The Looming Influx of Foreign Fighters in Sub-Saharan Africa

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On June 22, the Islamic State’s affiliate in its “Central Africa Province” killed a U.N. peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The militant group is ramping up its attacks by exploiting security lapses caused by the COVID-19 crisis. It is also expanding its recruitment to fighters living outside its primary areas of operation. In one April 2020 recruitment video posted via WhatsApp, a group member states:

My appeal to you all that are in countries headed by Infidels is that you should come and join us because the medicine for that virus is here with us. All you have to do is emigrate from infidel-led countries to this Islamic State here such that you can fight to save Islam.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, armed conflicts are escalating. In Somalia, al-Shabaab maintains an aggressive operational tempo and is expanding into northern Kenya. The long-simmering Islamist conflict in Mozambique is rising to a low boil. In the Western Sahel (i.e., Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad), an insurgent movement is marked by increased inter-militant competition and intensified violence. Propelled by the West African affiliate of the Islamic State, the conflict in the Lake Chad area is continuing to bleed across state borders and threatens to compound with other regional conflicts. Militant violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo continues.



Armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa is not just accelerating — it is taking a new form. This change is instigated by three factors: the steady propagation of Islamist insurgency, escalating inter-militant competition, and fallout from the pandemic. Combined, they open the door to an increased influx of foreign fighters in sub-Saharan Africa. While they present their share of organizational challenges, foreign fighters tend to make insurgent organizations more resilient to military defeat, expand the range of tactics available to local insurgents, and increase the severity of targeted violence against civilians. Of particular concern is the risk that conflicts in the region will attract veteran “career foreign fighters” who present a greater security threat than one-off foreign fighters. This carries important implications for regional security and, by extension, for global actors with active interests on the continent.

Foreign Fighters in Sub-Saharan Africa

Foreign fighters (i.e., non-citizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil wars) are a familiar presence in conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the end of World War II, Africa has featured the largest proportion of insurgencies with foreign fighters relative to other regions. Nearly half of the African insurgent groups active in this period have recruited foreign nationals into their ranks.

Given the typical policy discussion around these actors, it is important to clarify that a foreign fighter may arrive to an African militant group from any foreign state, regional or otherwise. The term “foreign fighter” may refer to a combatant, for example, traveling from Chad into the Central African Republic, the United Kingdom into Somalia, or the Levant to Burkina Faso.

If foreign fighters are already common in sub-Saharan Africa, why does an influx of more foreign fighters matter? With notable exceptions, the recruitment of foreign fighters by African militant organizations has been characterized by two features: Foreigners tend to arrive in small numbers, and most come from neighboring African countries.

First, while African militant groups are more likely to recruit foreign nationals, they also tend to mobilize them in relatively small numbers. (To be sure, reliable data on foreign fighter movements are notoriously difficult to obtain, complicated by the fog of war. But the data that do exist can help inform our understanding of regional security dynamics.) In Mozambique, from May 2017 to March 2018, the government prosecuted 370 individuals associated with the militant group al-Shabaab (not to be confused with the group of the same name in Somalia) active in the northern part of the country. Of that total, 314 were Mozambican, 52 were Tanzanian, three were Ugandan, and one was Somalian. In 2012, “hundreds” of fighters from nearby countries traveled to join the ranks of an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Mali. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has perhaps recruited more foreign fighters than any other militant group in the region. Even in this case, estimates for the number of foreign recruits range from 450 to 2,000 fighters. By comparison, an estimated 10,000 to 35,000 foreign nationals joined the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In an extreme case, at least 40,000 foreigners joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant between 2013 and 2018.

Second, when African militants recruit foreign nationals they tend to draw primarily from neighboring African countries. David Malet, who directs the Foreign Fighters Project, distinguishes between “regional” and “beyond neighboring” foreign fighters (i.e., those who arrive from contiguous states or those who arrive from distant states). Fighters from Chad and Sudan, for example, routinely staff the ranks of rebels in the Central African Republic. Boko Haram, which has generally avoided selling “its message to a global audience of foreign fighters,” is increasing its recruitment efforts in the greater Lake Chad region, especially in Cameroon.

We are likely to see a shift in both of these trends. Specifically, a larger number of fighters from both regional and extra-regional nations are likely to travel to join local insurgencies in various hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa within the next year.

The Stage Is Set for an Influx of Foreign Fighters

Over the next year, sub-Saharan Africa will likely experience a surge in foreign fighter activity due to unfolding changes in the nature of regional conflicts and the ongoing ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Armed conflicts and crises tend to generate opportunities. By identifying the structural factors which connect the initial stages of the foreign-fighter lifecycle (i.e., “pre-departure” and “in theater”), we can craft reasonable expectations about the movement of foreign fighters into conflict theaters.

