In Africa, Jihad is Not Local

Over the past year and a half, I’ve taken a keen interest in the international dynamics of African terrorist organisations. This is due to the fact that the literature on African terrorism has offered three major lines of inquiry: a rehashing of major incidents, analyses of local factors contributing to the emergence of terrorist organisations, or reiterations (and inadvertent admissions of confusion on the part of the authors) of the complexity of the current situation. However, as existing terrorist organisations become increasingly capable of instigating mass casualty attacks (and kidnappings), existing lines of inquiry within regional and local levels of analyses is simply and evidently not enough. As Al-Qaeda seems to have remained relatively inactive since the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, it’s easy to forget its most capable affiliates, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, reside in Africa and have been operating against the backdrop of an emerging Islamic State presence in their backyard. Therefore, as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic state find Africa as the next battleground to compete for hegemony over the global jihadi movement, its impact on the nature of African terrorist organisations cannot be negated. However, an article in Foreign Policy titled in Africa, All Jihad is Local, argued that “characteris[ing] local groups primarily as subsidiaries of a global jihadi movement fundamentally misrepresents their nature” and negates the local factors contributing to their emergence. The article primarily refers to two emerging groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and al-Sunnah wa Jamah (ASWJ), in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique respectively, to argue against overemphasising the link between the ADF, ASWJ and the Islamic State. By focusing on the link between local groups and international terrorist organisations, the article argues African governments will seek to attain Western support for its counter-terrorism operations and justify heavy crackdown on civilians, thus further exasperating the existing volatile situation.

Firstly, I agree to the considerable role local factors play in the emergence of local groups. However, at the heart of the matter is the contention over the legitimacy of presiding governments in relation to the political systems (and abuses thereof) that enable and maintain their access to power from where governance is poorly exercised. Governments in Africa are characterised by the personalisation of power, widespread corruption, nepotism, tribalism, mass human rights abuses, patronage of state governance and ethnic divisions dictating the hierarchical nature of socio-political structures at the expense of the poor. Opposition to the status quo is typically met with government crackdowns involving imprisonment, assassinations and censorship, thus offering no avenue for the representation and participation of alternative voices in governing the state. Therefore, if we were to consider these local factors and apply them to the emergence of Africa’s prominent terrorist organisations, Boko Haram, AQIM and Al-Shabaab, we’d find this is indeed true: The socio-economic marginalisation of the Muslim community in Northern Nigeria arising from the oil boom as well as the rejection of the 1979 and subsequent constitutions rendering Nigeria a secular state by the Muslim Students Society, the Izala Movement and other organisations created a perfect cocktail of grievances against the Nigerian state and the emergence of Boko Haram. The Algerian election in 1991 precipitated into a civil war following the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) rejection of the victory achieved by Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round. Cancellation of elections effectively saw the military take over the government which banned, arrested and assassinated FIS members thus leading to the emergence of Islamist guerrillas, the largest of which became the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and later the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) with the goal of overthrowing the Algerian government and establishing an Islamic state as an official Al-Qaeda affiliate. In the 70s and 80s, Somalia’s former president, Siad Barre, propped up a patrimonial state based on clan identity which saw the establishment of clan-based paramilitaries, security agencies and the implementation of legislation that afforded the government wide powers to detain and execute dissidents. The realisation of the brutality of the Barre regime reached its peak following the execution of senior military officers for their criticism over the President’s handling of the 1977 Ogaden War against Ethiopia, which saw Somalia suffer severe casualties. The 80’s witnessed mounting opposition to the Barre regime leading to its collapse in 1991. The widespread conflict that characterised much of this period continued as clan-based militias competed for territorial control and resources. The emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and what later became Al-Shabaab arose out of the desire to establish Islamic law and order in an otherwise anarchic state.

It is therefore clear from these three cases that a crisis of governance precipitated considerably volatile local conditions from which radical Islamic groups emerged. Further, Boko Haram, AQIM and Al-Shabaab emerged with Islamic national ambitions towards the establishment of Islamic states under the prescripts of Sharia law. Therefore, groups were fixated on challenging the presiding order which they deemed illegitimate and played on local factors to recruit and justify their cause. For instance, in 2006, the ICU which achieved relative local support and success in quelling violence in Somalia took control of the capital, Mogadishu, prompting an Ethiopian military intervention at the behest of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to suppress what it considered to be an encroaching radical Islamic presence. The event triggered the creation of Al-Shabaab, which to a large extent arose from a sense of national humiliation suffered at the hands of Ethiopian forces during the Ogaden War, a hotly contested region that remains under Ethiopian control, as well as the 2006 intervention demonstrating the manner in which Ethiopia considered Somalia to be its own back yard. Between 2007 and 2010 Al-Shabaab realised its national ambitions by acquiring control of key ports and towns in southern and central Somalia, and established a framework of governance that included taxation, a judiciary, religious and regional administration, policing and an army to name a few. However, Al-Shabaab lost swathes of territory and suffered from dwindling resources and funding following the 2010 drought and the Kenyan military’s Operation Linda Nchi in 2011. Al-Shabaab’s failure to achieve its national ambitions are not unique to the East African organisation, as AQIM and Boko Haram are no closer to achieving their goals of an Islamic state, thus forcing the terrorist organisations to consider seeking an external source of support and legitimacy towards goals beyond their immediate environment. The advancement towards a global Islamist agenda as opposed to a local agenda was and continues to be the biggest point of contention within these terrorist organisations, which have led to bitter factions and splinter groups. The internationalisation of African terrorism has had major implications for degrees of extremism and by extension lethality of terror operations where the indiscriminate nature of attacks coincides with a disregard for attaining local support. In an article titled the Institutionalisation of AQIM, the authors detail how over a period of 30 years the terrorist organisation ideologically and operationally mimicked Al-Qaeda in order to attain an official acceptance of affiliation. Therefore, the evolution of Africa’s major terrorist organisations over the years indicate that although local factors contributed to their emergence, their failure to achieve their national ambitions led to their metamorphization into something akin to the core to which they’re affiliated. Further, because Jihad in Africa could wholly be characterised by the nature of AQIM, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, attributing the nature of African jihad to being local on the basis of an analysis of ADF and the recently emergent ASWJ is a gross mischaracterisation.


What’s most evident in Foreign Policy’s article is a lack of understanding on the nature and politics of affiliations between African and international terrorist organisations. Again, I’ll begin by agreeing with the author’s caution of attributing dubious indications such as Islamic State iconography in ADF’s video releases as confirmation of an affiliation. The process of affiliation consists of, as the authors of Institutionalisation of AQIM argue, comprise of a period operational mimicry, public and private courtship of salutations on recent successes and to the leadership, training and perhaps joint operations. Thereafter, official affiliations are typically recognised by a video pledge of allegiance; however, the exact nature is often unclear as to the extent to which it is ideological or operational. What could be described as a “process” towards an official affiliation holds more true to Al-Qaeda than to the Islamic State which is desperate to portray itself as an expanding force in the face of a major defeat in Iraq and Syria, thus more caution and nuance is required, particularly in attributing links between African groups and the Islamic State.

However, a critical indication which cannot be ignored is the possible activities of foreign fighters. The article refers to a “dubiously sourced” allegation of the arrival of 90 Islamic State fighters to Mozambique being used as evidence of possible links between the Islamic State and ASWJ, which it is quick to disregard on the basis of the Mozambican government’s denial. Beyond the obvious attempt by the Mozambican government to exercise somewhat of a containment strategy, as the article sites limited press access, human rights abuses and the detainment of young Muslims, denial of allegations by the Mozambican government may be as, if not more, dubious as the source of the allegations themselves. Therefore, greater consideration ought to be taken to the possibility of foreign fighters in Mozambique, as an investigation arriving at an empirical conclusion that the allegations are false (or true) would be an appropriate response to a such a serious allegation. The terrorism literature is rich with analysis on the origins of the global jihadi movement where foreign fighters, some of whom were from North, West and East Africa, played a pivotal role in the mujahideen from where Al-Qaeda emerged. A book titled Leaderless Jihad, further details three waves of events that brought together foreign fighters throughout history beginning with the Afghan-Soviet war of the 80s, the atrocities towards Muslims on countries like Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines and Kashmir in the 90s, many of whom made up the Al-Qaeda network in the Middle East in the lead up to 9/11 before being displaced to set up their own networks in their countries of residence following America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. I would go so far as to argue that the the establishment of the self-proclaimed Caliphate by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its subsequent collapse bringing about a dispersion of foreign fighters constitutes a fourth wave. Amidst these “waves”, the ebb and flow of African foreign fighters not only saw the establishment of the continent’s three most prominent terrorist organisations, but lay the foundation for the establishment of affiliations with Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation with whom many African jihadis trained and fought alongside. The current discourse on foreign fighters following the Islamic State’s “defeat” in Iraq and Syria not only holds testament to a ‘fourth wave thesis’, but also to the severity of the potential security crisis it holds leading to the establishment or strengthening of new or existing networks which may emerge as full-blown affiliates as we have seen throughout the continent. Therefore, further mention of foreign fighters in new locations such as Mozambique ought to be taken seriously as opposed to being flippantly dismissed on the basis of the government’s denial.


Finally, regarding the article’s argument that “few people board a sinking ship or join a group in decline” in referring to the desirability of the Islamic State to African groups following its recent “defeat”, negates the strategic nature of terrorist organisations. A cursory glance at Al-Qaeda post 9/11 shows an organisation under attack and in desperate need to portray strength through an expansive presence. So desperate was its leader, Osama bin Laden, to have a presence in Iraq following the US military invasion, an alliance with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, was struck in 2004 despite their personal differences on strategies to wage jihad. Thereafter, most of Al-Qaeda’s affiliations were openly declared at the start of its decline from jihadi stardom and further increased following the death of its founder. Similarly, the Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has seen numerous affiliates established across Africa (and other parts of the world) with some more speculatively affiliated than others. Nonetheless, affiliations are mutually beneficial to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State and African groups, as the former is able to portray an ever-expansive presence whilst the latter attains (at the very least) prominence and legitimacy from the brand their core bodies imbue.


Therefore, Jihad in Africa is not local. It is an evolutional movement inspired by local factors over a question of the legitimacy of the state and has taken on international dynamics by function of its national failures and likewise the failures of its core affiliates in the Middle East. Brought about by their desire to attain legitimacy on their monopoly of grotesque violence, Africa’s terrorist organisations have become a receptive audience to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s expansive strategies underpinned by the ebb and flow of foreign fighters which ought not be negated as the history on the origins of the global jihadi movement suggests. In spite of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s perceived failures, affiliations with African terrorist organisations still offer a mutually beneficial scenario in spite of the fact that the extent to which their affiliations are ideological or operational in nature remain largely unclear. Most importantly, attributing characteristics to jihad in Africa on the basis of ASWJ, a relatively new group of which little is definitively known and the ADF which is more accurately described as a rebel group than a terrorist organisation, results in a considerably flawed analysis of the nature of terrorism in Africa.

Featured Image Source: Inside the ADF Rebellion (Unknown): Inside the ADF Summary by Inside the ADF, https://insidetheadf.org/summary-inside-the-adf/

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