An unprecedented increase in terrorist attacks in Africa in recent months has coincided with warnings from various intelligence agencies that terrorists in Syria and Iraq are regrouping.
Earlier this month, a US state department report noted the risk of fleeing fighters from Syria and Iraq finding new havens in the semi-arid belt south of the Sahara in Africa. It recorded 150 terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso in 2018, triple the number of the previous year.
In neighbouring Mali, more than 800 civilians have died in violence since January this year, up from about 574 in the previous year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, as US-based data resource. Some 140,000 Malians have fled their homes this year, an almost sevenfold increase from the previous year.
In the last couple of months, the US has increased the frequency of its drone attacks on terrorists in south-western Libya launched from an American base in Niger.
The American effort is supposed to complement another effort by the Europeans in the Sahel and West Africa region. Five countries in the Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – set up a French-backed counter-terrorism force in 2017. Known as the G5 Sahel Force, it is tasked with ensuring security in the region along with United Nations peacekeepers.
Militant Islamist groups have been largely responsible for the thousands of deaths in the region, and they are increasingly tightly connected to international networks like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group. Though Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active in Algeria and Morocco, Libya is now the hotbed for IS and some AQIM elements operating in Tunisia.
The fluid status of Sudan has helped to create a no-man’s land in the triangle with Libya, and IS terrorists coming back from Syria and Iraq via Turkey have headed there. The Al-Shabab group in Somalia poses a main threat in East Africa and is backed by Turkey and Qatar.
In Mali and Burkina Faso, IS is now working with terrorists in Niger in the triangular area between the three countries. IS terrorists probably coming through Libya have taken control of a vast gold-mining region in Burkina Faso, using revenues from it to recruit and buy arms.
IS-affiliate Boko Haram is active in north-eastern Nigeria, and the group is now expanding to the Lake Chad region of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. IS affiliates not yet allied with an Al-Qaeda grouping include the Sagra branch of AQIM, the Ansar Dine and the Al-Mourabitoun.
With the anticipated regrouping of thousands of IS elements from Syria and Iraq in North Africa, particularly Libya, the competition between these factions could subside and lead to a concerted terrorist strategy. A main loser would be Egypt, already fighting a terrorist insurgency in the Sinai.
As is often the case, the new IS affiliates are competing with longer-established Al-Qaeda affiliates. Though the US announced the killing of IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Syria in October, the threat posed by the group is far from over. The Iraqi military intelligence chief told the US network CNN last week that IS prisoners were planning on escaping and regrouping in Turkey.
The threat made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would allow IS elements to pass through Turkey on their way to Europe and send back IS fighters to their countries of origin has been widely seen as a bluff. It is more likely that the 2,000 or so IS fighters in Turkey will head to Africa as a new venue for terrorism.
It is not clear if the West, particularly the US, is fully aware of this rising threat of terrorism in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. With the rise to power of moderate Islamists in Tunisia and the international community insisting that they have a role to play in Libya, it seems that Western efforts are elsewhere.
The traditional notion of using so-called “moderate Islamists” to help fight terrorists has not worked before, and it would be naïve to think it might work here. The best option could be a coalition like that which defeated IS in Iraq and Syria that would now focus on Africa.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that the fight against IS was shifting to Africa. On 21 November, the news agency Reuters quoted Pompeo as saying that “the coalition to defeat the Islamic State is turning its attention to combating the group in West Africa.”
“IS is outpacing the ability of regional governments and international partners to address that threat,” he added.
It is important in the fight against terrorism in Africa to draw on lessons learnt from previous fights in Iraq and Syria. Any coalition set up to fight the terrorists should not include countries that provide safe havens for them or help them logistically or provide the political justification for their crimes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.