On Oct. 26, Islamic State fighters seized control of the ancient port town of Qandala in northern Somalia, marking the group’s most significant territorial acquisition to date in that country. In a propaganda video released the following day — and described in dozens of credulous news reports — heavily armed men can be seen marching into the town and hoisting their signature black flag over a tall whitewashed building.
Look closer at the video, however, and it’s the same fighters parading past the camera again and again. It was a transparent attempt by the group to seem bigger, and more resilient, than it is in reality. And sure enough, the Islamic State was soon forced to abandon Qandala, retreating to the mountainous enclave where its leader, Abdiqadir Mumin, has been hiding out since he defected from al-Shabab in October 2015.
This is the story of the Islamic State in sub-Saharan Africa. It has achieved a number of symbolic victories — a pledge of allegiance from Boko Haram in Nigeria, the loyalty of at least one faction of the militant group al-Mourabitoun in Mali, and the support of a few minor al-Shabab sellouts like Mumin — but it has failed to displace al Qaeda as the continent’s premier jihadi franchise.
That’s partly because the Islamic State misjudged the jihadi movements it targeted in Africa, failing to appreciate both the strength of their ties to al Qaeda and the degree to which their leaders valued their autonomy. But it’s also because al Qaeda affiliates have fought back hard against encroachment on their turf — and the Islamic State has offered its own fledgling affiliates little in the way of military support.
Al Qaeda’s initial expansion into sub-Saharan Africa was impressive both for its speed and its breadth. It had no African presence to speak of on the eve of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — the old al Qaeda networks behind the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania had been broken up — but by 2014, the year the Islamic State began to make inroads in Africa, al Qaeda had two strong organizational affiliates and could count on the cooperation of a handful of other like-minded groups.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which by 2014 had expanded its operations beyond North Africa into the Sahel, and al-Shabab, which operated across much of East Africa, were the group’s official appendages in the region.
Its unofficial ones included the Malian jihadi group Ansar Dine, whose infamous leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, had family ties to AQIM leaders; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which merged with an offshoot of AQIM to create al-Mourabitoun, and whose leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was previously an AQIM commander. In practice, al Qaeda had affiliates across the Sahel and East Africa that pulled off a number of spectacularly bloody attacks during this period, including the 2013 assault on the In Amenas oil refinery in Algeria that left as many as 39 hostages dead and the Westgate Mall attack that same year in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 67 people were killed and at least 175 wounded.
But the Islamic State’s meteoric rise threw al Qaeda’s dominance in Africa into doubt. Having largely outmaneuvered al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State began dispatching emissaries into sub-Saharan Africa in an attempt to steal al Qaeda affiliates.
These efforts were aided by the Islamic State’s newfound popularity, which was partly the result of its overwhelming victories in the Levant and partly the result of the ironic but widespread belief that the group cared more about civilians (only Muslim civilians) than al Qaeda. By the spring of 2015, it had won the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as a splinter group of al-Mourabitoun led by the notorious jihadi Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui. (Belmokhtar, who retained leadership over part of al-Mourabitoun, issued a conflicting statement rebuking the actions of Sahraoui in May 2015.)
The Islamic State also began courting al-Shabab, sending envoys to encourage the Somali militant group to switch its allegiance and even producing propaganda videos featuring members of Boko Haram that were designed to appeal to al-Shabab’s rank and file. It also began to target the group’s main source of foreign recruits: the Somali diaspora. In October 2015, Mumin defected along with between 150 and 200 of his fighters. Then in April, another group of former al-Shabab fighters calling themselves Jabha East Africa pledged alliance to the Islamic State.
But al-Shabab’s top leadership has resisted the Islamic State at every turn, launching a series of attacks on the factions that defected and arresting and executing alleged Islamic State sympathizers. Jabha East Africa suffered significant losses at the hands of al-Shabab while Mumin and his small group of defectors have been relegated to their remote hideout in the Galgala Mountains in the semiautonomous region of Puntland. (Their recent foray into Qandala says more about the regional government’s shaky control of the town — and the weak and notoriously corrupt local police force — than about their ability to challenge al-Shabab for territorial dominance in Somalia.)
The Islamic State has suffered similar setbacks in West Africa. Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Mourabitoun, confirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda after defeating parts of Sahraoui’s splinter group, which had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau challenged the Islamic State by maintaining local control in Nigeria, likely contributing to the group’s decision to replace him. When the Islamic State newspaper al-Naba claimed in August that Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of the founder of Boko Haram, had been appointed the new leader of the Islamic State’s West Africa branch, Shekau contested the claim, and fighting erupted between the parties. Shekau has since renounced his ties with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; in losing Shekau, the Islamic State may have lost a large faction of Boko Haram and one of Africa’s most experienced — albeit erratic — jihadi leaders.
What explains the Islamic State’s disappointing record in Africa? Perhaps its leaders underestimated the historical ties between many African jihadi organizations and al Qaeda. Almost certainly they underestimated many African jihadi leaders’ desire for autonomy, a trait that sat uneasily with the Islamic State’s vision of centralized control through a caliphate. But the Islamic State also failed to back up its rhetorical appeals for loyalty with material support. Although it helped Boko Haram produce higher-quality propaganda videos and provided some financial support to fighters in southern Somalia, there is little evidence that the Islamic State sent weapons or troops to bolster any of its supporters in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, groups that have defected to join the Islamic State have struggled to upend the status quo relationships with al Qaeda – and many of them have been overpowered in the process.
The Islamic State made a bold play to challenge al Qaeda in Africa, but so far it has come up empty. At best, in West Africa, it has succeeded in dividing al Qaeda-linked groups, leaving them weakened by infighting and territorial disputes. At worst, in East Africa, the Islamic State has only managed to sway peripheral subgroups of limited capacity. Al Qaeda has been in sub-Saharan Africa since long before the Islamic State was formed, and it will be there long after the Islamic State is gone.