The rise of jihadist groups in Africa

Local hunter known as Vigilante armed with locally made gun is seen on a pick up truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria before he moves to border region between Nigeria and Cameroon to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram militants on December 06, 2014
9 min read
04 November, 2021

While ten years ago there were only two significant Africa-based violent extremist groups - Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Somalia-based al-Shabab – a new report by HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies shows that today there are at least ten active extremist groups operating on the continent.

Despite the number of global deaths linked to terrorist attacks declining since 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index, the number of casualties in Africa, conversely, has dramatically increased. 

Moreover, the HORN IISS’ report finds that the expansion of militant groups in Africa corresponds with the decrease in similar activity in the Middle East following the ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

IS and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have been rapidly spreading their influence across Africa, where the “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” killed hundreds of civilians in 2021 alone and carried out attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Meanwhile, the insurgency earlier this year by local Islamic State affiliate - named Al-Shabab - in northern Mozambique, which saw the jihadists seize and hold the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province near the border with Tanzania, is a clear sign that the continent is facing the threat of an eruption of terrorism that could have far-reaching implications.

Militant groups are emerging in a vacuum created by corruption, a lack of political cohesion, and weak governance in the continent, while often exploiting accumulated ethnic and religious divisions.

But could there be a scenario, as in the case of Afghanistan, where a weak state or neglected region could be overwhelmed by a militant movement?

"Despite the number of global deaths linked to terrorist attacks declining since 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index, the number of casualties in Africa, conversely, has dramatically increased"

Following the Taliban's playbook?

While it is difficult to estimate the exact strengths of these groups, Simon Schofield, the Deputy Director of the Human Security Centre, thinks that it is unlikely that any of these movements are well established enough to seize full control of the apparatus of a state like Mali or Mozambique as the Taliban did.  

Nevertheless, Emily Estelle, a Research Fellow and Research Manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, thinks that several African Salafi-jihadi groups are following the Taliban’s playbook - particularly al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in Mali.  

While they see the Taliban takeover as a sign that playing the long game will work, and have drawn parallels between themselves and the Taliban through their propaganda, Estelle said that it is premature to say that these groups are about to topple the Somali and Malian governments - particularly because even the external forces that are withdrawing (like the French in Mali) are trying to prevent an Afghanistan redux.

The greater risk, in Schofield’s opinion, is that “insurgencies build to the point of civil war within the affected countries of North Africa and the Sahel, or the threat that these places could become safe havens for terrorist groups from which external operations could be launched further afield”. 

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Such concerns have been expressed recently in the case of Mozambique, with fears of militant expansion into south-eastern parts of Africa leading to the creation of a permanent safe haven for extremist groups.  While Al-Shabab in Mozambique (not related to the Somali group) does have global ties, its fate is unlikely to be decided by Middle East forces, according to Tom Sheehy, a distinguished fellow at the United States Institute for Peace’s Africa Center.

So far, it has mainly lived off the land in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, while Estelle observes that there are also structural limits that hinder the development of the group compared to some of the other Islamic State affiliates on the continent, including the relative remoteness of its location. For now, “its’ capabilities are rudimentary compared to many other groups - it lacks a propaganda apparatus and the ability to use bombs in its attacks, for example,” she told The New Arab

After all, Sheehy recalled, “Cabo Delgado does not have a history of supporting such extremist movements.” The Rwandan and Southern African Development Community's Standby Force (SADC) troops have made some good progress, but it will take years of improved security, governance, and economic development to achieve peace and security.

Somalia  al-Shabab attack - AFP
The expansion of militant groups in Africa corresponds with the decrease in similar activity in the Middle East following the ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State. [Getty]

But while African extremist groups’ connections with global groups vary from case to case, they are certainly inspired by their Middle Eastern “brothers-in-arms”, and, according to Max Abrahms, an expert in international security and associate professor of political science at Northeastern University, the Taliban’s victory is no different in the sense that it is attracting widespread admiration from other militant groups around the world.

For Sheehy, it is hard to draw African parallels with Afghanistan because we should not underestimate the uniqueness of local conditions throughout the continent. In fact, there is a blurred line between jihadism, organised crime, brewing ethnic conflicts amplified by grave economic conditions, climate change, and migration flows.  

Connections with global groups

While many African terrorist groups present themselves as franchises of global movements such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda to bolster their image, their true connections with core groups and their leadership “vary and are frankly difficult to gauge”, said Sheehy.

Dr Akinola Olojo, a Senegal-based senior researcher in the Lake Chad Basin programme at the Institute for Security Studies, observes that these ties are nurtured by mutually beneficial factors based on image projection but also ideological guidance, and to some degree, financial support.

"Militant groups are emerging in a vacuum created by corruption, a lack of political cohesion, and weak governance in the continent, while often exploiting accumulated ethnic and religious divisions"

For instance, in the context of the Lake Chad Basin countries (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria) where the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is active, the aftermath of the death of Boko Haram’s factional leader Abubakar Shekau was characterised by an endorsement from IS for ISWAP’s expansion in the region.

