Al-Baghdadi's death won't stop terrorist expansion in Africa

The Burkinabe honor guard stands at attention during a ceremony in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 1, 2019.


By GLEN CAREY | Bloomberg | Published: November 2, 2019

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is dead, but the militant's followers are still regrouping and spreading their ideology across remote patches of Africa.

In the Sahel region, the arid band on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert that stretches through some of Africa's poorest and least-governed countries, Islamic State followers are launching attacks against government forces. U.S. officials point to the Sahel as one of the biggest concerns in their counterterrorism campaign.

"Terrorist threats in the Sahel are very real -- as seen in the sharp increase in the number of attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso," Nathan Sales, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said in response to e-mailed questions. "The security of countries across the region is closely linked, and terrorists aspire to create territorial safe havens from which to plan attacks."

The threat from Islamic State persists even as President Donald Trump boasts of the defeat of the terrorist group's "caliphate," which once stretched across a swath of Syria and Iraq. Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the organization will remain a threat wherever local forces are unable to control it. "We don't see a bloodless future," General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters.

Sales met with Senegalese officials on Wednesday in Dakar, where he reaffirmed the "strong U.S. commitment" to supporting that nation's counterterrorism efforts, according to the State Department. His agenda included talks about terrorism in the Sahel as well as U.S. counterterrorism support for the coastal region of West Africa, the State Department said.

As the U.S. maintained pressure on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, militants fled across the Mediterranean to Libya. A breakdown in security in the country once ruled by Moammar Gadhafi has allowed both extremists and run-of-the-mill criminals to smuggle people, weapons and ideology. They traverse a string of oases and routes in the region that were once used by the Roman empire to move goods, animals and slaves for gladiator games in Rome.

Libya is the target of increasing U.S. military strikes. An American attack killed seven suspected Islamic State members on Sept. 29, the fourth that month, according to a tally of casualties from statements released by the U.S. military's Africa Command.

The death of al-Baghdadi, following a strike late Saturday by U.S. forces in northern Syria, may have little impact on Islamic State's ability to expand its reach.

Al-Baghdadi was the highest-ranking terrorist leader targeted by U.S. forces since al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a raid in Pakistan during the Obama administration. Trump said on Monday that U.S. troops later killed the "No. 1" replacement for al-Baghdadi, a spokesman for the terrorist group. Islamic State said Thursday that it has named a "new caliph," identifying him as Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurashi.

Much like bin Laden, who was viewed as a "symbol and source of ideological inspiration" before U.S. special forces killed him in Pakistan, al- Baghdadi may have been exercising little influence over the militant group before his death, according to Paul Pillar, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer.

"The impact of Baghdadi's death probably lessens the farther away one goes from Iraq and Syria," said Pillar, a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington. "In the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, the role of ISIS is more one of an ideology being injected into conflicts that have local roots, rather than of a central headquarters asserting control and organizational discipline."

Western intelligence officials say that since late 2017 Islamic State has devolved more responsibility to local offshoots, which had previously been managed centrally. That's empowered affiliates outside the Middle East, particularly in weakened states in north and central Africa.

As a result, the Sahel region is experiencing unprecedented levels of violence.

Mali has been engulfed in conflict since a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters with ties to Algeria and Libya seized large swaths of the north in 2012. A 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission is struggling to cope and is often treated with hostility by the population.

The violence is also spreading farther south and west.

The U.S. is "increasingly concerned about the spread of terrorism into coastal West Africa, as evidenced in the kidnapping earlier this year of French tourists in Benin and the killing of their Beninese guide," Sales said.

To counter the threat in Africa, the U.S. is working with local partners to improve policing. The U.S. State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance program is training, equipping and mentoring foreign law enforcement agencies to deter and disrupt terrorists. The global reach of the program has provided training to more than 150,000 law enforcement officials and first responders from 154 countries, according to the State Department.

"We also support targeted community policing programs to build trust between security forces and the populations they protect," Sales said. "This trust is vital to thwarting terrorists' efforts to exploit local tensions to weaken communities and radicalize individuals."

Ultimately, al-Baghdadi's death will have little impact on Islamic State's capacity to expand its global brand, according to James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"It is unlikely to have significant consequences for Islamic State's ability to operate" around the world, he said.

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