Islamic State – wounded but unbowed

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The head of the Islamic State has been killed. But the hardline militant group’s influence is growing in Africa, and talk of its demise could be premature.


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Islamic State
A soldier walks past a burnt car in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, after it was attacked by militants, 17 January 2016 (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

By Jessica Moody

The head of Islamic State has been killed. But is the ultra-hardline militant group on its way out?

U.S. special forces assassinated Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, last month in a raid in northwestern Syria.

When the head of a global jihadist organisation responsible for the deaths of thousands of people is killed, citizens of countries hit by indiscriminate militant attacks are wont to celebrate. The death of the mastermind behind the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sparked such a reaction in much of the West.

It was in June 2014 that Baghdadi announced the formation of an Islamic caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. His death, combined with the fall of ISIS’s last stronghold in Syria in March, has prompted some — including U.S. President Donald Trump — to proclaim the demise of a group renowned for public beheadings and gory media campaigns.

But a perception that the group has been defeated once and for all could be wishful thinking.

ISIS retains influence in other corners of the world.

While ISIS has suffered devastating setbacks in Iraq and Syria, it remains a prominent movement in many other parts of the world, notably in West Africa, where it is in the ascendancy.

Since the group began its attacks in Iraq in June 2014, it has launched offshoots and called for assaults in numerous locations outside of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. The group has said that Baghdadi received oaths of allegiance from Mali to Afghanistan, and earlier this year it claimed its first ever attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka.

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By conducting assaults in far-flung corners of the globe, the group has attracted a significant following outside of Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, it has increased its popularity by delivering services to people in parts of the world where state presence is limited and residents often lack basic provisions.

ISIS has recognised the power of acting beyond its traditional strongholds in Syria and Iraq, where it has lost influence. In May, the group released its last video of Baghdadi, announcing its wider geographic ambitions and emphasising the role of a new foreign franchise in Turkey.

That the group has retained the loyalty of foreign organisations even as it has been brought to the edge of defeat in Iraq and Syria indicates that its ideology is by no means on the wane.

Baghdadi’s death does not spell the end of ISIS.

The Sahel in West Africa is one of the most alarming demonstrations on this. In a region where state control of territory is weak and security services are underpaid and ill-equipped, groups like ISIS have thrived. Local recruits lack viable alternative job opportunities and see the benefits of working with the jihadist group to promote local economic development.

Even as Trump has bragged about the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on November 1 on an isolated military base in northeastern Mali that killed 54, including dozens of soldiers.

Mali is not alone in its struggle to fight ISIS. Burkina Faso is experiencing rising jihadist violence, with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reporting in January that there had been 60 recorded attacks in the east of the West African country since February 2018.

ISIS’s Sahel faction has established a foothold in this part of Burkina Faso, along with Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and Ansaroul Islam. The groups appear to be working together to achieve similar objectives and combat shared adversaries, although there is no evidence of a more formal alliance.

In the absence of a cohesive security response, groups like ISIS are being allowed to proliferate in parts of Africa and to gradually expand their reach. Three years ago, Burkina Faso was a stable, safe quasi-dictatorship, yet it now finds itself collapsing under the weight of numerous jihadist insurgencies.

The persistence and virulence of attacks that ISIS has perpetrated in recent months in the Sahel reflect the continuing strength of the terrorist group. The mass appeal of the organisation’s ideology cannot be destroyed merely through military defeat in Iraq and Syria.

Some might be tempted to welcome Baghdadi’s death. But his downfall does not mark the final demise of a group that continues through foreign franchises to sow fear throughout the world.

(For a decoder on terrorism, click here.)


  1. Can a group like ISIS be defeated militarily or are other solutions required as well?
  2. Why might people choose to join a group like ISIS?
  3. What makes West Africa a relatively easy place for terrorist organisations to flourish?

Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies department at Kings College London, researching post-conflict peacebuilding in Cote d’Ivoire. Moody works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has written reports for IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT’s “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.

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