However, the main strength of these terrorist groups is that they are highly decentralised by design, explained John Rugaber, an analyst at Encyclopaedia Geopolitica and former US Army Captain with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. In a similar vein, Schofield further explained that the Western idea of al-Qaeda’s structure, that of the ‘core’ and the ‘franchises’, is somewhat of a myth. 

“Many of the leaders of the al-Qaeda branches, including in Africa, are also senior figures within the central leadership,” he told The New Arab, giving the example of a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdulmalek Droukdel, who was killed last June in Mali. As well as being the Emir of AQIM and swearing a personal "bay’ah" to Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he has been identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s ‘management committee’ and was clearly involved in the global as well as regional theatre.

This is not an exception, Schofield continued, as most of al-Qaeda’s regional emirs play a greater role in the central leadership of the organisation than is commonly recognised, and could call on those resources and support for their movement if needed. “As al-Qaeda is likely to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan, it is likely that two-way support will increase,” he told The New Arab.

Yet, while IS and al-Qaeda remain major threats across great swathes of Africa, it is unlikely that their affiliated groups will merge and establish some greater transnational super organisation, according to Schofield, as at the moment they are fighting one another for supremacy, perhaps most intensely in West Africa, where the Islamic State West Africa Province accused al-Qaeda of starting a war with them last year.

french soldier sahel
France's Barkhane operation, due to end in 2022, dates back to an initial deployment undertaken from January 2013 as Paris intervened to stop the advance of militants in Mali. [Getty]

Middle East rivalries

Middle Eastern rivalries spilling over into the African continent also add complexity and tensions within many African states, contributing to divisions in the security services of various countries, which in turn create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups. External influence is particularly evident in the Horn of Africa but also in Libya, where Turkey deployed its foreign legion, the Syrian National Army, to fight on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Government of National Accord (GNA).

This legion, according to Schofield, is largely composed of Syrian militants, including former IS and Jabhat al Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) fighters. 

Iran is also seen as a potential source of instability. Schofield recalls that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted a photo of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Africa’s most prominent Shia Islamist movement, calling him an important supporter of the Iranian revolution. Iran has also provided Hezbollah-style training and assistant to Shia Nigerians. 

Furthermore, Schofield noted, “in Somalia, Iran is operating a logistics network to transport weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and is supporting al-Shabab against the government. In North Africa, Iran has been accused by Morocco of using Hezbollah to train separatist militants of the Polisario Front, which is fighting for Western Sahara independence. If Iran follows its Middle Eastern playbook in Africa, it is clear that stability is not a likely outcome”.

In this context, Rugaber said that “any time a sponsor picks a side in non-homogenous societies or cultures, the risks are very high, as the sponsored have their own agenda and might just be using the sponsor's wealth and power, like in case of the US backing of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan”. 

"Governance structures, especially in the Sahel region, in many cases have failed to provide basic security to large sections of the population while their militaries have often been perceived as oppressors"

Africa faces tough challenges in the future

However, the Afghanistan debacle clearly shows that relying entirely on security efforts can have disastrous consequences. Given that Europeans and the US seem to be ever less motivated to continue a significant presence on the continent (as the announced partial French withdrawal from Mali suggests), many African governments face huge challenges when it comes to suppressing terrorism.

In Schofield’s view, Western intervention against militants is likely to be more in the form of drone strikes and support for local governments than ‘boots on the ground’ responses. The Americans, for example, established a new airbase in Niger near to Agadez in 2018, but to date, there are no known drone strikes emanating from this base, he added.  It has been used to fly surveillance missions, but of course, the option remains to use armed drones from this base.

While the overall international strategy will likely remain focused on military efforts, Estelle finds such an approach highly problematic because poor governance is the key factor allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to take root and spread across the continent. Indeed, governance structures, especially in the Sahel region, in many cases have failed to provide basic security to large sections of the population while their militaries have often been perceived as oppressors.

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Moreover, their forces are often poorly trained, corrupt, and unmotivated and therefore prone to desert their posts. Although no Western counterterrorism actors were planning a total withdrawal from Africa, she told The New Arab that “neither the focus nor the scale of the current counterterrorism response matches the problem”.

Although the challenges posed by violent extremism or terrorism persist, efforts on several levels are being made by African countries. The implementation of territorial action plans and the intervention pillars of what is known as the Lake Chad Basin Commission’s Regional Stabilisation Strategy, for example, is one of the crucial steps for successfully battling extremism, according to Olojo. 

Defence ministers from the G5 Sahel countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – have also been planning more joint military operations and greater "hearts and minds" engagement. Olojo thinks that it is essential that affected countries across continental divides cooperate through platforms such as the Global Coalition Against Daesh. 

In his opinion, it is also essential that governments work more closely with affected communities and address governance gaps and socio-economic vulnerabilities that push individuals towards violent extremism. However, the fundamentals such as political will, accountability, resource management, and governance cannot be imported, nor copied and pasted from outside Africa.

These essentials, according to Olojo, must be inspired from within Africa and “the sooner country leadership begins to be more sensitive towards working more sincerely with the various constituencies that elected them, the better and more authentic solutions will be”.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence