According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), 23 070 incidents of terror occurred in Africa between 2000 and 2018. The continent’s top five deadliest attacks in this period were instigated by a combination of jihadi and ethnic insurgent/rebel groups, namely: Al-Shabaab in Somalia, (588), the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) (400) and tribesmen (339) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Boko Haram in Nigeria (315), and the Sinai Province of the Islamic State in Egypt (311). In the midst of this diversity, 3 out 5 deadliest attacks on the continent were instigated by radical Islamic terrorist organisations. However, these statistics really put into perspective some of the key developments on the continent in the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, which overall indicate an oscillation of terror activities between the two categories and the opportunities that exist in actors seeking to exploit both.
According to the GTI (2019: 2), 2018 was the first time Sub-Saharan Africa surpassed the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) rate of casualties as a result of terror attacks. In taking a broader look at the rate of incidents, the GTD shows Sub-Saharan Africa to have been experiencing a steady increase in terror attacks since 2004, which drastically increased in 2013 to its highest levels ever recorded. In spite of this, these developments were overlooked, and increasingly so with the emergence of the Islamic State when it acquired over 9 000 sq km of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and instigated over 1 400 attacks in 2017 as it fought to survive and retain its territory from coalition forces. However, following major losses, the Islamic State’s decline made way for a shift in regional trends, resulting in South Asia being the most impacted region as a result of terror incidents by the Taliban and increasingly by the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for half of the largest increase in deaths from terrorism in the world between 2017 and 2018 in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Chad (GTI, 2019: 2 & 13). Interestingly, as the GTI shows Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram’s terror attacks to have declined between 2017 and 2018, it further indicates an emergence of alternative groups contributing to the destabilization of remote areas and local conflicts on the continent.
West Africa and the Sahel
The GTI attributes the rise of terror incidents in Sub-Saharan Africa largely to Fulani extremists in Nigeria, where escalating violence between herders and farmers have overshadowed activities by Boko Haram/ISWAP and resulted in the displacement of over a quarter of a million people (GTI, 2019: 2 & 21). This follows extreme climate conditions in the far north resulting in Fulani herdsmen migrating to the Middle Belt and encroaching on grazing grounds of existing farmers and poor response by the government to their plight regarding militia attacks (International Crisis Group). The conflict between farmers and Fulani herdsmen is Nigeria’s foremost security threat as security forces continue to battle with Boko Haram/ISWAP. However, the terrorist organisation continues to maintain and take advantage of its long established and extensive networks in the Sahel and North Africa in preparation of a likely resurgence. This is not the first nor the last time the group has sought refuge and replenishment in its neighboring region, often returning as a formidable threat upon return. The Sahel offers a Boko Haram/ISWAP considerable tactical experience under difficult environmental conditions among a plurality of cooperating and competing jihadi actors. This has contributed to increasing incidents of terrorism in Mali and Burkina Faso, which have the highest number of involved groups in any single attack than any country on the continent. These include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splintered factions such as Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) as well as the ISGS. Additional factors include swathes of territory and porous borders allowing a free flow of extremist groups and contraband contributing to the sustenance of their operations, coupled with the reality that governments in the region are ill equipped to address the existing threat without international assistance.
Ultimately, any counter-terrorism efforts that don’t include ways to disrupt capacity building networks of West African and Sahelian terrorist organisations is futile, as the regional climate and actors that exist within it present them with the opportunity to regenerate their capacities, sometimes creating an illusion of defeat, which may be what we’ve been seeing between 2017 and 2018. I also wouldn’t let it past anyone to consider the possibility of a much wider pool of cooperation between Boko Haram/ISWAP and groups in (North and) East Africa, as it was done in 2011 when Boko Haram fighters returned from Somalia to instigate a suicide bombing of the Federal Police headquarters and the United Nations building in Abuja, Nigeria (read Jacob Zenn’s Boko Haram’s Al-Qaeda Affiliation). Therefore, while the conflict between Fulani herdsmen and farmers continues to escalate, I sincerely think it’s the calm before the storm with regards to Boko Haram/ISWAP.
