Partnering to counter ISIS in Africa

People in hazmat suits and fatigues dusting bottle for fingerprints (State Dept.)
Participants dust for latent fingerprints during a U.S. Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism NATO battlefield-evidence course for partners from North Africa and the Middle East in 2022 at the NATO Stability Policing Centre of Excellence. (State Dept.)

ISIS has made significant inroads into Africa. An 84-member coalition committed to countering ISIS globally is working to deter further advances on the African continent by ISIS affiliates.

The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS will hold its annual ministerial in Marrakesh, Morocco, on May 11 to address the growing threat from ISIS in Africa and continue its efforts to combat the threat in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan.

The ministerial in Morocco is the coalition’s first held in an African country. Coalition members will meet in a smaller group known as the Africa Focus Group on May 10 to specifically collaborate on countering ISIS in Africa before the larger ministerial the next day.

“The goal is to enhance and improve the counterterrorism capabilities of the African members of the coalition,” said Douglas Hoyt, the State Department’s acting deputy special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Members will review existing efforts to counter ISIS in Africa, identify gaps and share information. “We don’t want to duplicate efforts but rather reinforce them,” Hoyt said.

Disturbing trend

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called ISIS expansion into Africa “alarming.” According to the U.S. Department of State, deaths from ISIS attacks nearly doubled in West Africa from 2017 to 2020, from 2,700 to 5,000. ISIS-Mozambique was responsible for an estimated 1,500 deaths that year.

ISIS funds its operations through schemes that threaten the local population, such as theft, extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The extremist group is best able to cross borders and make inroads in regions where government control is limited.

To tackle the problem, the coalition launched the Africa Focus Group in December, with Morocco and Niger taking leadership roles along with Italy and the United States.

People checking cargo at rear of truck (© INTERPOL)
Kenyan authorities carry out cargo checks at a border crossing in 2021. (© INTERPOL)

The group aims to:

  • Help African partners strengthen border security and increase fingerprinting and DNA sampling to track and identify ISIS fighters.
  • Increase African nations’ ability to process battlefield evidence, improving chances for prosecutions after attacks. 
  • Ensure African partners have the capability to collect and store travel data, compile biometrics and maintain a watchlist of ISIS fighters.

Progress made

Some efforts are already underway. Early this year, the NATO Stability Policing Centre of Excellence convened law enforcement from the Middle East and North Africa, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, to train in processing battlefield evidence for terrorism cases.

INTERPOL, a coalition member, conducted Operation Simba III in April 2021, across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Conducted with African partners, Simba included 4.6 million border checks against INTERPOL databases, netting 700 hits for lost or stolen travel documents and identifying suspects wanted for terrorism, drug-trafficking and murder. Authorities in Uganda seized 25 kilograms of ammonium nitrate and other materials used for making explosives.

Some 100 law enforcement agencies trained on INTERPOL tools, prior to the 10-day operation.

“Through its policing tools and services, INTERPOL is determined to help countries in regions such as East Africa address their specific security threats and help build a safer environment,” INTERPOL Counter-Terrorism Director Gregory Hinds said after the operation.