisation presents a greater, more diverse and more complex range of threats in an international environment in which the attention, resources and political will to focus on counter-terrorism is at an all-time low.


The area of the world where IS has grown the most in recent years is Africa, with jihadists currently active in at least 28 countries across the African continent. In the past year, nearly 50% of all terror attacks worldwide have been in Africa. In the West of the continent— where 25% of all terror attacks occur—a series of coups in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have opened a path for a surge in IS activity in the Sahel. IS’s affiliate in the Sahel (Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, ISGS) has doubled the scale of territory under its control since early-2023, including in Mali, where it has begun deploying its brutal forms of governance, including al-hisba police whose violent imposition of severe moral codes was infamous in Syria and Iraq.

Earlier this year, ISGS’s long-running war with Al-Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), eased, allowing a fuller dedication of resources to the fight against local juntas whose own security capabilities have dwindled amid political upheaval.

Lina Jaradat

While that inter-factional hostility has since resumed, coups and political strife have led to the expulsion of US and French forces across the Sahel region and their replacement, in many cases, by Russian personnel and mercenaries. While the record of counter-terrorism success by American and French forces was admittedly mixed, their Russian counterparts appear to have exacerbated corruption while covering for and participating in acts of brutality, discrimination and criminality that have fueled the local narratives of IS and Al-Qaeda.

The prominence of the Sahel within IS’s global operation has also seen it establish and manage a flow of incoming foreign fighters from North and East Africa, as well as Europe. According to United Nations monitoring, a majority of these foreign fighters emanate from elsewhere in Africa, but some are Arabs, and others have originated in Europe.

A series of interlinked arrests in Spain and Morocco tied to ISGS in recent months point to a clear logistical and recruitment network spanning across Africa and into southern Europe. Other counterterrorism cases in Europe indicate that ISGS has sought to recruit from as far north as the United Kingdom, from where it has also received guidance on the design of drones to deliver locally manufactured chemical weapons.

Nearby, IS also retains a high level of operation in Nigeria and the neighbouring Lake Chad region, with the group’s West Africa Province sustaining the most consistently high level of operation of any IS affiliate worldwide. With ISGS surging in Mali and Niger, ISWAP can only benefit next door in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, IS also continues to exert itself in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Uganda, evading and challenging the ongoing joint DRC-Ugandan military campaign known as Operation Shujaa. Under Seka Baluku’s leadership, IS has also turned its guns on Western tourists in Uganda, notably executing South African and British tourists in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. To the north, in Sudan, IS also maintains an active but covert front led by a senior IS Central leader and alleged relative of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Abu Bakr al-Iraqi. From Sudan, this cell is thought to operate as a central cog in IS’s entire Africa operation, coordinating the movement of manpower, weapons, funds and more.

Beyond the Sahel, IS is also undergoing a resurgence in Mozambique, where the ongoing withdrawal of a regional military mission has created a vacuum into which IS is aggressively re-stepping. Since early this year, IS’s affiliate in Mozambique – also known as Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa – has launched a succession of deadly assaults on towns like Macomia, Muidumbe, Mucojo, Chiure and Quissanga.

By themselves, Mozambiquan armed forces are proving almost entirely incapable of challenging this IS offensive, which is targeting the region’s majority Christian population and could, if things continue apace, reorient its target-set onto the country’s sizeable gas fields run by French conglomerate Total.

Elsewhere in Africa, IS maintains a small but strategically vital presence in northern Somalia, where its affiliate and recently killed leader Abdul Qadir Mu’min runs the al-Karrar Office—a lucrative hub for the collection and dissemination of IS funds across Africa through the Middle East and into South and Central Asia.

According to US intelligence and international monitoring, the al-Karrar Office is the most financially impactful of any entity managed by IS’s worldwide General Directorate of the Provinces. By contrast, the al-Furqan Office in Nigeria, run by Abu Bakr bin Mohammed ibn Ali al-Mainuki, does not maintain anywhere the same level of international reach or strategic impact on IS’s global operations.

While Mu’min was reportedly killed in a US air strike in late May, it is likely he maintained a clear line of succession, given the small and tight-knit nature of IS’s operation in Somalia. Meanwhile, reports citing unnamed US officials that Mu’min was, in fact, IS’s global leader do not appear to be credible, though it is feasible that he had assumed leadership of IS’s General Directorate of Provinces.

IS jihadists are currently active in at least 28 countries across the African continent.

Afghanistan and Central Asia

While the sheer scale and breadth of IS's activities in Africa continue to evade serious international attention, IS's branch in Afghanistan has also generated considerable recognition. Initially established in 2014 by a conglomeration of defectors from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has morphed into a potent transnational terror movement in recent years.

Driven in part by pressure from the Taliban but also driven by its ambitious leader Sanaullah Ghafari, ISKP has invested heavily in recruiting ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Afghans and in infiltrating the Taliban's local security structures.

As an Afghan Tajik himself and a former member of the Afghan National Army, Ghafari has managed – with the support of fellow Tajik Khukumatov Dodihudoevich, who runs ISKP propaganda – an expansion of ISKP's footprint and influence across Central Asia (particularly Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and into Iran, Russia, Turkey and parts of Europe. This rapid expansion of ISKP's operational reach has made recent international headlines since the 3 January bombing in Kerman, Iran, that killed at least 95 people and the 22 March assault on the Crocus concert hall in Moscow, Russia, that killed 144.

But ISKP's reach is still deeper and more expansive. One of IS's most powerful financiers worldwide is an Afghan ISKP operative based in Turkey: Ismatullah Khalozai, whose financial network has empowered ISKP in Afghanistan for years, including from his previous post in the United Arab Emirates. Khalozai's work in Turkey is also thought to have supported IS central leadership elsewhere.

ISKP's growth and infiltration across regional borders is also likely to have impacted, or at least encouraged, a recent increase in jihadist activity in Russia's North Caucasus – which has been linked to the IS cause. Most recently, jihadist militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in Dagestan on the Orthodox holiday of Trinity Sunday, leaving at least 20 people dead. Days earlier, IS-linked militants launched a mutiny inside a prison in the Russian city of Rostov, taking two guards hostage.

From the perspective of Western counterterrorism authorities, ISKP is the terror group that currently presents the most formidable security threat. According to one senior European intelligence official, ISKP's terrorist threat to northern Europe has been "live" and "active" since early 2023, and several ISKP plots have already been quietly foiled in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. US intelligence appears to have achieved a particularly effective penetration of ISKP operations or communications, given the specificity of warnings issued to Russia prior to the Moscow attack in March. Attacks prevented in Scandinavia—linked to Quran burnings—were also stopped due to US intelligence.

Syria and Iraq

Turning to IS's original heartlands, it is clear that for now, at least, the terror group is a shadow of its former self in Iraq. In fact, in the past year, IS has been responsible for just 88 attacks across Iraq, while it conducted 350 in the year prior. That precipitous decline in attacks is a remarkable development, given IS's more than two-decade history in Iraq, but a steady improvement in Iraqi security force capabilities and acute popular fatigue and hatred of IS itself has thinned the group's roots significantly.

However, the situation could not be more different next door in Syria. Since January 2024, IS has surged its attacks across Syria in a way unseen since 2017. In the first four months of this year alone, IS attacks increased by 250% compared to 2023—with at least 473 attacks, leaving 567 dead.

This dramatic intensification of IS activity has been clear both in northeast Syria, controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and in the al-Assad regime-held central and eastern Badiya—which have witnessed 213% and 320% surges in IS attacks, respectively. However, the deadliness of IS attacks has been significantly higher in regime areas, where 88% of fatalities have occurred.

Read more: Decoding the alarming surge of IS prison breaks in north Syria

Beyond number alone, IS has also markedly enhanced the sophistication and nature of its attacks across Syria. In previous years, IS activity was almost entirely limited to isolated IEDs and drive-by shootings. Still, in recent months, the group has turned increasingly to complex amassed assaults, coordinated ambushes, armed raids, and even the use of fake checkpoints to capture, interrogate and execute enemies.

IS is now deploying larger groups of fighters into more daring and risky operations, which is a clear indication that it can potentially expend manpower in a way that was previously impossible. That suggests recruitment is up—a warning sign of the highest order.

Northeast Syria and regime-held central and eastern Badiya—have witnessed 213% and 320% surges in IS attacks.

IS in Syria has also shifted away from operating solely in rural, minimally populated areas and is increasingly active in urban centres, conducting kidnappings, assassinations and raids. Reports are increasing of IS shadow influence, enforced by a fully recovered extortion and intimidation network that exists to undermine official authorities and erode public confidence in their credibility.

IS fighters are now known to conduct night-time patrols in some areas around Deir ez-Zor and to exert heavy influence over local business throughout large swathes of eastern Syria. The group has been especially aggressive outside the gas town of al-Sukhna in central Syria, the gateway to Palmyra, and in the southern governorate of Daraa, the group remains a persistent challenge, both to the regime and former opposition factions.

