The Islamic State 2020: The Year in Review

2020 was not supposed to be a good year for the Islamic State. In March 2019, US President Trump declared victory over the group after its defeat in Baghouz, Syria, and in October it lost its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and spokesman, Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir. Yet, here on the last day of the year, we can conclude that the Islamic State is far from defeated and that 2020 was in fact quite a positive year for the group.

It is hard to say whether the Islamic State is better off now than it was a year ago. That is not really the purpose of this article. While the group continues to be under pressure in the Levant and to face strong pressure in places like Libya, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines, 2020 has been the year the Islamic State truly cemented its presence in Sub-Saharan Africa.

One measure of the group’s global operational strength is the overview of military operations and attendant casualties published every week in its al-Naba newsletter. While this data is purely quantitative and produced by the group itself, it nevertheless represents a good indicator of the development of its operations over the year.

From a first look at the numbers of killed/wounded and attacks across the Islamic State’s various provinces, two things stand out. One is the high operational level in Iraq and in West Africa, the latter covering all of Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso (i.e., the Islamic State West Africa Province, ISWAP). Iraq continues to be the province with the highest number of attacks executed by the Islamic State, but in 2020 it was closely followed by West Africa. This lends credence to the argument that the Islamic State’s center of gravity is tilting towards Sub-Saharan Africa. What also stands out is the low operational level in places like Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Khorasan (Afghanistan).

That the Islamic State is highly active in Sub-Saharan Africa is nothing new. In 2018-19, ISWAP executed a high number of attacks in Nigeria. Nonetheless, developments in 2020 imply that Africa is now arguably the most important region for the Islamic State on a global level. This is also reflected in the group’s al-Naba newsletter, where 39% of the frontpages in 2020 were dedicated to events in Nigeria, 10% to the Sahel, 6% to Mozambique and finally 2% to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the latter two countries constituting the Islamic State Central Africa Province, ISCAP).

In fact, the Islamic State’s activity level in Sub-Saharan Africa has been pretty constant through 2020, especially in West Africa, while the frequency in DRC and Mozambique is slightly more sporadic.

While Iraq remains the most active battlefront for the Islamic State in terms of attack frequency, the caliphate’s soldiers in Iraq are not the deadliest. The casualty per attack ratio is in fact much higher in Khorasan, West Africa and Central Africa, closely followed by the Islamic State’s East Asia Province (ISEAP).

The graphics below illustrate how attack patterns vary from one province to another. In Khorasan there is low attack frequency but attacks are highly deadly. In the Levant it is quite the opposite. West Africa is characterised by both a high number of attacks and a high casualty ratio, while Central Africa is somewhere in between.

Despite declarations that the Islamic State has finally been defeated, the data shows something else. The Islamic State is very much alive and has managed the tricky transition from one caliph to another, and the change of its center of gravity, remarkably well.

Based on the data, we can conclude that:

  • The Islamic is NOT defeated but remains highly active—in Africa in particular but also in the Levant (especially in Iraq)
  • 2020 cemented Sub-Saharan Africa as the group’s most important area of operations
  • Yemen, Sinai and Somalia are seeing little activity
  • ISWAP, ISCAP and Khorasan are the most deadly provinces on a casualty per attack ratio

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Tore Hamming

Tore Hamming is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King's College

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