Amidst Islamic State Decentralization, the U.S. Has No Counterterrorism Plan

Written by: Canaan Odeh

When Britain, Germany, France, and other NATO members symbolically joined the United States war against Afghanistan in 2001, it was an initiative to end global terrorism. Ten years later, Osama Bin Laden was killed and President Obama marked the end of the combat mission through the following years. Last summer, the devastating ISIS-Khorasan attack during U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan provoked a response reminiscent of 2001: revenge. As ISIS affiliates mobilize across Africa, the U.S. should increase its support of governments in need of military capabilities to counteract the rising threats of terrorism. 

Islamic State affiliates and groups within provinces in northern and central Africa are shaping the next generation of terrorism. A recent advisory released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security substantiates this new threat driven by foreign terrorist organizations. Most recently, law enforcement was dispatched across high-traffic environments in northern Virginia after intelligence revealed that ISIS was going to attack. Targets against U.S. civilians have diminished, but terrorism is maturing across other parts of the world. In New Zealand, six were stabbed in September by an ISIS-radicalized extremist. Five victims were killed by way of bow and arrow in Norway last month. In vulnerable African regions, the decentralized Islamic State is descending into countries such as Uganda where attacks are on the rise. These threats are likely to worsen as we move closer to the holiday season. And the message is clear: global terrorism—driven by extremist ideology permeating through African ISIS affiliates and lone-actors—is evolving.

Foreign policy experts previously warned that it was only a matter of time before the Islamic State would relocate. Regions of Africa, like the Middle East, have had attractive conditions where radicalization fosters terrorism: weak government institutions, poverty, and lack of education. With the climate change problem looming, Africa will be the most impacted continent. It is no wonder why Africa is actively becoming the breeding and operations ground for foreign and native-born terrorists. 

The network of Islamic State affiliates in Africa—operating without direction from a centralized authority—will require the U.S. and other countries to individualize each affiliate’s goals and operations if they seek to address rising terrorism threats.

Although these affiliates do not receive many material benefits from ISIS, local and foreign recruitment, training, fundraising, and governance tactics are adopted from ISIS. The consequences of ISIS affiliation, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, have “the potential to show other individual militants and groups the benefits and cons of affiliation with the Islamic State.” The study concludes that these affiliates have significant autonomy to adopt and enforce their own measures to pursue local, national, or international interests.

Without a central authority, each affiliate has become empowered to pursue more national or regional interests, which make their successes more likely as they localize. Boko Haram has operated in Nigeria since 2009 and became affiliated with the Islamic State in 2015. In another case, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) was created in the same year after internal differences divided Boko Haram. Currently, the two groups are affiliated again and share a common goal of toppling the Nigerian government to establish one founded by extremist Islamic principles. 

ISWAP is currently in the lead of being the most active group in Africa. As ISWAP leaders die in counterterrorism operations, their replacements have the autonomy to reshape the organization’s direction. For example, despite Islamic State’s orders not to kill civilians, ISWAP leader Ba Idrissa has continued to target civilians. Another leader, Allied Democratic Forces leader Musa Baluku, affiliated with the Islamic State Central Africa Province, has aligned the organization toward the global jihadist movement and away from Uganda’s localization.

The wide-ranging missions of each unique affiliate pose a challenge to counterterrorism policies around the world. It requires countries including the U.S. to rethink policy decisions based on the conventional “War on Terror.” Instead of having to develop one counterterrorism strategy against a central Islamic State, we now have to develop sophisticated policies to counteract numerous affiliates. What is our next move?

It is reasonable to say that optimism regarding the fall of ISIS was premature. Some of our failures are illustrated through the atrocities occurring at the post-war al-Hol camp in Syria. The unfortunate reality of our lost appetite to fight terrorism is that the world is back to playing whack-a-mole against ISIS. As we remain passive, ISIS affiliates and attacks grow and evolve. If the U.S. draws its attention to Africa, we can avoid another attack like September 11th.