First, sub-Saharan Africa will attract foreign fighters because it is a swiftly expanding front in the transnational jihadist effort. Islamist extremism is ramping up in the region, marked by increased activity in the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, the Horn, and Central Africa. One on hand, the origins and impetus of African Islamist insurgencies are deeply local — and this should not be ignored. On the other hand, many African Islamist groups have continued to establish stronger linkages with transnational extremist networks. The Salafi-jihadi “ecosystem” in the Sahel, in particular, is strengthening rapidly. In the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community emphasized that “jihadist groups in parts of Africa … have expanded their abilities to strike local U.S. interests, stoke insurgencies, and foster like-minded networks in neighboring countries.” To this point, the number of violent events (e.g., armed attacks and battles) related to militant Islamist group activity in Africa increased from roughly 500 in 2010 to approximately 3,500 in 2019.

While al-Qaeda currently boasts a stronger position in a number of sub-Saharan African hotspots, the Islamic State is gaining ground. It is restructuring its regional approach by consolidating decision-making across the organization’s multiple areas of operation. In 2018, over 4,000 Islamic State fighters were active in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in the Lake Chad region. Since then, recognized and unofficial affiliates of the organization have continued to recruit. A new affiliate of the Islamic State has emerged in its so-called Central Africa Province. A recent letter from the United Nations Security Council estimates that the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province membership consists of 2,000 personnel and includes foreign fighters from Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and other nations. From April through June, the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province claimed 25 attacks inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Second, growing competition between transnational jihadist militant organizations will lead to more foreign fighters. With over a dozen Islamist militant organizations active in the region, the threat from Islamist extremism in sub-Saharan Africa is hardly monolithic. Indeed, inter-militant competition is occurring on a systematic scale through sub-Saharan Africa, especially among jihadist insurgents. Where al-Qaeda exists, the Islamic State works to prop up its own affiliate, and vice-versa. At this time, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State each have official chapters in Somalia and across the Sahel. And the number of violent interactions between the affiliates of these organizations is on the rise.

In West Africa, competition between affiliates of the Islamic State (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) and al-Qaeda (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) is turning violent. While the organizations have cooperated intermittently in the recent past, recent events suggest relations between the organizations are souring. In June, for example, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara fighters detonated a truck bomb aimed at members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, killing several. In Somalia, al-Shabaab became an official affiliate of al-Qaeda in 2012 and has significantly increased its hold over the region since that time. In October 2015, a former ranking member of al-Shabaab broke away to form a new faction and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State soon after. Following global and regional trends, violence between the two factions has been on the rise.

Violent competition between local rivals produces an incentive for insurgent factions to seek out foreign support. Malet and Victor Asal, for instance, have argued that insurgent groups in rivalry with other insurgent groups, regardless of their ideological positions, are more likely to attract foreign recruits. Adding fuel to the fire, competition between groups nested within a broader network (e.g., Salafi jihadists) increases the strategic and symbolic importance of a conflict theater, which may appeal to potential foreign recruits aligned with each side of the divide.

Islamist militancy is not a new phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. Neither is the foreign fighter problem. Gen. (ret.) William E. Ward, former commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated 10 years ago that “the foreign fighter phenomenon is a measurable threat to global peace and security … and, like many places, Africa is vulnerable.” To be sure, jihadists are hardly the only militant organizations that recruit and deploy foreign fighters in Africa. However, the rapid propagation of Salafi jihadism throughout the region and the rising competition between these organizations should be of special interest to the global supply of fighters connected to these networks. As such, it is within regional jihadist groups that we should expect to see the greatest increase in foreign fighter recruitment in sub-Saharan Africa over the next year.

Finally, the COVID-19 crisis has hit sub-Saharan Africa hard. Fallout from the outbreak has threatened state capacity and legitimacy across the region and, thus, the resources available to monitor border security. This will make it easier for foreign fighters to enter and travel within African conflict theaters, thereby connecting demand to supply.

While the novel coronavirus appeared to reach Africa later than other parts of the world, it quickly made up for lost time. The pandemic is crippling many of the region’s economies. Nearly half of working Africans could lose their jobs. As many as 58 million people in the region may fall into extreme poverty. The World Bank anticipates a region-wide recession, the brunt of which may be experienced by the region’s economic leaders, including Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa. Recovery is expected to be slow.

Under conditions of weaker state capacity, as well as the pressing need to invest in public health initiatives, African leaders may struggle to provide sufficient funding to their militaries and security forces. As a result, their ability to monitor and enforce behavior within their own borders will be severely diminished. Border security shapes local insurgents’ ability to bring foreign recruits into the conflict theater. Not all would-be foreign fighters successfully arrive to their intended destination. Some are intercepted by security officials en route.

The outbreak has a number of ripple effects for conflicts and foreign fighters. One is that those interested in entering and moving about in the region — and under the radar — will face fewer obstacles in doing so. This is especially salient to the issue of foreign fighters when one considers the robust industry of clandestine migration already present in the region, with which many extremist militant groups are already directly involved.

Local militants are already working to take advantage of these political and economic lapses. In the initial phase of the pandemic, from mid-March to early May, violent extremist events increased by 28.5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset. In recent testimony delivered to the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the effects of COVID-19 in Africa, Judd Devermont emphasized that “African extremist groups are outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces.”