Signs that IS has chosen to invest and double down on Syria over Iraq have been clear for several years, but no more so than today. The fact that IS's Bilad al-Rafidayn Office (Iraq) has recently and for the first time been folded under the authority of the Ardh al-Mubarakah Office, responsible for Syria, speaks volumes about where the balance of power lies. The current emir of Syria operations, Abdullah Makki al-Rifai, has charted the group onto a path of clear recovery, and for now, at least, there is no clear or strategic counter to it.


Beyond its powerful branches across Africa, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, IS also retains meaningful capabilities in Russia's North Caucasus, in the Philippines, in North Africa and Egypt. Of note, a recent uptick of activity in the southern Philippines has generated intelligence concern locally and regionally in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, where chatter of foreign attacks has persisted in recent months. In other words, IS is a truly global challenge today and poses a considerable threat.

When IS surged onto the international stage ten years ago, it was a highly centralised and tightly administered terrorist organisation, headquartered in Syria and Iraq and expanding abroad, but with strong central control over newly acquired branches.

But amid heightening and sustained pressure on central leadership in Syria and Iraq—including the loss of four leaders since 2019—and the continued development and consolidation of branches abroad, IS has decentralised in terms of command and control. Individual IS branches have a greater level of operational autonomy today, while the General Directorate of the Provinces maintains lines of communication and logistics between branches, where possible and fruitful.

In fact, there has been persistent speculation in 2024 that IS's central leadership may even have departed its traditional Iraq-Syria base and moved elsewhere—possibly to Turkey or even somewhere in Africa. Whether there is any truth to that remains to be seen.

Still, it is indisputably true that IS's most potent focal points for external attack plotting, territorial control and mobilisation, fundraising and financial transfer, and even recruitment are not based out of Syria or Iraq but in Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Turkey. Many of those have become increasingly interconnected, coalescing around zones of IS operational momentum or acute concentrations of senior operatives more distant from counter-terrorism attention.

That reality is partly a result of successful—but still insufficient— Western counter-terrorism actions in Syria and Iraq, but it is also the consequence of international fatigue with countering terrorism and disinterest when it develops in new or more distant regions. That is clearly something IS, as well as Al-Qaeda, are aware of and actively seeking to exploit.

To make matters worse, deeply rooted crises associated with humanitarian decline, aid donor fatigue and stretched budgets, exacerbating climate change strains, new and growing displacement and migration, and intensifying geopolitical change and instability are all creating the kinds of socio-political fissures, ungoverned spaces, and vacuums into which the likes of IS can easily step and thrive.

IS is also seeking to benefit from new and emerging technologies, including the mass adoption of cryptocurrency, the proliferation of drone technology, weapons produced by 3D printers, and artificial intelligence (AI). While this has been in play for several years, IS's experimentation with AI is more recent.

Lina Jaradat

Following on from early tests of an AI-driven "Caliphate Cannon" cyber weapon that conducted automated denial of service attacks, prominent online IS supporters have begun deploying AI to produce and disseminate sophisticated news reports designed to resemble those of major mainstream media outlets. Propaganda platforms closely associated with IS also openly advertise for recruits experienced with AI technology to develop tools to swiftly make and share posters, articles and videos showing off IS activities. With time, tools like AI will act as affordable force multipliers, expanding IS's reach and threat and enhancing its visibility by great margins.

The fact that IS is simultaneously emerging on a steady trajectory for resurgence in Syria presents a disturbing picture of the near-term IS threat picture. The group's territorial control is growing, as is its operational reach into new regions and back into Europe and possibly even the US. The threat of IS-inspired and externally directed terrorist attacks remains, including in Europe and the US but also in places like Central Asia, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Southeast Asia. With the Olympic Games set to take place in France this Summer, there is acute concern that IS will be determined to act in such a high-profile context.

Ultimately, the international community is guilty of winning many battles against IS but of losing the war while turning its attention away from the whole picture. For several years, much of IS's international expansion was undertaken by groups whose activities and agendas appeared to be locally oriented. However, that localism was a strategic cover for IS's wider determination to create, consolidate, and empower a cohesive and transnational movement that would present a range of mutually reinforcing threats to its many enemies.

Fundamentally combating and defeating an adversary like this requires long-term and consistent strategy, but nothing of the sort has emerged until now. Unless that changes, IS only stands to benefit.

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