“Don’t you want to go on vacation?”: Hawking ‘hijrah’ to the African affiliates of the Islamic State

19 March 2024

By: Moustafa Ayad

‘Vacation’ Planning by the Islamic State

The 10 staged photographs captured quite a romantic beachfront scene in a single Facebook post. First, an idyllic image of a pristine, white-sand beach and still, turquoise waters in front of two, empty wooden chaise lounges under a thatched sun umbrella, guarded only by palm trees. Second, a romantic scene featuring a table set for two on a different beach, surrounded by four, dimly-lit lanterns and a beached dhow (sailing vessel), amid the glow of a ‘golden hour’ sunset.

They were not images from a travel agency, or even a boutique hotel; they were photographs posted by a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State (IS) which asked its audience “don’t you want to go on vacation?” to Mozambique, where entrance to IS territory is “free.” In less than 15 hours, what would rightly be described as an amalgamation of a terrorist group thirst trap and recruitment pitch garnered more than 442 reactions, 101 comments and 19 shares.

The post ripped from the pages of Condé Nast Traveler is emblematic of an increasingly common pitch to IS supporters across Facebook and other platforms encouraging hijrah (immigration) to Africa. The way the online ecosystem prompts pitches to both the continent and its affiliates stretched across Western, Central and Eastern Africa differs from region to region. Nevertheless, it is increasingly common to now see public posts on popular social media platforms encouraging readers to travel and fight alongside the ranks of fighters in Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique as part and parcel of their propaganda wars.

This Dispatch examines this trend through the lens of 10 Islamic State alternative news outlet pages the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has tracked for the past four years and maps out the narratives espoused about African countries. These outlets deliver news and calls to action based on their own brand and knowledge of their audience, disregarding the protocols of official outlets. Last year, after compiling and reviewing a set of IS TikTok accounts containing audio clips of speeches of now-dead ideologues, ISD researchers noted that specific calls for hijrah to Africa were a recurring theme. These included discussions in comments under videos where users asked for advice on travel, cost, contacts and other practicalities to make the journey.

We are yet to witness any semblance of the migration in numbers on par with the IS’ ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, since the core of many of the fighters in the African affiliates seem to be drawn from local groups and communities or other countries in the region. Despite this, this Facebook-focused research further notes just how much, and to what effect, Africa is a focus of these alternative support-based networks of news outlets.

‘The Conquest of Africa’

Figure 1: Graph looking at proportion of African affiliate posts versus posts on Iraq and Syria by unofficial Islamic State support news outlets on Facebook.

Figure 1: Graph looking at proportion of African affiliate posts versus posts on Iraq and Syria by unofficial Islamic State support news outlets on Facebook.

“It is as if by God, I see the conquest of Africa,” read a post in February 2023 by the Facebook page Global Events, a self-described IS-supporting news organisation laundering official releases by the global terrorist group for an audience of 8,300 followers. The exhortation generated 2,100 reactions, the highest number of interactions for its posts referencing Africa, where Islamic State operations have been devastating. Over the past year, Global Events posted 132 times about Africa or a specific nation in the continent, totalling 41 percent of its posts during that period. Posts about Africa by Global Events and an affiliated subset of alternative IS news pages outpaced those about Iraq and Syria by four times over the same year, highlighting the importance of the continent and affiliates based there to supporters.

Global Events is one of 10 IS news pages ISD has been tracking for the past four years and whose online presence extends across X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Threads, TikTok and Telegram. These accounts are central to spreading IS news, audio and video releases, as well as promoting recruitment on social media platforms. On two separate occasions this year, Global Events has explicitly promoted hijrah to supporters mentioning IS affiliates in Somalia and Mozambique, generating more than 1,500 interactions in the process.

The 10 pages most frequently posted about Africa as a whole, followed by specific countries such as Mozambique, Congo, Niger and Nigeria. Posts mentioning Mozambique specifically described the country as ripe for hijrah; over the past few months, IS affiliate Ansar al-Sunna has stepped up attacks there. Recently, more than 70 children were reported missing in the northern Cabo Delgado province, while more than 80,000 people have been displaced since January amid fighting between IS-linked fighters and the Mozambican Army. Supporters of the IS affiliate in Mozambique similarly claimed to have overrun tourist hotspot Quirimbas Island, sharing photos of abandoned resorts and maps to indicate locations under their control.

Figure 2: This graph follows mentions of Africa and other countries on the continent during the period of March 2023 and March 2024.

Figure 2: This graph follows mentions of Africa as a whole versus specific African countries during the period of March 2023 and March 2024.

Alternative IS news outlets have become increasingly focused on supporting fighter flows to Africa, creating outlets in regional languages such as Hausa, and parroting official calls for mujahideen to travel to Africa. The outlets created heat maps of locations across the continent where fighters could go support “their brothers in jihad.” They have similarly highlighted global injustices faced by Muslims in Africa and claimed that the only solution is joining and fighting for IS. The outlets, which understand the moderation red lines of platforms, do not refer to the group as IS but will use stand-in terms such as the ‘land of the Muslims,’ or the Arabic word for ‘state’ with punctuation between the letters to throw off automated detection of keywords.

All the IS alternative news outlets monitored focused their energies on providing watered-down versions of official news releases about attacks on villages, militaries and other raids in Africa that are often pro forma versions of official media releases by IS. However, Global Events has consistently crafted its messaging to appeal to a larger audience; the page has also figured out that by avoiding the formulaic messaging of official releases, it is less prone to takedowns or restrictions on content. That has allowed it to continue to thrive when similar pages are targeted by platform moderators.

At its height in 2021, Global Events commanded 10 Telegram channels, three Twitter accounts, four Facebook pages and Facebook profiles, as well as a single TikTok account. The brand now hosts accounts on Telegram, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Threads, which were rebuilt after the network was exposed to Meta and Twitter in 2022. Global Events currently has an audience of roughly 8,000 through its primary page on Facebook and another 2,650 via backup profiles in case the main page is taken down. The brand’s primary Telegram channel has 3,122 subscribers, a TikTok account with 1,101 followers and an Instagram account that has 2,503 followers. Its Threads account has 430 followers, but it has been abandoned for six months because the platform lacked the same traction as Facebook among IS supporters.

The outlet often speaks to a specific subset of the IS supporter base using colloquial Arabic, but it has created accounts to put out content in Hausa and Somali to attract local audiences since 2022. When IS claimed to have taken over Quirimbas Island in Mozambique, Global Events produced a ‘vacation to the IS’ post. Supporters were quick to retweet and recreate images of the beachfront supposedly under the group’s control. One Global Events follower went as far as to produce a “Quirimbas Island Adventures” digital poster, complete with sunset water scene, that could be used to celebrate the news of the group’s takeover.

Over the past year, IS alternative news outlet pages have grown by 180 percent and collectively have more than 15,000 followers. Global Events has spearheaded that increase, gaining 8,300 followers during that time span. Its growth rate speaks to its ability to not only hold its audience but expand it when other alternative news outlets inevitably stall out. The outlet has also had the most success out of the 10 pages in gaining interactions on its content, generating 96 percent of total interactions.

“Our Brothers in Jihad”

Increased messaging about IS’ African affiliates among the network’s alternative news outlet pages indicates that there is growing use of the Africa as content for the group. It also indicates a supporter-led effort to sell the continent to a base that has become accustomed to supporting the group’s actions in Iraq and Syria. The outlets indicate that Africa, and specifically sub-Saharan Africa, provides the group with the ability to not just regrow its ranks but also to redefine its brand among supporters. The IS alternative news outlets are living proof that the group’s expansion into Africa is an easy sell to its audiences.

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