Hussein Solomon.

That the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is spreading into Africa is increasingly self-evident. This is a worrisome development given the fact that whilst north Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) are overwhelmingly Muslim, one-third of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is Muslim[1]. The spreading of ISIS’ tentacles in Africa is taking place at a time when religious intolerance is on the rise on the continent with a concomitant rise in terrorist incidents. Nigeria’s Boko Haram, alone, has carried out more than 1,000 attacks since 2010 which has resulted in the deaths of 10,000 people and a further 6 million affected by this terrorist violence. The 300,000 Nigerian refugees who have fled this tsunami of terrorism and have sought refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger provide adequate testimony to the human costs of such terrorism[2].

In Algeria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Gouri Abdelmalik aka Khaled Abu Suleimane announced that he and his troops were breaking away from AQIM which according to him had `deviated from the true path’ and established themselves as the Caliphate Soldiers in Algeria (Jund-al-Khilafah). He made clear that this new grouping was now aligned to ISIS. Posting a communique on jihadi websites, Abdelmalik addresses the self-styled caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, `You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them they will obey you[3]. In Tunisia, similar developments are occurring with the militants of the Uqba ben Nafi Brigade shifting allegiance from AQIM to ISIS[4]. It is easy to understand the attraction to ISIS and the growing disenchantment of younger militants with Al Qaeda with its ageing leadership and its inability to carry out a major attack against the West. By contrast, ISIS with its slick recruitment videos, it carving out a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria and its military successes in spite of Western airstrikes is especially appealing to the youth.

For some groups, the appeal to of ISIS may be far more pragmatic. Boko Haram, meanwhile, has formed a tactical alliance with ISIS which means that the groups are sharing intelligence, tactics and materiel support. Alignment with ISIS may well have a decisive impact on power relations between these non-state groups with their rivals. In July 2014, as rival groups fought for control of Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia’s alignment with ISIS proved decisive. Libyans who fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria were then ordered to return to their home country and fight on the side of Ansar al-Sharia. These hundreds of battle-hardened veterans proved decisive in Ansar al-Sharia’s capture of several parts of Benghazi[5]. The lesson learned for other Islamist groups on the continent could not be clearer – align with ISIS and you are assured of victory!

Part of the problem dogging an effective response to the spread of ISIS is the danger of political correctness – the notion that ISIS reflects some major deviation in Islamic political thought and that its ideology therefore is anathema to most Muslims. The Obama Administration, Bob Taylor argues, `…seems to have a rule never to identify Islam with “terrorism”’[6]. Such a perspective, of course, is reinforced by clerics and other Muslim bodies denouncing ISIS[7].

Go beyond the superficial denunciations of ISIS, however, and closely look at its ideology and one cannot but come to the conclusion that ISIS is a natural outcome of much discourses in political Islam for the past 200 years. Ideologically speaking, how is ISIS’ violent attempts to “purify” Islam different from the Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia which declared even fellow Muslims who did not follow the Wahhabist creed apostates? Is it not contemptible that whilst we decry the decapitations committed by ISIS, there is no similar outcry in the West against the beheadings committed in Saudi Arabia? Can we see no parallel between ISIS now and Abd al-Qadir’s jihad in north Africa in the 1830s and 1840s who like al-Baghdadi called himself “Commander of the Faithful”. Similarly in the late 19th century Muhammad Ahmad called himself the Mahdi (or Redeemer) and conducted his own jihad in Sudan?[8]  The point being made is a simple one: ISIS is a logical product of Islamic history – not some deviant new creed which unfathomably emerged on the Islamic landscape.

In similar vein, viewing ISIS as un-Islamic is extremely problematic given the support their views have amongst large sections of Muslims. A rigorous survey conducted by the University of Maryland and World Public Opinion; for instance, found that 76 percent of Moroccan Muslims and 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims wanted the strict application of shariah law in every Islamic country. Further, the survey revealed that 71 percent of Moroccans and 67 percent of Egyptians desired this outcome: “To unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or Caliphate”[9]. Should we then be surprised when a YouTube video surfaces  of a football match in Morocco where fans of the Casablanca club – Raja Club Athletic – chant “Daesh, Daesh” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad[10]. Should we be surprised that an estimated 1500 Moroccans have joined ISIS?[11]

The problem with much counter-terrorism discourses is that it approaches its subject matter ahistorically. Viewed in a historical context, one can see ISIS as the logical outgrowth of trends in political Islam which has been with us for the past two centuries. Worse, counter-terrorism discourses imbued with the desire to be politically correct and not to offend misreads ISIS completely. In the process, strategies against ISIS prove ineffective at best, counterproductive at worst. The conclusion is a simple one: expect the cancer that is ISIS to spread and intensify in the coming years.


[1] Fatou Sow, “Secularism at risk in Sub-Saharan secular states: the challenge for Senegal and Mali,” 50.50 Inclusive Democracy. 10 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[2] Lawrence J. Haas, “Horror and Terror in Nigeria: Like the Islamic State group, Boko Haram is wielding a violent brand of Islam,” US News. 23 September 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[3] “Splinter groups breaks from al Qaeda in North Africa,” Reuters. 15 September 2014.

[4] Mordechai Kedar, “ISIS will try for Tunisian next,” 8 October 2014.  Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[5] Simon Allison, “Think Again- too late to start worrying about the Islamic State in Africa,” ISS Africa. 7 October 2014.

[6] Bob Taylor, “Rev. James V. Schall’s brilliant analysis of Islam, ISIS, and the West,” Communities Digital News. 10 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[7] “Editorial: Muslim cleric denounce ISIS,” Parker Pioneer. 8 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[8] David Motadel, “The Ancestors of ISIS,” The New York Times. 23 September 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 3 October 2014.

[9] Andrew G Bostom, ‘Benghazi: From`See No Sharia’ to Ansar al-Sharia’ The American Thinker. 25 October 2012.

[10] James M. Dorsey, “Moroccan fans support for ISIL: Protests of Jihadists,” Hurriyet Daily News. 13 October 2014. Internet: Date accessed: 13 October 2014.

[11] Ibid.