As the self-proclaimed Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, there is increasing concern that it will gradually shift its operations to Africa. Indeed, in late 2016, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi claimed that the group had shifted elements of command, media, and wealth to Islamic State “provinces in north Africa and west Africa.” However, in a useful article Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies convincingly argues that the Islamic State is not well established in those areas of Sub-Saharan Africa where extremist Islamist groups operate. The two most violent groups, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, predate the formation of the Islamic State and are not dependent on it for operational or tactical support. Furthermore, it is the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that is the major ideological foundation of radical, Jihadi Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the Islamic State.
Siegel contends that the Islamic State has had a negligible impact on Boko Haram despite the latter’s pledge of allegiance to it in 2015. Boko Haram remains focused on northeast Nigeria and adjoining territories in Cameroon and Chad. Most of its fighters are recruited from this region. Siegel contends that defeats suffered by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are unlikely to have any influence on Boko Haram and its activities. Similarly, a resurgent al-Shabaab remains focused on Somalia and as its trajectory is influenced by clan dynamics, the success or failure of the Somali government, and its ties to Wahhabi ideology. Siegal’s article implies that the fate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to have much influence on al-Shabaab.
In contrast with sub-Saharan Africa, Siegel does see the future for operations of the Islamic State in the states of North Africa: Tunisia, Libya, and the Sinai. He notes that vast numbers of Tunisians have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Should they return home, they could entrench the presence of the Islamic State in Tunisia. With regards to Libya, Siegel views the Islamic State as having little indigenous support. However, fragments of Islamic State forces in Libya could bring other displaced Islamic State fighters into the fold. In reference to the Sinai, he suggests that displaced Islamic State fighters could strengthen indigenous jihadi groups.
All this being said, the bottom line is that the trajectory of the Islamic State is unlikely to have any substantial implications on affairs in sub-Saharan Africa.