Cserkits on Warner and O'Farrell and Nsaibia and Cummings, 'The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront'

Jason Warner, Ryan O'Farrell, Héni Nsaibia, Ryan Cummings
Michael Cserkits

Jason Warner, Ryan O'Farrell, Héni Nsaibia, Ryan Cummings. The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront. London: Hurst Publishers, 2021. 288 pp. (e-book), ISBN 978-1-78738-757-7; BPS 35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78738-390-6.

Reviewed by Michael Cserkits (University of Vienna) Published on H-War (January, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58471

Warner's approach to the Islamic State (IS) in Africa consistently follows a logical and coherent sequence reflecting the relationship between would-be affiliates and the so-called IS Central group located in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria. The phases, beginning with the pre-bayah (pledge) period, describe the emergence of violent and radical Islamic elements in every case example, immediately followed with the bayah period and the events that led to a pledge of alliance by the African affiliate to IS Central. Finally, the post-bayah period covers the future trajectory of the African affiliate after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS caliph. This division into clear and coherent phases helps the reader compare the different case examples—ranging from the Sinai peninsula through the western Sahara down to Mozambique—and categorize their unique evolution along fixed points of references in contacting IS Central.

Further, Warner and his colleagues develop an interesting concept, "democratization of jihad," which is, in their words, the "expansion of choice in affiliation" (p. 21). With the rise of IS Central, Warner argues, potential jihadi groups were no longer bound to claim affiliation to al-Qaeda in order to internationalize their jihadi ambition (or deal with internal group cohesion), but could rather choose between the jihadist worldview of al-Qaeda and that of the IS, including all the pitfalls, power struggles, and obligations that accompanied the chosen affiliation. Especially at the stark upward trajectory of IS Central in Syria and Iraq, reputational clout was one of the core benefits African affiliates were eager to gain—a share of the symbolic rent accumulated by IS Central and then distributed all over the world. As long as IS Central was able to hold territory and visualize its caliphate, symbolic rent was indeed one of the most-sought benefits it could offer. This "reputational legitimacy" (p. 148) is found throughout the book and is in itself a valid construct that helps to explain why certain groups chose to pledge affiliation with IS Central or even defected from al-Qaeda or their affiliated groups.

Another crucial deduction, although not clearly articulated as such, is the clear and consistent connection between the distance and the flow of time (in terms of months from the rise of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq) between IS Central and its wilayat (provinces). When reading through each case example, it becomes clear that provinces north of the Sahara received more material and tactical benefits, whereas sub-Saharan provinces benefited more in ideological terms. A case example to underline this deduction is the rise of sectarian attacks from IS-Sinai, a tactic they borrowed from IS Central to stir religious conflict among the population (p. 100), or the tactical use of tunnels in IS-Libya (p. 57) (although it is not clear if they borrowed this tactic from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as there had been connections already in 2014). On the contrary, IS affiliates south of the Sahara used their pledge of alliance to rebrand themselves (as in the case of Boko Haram, p. 144) and ultimately undergo a visual re-creation. More detailed research on this concept would be highly beneficial, as the modus operandi is outlined but needs more contextualization including the analysis of visual material. Aside from Boko Haram, IS-DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) also used their bayah mainly to legitimize indiscriminate violence against the population (p. 239). Unfortunately, this deduction is not clearly articulated, but it strikes the reader after several chapters and is well documented and researched.

What the book is clearly missing is a small, but maybe helpful, input regarding insurgency theory. Sometimes certain actions are only explained through suggestions (e.g., p. 76), whereas insurgency theory could have served as theoretical framework. Good examples would be Nicolas Sanders's Desert Insurgency (2020) or Mao Tse-Tung's On Protracted War (1938) and his three stages of revolutionary warfighting, a model which can be traced especially in IS Central but also in the case of Boko Haram (later ISWAP, Islamic State West African Province) and IS-Mozambique. Further, this theoretical framework could have helped to explain two related but unexplained problems: first, there is no clear explanation why ISWAP (p. 153), IS-Somalia (p. 200), and ISWAP-GS (Greater Sahara) p.180) never envisioned a future role model for governance or distributed social services (contrary to all other IS affiliates and IS Central). The frequent reference to them as pure "insurgency" is a hunch, but it would have clearly benefited from a deeper embodiment in an already existing framework. Second, it would have served to avoid the clear fallacy on page 4 explaining the reasons for the defeat of IS Central. This has nothing to do with the sheer superiority in numbers of the anti-IS coalition or their moral supremacy. IS Central lost (in terms of insurgency theory) simply because it changed its nature from an insurgency to a regular armed force. As soon as it declared territory of its own it could no longer vanish among the people it sought to govern and rely on tactics of irregular warfighting. Its methods were then limited to the tactical possibilities of attack, defend, and delay, making them easy prey for modern armed forces. The absence of insurgency theory is the only weak point in the book, as all case examples are very well researched and vividly described.

The book is a comprehensive work dealing with IS affiliates on the African continent, describing their nature, evolution, and trajectory to the point of pledging alliance to the newly appointed caliph, Abu Hasan-al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. It is thus a valuable and useful resource for researchers dealing with radical religious movements in present-day Africa.

Citation: Michael Cserkits. Review of Warner, Jason; O'Farrell, Ryan; Nsaibia, Héni; Cummings, Ryan, The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58471

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.