Africa, terrorist playground

Attia Essawi
Friday 29 Jan 2021

Observers and research centres have repeatedly issued – and escalated – warnings that it is hoped African governments will heed before it is too late

According to a 2020 Global Terrorism Index report, Africa has become “the centre of gravity” for the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, losing no less than $171 billion to terrorism in the last 10 years. Terrorist groups have moved there and to some extent to South Asia from the Middle East. And, with many young people suffering from poverty, marginalisation, human rights violations and unemployment, making them easy recruitment targets, terrorist groups have spread steadily from east to west and from north to southeast.

Observers and research centres have repeatedly issued – and escalated – warnings that it is hoped African governments will heed before it is too late.

In a statement issued in November, the Global Terrorism Index added that Sub-Saharan Africa was the most affected, with seven of the top 10 countries witnessing a rise in the number of victims. They are Burkina Faso, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Ethiopia.”

Total deaths by IS in the region went up by 67 per cent over last year. It went on to explain that Burkina Faso, which is widely targeted by terrorist groups operating in the region, recorded a rise of 590 per cent in the number of victims, and warned that deteriorating economic conditions could make more people susceptible to extremist propaganda. Observers have noted that, as competition intensifies between rival jihadist groups, the threat of terrorism in the region is increasing.

Nathan Sales, the then US State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, said both IS and Al- Qaeda have shifted much of their activity away from their heartland in Syria and Iraq to affiliates in west and east Africa, as well as Afghanistan.

“Africa is a key front in the next stage in the fight against terrorism,” he added. “West Africa is a perfect storm, with nation states that don’t control their territories, commit abuses by their forces, and have porous borders.” The French Global Strat Risk Consultancy expert on jihad Olivier Guitta concurred: “There is a deadly rivalry taking place between supporters of Al-Qaeda and IS. This rivalry is becoming intense. Africa is going to be the battleground of jihad for the next 20 years and it’s going to replace the Middle East.”

According to the Global Terrorism Index, Boko Haram has been responsible for over 37,500 combat-related deaths and over 19,000 deaths from terrorism since 2011, mainly in Nigeria and neighbouring countries.

A video posted by the group on 1 December claimed responsibility for massacring dozens of farmers in Borno state who it claimed had collaborated with government forces. At least 43 people were killed while working in a rice field in the region. They also raided a mostly Christian village killing at least 11 people and burning down a church on Christmas Eve. Last month, the group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of more than 300 schoolboys in Katsina state.

Early in December, Nigerian Chief of Army Staff Tukur Yusuf Buratai, said that terrorism may persist in Nigeria for another 20 years. Western nations have offered only limited military and intelligence assistance to the country.

Western diplomats say they are constrained by the corruption and poor human rights record of the Nigerian military. These failings have been a major contributor to mistrust of the government, enabling recruitment for Boko Haram and other jihadist groups in the region. “The corruption angle in Nigeria,” says Olivier Guitta, “is ruining everything”.

In Mozambique, IS managed to control the northern district of Cabo Delgado under the banner of “Islamic State Central Africa Province” (ISCAP). They claimed responsibility for a recent string of attacks in the country where Muslims make up 18 per cent of the population. A three-year-old rebellion has erupted into open warfare in recent months, with BBC Africa reporting massacres, beheadings and the brief seizure of two towns in the northern province.

More than 2,000 people were killed and about 500,000 others were displaced, according to official statistics. Counter-terrorism officials believe that the jihadists operating there have been recruited online with some input from across the border in Tanzania. “IS,” says Olivier Guitta, “is moving around within Mozambique unhampered by other forces.”

According to the Catholic Bishop of Pemba, Luiz Fernando Lisboaalso, “now they have guns and vehicles, so they move easily and can attack widely. They are using soldiers’ uniforms. So people are very confused, and very afraid.”

Observers say the evolution of the insurgency in Mozambique is remarkably similar to Boko Haram’s emergence in northern Nigeria, with a marginalised group exploiting local grievances and terrorising communities, but also offering an alternative path for unemployed youths frustrated by a corrupt, neglectful and heavy-handed state. Mozambican historian Professor Yusuf Adam says the army “beat people up, took them to jail, tortured them. There is a lot of Islamophobia (in the majority Muslim province of Cabo Delgado). They’re discriminated against because they’re northerners – people think they’re dumb.”

Many analysts believe the solution to the conflict lies in good governance, and a transparent attempt to address deep-seated economic and social grievances, including fair access to land, jobs and a share of future gas revenues. The European Union’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles said: “We cannot say that everything that is happening in Mozambique is a simple extension of the so-called Islamic terrorist movement.

To a certain extent that is true.” But armed violence in northern Mozambique “was triggered by poverty and inequality and the population of the area losing respect for a state which could not provide it with what it needed.” There are concerns that the conflict, if mishandled, could spread into neighbouring Tanzania, and perhaps even to South Africa.

In Somalia, Al-Shabab have presented one of the most persistent and dangerous jihadist movements on the continent. It has been able to strike across the border in Kenya and Uganda as well as detonating massive bombs in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. “Al-Shabab sees itself as Al- Qaeda’s most successful group,” says Sales. 

In Mali, Islamist militants linked to Al- Qaeda have fired rockets at three military bases in what is a rare coordinated attack on foreign forces. French military bases in Kidal, Menaka and Gao were hit, although no deaths or injuries were reported by officials. A spokesman said a UN base in Kidal was damaged. Al-Qaeda’s Mali branch, Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), said it was behind a roadside blast that killed two French soldiers in the eastern Menaka region.

This came days after three other French soldiers died in a similar way. Civil organisations reported that IS in West Africa caused the migration of thousands of Tuareg refugees in the frontier area separating Mali from Burkina Faso, where dozens of attacks and confrontations between the terrorist organisations and security forces have taken place.

In Niger, Prime Minister Brigi Rafin said 100 people have been killed in attacks by suspected jihadists on two villages near Niger’s border with Mali in one of the deadliest days in living memory. Local mayor Almou Hassane said those responsible travelled on some 100 motorcycles, and 75 other villagers were left wounded in the aftermath. A month earlier, seven Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush. Parts of Niger are also facing repeated attacks by jihadists from neighbouring Nigeria, where the government is fighting an insurgency by Boko Haram.

In Cameroon, Boko Haram militants killed 14 people in an overnight attack in the town of Mozogo, in the country’s far north. The group has recently staged several attacks in the same region despite the government’s claims of success against them.

In Burkina Faso, local officials said around 100 gunmen raided Loumbila village near the border with Mali last month, killing six and seriously wounding three others.

Some experts noted that the end of the Muammar Gaddafi regime released thousands of tonnes of weapons and explosives from government armouries, much of it making its way across the southern border into the Sahel countries and allowing IS jihadists to gain a foothold in the east of Libya. In December, Interpol said several suspected terrorists had been arrested and weapons, ammunition and contraband fuel seized in a joint operation with the United Nations across the Sahel.

More than 40,000 sticks of dynamite and detonator cords - used for illegal gold mining - were also taken, Interpol said. Illegal gold mining is a new source of funding for armed groups in the region, they added, as well as serving as a recruitment ground.

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