Since the beginning of its operations in 2007, Al-Shabaab has consistently been Africa’s deadliest terrorist organisation except in 2012 when it was surpassed by Boko Haram and again in 2014 when Boko Haram was named the deadliest terrorist organisation in the world by the 2015 GTI. Its steady increase in terror attacks, particularly between 2013 and 2014, followed a sharp decline in 2015. I believe the death of its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, by a US airstrike had a significant impact on the organisation. Godane was one of few in his organisation that brought significant strategic, tactical and ideological experience as a former student of Osama bin Laden having trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also as a former member of Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) and the Islamic Courts Union. During his tenure, Godane was also in charge of the Maktabatu Amniyat, a unit of the terrorist organisation responsible for instigating terror attacks and gathering intelligence. Godane was known to have a ruthless and stringent leadership style which was both an asset and increasingly a liability in the wake of warring factions (read Harun Maruf and Dan Joseph’s Inside Al-Shabaab, Chapter 12: Divisions and Purge). In his absence, Al-Shabaab continues to be characterized by factionalism, which has seen members defect to the Islamic State affiliate, Jabha East Africa, and has been on the defense ever since. As the Somali Defence Force continues to train alongside regional and international partners, sustained US airstrikes continue to eliminate key members of the organisation. As a result, the GTI (2019: 4) states Somalia has experienced one of the biggest declines in deaths from terrorism in 2018.
Nonetheless, Al-Shabaab remains a formidable threat and likely in a stage of re-calibration as it looks to further establish itself as a transnational terrorist organisation using its own regional affiliate known as Al-Hijra, which has been widely speculated to have been involved in high profile attacks in Kenya such as the Westgate Mall attack in 2013. Bearing further testament to this development, the Dusit D2 attacks in January 2019 which launched the Al-Qaeda inspired terror campaign “Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Will Never be Judaized” was the first of its kind to have been instigated exclusively by Kenyan nationals (read Matt Bryden’s East Africa’s Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat). I believe this process of strategic and operational expansion under a relatively new leader, Ahmed Umar, against the backdrop of sustained counter-terrorism operations is quite strenuous. Therefore, I think right now it remains to be seen whether Al-Shabaab will be able to withstand mounting internal and external pressures against its taxing regional ambitions.
Central and South Africa
The DRC, has been rigged with conflict since the tail end of the 1994 Rwandan genocide which saw millions of Rwandese refugees migrating into the eastern part of the country. Under former president Laurent and Joseph Kabila, the mineral rich country has experienced widespread poverty and conflict as a result of rampant corruption and grotesque cupidity for wealth and power. As a result, the DRC hosts a plethora of militant groups, the most prominent of which include the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and most notoriously, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) who were primarily behind the spike in terror incidents from 2013 and 2016, and continues to be one of DRC’s major threats to peace and security. Congo Research Group put together a rather comprehensive report on the ADF, detailing the little that is known about the group, as “the lack of prominent defections, its strict internal discipline, and lack of public communications…[has made it difficult] to understand its motives, internal structure,and bases of support (CRG, 2018: 3).” The ADF has hinted at possible alignment with jihadist groups by using flags similar to that of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram/ISWAP and Al-Shabaab, while in April last year it referred to itself as Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen (The City of Monotheism and Holy Warriors). In my very first article I, as well as Hillary Matfess, cautioned against drawing definitive lines of affiliation or cooperation with jihadi groups based on symbolic messaging, slogans and images. However, analysts can’t seem to help but do the same with the Mozambican, Ansar al-Sunna, with regards to whether it has any connections to the Islamic State in light of the terrorist organisation’s claim to attacks in the country, as well as Al-Shabaab, considering an overlap of networks between the two groups in Tanzania. I went into detail on Ansar al-Sunna in my previous article, however, it’s important to note the considerable rise of these two mysterious groups which have either benefited or contributed to speculation around their ideological or operational affiliation to jihadi groups. For the moment, I believe this is a deliberate strategy to exploit the opportunity that comes with being both enigmatic and ambivalently associated with radical Islamism. However, with the potential to instigate considerably more terror attacks, its unfortunate they’re not receiving the necessary attention needed to quell what’s fast becoming a major security crisis.
So 2018 (and 2019) was the year for Fulani extremists, the ADF and Ansar al-Sunna as opposed to the usual jihadi perpetrators of terror. However, as the latter category seek to emerge from their declining performance over the past two years, because local insurgent groups and militias have failed to garner as much attention, I predict 2020 will be a tumultuous year if the two events were to coincide. Of particular concern to me is Nigeria, where Boko/Haram has demonstrated a prolific history of implementing various operational and tactical methods, and continues to do so as it seeks to further establish itself as the Islamic State’s foremost affiliate on the continent.