In short, while the pandemic is unlikely to influence the demand for foreign recruits, it has unquestionably weakened state capacity and border security throughout the region. For militant leaders and potential recruits, this will affect their assessment of the risks involved in transporting foreign nationals to African conflict theaters. As a result, the latent regional and global supply of foreign fighters will find it easier to meet any increases in demand throughout the sub-Saharan African region.

Surge in Foreign Fighters Will Make the Militant Challenge Even More Difficult

The influx of foreign fighters to African militant groups makes insurgent organizations more resilient to full-on defeat, introduces new tactics to local insurgencies, and generally increases the level of violence inflicted against civilians.

First, foreign fighters tend to offer a net benefit to local militant organizations by reducing the probability that they experience outright military defeat. This is not to suggest that foreign fighters do not sometimes hinder, rather than help, insurgencies. The arrival of foreign fighters may invite unwanted attention from counter-terrorist forces or the international community, for example. The managerial challenges prompted by these actors may also be formidable. The case of al-Shabaab offers ample evidence of the challenge of integrating foreign fighters into a local insurgency. While the group’s foreign fighter cadre initially served as an important part of its fighting force and mid-tier leadership, non-Somali contingents later clashed with al-Shabaab’s leadership. This led to the killing of many of the group’s foreign recruits, including Omar Shafik Hammami. According to scholars Tricia Bacon and Daisy Muibi, foreign fighters’ influence on the al-Shabaab insurgency has been “limited” and “relatively short-lived.”

More studies are needed to tease out the conditions under which foreign fighters are assets to local insurgent commanders and those under which they are a liability. On the whole, foreign recruits appear to tip the scales, extending the duration of conflict periods and protecting militant actors from complete strategic defeat.

Second, foreign fighters serve as conduits of organizational learning. By expanding the set of violent tools available to the armed groups they join, foreign fighters can enhance insurgents’ mode of warfare at the operational and tactical levels. While many foreign fighters are greenhorns, others are battle-hardened combat veterans of conflicts in the Levant, West Africa, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Yemen. For instance, foreign fighters who returned from Iraq to fight alongside al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “brought back new terrorist techniques that had not been used previously in the Maghreb, effectively broadening the scope of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s capabilities in terms of casualty rate, lethality, and the execution of multiple, coordinated attacks.” Al-Shabaab now uses improvised explosive devices (including vehicle-borne systems) frequently and to great effect. This skill was originally brought over from veterans of the al-Qaeda campaign in Afghanistan. Foreign recruits also significantly improved al-Shabaab’s sniper operations as well as their anti-tank countermeasures. A Syrian insurgent made a similar point about the arrival of foreigners to his unit:

The [foreign] fighters have brought in rocket propelled grenades and boxes of homemade explosives. And wherever you find improvised bombs, you’re likely to find foreign fighters. They brought a lot of bomb making experience from the insurgency in Iraq. With their help, our bombs have [a] 3–7 kilometer detonation range. Now, we can even set them off by mobile phone.

Tactical innovation does not always translate to changes at the strategic level. However, militant organizations that employ multiple approaches to violence are “more likely to stretch state defenses, achieve tactical success, and threaten state security.” A number of armed technologies (e.g., the adoption of armed drone attacks) which were introduced and refined in other recent conflict theaters, such as those in the Levant and Yemen, may begin to find their way to armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. While groups like Boko Haram have used drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes, none have yet conducted armed drone-based attacks. The flow of veteran foreign fighters from regional and extra-regional theaters to other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa may introduce new technologies to old and new battlefields.

Finally, militant groups with foreign fighters tend to inflict more violence against civilians than insurgent groups without foreign recruits. John Willingham and I, for instance, demonstrate that foreign fighters significantly increase the expected count of rebel-inflicted civilian casualties. This especially true when foreign fighters join militant organizations with more centralized systems of command and control.

Looking Ahead

Recent shifts in the security environment in sub-Saharan Africa — such as the expansion of Islamist militancy in the region, growing hostility between local rival groups, and the fallout from a debilitating pandemic — point to an increased risk that an influx of regional and extra-regional fighters will travel to join the ranks of militant groups in the region. Some of these fighters will likely be combat veterans of conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Libya. The subsequent introduction of new techniques and innovations to battlefields in Africa threaten to make the regional security situation even worse.

Understanding the nature and extent of foreign combatants’ influence on insurgencies can help to shape more effective counter-insurgency strategies. This involves identifying where foreign fighters are likely to emerge in the first place, the conditions which motivate and enable militant organizations to recruit regional and extra-regional foreigners into the rank and file, and the conditions which may limit their willingness or ability to do so. Research on how to limit recruitment is scarce. This presents an opportunity for scholars and analysts to identify actionable countermeasures to stem the flow of foreign fighters to the region.



Austin C. Doctor is an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Georgia. He writes on militant organizations, armed conflict, and political instability with a regional focus on Africa. You can find him on Twitter @austincdoctor.

Image: African Union Mission in Somalia (Photo by Abukar Albadri)