The United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Committee’s release of its most recent report on the state of the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda contained a notable inclusion. Given the successive strikes killing the Islamic State’s last four leaders between 2019 and 2023, the report highlighted the possibility that the Islamic State’s leadership could consider a relocation from the group’s presumed base in Iraq. The likeliest destinations? “Africa and Afghanistan [are] viable locations for a new leader, with the former [Africa] more likely.”

This is the thirty-third biannual report released by the committee, and each is read closely by terrorism scholars and counterterrorism professionals; thus, the assertion about a possible relocation is worthy of deeper examination. And to be sure, the idea that Africa might serve as an escape spot for senior IS leadership is nothing new. In 2016, when the group’s leadership was being battered by multinational forces in Iraq and Syria, observers began wondering if Libya—once the pinnacle of the Islamic State’s African network—would serve as a “fallback” location to harbor senior leaders. Though many senior IS leaders did in fact travel to Libya, no critical mass of the organization’s leadership ever did. Fast forward to today, and looking toward Africa is not unreasonable: as the Islamic State’s eight African provinces, or wilayat, have proven to be some of its most successful, violent, and famous, IS as a transnational jihadi organization has undertaken what coauthors and I have referred to elsewhere as the group’s “African Turn,” or a strategic prioritizing of Africa in social media. Indeed, as Tricia Bacon and I have argued, precisely because of the Islamic State’s success there, Africa is the new epicenter of global jihadist terrorism. Just how likely, then, would a relocation of IS’s top leadership to Africa be?

Defining “Leadership”

Assessing the UN report’s claim first demands clarity on terminology: there is a difference between the top leader of the Islamic State (the so-called caliph) and other people with important leadership positions in the Islamic State. As this piece will show, while the leader of the Islamic State will likely not relocate to the continent, people with some of the most important leadership positions in the Islamic State—those whose day-to-day activities are integral for IS’s functioning—already are African.

It is imperative to recognize that the delegation of important leadership roles to Africans and others based in Africa has already occurred. Beyond the Islamic State’s central leadership already clearly entrusting African emirs (or leaders) to govern rather autonomously their own IS provinces, African regional offices of the Islamic State (overseen by IS’s General Directorate of Provinces) play pivotal roles in the group’s global efforts. Two of the regional offices of the Islamic State in Africa, the al-Furqan Office (based in Nigeria and covering West Africa) and the al-Karrar Office (based in Somalia and covering East, central, and southern Africa) are proof of the preexisting African character of IS leadership. The al-Karrar Office has been shown by researchers to be one of the central nodes of IS’s global financing efforts: not only have funds traveled from IS’s central leadership to the al-Karrar Office, which it has distributed at its discretion throughout Africa, but IS Central has even entrusted the al-Karrar Office to facilitate financial transfers to its Khorasan province in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As concerns specific high-ranking African leaders, perhaps the most prominent was Bilal al-Sudani, a Sudanese-born financier attached to the al-Karrar Office, who was killed in January 2023. One report, citing a senior US official, described his importance: “There was no one else in the Islamic State’s global constellation of operatives who rivaled Mr. al-Sudani in his ability to receive and distribute illicit funds . . . to far-flung ISIS affiliates on at least three continents through a network of clandestine contacts he built over more than a decade.” In other words, African leadership is already clearly evident in Africa. Given that it has been well-established that, as the same UN report has argued, the “center of gravity” of the Islamic State has moved to Africa, an investigation of the claim about the leader of the Islamic State coming from (or going to) Africa can be assessed.

Considering the Push and Pull Factors

After nearly five years without holding major territory in Iraq or Syria, successively killed leaders, few truly notable Middle Eastern attacks, and drained coffers, if a move to Africa or elsewhere were likely, why would have it not yet occurred already? When could such a move happen? In considering the potential relocation of the top IS leader to Africa, as the UN has suggested, being imaginative becomes instructive. Just what would it take for such a move to occur? How would the status quo need to change to make such a move sensible? To explore those questions, it is useful to consider both the factors that might push the top IS leadership out of Iraq and Syria and those that might pull these leaders toward Africa.

The Push Factors

Of these two categories, the push factors that could theoretically impel IS to move its principal leader, and thus base of operations to Africa, or anywhere else, are the most straightforward. Indeed, the most evident push factor is already plainly obvious: IS leaders could simply decide that staying in Iraq or Syria is untenable, and a move to a safer space is necessary. This would be reasonable and requires little imagination: since the United States killed the Islamic State’s most well-known leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, the rise of the next three IS leaders has been met with successive killings, even despite their relative anonymity, in what Aymenn al-Tamimi has called IS’s “‘dark age’ of caliphs.” While the group has weathered leadership storms in the past, it seems time has come to consider a relocation.

While the desire not to be targeted is the primary and most likely push factor out of the Middle East, a second, less likely, phenomenon might also compel relocation: a greater loss of sympathy within Iraqi or Syrian society, which is already very pessimistic about the group. While the global IS brand might still hold relevance, IS leadership might find it reasonable to go where it is more welcomed, and where its soldiers of the caliphate have found more success. Yet, given the relatively low Iraqi public opinion of IS over the past five years, there is not much room for further deterioration: if low approval has not forced a relocation yet, it is unclear what else would need to happen.

The Pull Factors

Yet while the forces pushing IS top leadership out of the Middle East are somewhat clear, there are also less immediately apparent forces on the African strategic and political landscape that could be what ultimately makes a move all make sense. Just what dynamics on that landscape might precipitate a decision to relocate?

The first scenario that might come to most analysts’ minds would be that perhaps the IS leader could consider a move to Africa if a state became fully collapsed, thus providing a permissive, unrestrictive environment for him and his immediate circle to live and operate in. Yet, one need not look far to see that such conditions already broadly exist. If finding a weak African state was the key, why not relocate already to Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya, or Somalia? Need they be even more weakened than they already are? Indeed, beyond the fact that African state weakness already abounds, numerous studies have shown the best states for terrorist groups are not ones that are completely hollowed out and inefficient, but ones that are somewhat hollowed out and efficient: the group still has to use telecommunications networks, roads, banks, and markets. Moreover, if state weakness is what’s attractive, why would an Iraqi leader of IS seek to leave his own weak state of Iraq to relocate to another in Africa?

A second hypothetical change to the African status quo that could compel an IS leader to relocate would be if an Islamist or Islamist-leaning African head of state agreed, quietly, to host him: rather than the IS leader seeking a failed state, he might merely need to have a supportive state. In theory, such a state could surreptitiously offer an IS senior leader safe haven, provide funding, and perhaps facilitate military collaboration out of ideological solidarity—not a bad deal for IS leadership. As an analog, one can think of the relationship between Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Osama bin Laden in the 1990s when bin Laden lived in Khartoum, galvanizing al-Qaeda and its regional reach, and the Islamist Bashir provided diplomatic cover. Yet replicating this model for IS in contemporary Africa would be fraught. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has always had a more conciliatory relationship with states (especially non-Western ones), the Islamic State, by its very nature, would never collaborate with a statist leader. Nor would its caliph or senior leaders be content to live in a state not governed by sharia. Even with safe haven, in other words, an inevitable clash between IS and the state sponsor would ensue. Conversely, for an African government, the benefits of welcoming and harboring the senior leader of one of the most hunted groups in the world are not intuitive.

A third scenario that could see the top IS leader be located in Africa would be, in theory, if there were to be an African caliph, or head of the Islamic State’s caliphate. If the new senior-most leader of the Islamic State was to be an African, obviously he and the rest of the organization’s senior leadership would relocate to where he felt most at ease. But immediately, this is a nonstarter: while Africans have important leadership roles within their own respective Islamic State provinces, it is all but impossible for an African to become the new caliph given that the caliph of the Islamic State must be Qureshi. For an African to be considered Qureshi, he would need to prove that he is a descendant of the Quresh tribe in the Arabian Peninsula, near Mecca. While theoretically not impossible, it is a very unlikely outcome. In other words, the naming of an African caliph wouldn’t do the trick.

The fourth pull factor, and the one that seems most plausible as a trigger for a top IS leadership move to Africa, would be if an IS-linked group were to fully take control of a state in Africa, laying siege to the capital, taking over the government, and running it as an Islamic emirate à la the Taliban in Afghanistan. Such a takeover would allow IS to reclaim some of the glories of its territorial sieges in Iraq and Syria—what Aaron Zelin has called IS’s “nostalgia narrative”—and to a lesser extent, Libya. An influx of foreign fighters, interested in living in the new center of the caliphate, would be expected, as would a relocation of IS leadership. In practice, one looks at Bamako, Mali, or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso as the most likely capitals where a jihadist complete state takeover could occur. However, in both Mali and Burkina Faso, al-Qaeda, not IS, is the most likely culprit: in December, for instance, AQ-linked groups claimed forty-nine attacks in the two countries, whereas IS groups claimed only three. Nor would the Malian or Burkinabe armies, both backed by the Russian Wagner Group, likely allow this to be accomplished easily. Nevertheless, were it to occur—in these states or others—it would become the strongest rationale for an IS leader to be located in Africa.

Not Enough: The Hurdles to IS Leader Relocation to Africa

These push and pull forces notwithstanding, it should be stated plainly that such a move of the top IS leader to Africa is quite unlikely. First, there is the logistical challenge: moving a cadre of top IS leaders, many sanctioned by a combination of the United States, the UN, and other international stakeholders, through sundry countries would be inherently difficult, though not impossible. Once relocated, setting up shop, as it were—reconfiguring communications, banking, and transportation networks—would likewise be cumbersome tasks, though again, not insurmountable. Second, a core impasse that such a move would need to navigate is the set of cultural and social challenges that relocated Iraqi leadership to, say, Burkina Faso or Mali would present. The insertion of Iraqis or Syrians, yearning for social and political control, in the midst of already fraught ethnic and political relations of Mali, not only would cause cultural friction but would be a hard bridge over which to establish trust needed for a clandestine terrorist group to function. IS senior leaders would need to lean heavily on local IS leaders and members from Mali or Burkina Faso to ensure their safety. This is a scary prospect for senior leaders who, as our studies have shown previously, have rarely had much face-to-face contact with the emirs of their African provinces. Third, a move of IS leadership to Africa might well result in backlash from global IS supporters who view leadership as having given up in Iraq and Syria, even if the move is logical in a strategic sense. And fourth, unlike Iraq, Syria, or other spaces in the Middle East, Africa lacks any religiously important sites for the global jihadist movement with which to galvanize supporters. Would IS’s central leadership and its supporters consider themselves to have won a victory of any consequence if it occupied Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso?

At the end of the day, the UN committee that issued the recent report is likely correct in assessing that IS leadership is looking for greener pastures. And, while the Islamic State certainly does have a far more African character, especially in leadership, than ever before, the relocation of the top IS leader to Africa is difficult to see. While the most senior IS leaders might face many challenges in Iraq and Syria—not least the military pressure that has cut short the tenures of a succession of the group’s chief leaders—relocation to the African continent might pose even more substantial challenges for the organization than it helps to overcome.

Jason Warner is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program and the author of The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.