ISIS-Africa Alarmism: Brought to You Context-Free by Defense Analysts

Long before he played various roles in the Obama administration, Robert Berschinski was described as among the “rarest of creatures.” For starters, he was an R.O.T.C. cadet at an Ivy League school – Yale – on September 11, 2001, at a time when graduates of elite universities have been conspicuously absent from the military’s ranks. Berschinski then served as Air Force intelligence officer from 2002-06, including a stint in Kigali, Rwanda, and a combat tour in Iraq’s then real-life Wild West – Ramadi, in Anbar Province – attached to Joint Special Operations Command. There, he helped target the Islamic State’s precursor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, but returned less than hopeful about the war’s prospects, and skeptical of the then ongoing 2007 "surge" strategy. Two years later, his brother Dan – a recent West Point graduate – lost both legs to an IED attack during another hopeless surge, this time in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.

But back in November 2007, Robert penned a rather prescient piece for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute: "AFRICOM’s Dilemma." Mind you, this was before the US military’s newest Africa Command had even officially opened for business. It was also several years before ISIS formed, declared its Iraq-Syria caliphate, and sprouted branches in Africa. Nevertheless, much of Berschinski’s analysis and critique proved spot on and remains relevant. For example, he concluded that US counterterrorism efforts in Africa since 2001 had been largely counterproductive:

Though often tactically successful, these efforts…have neither benefited American security interests nor stabilized events in their respective regions. This failure is ascribable in part to the flawed assumptions on which the GWOT in Africa has rested. The United States has based its counterterrorism initiatives in Africa since 9/11 on a policy of "aggregation," in which localized and disparate insurgencies have been amalgamated into a frightening, but artificially monolithic whole…

Well, Berschinski was right about the earlier era, and probably couldn’t have imagined how much worse matters would get when Africa actually got on America’s interventionist radar in a big way. And now, with Joe Biden about to take the helm as post-9/11 "war president" 4.0, there are efforts afoot to drum up alarm – and perhaps foster new adventures – about ISIS’s alleged resoluteness, rebirth, and/or rise in Africa. All that alarm, by the way, is brought to you by some of the most prominent professional "experts" on "defense" and "terrorism" at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), UK "defence studies" departments, and various Western military commands themselves.

There’s just one problem: actual Africans don’t much figure in these analyses. Attack numbers and statistics? Sure. But conflict contexts, local grievances and catalyzers, the counter-productivity of past Western military interventions, or the tainted and dubiously legitimate regimes they usually back? Not so much. After all, nuance is hard and complexity is, well, complex, plus hardly helps the case for simple, ready solutions – like more military expeditions in more places more often. Past track record be damned!

One only need look to the language such analysts wield, to grasp the grandiosity of their arguments and goals. For example:

  • Africa is now the "front line" of the Islamic State (Dr. Francesco Milan, King’s College London defence studies department)
  • It is "critical" for national security policymakers to "recognize what is at stake in Africa." (West Point CTC August 2020)
  • Africa is "The Caliphate’s Next Frontier," and "so long as ISIS thrives in Africa, the dream of the global caliphate remains alive." (Jacob Zinn, Center for Global Policy, and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program)
  • Or as one of the headlines for an article about these exercises in alarmism put it: "The Caliphate Returns.”

Over at West Point’s CTC, the trio of messieurs Tomasz Rolbiecki, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, and Charlie Winter base their August claims – that Islamic State’s (IS) "forays into Africa are no longer a sideshow," but rather its "brand as a globalized insurgency" is now "dependent" on its affiliates there – on "two complementary datasets" that they admit are "drawn from the Islamic State’s official propaganda output." See, their "methodology" is then to count, classify, and lump IS’s own attack claims from across the continent together to sound statistically scary. Seriously, that’s the gist – and naturally, such simplicity glosses over more than a few flaws and contradictions along the way.

First, that all their war-drumming water is drawn from a poisoned well. While they parry towards admitting potential problems with basing both statistical attack data sets on IS propaganda – the group’s own newspaper and social media announcements – they decide it "would be wrong to dismiss them" as "strategic indicators." Well, perhaps. Still, as they themselves write, such IS attack-claims "were disseminated…with a distinct strategic intent in mind: to demonstrate the reach of its global affiliates." In other words, it behooves IS-Central to exaggerate and amplify the "kinetic capabilities" of its assorted African affiliates.

More troubling is what the authors don’t admit – or maybe even recognize: that even if IS’s attack-accountants are the most meticulous of militants, the CTC authors have their own strategic intent. That is, by counting, classifying – whilst eschewing local context and contradictions – and presenting a high volume of IS-branded attacks in Africa, they’ve the best chance to bolster their arguments for US military attention on Africa (and their article).

