IVO VEGTER: Africa: the new front line against jihadi terror
Militant Islamist violence is expanding from its fountainhead in the Middle East to Africa
Jihadi extremist groups originating in Mali will have killed about 8,600 people by the end of 2023 in the landlocked country of Burkina Faso, in the Sahel region of West Africa. That’s an increase of 137% over the previous year.
The violence has spread throughout the countryside, encircling the capital, Ouagadougou, and threatening to sever it from trade routes. More than 6,000 schools have been closed, and at least 800,000 people are in effect living under what the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies calls “a militant Islamist group siege”. More than 2-million people, or 10% of the population, have been internally displaced, overwhelming aid organisations and the government alike.
While all eyes, and most headlines, remain fixed on terrorism in the Middle East, Africa has quietly overtaken it as the epicentre of terrorist groups affiliated with or motivated by Islamic extremism. Since 2018 the annual number of fatalities attributed to terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa has exceeded those in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the global terrorism index, just under half of all terrorism-related deaths in 2022 occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. During the year to end-June fatalities tied to militant Islamist groups spiked by 50%, according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, surpassing the peak of 2014 when Boko Haram’s violence in Nigeria was at its most lethal.
The 2014 spike in Africa coincided with a worldwide peak in Islamist violence, much of it associated with the rise and rapid expansion of the Islamic State group of Salafist extremists, variously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL), or by its Arabic name, Da’esh.
In the Middle East terrorist violence has been on the decline since then, in large part because of ongoing military campaigns against extremist groups. The same has not been true for Africa. In fact, both Isis and Al-Qaeda, a sister Salafist organisation notorious for the 9/11 attack on the US, have put down roots on the continent.
The list of Islamic extremist groups in Africa has grown long and diverse. According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, the most active include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), based in Algeria but operating across North and West Africa; Isis affiliates in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, created out of a merger of a number of AQIM affiliates and which, alongside Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is responsible for the crisis in a host of African countries.
These include Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, active in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon; Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, operating in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya; and northern Mozambique’s Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah. There are many more. The worst-affected areas are the Sahel, with particular focal points in Burkina Faso and the Lake Chad basin, and Somalia.
These groups are not uniform, are sometimes in conflict with one another, and are often confusingly named. For example, the Mozambiquan Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah is often referred to as Al-Shabaab, even though it is not associated with the Somalian Al-Shabaab. Both are Salafist extremist groups though. There is a third group named Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a based in Somalia, which is a moderate Sufi militia in conflict with that country’s Salafist Al-Shabaab.
For all their differences, the jihadist groups share a brutally fundamentalist interpretation of Islam rooted in the moral values of the early Middle Ages, as reflected in Sharia law.
Their values are puritanical, patriarchal and bigoted; they display a violent disdain towards non-believers and Western civilisation; they seek to conquer the non-Muslim world; they do not shy away from genocide and they glorify martyrdom not only for themselves but also for their families and children. They share the aim of reviving the caliphate of the golden age of Islam, and seek to extend such a medieval theocracy worldwide.
Africa has proved to be particularly vulnerable to incursion by jihadists for several reasons. Many African countries grapple with political instability, corruption and weak governance, creating fertile ground for extremist ideologies. In the absence of effective state control jihadist groups exploit power vacuums to establish safe havens and extend control over significant parts of rural Africa.
Africa is characterised by diverse ethnic and religious landscapes, often marked by historical tensions. Islamic extremist groups exploit existing fault lines, worsening intercommunal conflicts and recruiting individuals who perceive themselves as victims of discrimination or injustice. The interconnected nature of modern terrorism facilitates the movement of fighters, funds, weapons and ideas across borders. Collaborative efforts between Middle Eastern and African jihadist groups strengthen their transnational networks, allowing them to adapt and expand their operations.
Islamic terror groups also forge alliances with organised crime groups. High levels of poverty and economic disparities in many African nations contribute to the recruitment pool for terrorist organisations. Extremist groups often present themselves as alternatives, providing economic opportunities and social services in areas where the state fails to do so. The UN development programme pointed in a recent report to poverty and joblessness as key drivers for recruitment into extremist terror organisations.
The shift of jihadist terrorism towards Africa has profound implications for the continent, and for the world. On a continent already riven by ethnic divisions, misrule, corruption and poverty, jihadist groups have added another layer of humanitarian crises, including internal displacement, death and injury and the disruption of essential services. The jihadist threat is global and efforts to counter extremism must extend beyond national borders, not only within Africa but also beyond it.
This requires regional and international intelligence sharing, co-ordinated military and diplomatic action and legal measures to disrupt transnational terrorism finance networks. Countering the spread of Islamic terrorism requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond military intervention. It will require focused efforts to improve political stability and reinvigorate domestic economies to reduce poverty. Initiatives aimed at preventing radicalisation, such as education programmes and community engagement, will also be key to make marginalised young men less susceptible to extremist ideologies.
The UN has expressed its commitment to support Africa in its fight against terrorism. The scale of the jihadist challenge to peace and progress in Africa makes the continent the new front line against global terrorism.
• Vegter is a columnist for the Institute of Race Relations. This article was commissioned by the Social Research Foundation.
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