ISIS has spent the last year seeking to regenerate. In this four-part special, The National investigates how the extremist group has gained a foothold in Africa, analyses its strategy for global growth, and explores its use of obscure social media platforms. Here, Thomas Harding reveals its profiteering from elephant poaching and the gems trade.
Over the savannahs of the Garamba National Park lie the bodies of scores of elephants slaughtered for their ivory. But this is not to fill the pockets of poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The tusks are being used to fund the growing ISIS powerbase in central Africa, as poaching elephants becomes just one of the many sources of income for the global terrorist force to finance its operations.
The Mbororo semi-nomadic people of the region have become affiliated to ISIS as it regroups and grows in strength and resources.
The revenue from poaching adds to the proceeds of illegal ruby, diamond and gold mining.
Far from dying alongside leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in October 2019, ISIS's ranks have evolved as its followers dispersed, but it still maintains a strong coherence around central leadership.
The most recent account compiled by an official working with the EU's country delegation reported that in the Virunga National Park, bordering Rwanda in south-east Congo, ISIS-inspired fighters were preparing for a terrorist campaign.
“It's just a matter of time before the groups are taught that because the jungle is so close to the road they can start using the many potholes to plant bombs targeting aid convoys,” it warned.
Abu Hamza al Qurashi, the ISIS spokesman, explicitly ordered attacks on humanitarian workers in central Africa in his most recent message, stating that aid had been “stolen from you” to hoodwink impoverished Muslims into converting to Christianity.
ISIS seeking to exploit impoverished Africans
Security contractors working in Congo have also reported that there is a significant problem with the Mbororo as the nomadic herdsmen spread ISIS propaganda and seek recruits in South Sudan across DRC to Central Africa Republic and Cameroon.
“They are not only poaching hundreds of elephants, especially in Garamba National Park, in north-east Congo, but they carry a strong ISIS message that is influencing impoverished people,” a security officer in the DRC said.
“These are serious players, armed men on horseback or in pretty good vehicles who are terrorists with a strong affiliation to ISIS."
In Afghanistan, ISIS, called Islamic State in Khorasan, are increasingly active.
Despite suffering the loss of two ‘emirs’ this year, ISK attracted international attention after gunmen stormed a Kabul maternity wing in May and killed 15, including mothers, babies and medical staff.
The horrific act was condemned by the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“The situation with ISK in Afghanistan does seems to be getting quietly worse,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism specialist at the Royal United Services Institute.
“ISIS continues to release material that demonstrates some level of connection with something that's happening on the ground, which is quite worrying.
"I think what you've seen in Afghanistan, in terms of ISK, is that people unhappy with negotiations by the Taliban and the Americans are going to break away."
There also reports that ISIS is benefitting from the Taliban negotiations because “everyone is concentrating on the peace talks but no one's addressing the elephant in the room, which is ISIS’s presence,” said a security operator recently returned from Kabul.
“ISK are not pro-Taliban, are definitely not pro-government, so that's a third spoke to the wheel to address in Afghanistan.
"How can they move forward with peace talks when it's far from peace?”
While a significant effort by American, French and British forces crushed ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it is still “the deadliest terrorist organisation in the world and we should treat it as such,” a senior security official said.
ISIS is also growing in strength in northern Sinai, causing significant casualties among Egyptian forces.
Last month, it hit two Egyptian M-60 tanks, showing its growing military skills.
“The Sinai is a hotbed of these religious zealots,” a former British soldier working in security said.
“The Sinai operations are literally crippling the Egyptian special forces. ISIS in Sinai have grown to a formidable size.
"Everyone thinks of ISIS in the Sahel when in fact they are an evident strength in the Sinai.”
Analysts believe some countries are just managing to keep ISIS at bay with the assistance of western special forces across Africa and elsewhere.
‘I know I'm not popular in certain circles for saying this but special forces are truly the last barrier of maintaining some sort of stability,” said Jasmine Opperman, a former South African intelligence operator.
“At the end of the day there is simply no political willingness to deal with this problem, so western special forces remain essential for at least trying to hold the line and push them back.”
ISIS operations show little sign of abating
That relentless pursuit has not stopped and neither, it appears, have ISIS operations.
Last week, the Royal Air Force reported a strike against the terrorists.
“On October 6 an RAF Reaper killed terrorists who had attacked Iraqi security forces in the Anbar desert,” the RAF said.
“The crew conducted a carefully planned attack with a GBU-12 (227kg) guided bomb."
The Iraqi forces subsequently reported that the threat had been eliminated.
But ISIS has shown recent determination to prove that the Covid-19 crisis is not disrupting its ability to attack.
“They're desperate to show their followers that they can still mount attacks,” the security official said.
“They are resurgent and they are spreading. They’re doing that by different methods now but they're still there.”