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US signals shift to Africa in counter-ISIS Coalition campaign

The United States will seek additional international cooperation to fight Islamic State on a global scale, with a particular focus on Africa, following the defeat of the group in Iraq and Syria, a State Department official said on Thursday, August 1.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales said the next stage of the counter-ISIS campaign will require international coordination to combat the group’s expansion in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan.

“The so-called ISIS Caliphate has been destroyed, but the ISIS brand lives on around the world,” Sales said, speaking alongside U.S. Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition James Jeffrey.

“We are now working closely with our partners to identify focus regions for the Coalition, and expect to have more clarity soon on where we intend to be active.” Sales said a Coalition meeting on the situation in West Africa and the Sahel is set for autumn.

“In Africa, ISIS-linked groups are on the rise. ISIS-linked groups now span the African continent from east to west, from north to south,” Sales said.

“They’ve increased the lethality of their attacks, they’ve expanded into new areas, and they repeatedly target U.S. interests,” he said, referencing the killing of four U.S. Special Forces members in Niger in October 2017, which he said was carried out by “ISIS affiliates.”

Sales also referenced the killing of “hundreds of Nigerian forces in the past year” by Islamic State West Africa Province, and a May attack in Tongo Tongo in northern Niger in May, in which ISIS claimed its West Africa Province fighters killed 40 Nigerien soldiers.

Local armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique are now “publicly aligning themselves with ISIS,” Sales said.

Sales said the U.S. government believes a number of Africans who traveled to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, have “returned home to either found or enrich existing ISIS affiliates.”

Sales also said the U.S. was working to “revitalize” its counterterror cooperation with Sri Lanka following the Easter bombing that killed 258 people. He also referenced the growth of ISIS in Afghanistan, calling the group’s Khorasan Province affiliate “one of the most dangerous ISIS affiliates in the world.”

Baghdadi reads reports on ISIS provinces
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi views reports on Islamic State’s affiliates, including its Central Africa Province, in a video released by al-Furqan on April 29, 2019.

The Islamic State threat across Africa

ISIS affiliates from Libya and the Sinai in north Africa, to Mozambique in the southeast pose a growing threat to often fragile nations on the continent.

Perhaps the most significant threat comes from Islamic State West Africa Province in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to its West Africa Province affiliate, rather than to what was previously known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

The recently announced Islamic State Central Africa Province is a smaller but ongoing threat in Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

ISIS also has acknowledged affiliates that have not been given the higher status of provinces in Tunisia, Somalia and Yemen.

In May, Burkina Faso called for an international coalition to tackle terrorism in the G5 Sahel states – Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – and across the entire Sahel. That was followed earlier this month, when Niger’s president echoed the call for an international coalition to fight insurgency in the Sahel, “just as there was a coalition against Daesh in the Middle East.”

The G5 Sahel nations are building their own G5 Sahel Joint Force, a counter-terrorism initiative that will work alongside personnel deployed to the 4,500-strong France-led Operation Barkhane counter-terror mission in the Sahel, as well as the the U.N.’s third-largest peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA in Mali, which has about 14,000 personnel deployed. There have been repeated calls for consistent direct U.N. funding for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, but the U.S. opposes the move, preferring instead bilateral funding for individual states.

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