In November last year, armed men swept into a village in Cabo Delgado, a rural region in northeast Mozambique. There, they gathered the inhabitants on a football pitch in the middle of the village and beheaded 50 of them. Later that month and half a continent away, 110 farmers in northeast Nigeria were gunned down whilst tending their fields. What links these events, separated by the vast interior of Sub-Saharan Africa? The short answer is the Islamic State. But longstanding stereotypes about Africa in Europe and America have played a supporting role.


The Islamic State’s West-African Province 

Following its defeat in Syria and Iraq, the Caliphate went house-hunting. It settled on West Africa; a region well-suited to the organisation’s style of warfare. Whilst western commentators worried about their relatively small presence in Afghanistan, ISIS quite literally subsumed Boko Haram — the jihadi organisation that came to fame by kidnapping schoolgirls in their native Nigeria. Boko Haram — save for a small splinter movement — became the Islamic State’s West-African Province or ISWAP. Since establishing themselves in Nigeria, IS has launched a characteristically rapid expansion, paying little heed to West Africa’s ex-colonial borders.

Joseph Conrad’s long dark shadow 

These successes have come despite a series of joint operations by the Lake Chad nations; Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Whilst Nigeria’s longstanding insurgency has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with western media coverage, Islamist violence in her less globalised neighbours has garnered little attention. Individual massacres may be acknowledged, but few established media outlets in Europe and America have committed themselves to linking the massacres and portraying the scale of what is happening in Africa. Whilst an ‘end to Sykes-Picot’ was a dominant theme in how IS in Iraq and Syria was reported, the growing nexus of Islamist power in Africa is often treated in isolation.

This is in part due to western perceptions of the African interior. Southwest Nigeria, with its international megalopolis, Lagos, may be part of the west’s known world but countries like Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, are still subject to the Conradian conception of the African interior as dark, savage and inaccessible. This means that when massacres occur, they are accepted or ignored in a way that they would not be elsewhere. One such example is ISWAP’s campaign in northern Cameroon which — whilst sharing many of the hallmarks of the 2014 ISIS operation in Iraq — has received a fraction of the coverage. This is despite the fact that Cameroon has long been a bastion of relative stability in the face of the region’s Islamist problem. The same could not be said of Iraq.

Western ‘Shadow Wars’ in Africa

Because of where Cameroon sits in the west’s cultural imagination, massacres and mass displacement do not make the news as they would in other parts of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa lacks the oil fields of the Middle East and must do without the dubious privilege of being considered a strategic corridor between East and West. Since the end of the Cold War, Africa’s significance in the western zeitgeist has diminished further still. Yet Africa is important, and the clandestine elements of US military command recognise this. US special forces are deployed in 13 African countries, including Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The description of these operations as ‘shadow wars’, by both critics and proponents illustrates our continued tendency to draw on the Conradian lexicon of darkness when talking about Africa.

From what we understand, US special forces generally embed regional militaries in the fight against Islamist militants. West-African security forces stand accused of fighting fire with fire, and only the most egregious stories of human rights violations tend to make it out. A mass rape by Cameroonian soldiers in March last year achieved a degree of publicity and condemnation, but the use of rape, torture, and summary execution by security forces in Chad, Niger and Nigeria has gone predominantly unreported by all bar the usual NGOs. Due to the clandestine nature of the US’ presence in these countries, the proximity of US forces to these events cannot be assessed.

Dispelling the Darkness 

The perception of the African interior as murky and inaccessible allows mass atrocities and western military intervention to exist in the shadows. These shadows have been reified by centuries of colonial thought. This darkness in the west’s cultural imagination has been a gift for the Islamic State, which has been able to expand its brutal influence from Nigeria to Mozambique, and a gift for domestic security forces which often operate with impunity. What is more, the western forces that support them appear largely unaccountable to all but the most opaque echelons of their respective militaries. Despite all of this, there is little appetite in establishment media to dispel the darkness and subject these issues to the sustained scrutiny that they deserve.

Given that the weapons being used to build the new caliphate are coming from Mediterranean states like Libya and Syria, the potential for militants to travel the other way is very real. Sadly, only once terror in European streets is given an African face, do those in the west begin to wake up to what is happening south of the Sahara.