Africa plays a big part in the global ambitions of the Islamic State* and its mentors. Speculating where the core of the Islamic State previously in Syria has disappeared to, Egyptian president el-Sisi has repeatedly expressed fears that Africa will be the terrorist group’s next target beginning with Egypt, the most densely-populated Arab country (around 95 million people), and neighbouring Libya, a country rich in oil but currently divided. And the relentless terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil and the Islamic State’s growing area of control on Libya’s southern coast, in Sirte, seem to confirm these fears.
Many experts believe that the Islamic State is assembling its forces to launch major offensives in Libya and Egypt in the near future, the main aim of which is to establish a “new empire” to make up for the extremists’ losses in Iraq and Syria. A statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is being circulated on the internet calling for Islamic State militants to gather in southern Libya, from where an offensive will be launched on the entire continent.
It would be impossible for the Islamic State to redeploy such large forces without the knowledge, or rather the assistance, of the Pentagon. If it was possible to actively use the Islamic State against Bashar al-Assad, then why not against Libya’s “strongman” Field Marshall Haftar or Egypt’s “obstinate” president el-Sisi? In some ways, Libya is an even better target for the US than Syria: the country has considerably more oil but will probably put up less resistance.
The main reason why the Islamic State is being pushed towards Africa lies in America’s geopolitical calculations. In recent years, the US has lost its position there so quickly that it is going to take extraordinary measures to get it back.
The most dominant power on the African continent is now an increasingly confident China. The annual volume of trade between China and Africa is around $400 billion, almost four times more than between the US and Africa (around $100 billion). In Africa, China is an absolute leader in terms of both investment and aid. At the end of 2015, China’s leader Xi Jinping stated that the country was ready to provide Africa with an additional $60 billion for various projects.
Beijing has also been politically and militarily active in Africa. In 2005, around 600 Chinese peacekeepers were sent to Liberia. Chinese “Blue Helmets” have carried out peacekeeping operations in Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, the Congo, Mali, and South Sudan. In Chad, the Chinese helped opponents of the country’s president, Idriss Déby, who had rashly recognised Taiwan.
And on 1 August 2017, China officially opened its first overseas military base in the Republic of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Nearby is Camp Lemonnier, America’s largest military base in Africa (home to around 4,000 personnel). Washington pays $63 million a year to maintain Camp Lemonnier, while the Chinese are going to give each of its military facilities in Djibouti $100 million a year. It is no wonder that the Djibouti authorities ignored America’s diplomatic démarches asking them not to allow China to open its base.
At the same time, US military doctrine states that the presence of a similar facility close to one of its own bases belonging to a “competing”, even “hostile”, power is a threat to its national security. Such threats need to be gotten rid of. Yet the US does not have enough resources to take direct action against the Chinese base, not to mention destroy Beijing’s dominant position in Africa. And in keeping with the canons of hybrid warfare, the US is looking for other ways to undermine its opponents’ positions.
Trade between Russia and Africa seems fairly modest for now – no more than $20 billion a year. But given that the former has also invested up to $20 billion in the continent, Russia has already established itself as a country that means business. Moscow is implementing a number of long-term, large-scale projects and strengthening its presence in the strategically important Egypt–Libya–Sudan triangle. Of particulate note is the signing of a $29 billion agreement for the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, $25 billion of which Moscow will give to Cairo in the form of a long-term loan with a low interest rate. There are continuing discussions on a draft agreement for the construction of a Russian industrial area in the economic zone of the Suez Canal, involving an investment of around $7 billion. And Russia also held talks on establishing its own military base in Djibouti, but then suspended them for financial reasons. The country could return to the idea at any time, however, which is not sitting well with Washington. The US is also concerned about the possible creation of a new Russian military base close to the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani or the city of Benghazi in Libya.
In the US National Security Strategy adopted at the end of 2017, the section covering Africa specifically highlights the need to once again make America the continent’s most important economic partner by squeezing out China. At the same time, its aim is to partner with regional organisations “to end long-running, violent conflicts”. The Strategy also includes a promise “to work with partners to defeat terrorist organizations and others who threaten US citizens and the homeland”. But this is already a proposal for a possible military intervention in Africa in the spirit of tried and tested US methods. You see, America has already missed the train to compete economically with China in Africa. Hence the temptation to use unconventional methods, including the might of the Islamic State.
As far as Washington is concerned, the Islamic State’s redeployment of forces to Africa could address a number of issues. First of all, the terrorists could be used to undermine the influence of Beijing and Moscow on the continent. It probably also serves another purpose of redirecting the Islamic State’s activities from the Western world to China and Russia. In addition, the atmosphere of “African chaos” created by the expansion of the Islamic State would require the peacekeeping efforts of the United States. On the back of this, the US would finally be able to regain the ground it has lost on the continent, as detailed by US strategists, and take Africa’s fate into its own hands. There is another version that has not been taken into account, however, and that will unfold when the countries of Africa discover that the real threat to their security is actually coming from the United States and its “affair” with the Islamic State.
* Terrorist organization, banned in Russia by court order.