5 October, 2021
By Mette Kaalby Vestergaard – Research Assistant
New day – new world?
By now we have all seen the pictures online of the last Western forces leaving Afghanistan, and a simultaneous take-over of almost the whole country by the Taliban. While many are terrified to see this pass before their eyes, it is for others fuel for their jihadist fight and something that creates new hope and courage. This article examines if the recent victory of the Afghan Taliban can mean anything for jihadists groups in Africa, and the development of these conflicts. Jihadist groups are constantly becoming more decentralized in nature but also asymmetrical in their approaches, such as online propaganda and recruiting. In that sense, an event in one country can easily affect another, especially when it comes to affecting the mindsets of others.
Reactions: A mental boost
Despite the fact that many jihadist groups across the globe do not normally support each other as a matter of fact and have also fought each other, jihadist groups have expressed their support for the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan. When the Taliban reached Kabul on August 15 this year, groups sympathizing with them, or at least opponents to the US presence in the Middle East, started to express themselves online. What might indicate that several of these groups support the new Taliban government, despite ideological and not least strategical differences, are some of these responses to the take-over of Afghanistan.
Statements have been sent out on social media platforms from for example Somalia’s al-Shabab in Eastern Africa and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel region – the latter even using the expression “we are winning,” – thereby implying that they are one unity. The leader of Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah additionally called the happenings in Afghanistan “monumental” and moreover noted that “the peoples of the region must realize its strategic importance.” Subsequently, one can as a starting point note the usage of the happenings as a communication tool applied by other organizations, who are potentially strengthened by the US withdrawal.
While other situational facts set out in this piece are more factual and structural, there are in essence also elements which are not possible to analyze if not based on years of in-depth research in the region. That is the discussion of hearts and minds, and at such the mind-set of the civilian population when it comes to supporting the fight against jihadism. In the aftermath of the fight against the Soviets in the 80s, one could nevertheless note a rise in jihadist activity around the world and not least see a change in their self-understanding and basis for recruitment of the new generation.
Reorganization and jihadism in Africa
Internally in Afghanistan there will certainly be regrouping across militias, this including jihadist groups, due to the reorganization of power in the country and as such also potentially the civil population’s support to the different groups. It is, for example, estimated that the Afghan Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (IS-KP) will rise dramatically in numbers from 1,500 to 10,000 fighters, as a result of the Taliban take-over. Moreover, what is going to be significant is the degree to which the Taliban will allow Al-Qaeda to operate from its territory. Fundamentally, this is linked to other jihadist groups as it affects Al-Qaeda’s ability to train, fund and operate alongside and with others.
Some of the relevant areas to look towards in Africa in this regard are the Sahel region, Northern Nigeria, Somalia and more recently added also a larger area in Central- and East Africa including Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. An argument that have been seen amongst jihadist groups, is that the expansion of jihadist groups in for example Mozambique and the Great Lakes Region, should be seen as a substitute for some of the losses of territory in the Middle East the past years.
To elaborate on this, the Sambisa Forest in Northern Nigeria and for many years Boko Haram territory, is to a larger extent taken over by Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) today after a decline in Boko Haram after hard pressure from the Nigerian forces and its allies. In consequence, it is seen that earlier Boko Haram fighters join ISWAP, but so do mercenaries from counties including Libya. Consequently, one can more speak of a reorganization between jihadist groups than a victory or defeat. The important point to take from this ability to reorganize, is that this might be a general tendency amongst jihadist groups. As such, these reorganizations are important to look for also with regards to the Taliban, as they can range widely across boarders due to their global nature. In general, these groups should be seen as very dynamic, both in times of defeat and victory.
More Afghanistans out there?
While there are links to draw and lessons to be learned from Afghanistan, one should also be careful not to apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ principle. As earlier explained in an article by Human Security Centre, local jihadist groups in the Sahel region tend to be motivated not so much by religious causes but by anger towards a state unable to provide for them. According to the following statement expressed by security expert Fulan Nasrullah it is furthermore different from the Taliban who once already constituted the government of Afghanistan:
“West Africa’s Islamist groups exist in a climate where the state is weak, but they are weaker than the weak states.”
Basically, the Taliban as a group has greater potential of constituting a state than for example the jihadist groups in the Sahel region. For African governments who get a lot of support from foreign forces to withhold security, especially in regions threaten by violent extremism, the events in Afghanistan can also stir up concern about whether a decrease in such support will lead to situations similar to that in Afghanistan.
In regard to this, France had earlier announced that they would reduce their military presence in the Sahel region, more specifically Mali. In practice, Operation Barkhane will end in the first quarter of 2022 and France will from then support the governments in the Sahel region through the Takuba international task force alongside other European nations. Some jihadist groups have stated that this withdrawal can be compared to that of the US and other Western forces from Afghanistan, which can be seen as a propaganda maneuver to encourage jihadists in the Sahel to have patience and continue fighting.
Considering the fight against Somalian al-Shabaab, the Biden administration recently cut the funding to the training of Somalian forces fighting the jihadists alongside American soldiers. The European Union (EU) has on top of this cut back funding, which indicates that there will in an decrease in the support as a whole, this also including military support. Somalia, just like Afghanistan, knew very well of war even before the past 20 years of conflict in both countries and the country is very much reliant on support from troops from the African Union (AU). Considering a potential scenario like the one in Afghanistan with Western troops leaving, one of the things to consider is that the Somalian government and security forces might be even worse off than the Afghans. It is so as Somalia is under a partial arms embargo and consequently they cannot get the same amount of material and weapons that even the Afghan government had available to defend themselves. Moreover, al-Shabaab has a long history of collaboration with al-Qaeda, and will therefore be affected if al-Qaeda prosper in Afghanistan. Therefore, Somalia’s might be the closest case to have similarities with the Afghan one, and not West Africa.
Where people flow – ideas flow
A major factor to consider is also the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to political instability in many countries who were already threatened by jihadist groups. It is something that the groups can take advantage of both in terms of recruitment, but also as the security sector in the given country might reallocate some capacity to handling civil unrest. Due to travel restrictions in connection to the pandemic, terror networks have also been less able to plan attacks across boarders which might now change in the aftermath and additional opening of boarders.
Lastly, the United Nations (UN) has reported a recent worsening of conditions in refugee camps and detention facilities in Syria, which has allegedly sparked recruitment by terror networks which has already resulted in increased fund-raising and training inside the camps.
One size doesn’t fit all
While it is important to take the lessons learned in Afghanistan, we should not start a tendency where we compare everything to the situation in Afghanistan – because it is not the same and the constitutions of groups and conditions for conflicts are not the same. Even though the same thing could happen and would have devastating consequences for the civil population, it would not have the same symbolic value and therefore neither the same potential for jihadist to use it as propaganda.
What we should look for, is the way these happenings affect the mentality and capacity of other jihadist groups. Alongside this, what can lead to a strengthening of the groups, is also the opportunity for funding through al-Qaeda if they gain safe haven in Afghanistan.
Image: Taliban militants during the 2021 offensive (Source: Sayed Hasib Maududi, Roshan Noorzai/VOA)