That leads to the next common overlook: that in Africa, "Islamic State" is, at best, a brand – if not a construction, or figment of, Western imaginations. Most of Africa’s IS-affiliates existed well before they began pledging allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So did the local grievances underpinning their violent rise. Take the traditional top violence champion, Nigeria-born Boko Haram. The group first originated in 2002, and didn’t officially join IS until March 2015. But by tossing the tremendous violence volume – almost 40 percent of the study’s total – committed by the fighters formerly known as Boko into the count, the authors significantly pad their numbers. Plus, it’s less than clear – and thus problematic to breezily assume – that Boko Haram or other existing regional IS-signees doing so was much more than a strategic rebranding move. Heck, one of the authors’ newest favorite ten-foot-tall-and-bulletproof monsters – the Mali-based Islamic State of the Greater Sahara – wasn’t even much wanted by IS-Central. Islamic State’s core leadership left their jihadi Facebook friend request in limbo for almost four years after that faction first pledged allegiance – before formally accepting them in 2019.

That aside, and assuming the veracity of the IS-provided attack numbers, the CTC authors offer their alarming statistics sans any real sense of relative or comparative proportion. That’s also more than a little misleading. The August West Point report actually covers all IS-attacks over the 19 months from December 28, 2018 to July 31, 2020 – and found a maximum of 595 attacks during the entire period. Of those, about 450 occurred in 2019. Yet, according to a detailed analysis by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there were 3,471 reported violent events linked to Islamist groups that same year. In other words, though each outfit might have differing thresholds for what constitutes a "violent event," that means IS-attacks may only constitute some 13 percent of the continental total. And besides, that the CTC count is even that high results from the authors’ offhanded – and uncritical – decision to lump attacks by all the tenuously IS-linked groups into the problematic pot.

Also, regional gradations matter – and the defense analyst tribe of professional Chicken Littles barely mention that these various Islamist siblings barely speak to one another. Well, actually another more recent CTC analysis sort of does, admitting that even the two most geographically proximate IS-affiliates – in Mozambique and the Congo – don’t maintain a "united horizontal structure." Even though these two groups, uniquely, represent "wings" of an official regional umbrella subgroup – the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP).

Furthermore, those authors emphasize that:

…these violent groups – despite their sparse but still meaningful connections with Islamic State Central – are all primarily influenced by their local environments: all have parochial, specific, non-generalizable goals and ideologies.

In the end, neither the much-cited August CTC report, nor other related analyses, offer any explanation as to what in the world – besides similar franchise logo signs on their virtual offices – the IS affiliates in Congo, Sinai, Sahel, Somalia, and Mozambique have to do with one another.

Which raises yet another hole in the alarmist-arguments: that they miss – or misconstrue – that these far-flung conflicts (Northern Mozambique is some 3,000 miles from Egypt’s Sinai) unfold in completely different countries, conducted in different languages, and containing their own local causes and contexts. Passing over that minor matter might make for a convenient persuasion tactic, but it also ensures that all their policy prescriptions are built on flawed foundations. Then again, that’s all part of the forever war formula – a touch of theory, dash of delusion, splash of (over-) simplification. Time and again, in Africa and elsewhere, forcing foreign armed groups to fit a fear-mongering deductive model has ended in fiasco. People needlessly die – some American; most African, Arab, or Afghan.

Ultimately the whole weight of these ISIS alarm bell arguments rest on one core assumptive absurdity. That is, we are somehow supposed to believe that in a world of chock full of pandemics, natural disasters, and nuclear saber-rattling, that one faction of Islamic State of West Africa – according to that August West Point CTC report – is a "key strategic threat." Yet, even AFRICOM admits it’s unlikely that any of Africa’s "violent extremist organizations" (VEOs) currently have the capability – but could, naturally, if left unchecked – to directly threaten the US homeland.

Which brings us back to Berschinski. While his Army War College analysis hardly ruled out all U.S. military roles in Africa – and was a bit bullish on its "softer" initiatives – he all but predicted what’s unfolded in the intervening 13 years:

If AFRICOM is seen as camouflaging militarism in the guise of humanitarianism, even non-DoD American efforts in Africa are likely to suffer a loss of legitimacy and effectiveness.

In fact, perhaps some version of that should serve as the command’s new slogan:

"AFRICOM: Camouflaging Militarism in the Guise of Humanitarianism, Since 2008."

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen