Jihadists target Africa and Afghanistan, but also eye China and Russia

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ISIS fighters raising their weapons in the air

james M Dorsey     28 March 2023

All Mr. Mohamed wanted was a job and a marriage.

A 22-year-old Somali farmhand, Mr. Mohamed, skeptically retorted, “is that right?” when Al Shabab recruiters sought to convince him that the defence of Islam needed him.

“What I really need is a job and a wife,’ Mr. Mohamed added.

The farmworker was persuaded when the recruiters for one of Africa’s oldest jihadist movements promised to find him a wife.

The jihadists never did. Instead, when Mr. Mohamed’s battle injuries disabled him, Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, pressured him to sacrifice himself as a suicide bomber.

Mr. Mohamed fits the profile of an average African rank-and-file militant recruit who sees jihadism as an opportunity to escape poverty rather than the fulfillment of a religious command.

The recruits’ lack of religious education works in the militants’ favour. Recruits are in no position to challenge their militant interpretation of Islam.

128-page United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) survey of 500 former militants showed that 57 per cent knew little or nothing about Islamic religious texts.

Challenging notions that Muslim religious education creates a breeding ground for militancy, the study showed that it reduced the likelihood of radicalisation by 32 per cent.

Islamic State recruitment in Afghanistan has proven to be a different beast.

It benefitted from outflanking Al Qaeda as the primary transnational jihadist group in the region, independent of and opposed to Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.

In contrast to Africa, the Islamic State had a more ready-made pipeline of battle-hardened militants and auxiliaries with its cooptation of groups like Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The cooptation brought in militants with superior knowledge of the local and regional landscape. Some were scions of influential political and warlord families who provided logistical support by helping the Islamic State gain access to official documentation and plan attacks.

In addition, Afghanistan’s Salafi communities’ relations with the Taliban are strained and former Afghan security force personnel at risk of persecution by the Taliban after their takeover in the wake of the US withdrawal in August 2021 turned out to be equally rich hunting grounds.

Finally, the Islamic State benefitted from its questioning of the Taliban’s Islamic credentials in contrast to Al Qaeda which supports the Afghan movement.

In defending the Taliban, Al Qaeda has projected the group’s declaration of an Islamic Emirate, which the Afghans have not characterized as a caliphate, as an alternative to the Islamic State’s notion of a caliphate as declared in 2014 when it controlled swathes of Syrian and Iraq.

“Skepticism of the Taliban has long characterized a certain segment of the jihadi movement that is more puritanical or doctrinaire in orientation… The Islamic State provided a home for the more radical strain of jihadi thought… The group’s rise to prominence has meant that more and more jihadis have come to view the Taliban as an apostate movement,” said scholar Cole Bunzel in a recent study of jihadist attitudes towards the Afghan group.

The distinct profiles of militants in Africa and Afghanistan suggest different trajectories with divergent geopolitical impacts, at least for now.

As a result, in Africa, counterterrorism efforts emphasizing political, social, and economic reform on par with security and law enforcement in a bid to reduce militants’ recruitment pool and deprive them of a conducive environment, is in the short-and middle-term a more feasible approach than in Afghanistan, where they rely on ideology and religious fervour to a greater degree.

That is not to say that reform is unimportant in Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, targeted by the Islamic State.

Even so, cross-border jihadist operations in Afghanistan and Africa pose different challenges and create diverging opportunities for external powers like China, Russia, the United States, and Europe.

For Russia, Africa generates a significant opportunity to expand its global reach and influence. Russia capitalised on the tightrope that the United States and Europe walk as they balance the need for reform with inevitable support for autocratic partners in the fight against militancy.

The management of that balance by France, long the major external power in the fight alongside the United States, has ultimately disadvantaged it and opened doors for Russia.

Countries like Mali and Burkina Faso are cases in point.

Mali highlighted the importance of strengthening good governance. In 2020, a weak government produced a military coup that ruptured relations with France and paved the way for the replacement of French troops by the Wagner Group, Russia’s shadowy mercenary force.

France’s departure from Mali signalled an end to its decade-long fight against Islamic insurgents in the Sahel.

Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron increasingly focused on reversing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and declared as much by halving the number of French forces in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania to 2,200 and limiting their mission.

Mali withdrew six months earlier from the G5 Sahel multi-national military force, composed of troops from Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, in a further blow to Western counterterrorism efforts.

The drawdown of French troops spotlighted the inability of the US-sponsored Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), founded in 2005, to effectively assist West and North Africa in the fight against militancy.

The partnership was designed to adopt a holistic approach to address the region’s political, development, socio-economic, and governance challenges.

In practice, it was a mismanaged policy tool focused almost exclusively on security assistance and strengthening local military and security institutions. As a result, it spent US$1 billion for over a decade and a half with little to show for itself.

In a bid to bolster US support for the Sahel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a visit to Niger in March, the first ever by a Secretary of State, $150 million in new humanitarian aid. Mr. Blinken’s message was echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris during visit this week to three African states, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Nonetheless, despite more than a decade of US and French-led counterterrorism efforts, militancy is spreading, most recently to the West African coastal states of Benin and Togo.

In testimony last year to the Senate Armed Forces Committee before he stepped down as head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen J Townsend, warned that “seven of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism in 2020 were in sub-Saharan Africa, with Burkina Faso suffering a 590 per cent increase.”

Desperate to end the violence, many in West Africa welcome Russia and the Wagner Group, hoping they may succeed where France and the United States and corrupt regional governments have failed.

In Mali and elsewhere in the region, Russian psychological warfare helped pave the way for the Wagner Group.

So did Russia’s willingness, in contrast to France and the United States, despite the high cost to civilian life of their actions, to conduct and allow local governments to wage counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights concerns.

Yet, the combination of brutality with no political, social, or economic component of any significance, and lack of differentiation between transnational militants in Africa, such as Al Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) and various regional self-autonomy movements, promises to produce short-term results, at best, rather than structural solutions.

The failure to distinguish between different types of militants precludes the design of tailor-made approaches that address specific grievances and reduce the risk of driving non-jihadist tribal and ethnic movements into the arms of religious militants.

Moreover, by paying Russia and the Wagner Group for their services in concessions for natural resources, commercial contracts, and/or access to critical infrastructure, such as airbases and ports, African governments enable Russia to embed itself in their economies and social fabric.

In Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation of 20 million, protesters waving Russian flags attacked the French embassy and a cultural institute in Ouagadougou, the capital, after a military takeover in September 2022, the second in a year.

The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was among the first to congratulate the new junta, praising it for doing what “was necessary.”

Russia was a factor in the coup, even if Russia may not have instigated it, and despite assurances by Burkina Faso’s new president, Captain Ibrahim Traore, that his country would not follow in Mali’s footsteps.

West African sources close to Mr. Traore said he had toppled the leader of Burkina Faso’s first coup, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, because he was dragging his feet on turning to Russia after France refused to sell him military equipment, including helicopters.

The US, France, and Russia’s focus on counterterrorism in West Africa ignores the north of the continent at their peril.

Officials, strategists, and analysts believe that North Africa’s experience dating to Algeria’s bloody war in the 1990s against Islamist militants and militancy in Libya and Tunisia in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts, as well as Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Islamists in 2013, has, at least for now, firewalled the region against militancy.

The opposite could be true. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown regional economies into chaos. Many perform worse than they were on the eve of the 20l11 uprisings. Socio-economic disparities, corruption, and unemployment have increased. Significant segments of the population are angry, frustrated, and hopeless.

A report in 2021 by the US Institute for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that “frustration with the inability of regional governments to address these problems boiled over in 2011, leading to popular revolutions that toppled three of the five regimes in power in North Africa. Yet, despite these highly visible and destabilising popular uprisings, reform has been slow. As a result, the social and economic factors that have made the region so fertile for terrorist recruitment and incitement remain unaddressed.”

If Europe may be the external power most affected by increasing instability and political violence on its periphery, China could become the major power most targeted in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

China has moved more firmly into the Islamic State’s crosshairs in the past year.

At the same time, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), long a transnational jihadist group aligned with Al Qaeda, has increasingly shifted from pursuing global jihad to wanting to liberate the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The party’s deputy emir, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, signalled the shift in a seven-page statement on Telegram.

Speaking in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, rather than Uyghur or Arabic, Mr. Al-Turkistani, asserted that “we are not from China, our homeland is East Turkistan… We are your Muslim brothers from East Turkistan of Central Asia… We are not terrorists; we are fighters for the freedom of the oppressed Uyghurs in East Turkistan.”

Mr. Al-Turkistani’s assertion that his group, formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was not a terrorist organisation was undergirded by a decision in 2020 by the US State Department to take the movement off its terrorism list.

China got a taste of what the Islamic State and TIP shifts could entail when three men stormed a Chinese-owned hotel in the centre of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in December 2022. The attackers were killed, and five of the approximately 30 Chinese nationals in the hotel were wounded.

It was the first attack on a Chinese target since the Taliban came to power in August 2021. The Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility.

A day earlier, Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu expressed “dissatisfaction” about security and urged the Taliban to improve its protection of the People’s Republic’s diplomatic mission.

The attack followed a series of anti-Chinese statements and publications by the Islamic State in which the group denounced Chinese “imperialism.” The renewed focus broke the Islamic State’s five-year silence about China.

It also raised the spectre of the group attacking Chinese targets in Pakistan as it did in 2017 when it kidnapped and executed two Chinese nationals in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, a key node in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Similarly, the TIP vowed revenge for China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in a statement released a week before the attack on the hotel.

Western governments, Uyghurs, and human rights activists have accused China of imprisoning more than one million Turkic Muslims to reshape their religious and ethnic identity in the mould of the country’s rulers.

The brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the effort to Sinicise Islam in China is one major reason why the People’s Republic is in jihadist crosshairs.

Another is China’s largely unnoticed growing commercial interests in Afghanistan.

China is one of only a handful of countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and trade with Afghanistan, even if it, like the rest of the world, refuses to recognize the Taliban regime.

Nevertheless, China advised its citizens in Afghanistan, Kabul’s largest ex-pat community, to leave the country “as soon as possible” in the wake of the hotel attack.

Meanwhile, arrivals at Kabul’s airport are greeted by a billboard beckoning them to Chinatown, a collection of drab 10-storey buildings in the northwest of the city populated by shops selling Chinese products ranging from office furniture to appliances, solar panels, toiletries, and clothing.

In addition, China’s first infrastructural project in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a 57-hectar, $216-million industrial park that sprawls across the northeastern edge of Kabul. China picked the project up after the United States abandoned it with US forces’ withdrawal and President Ashraf Ghani’s fall.

China has since removed tariffs on 98 per cent of Afghan goods and revived an air transport service to import US$800 million a year worth of pine nuts.

Africa and Afghanistan may be jihadists’ current centres of gravity, but militants’ ambitions go far beyond.

Islamic State attacks on Afghan mosques near the border with Central Asia and a purported cross-border missile attack on Uzbekistan have dashed Central Asian hopes that the Taliban would be able to control the frontier region and shield former Soviet republics from the jihadists.

Like China, Russia’s involvement in the African fight against extremism will, sooner rather than later, make Russia a jihadist target.

An Islamic State suicide bombing in September 2022 near the Russian embassy in Kabul in which two Russian embassy staff were among six people killed may have been a shot across Moscow’s bow.

Offering alternatives across Africa to men like Mr. Mohamed, the former Somali militant in search of a job and a wife, would enhance counterterrorism efforts in Africa and Central Asia, provided the United States, Europe, and local governments have the political will to implement necessary reforms.

That will be far more difficult in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is internationally isolated, desperate to hold on to power, and unwilling to meet minimal conditions of the international community that wants to see more inclusive policies.

The 2022 attacks on the hotel and the Russian embassy in Kabul suggest that Russia and China are increasingly in jihadist crosshairs in ways that could see militants expand their theatre of operations, and, in the case of Afghanistan, target others like the United Arab Emirates, that do business with the Taliban.

An earlier version of this article was first published by Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses

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James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a syndicated columnist and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent whose career focused on ethnic and religious conflict, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and North Africa on Southeast and Central Asia and the nexus of sports, politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia.