US adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the fight against North African terror groups

A look at where the funds are needed for maximum impact against ISIS and others

On 16 February, word was leaked by a US Department of Defense official that US President Barack Obama was budgeting US$ 200 million to fight Islamic insurgents in West and North Africa. The news preceded the actual presentation of the Pentagon’s 2017 defence budget request, in which the US armed forces are allotted US$ 7.5 billion for activities worldwide. Which African countries would benefit from the military and intelligence spending was not immediately apparent. However, the targets of the spending can be safely assumed – Boko Haram, based in Nigeria, and the Islamic State (ISIS), most active in Libya.

Photo courtesy Pete Souza/The White House
Photo courtesy Pete Souza/The White House

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, Air Force General Paul Selva, told the media that military spending would incorporate efforts against all of Africa’s jihadist groups, including East Africa’s terror organisation al-Shabaab. Based in Somalia, al-Shabaab is the focus of a counter-insurgency effort by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which does receive some US military and intelligence support. Given similar US assistance in West Africa for the anti-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram, the added US military spending will likely be used against ISIS. Boko Haram’s attacks on Cameroon, Nigeria and neighbouring countries have been particularly brutal, but like al-Shabaab, the group is a regional menace. ISIS though, is a global theat. ISIS militants or sympathisers have conducted high-profile attacks in Europe and even struck the US. Neither al-Shabaab nor Boko Haram have known members in the US, and while there are, no doubt, sympathisers of those jihadist groups in the US, they have not – as of this writing – carried out terror acts on American soil the way ISIS has done. When President Obama speaks of international terror groups, he does on occasion list al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. Mostly, he mentions ISIS, which he refers to as ISIL. Public opinion polls show that Americans can identify ISIS but may not have heard of al-Shabaab or Boko Haram.

Central and Southern Africa have thus far been largely spared attacks by Islamic jihadists. The reason is clear that Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Shabaab and their local affiliates seek to establish a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate of immense size over western, northern and eastern Africa. As large as this fantastical entity would be, encompassing all the Sahel, the Sahara Desert and lands up to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, there have been no immediate plans yet announced to agitate through terror attacks a caliphate that would extend into sub-equatorial Africa. Therefore, the bulk of the new US anti-terror spending is likely to go to North Africa, in particular to combat ISIS.

Libya: Targeting ISIS’s North Africa base

The signing of a UN-brokered national reunification accord by a radical Islamist government in Tripoli, which had lost elections in 2014 but refused to give up power, and the legitimately elected government forced to conduct business in the eastern seaport Tobruk, was a concrete step towards ISIS’s expulsion from the country. As of February 2016, the former rival governments were still arguing about the set-up of the government of national unity. As originally envisioned, this resulted in a government of 32 ministers in which as many politicians as possible were accommodated, and was rejected by the Tobruk representatives as unwieldy and impractical. As negotiations continued, ISIS’s presence in the country reached anywhere from 5,000 to 6,500 fighters, depending on which source is considered. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) favours a number closer to 5,000 militants, but this is still double previous estimates. Meanwhile, the updated number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria stands between 19,000 and 25,000. This is down from last year’s estimate of 30,000 fighters. Where did the other militants go, approximately 5,000 of them? Most likely they migrated by sea to Libya.

ISIS moved into the coastal city of Sirte while the two competing Libyan governments were engaged in a low-combat civil war against one another, with little thought by either government to counter ISIS. At the time, neither of the resource-poor governments had any real ability to do so. Thus far in 2016, while politicians manoeuvred for government control in Tripoli, ISIS expanded its footprint eastward and westward from Sirte along the coastline, providing its fighters with innumerable locations to come and go by sea. US security scenarios have considered various scenarios to expel ISIS from Libya. All are costly and bloody. The Obama Administration favours drone strikes, particularly if these can target ISIS leaders. The first of these strikes, in November 2015, reportedly killed the British ISIS member, nicknamed “Jihadi John” in the press, who appeared in the group’s propaganda videos barbarously beheading ISIS victims. A 19 February 2015 US airstrike against an ISIS training camp in Sabratha, west of Tripoli, killed one of ISIS’s senior leaders in Libya, Noureddine Chouchane. Training of recruits and seasoned fighters at the camp in logistics and armaments was believed to be directed toward a major planned attack on Europe. Chouchane was the mastermind behind the ISIS attack on the Tunisian beach resort Sousse on 26 June 2015, in which gunmen killed 38 tourists.

Tunisia’s security is directly tied to Libya’s stabilisation. ISIS fighters have crossed the country’s shared border to carry out atrocities such as the June 2015 attack on the beachfront resort city of Sousse. There, a lone ISIS gunman armed with automatic weapons killed 39 people. The incident was the most fatal act of terror in modern Tunisian history. Some 21 tourists were also killed three months earlier, in March 2015, when ISIS gunmen trapped them in the Bardo National Museum, a popular site for the viewing of antiquities.

After the Sousse attack, Tunisian officials drew up plans to seal the country’s border with Libya. Upon further consideration, the effort was considered too costly and probably unenforceable. Tunisia’s vulnerability to ISIS provided the international community with another reason to pressure Libya’s recalcitrant rival governments to find a common cause in nation building. Now that the politicians are moving toward a final government composition, the national military can be rebuilt and used to expel ISIS. The US money will be available for the counter-insurgency push.

Egypt will also likely receive some of the anti-terror funds. ISIS has been aggressively avenging the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. ISIS’s proxy group in the Sinai is Wilayat Sinai (‘Sinai Province’). In December 2015, the ISIS-aligned militants engaged in multiple armed encounters with the Egyptian army, and according to some reports, gained the upper hand against the Egyptians in some engagements. A month earlier, in November 2015, Wilayat Sinai had gained international notoriety and underscored Egypt as a major battleground against ISIS when an operative planted a bomb aboard a Russian passenger plane, a large Airbus A321-231. The plane was destroyed over the Sinai with a loss of 217 passengers and 7 crew members. On 15 February 2016, President Obama engaged Russian President Vladimir Putin on ways to better cooperate toward ISIS’s destruction. The ISIS bombing of the Metrojet plane provided further motivation for Moscow to assist North Africa’s anti-insurgency battles across the Mediterranean.

Morocco may be next in ISIS’s line of fire. At present, the assault against King Mohammed’s realm has been conducted by way of video propaganda. On 26 January 2016, ISIS released a call on the internet for Muslims to rise up against the Moroccan government, overthrow the leadership and seize the country for the expansion of Islamic fundamentalism. ISIS surrogates in Morocco were advised to carry out “Paris-style attacks” modelled after the deadly November 2015 shootings at the French capital’s nightspots when seven gunmen killed 130 people. As of February 2016, no terror attacks have been conducted against Moroccan tourist locations as ISIS has advised and which proved so deadly in Tunisia. Moroccan security officials have stepped up security at public spots.

Strategic use of anti-terror funds will be money well spent

Expanded US military aid to Africa will do the most good if it follows intelligence leads. In Libya, intelligence against ISIS has been spotty; another victim of the country’s political impasse that will now hopefully come to an end. Intelligence was weak in Tunisia prior to the ISIS killings of Western tourists in 2015; and ISIS’s affiliates in Egypt are also unpredictable. However, focused attention on the group has led to good estimations of the militants’ numbers and whereabouts.

Based on such intelligence, counter-insurgency military operations may follow. Just as the African Union’s (AU) combined forces in AMISOM work to combat al-Shabaab in Somalia, thus far with mixed success, so might Northern African countries combine military units against ISIS. Already, multilateral coordination has begun with Europe, Russia and the US participating actively.