As the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State winds down in Syria and Iraq, the group is now looking to Africa, where food instability and poor governance are giving it the upper hand in recruiting hungry people as fighters. That new focus could trigger another massive refugee crisis, the head of the U.N. food agency warned on Monday.
“What [the Islamic State] now doing is coming into an already fragile area, a very destabilized area because of climate impact and governance, and they’re infiltrating, recruiting, using food as a weapon of recruitment to destabilize so that they can have mass migration into Europe,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, told the Associated Press.
Beasley warned that the Islamic State’s new focus on Africa could trigger a refugee crisis far larger than the one Europe has seen in recent years.
He said he has warned European leaders, “You’re talking about the greater Sahel region of 500 million people, so the Syria crisis could be like a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming your way.”
Beasley’s warning is especially concerning due to Western countries’ response thus far, including the United States. The United Nations has threatened sanctions and has under-funded the World Food Program in general.
Previous U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did $533 million for food aid in Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Nigeria and the Lake Chad region in early March. But Tillerson — who was fired during that trip — did so in an attempt to mend fences after President Donald Trump insulted the entire continent by referring to its states as “shithole countries.” And Trump’s 2019 fiscal year budget proposal called for a 37 percent cut to State Department and USAID budgets, which will hit the programs in Africa hard. Lawmakers from both parties have warned those cuts would hurt anti-terrorism efforts.
Tillerson’s proposed replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is more interested in military engagement than investing in, say, development in Africa.
An analysis piece in Africa Arguments shed some light on on what Pompeo means to Africa: Although he’s not against food aid, he’s hawkish and likely to “continue a short-sighted approach that devalues many of America’s programmes that prioritise economic development, good governance and rule of law,” and that Trump’s foreign policy “runs counter to many of the bipartisan policies and programmes that have anchored American policy in Africa for the past 25 years.”
What that means, writ large, is that that failing to invest in food security and economic development leaves the door wide open for armed groups to fill that void in their own way.
In his comments, Beasely focused on the Sahel region, with a population of roughly half a billion people, who have already been dealing with food shortages owing to climate change and fighting that involves groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda (the Mali branch of Jama Nusrat Ul-Islam wa Al-Muslimi), al-Shabab, and Boko Haram.
“Mother after mother will tell you that ‘My husband did not want to join ISIS or al-Qaida, but we had no food,’ and if you haven’t fed your little girl or little boy in two weeks and the alternative is signing up with ISIS, you sign up,” he said.