The Islamic State has faced significant defeats in Africa over the past year but political instability across the northern and western regions could offer a ripe breeding ground for the terrorist group to resurge, according to a new report.
ISIS over the past six years has taken advantage of the political vacuum left by the 2011 toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the ongoing civil war between two rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk that has left large swaths of ungoverned territory.
ISIS has been losing ground in recent months in the Libyan city Sirte, the terror group's last major command-and-control center for operations in North and West Africa, but the group still maintains a "sizable contingent" of fighters in Libya. Those remaining fighters could be mobilized to perpetuate terrorist attacks in the region, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in a report released this week.
The report predicted that ISIS will attempt to recoup the loss of Sirte by shifting its strategy from territorial capture to an insurgency campaign against Libya's interim government. The pivot would enable the group to exploit the country's weak governance and political uncertainty to rebuild its networks.
Meanwhile, foreign fighters who flocked from Tunisia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal to ISIS strongholds in Libya over the past two years have been fleeing into neighboring countries and have begun plotting attacks.
In May, Moroccan officials detained a Chadian national who led an ISIS terrorist cell in the country and was suspected of planning attacks on hotels and security forces. Authorities simultaneously arrested several Moroccan citizens who had returned from Libya on suspicions that they were coordinating with the Chadian, the report noted.
Algerian security forces reported a similar threat in May when ISIS members carrying forged documents were caught fleeing toward the Algerian and Tunisian borders.
"These incidents raise the possibility that ISIL's Sirte leadership made a strategic decision to deploy forces back to their home countries to foment regional chaos," the report said.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who authored the report, said Tunisia is particularly vulnerable to spillover from Libya.
Jihadists who were operating in the western Libyan city of Sebratha were forced to move operational networks into Tunisia after U.S. airstrikes in February 2016 decimated ISIS targets in the region. The report predicted that some of the estimated 1,000 Tunisians who were fighting with ISIS in Libya will return home to connect with the Tunisia-based cells.
"We've seen a couple of major attacks within these last few years on tourist targets in Tunisia and terrorist threats on tourism represent an existential threat to the state," Gartenstein-Ross told the Washington Free Beacon. "This threat could send the economy in a tailspin and create a situation where jihadists are able to grow."
Nigeria and Mali are also particularly vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence emanating from the return of foreign fighters from Libya.
While the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, also known as ISIS's West Africa Province (ISWAP), has weakened amid internal rifts, the report warns that Sub-Saharan African ISIS fighters fleeing Libya could reinforce the group and link militants in Nigeria and Niger to networks outside of the Lake Chad region.
Jihadists flocking from Sirte to Mali meanwhile will likely come in contact with both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and an ISIS faction in the country headed by a former al Qaeda commander who defected. Both militant groups would benefit from the integration of ISIS foreign fighters and potential collaboration with ISWAP, the report noted.
In the long-term, Gartenstein-Ross warned that al Qaeda poses a greater threat to Africa than ISIS.
"While ISIS is certainly going to make efforts to carry out further attacks in Africa, the weakening of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will in the medium-to-long-term reduce the extent to which the group can spread in Africa," he said. "ISIS may surge in the short-term, but their reduced resources prevent them from spreading the way they did in Iraq and Syria."
Gartenstein-Ross said while ISIS has carried out a series of large-scale attacks in recent years, al Qaeda has "sat in the shadows" to avoid drawing attention to themselves from international counterterrorism efforts. He said this has allowed the group to maintain a deeply rooted network across both the Middle East and Africa.