By Zhang Aimin
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said in an interview that Islamic State (IS) is attempting to move from Syria to other countries to establish their new strongholds. Although US President Donald Trump has said that he may soon announce the defeat of IS and the liberation of Syria and Iraq, the complete elimination of IS is not necessarily easy. Given the current condition of IS and the anti-terrorist situation in Africa, Africa would be likely to become a major target for developing the IS.
Firstly, IS has been badly hit in Iraq and Syria, and consequently its sphere of influence has decreased dramatically. Under such circumstances, infiltration into other regions for development has become an inevitable choice for IS.
IS has sent a large number of core members to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, Maghreb in North Africa, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, East Asia, etc. They continued to carry out activities in organizing, inciting, recruiting and destroying in an attempt to establish new sphere of influence in those regions.
Secondly, the terrorism situation in Africa is grim and provides an opportunity for IS development. The three major terrorist organizations, namely the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabab in Somalia, have formed an active "arc-shaped belt" of terrorists stretching from west to east in Africa.
In March 2015, the militant group Boko Haram pledged its loyalty to IS and subsequently changed its name to Islamic State's West African Province (ISWAP). There are signs that the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram and IS share experience and learn from each other regarding methods of terrorist attack, weapons and equipment, etc.
The strong organizational capabilities, rich experience with terrorist activities, and solid financial support of IS are attracting various terrorist groups in Africa. They are likely to pledge their loyalties to or get integrated into IS. This may help IS to regain its strength quickly.
Finally, a combination of poor management and leadership of the governments, slow economic development, and weak military combat strength in African countries has made it easy for IS to penetrate and develop in these regions.
The lack of counter-terrorism capabilities in African countries has been shown by many repeated terrorist attacks in some major African countries' capitals in recent years. In addition, the contradictions among ethnic and religious groups in some countries may also be utilized by IS in an attempt to expand its strength.
If IS gains its footing in Africa, the consequences would be disastrous, and the anti-terrorism situation in Africa and even in the world would deteriorate sharply. Africa is rich in both natural and human resources. If IS establishes bases here, it could take advantage of these resources to further expand or even develop the abilities to launch larger-scale terrorist attacks in other regions.
Considering that the current situation in Syria is still unstable due to the power game, it is also very likely for IS to return to the Middle East once the situation in Syria changes after the establishment of its strongholds in Africa. The previous counter-terrorism efforts would come to nothing.
The US Department of Defense (DOD) issued a report on February 4, saying that IS can make a comeback in six to twelve months. General Joseph L. Votel, commander of United States Central Command also warned that IS is still structurally intact with various available advantages in leadership, key personnel, recruiters, resources, etc.
The international community must be prepared in advance to prevent the "return" of IS to Africa. It is necessary to step up its assistance to African countries by providing adequate funds, equipment and technology to improve their counter-terrorism capabilities, as well as to help African countries to develop their economies and improve people’s living standards. Cutting off transfer channels of funds and personnel for IS and strengthening border control and cooperation are also effective measures to trap IS and eliminate the remnants of terrorists groups.
Disclaimer: The author is Zhang Aimin. The article was published on the PLA Daily on Feb. 13, 2019.