Amid fears that Islamic State fighters are inspiring extremists outside of the Middle East, analysts said the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant has emboldened extremists in Africa operating in voids left by weak governments and rampant corruption.
The US has described the Islamic State group as the strongest-ever extremist threat, with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology.
Its advance has sparked concern in Africa, with leaders from across the continent set to meet tomorrow in Kenya to discuss the threat, the first such conference organized by the African Union (AU).
Extremist groups who claim ties to the al-Qaeda breakaway have already firmly implanted themselves across sections of territory: from Nigeria’s Boko Haram and extremists in the Sahel to al-Shabaab fighters in the Horn of Africa.
“The scale and sophistication of recent attacks, along with the increased renationalization of terrorism by Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabaab, demand a more robust collective response, both at the regional and continental level,” the Institute for Security Studies said in a recent paper.
African spy chiefs, who met in Nairobi last week ahead of the conference, voiced concern that extremists on the continent may be inspired by the Islamic State.
“It is important for countries of Africa to come together, pool resources, share intelligence and information in order to be able to confront this challenge,” Kenyan Director of External Intelligence Chris Mburu told reporters.
Kenya, whose army invaded southern Somalia in 2011 before joining an AU force battling al-Shabaab fighters, has suffered a string of attacks blamed on the extremists, including a four-day bloodbath in the upmarket Westgate Mall in September last year.
African national intelligence chiefs, who gathered for the AU’s Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa, said in a final communique that key threats and challenges included “alliances being built by terror groups worldwide, sophisticated sources of funding” as well as Africa’s “porous borders.”
African extremists are apparently watching and learning from the Islamic State, although there is little evidence of direct links between the groups.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a modestly funded local uprising said to be made up mostly of poor youths with little tactical training, has, like the Islamic State, also declared an “Islamic caliphate.”
However, by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, experts suggest that leader Abubakar Shekau was trying to raise his own profile rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East.
“I think right now Shekau’s moves are coming from a desire to emulate [the Islamic State],” said David Cook, a religious studies professor at Rice University in Houston who studies Boko Haram.
Africa’s multiple groups, all with differing domestic agendas, might view the Islamic State with “ideological sympathy,” the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham said.
However, while “there may be declarations of support,” he was doubtful of “actual linkages.”
Still, individuals may be encouraged to join the fight.
“Many fighters move across the Sahel, move into Libya — where they do their initial training — and from there go on to Syria and Iraq,” Pham told reporters.
As leaders prepare to meet, solutions are far from simple.