As Internet access expands in Africa, so does the Islamic State’s network-facilitated extremism
Military campaigns in Iraq and Syria have re-taken territory from the Islamic State and damaged it in other ways, including its ability to finance military operations. As counter-attacks continue in the Middle East, the Islamic State’s activities in Africa, especially North Africa, are increasing. These activities include a defining characteristic of the Islamic State—its use of the Internet and social media to strengthen its control of territory and advance its extremist agenda. This aspect of the group’s efforts in Africa has garnered less interest than the number of its fighters in North Africa or its territorial foothold in Libya. However, the Islamic State is applying its online strategy in Africa, which raises questions about how to respond to this development.
The Islamic State’s use of the Internet and social media to spread propaganda, radicalize individuals, and recruit adherents and fighters has produced a dangerous form of cyber-facilitated extremism. The Islamic State developed online strategies to augment its control of territory in Iraq and Syria—the central manifestation of its material power and an ideological cornerstone for its caliphate. The group exploited opportunities and vulnerabilities in cyberspace even in the Middle East, which is less integrated in global economic affairs and has lower Internet access and usage rates than other parts of the world. Policy efforts, including counter-messaging and counter-content strategies, have struggled against the Islamic State’s online offensive, struggles that informed the U.S. decision to launch military cyberattacks against the group’s online capabilities.
The factors that explain the Islamic State’s cyber-facilitated extremism are appearing in Africa. The Islamic State seeks to control territory in Libya, an objective consistent with the increasing number of its fighters in North Africa. Following its online playbook, the Islamic State is trying to harness social media to strengthen its power and position in Libya. Other groups, particularly Al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, are copying the Islamic State’s social media strategies. Such cyber-facilitated extremism is unfolding as African cyberspace undergoes rapid changes, including efforts to expand Internet access and increase use of social media.
The 2016 Posture Statement from U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) underscores that factors associated with the Islamic State’s brand of cyber-facilitated extremism are emerging in Africa. AFRICOM’s commander, General David M. Rodriguez, identified the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya and its support for terrorist groups in Africa as a threat, highlighting that the Islamic State and African terrorist groups are investing in Internet and social media capabilities to spread their ideology and recruit supporters across Africa. General Rodriguez also described patterns that will affect how African cyberspace develops, including economic growth, urbanization, and a youth bulge (which will accelerate Internet access and use of social media) and entrenched political and economic problems that produce conditions across Africa ripe for violent extremism (which will increase extremist exploitation of cyberspace).
For various reasons, the online aspects of violent extremism within Africa have not gained sustained policy attention. Some efforts, such as AFRICOM’s support for a counter-messaging campaign called Operation Objective Voice, lacked prominence and faced questions about its effectiveness. With the Islamic State bringing its cyber-facilitated extremism to the continent, the time has come to formulate better responses. In the 2016 AFRICOM Posture Statement, General Rodriguez argued that countering violent extremism in Africa requires “a comprehensive approach employing diplomacy, defense, and development” strategies. This comprehensive approach should also address the online activities of extremist groups in Africa.
As a combatant command that integrates military and civilian capabilities, AFRICOM is well placed to focus on the threat of cyber-facilitated extremism in Africa. It can oversee military involvement in countering this transnational threat, support diplomatic efforts with and among African countries to address extremist exploitation of the Internet and social media, and identify how extremists might take advantage of trends and vulnerabilities that emerge as African cyberspace evolves, including through implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Countering cyber-facilitated extremism in Africa will differ from what has been attempted against the online activities the Islamic State has undertaken to bolster its position in the Middle East. The territorial losses it has sustained in Iraq and Syria damage the group’s message, and, despite problems, government and private-sector efforts are challenging and disrupting the cyber means the group has used to spread its message. Whatever happens in the Middle East, the Islamic State has blazed the online trail violent extremists in the digital age will seek to emulate around the world. With the Islamic State bringing its cyber-facilitated extremism to Africa and with African terrorist groups adopting the Islamic State’s online playbook, the need for a comprehensive approach to the cyber components of violent extremism in Africa is becoming a more pressing policy issue.