Dr. Mubarak Ahmed, specialist in comparative systems
Terrorism is the chief concern haunting African governments. Likewise, regional and global powers interested in the strategic evolutions in the continent are deeply concerned that terrorist activities by militant groups prowling around are impeding efforts sought to achieve peace and national integration.
The dilemma of African countries is also caused by weak official institutions being unable to honour their economic, social and security obligations to the people. The threat in this respect is not limited to the local governments. Rather, the miserable economic, political and social situations in Africa have had serious implications for regional and international stability.
The Global Terrorism Index, GTI, is calling for more integrated international and regional cooperation to eradicate the threat of terror in Africa. According to GTI, 18 African countries are among 50 countries in the world, which are the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
The GTI associated the highest rate of terrorist activities in Africa with the tragic political, economic and social chaos and instabilities, which gripped hard on different parts of the continent. According to the global index, terrorist activities in Africa in the past decade echoed powerfully in the Continent’s western, eastern and northern regions, which, the GTI said, are infamous for fragile state institutions, political instability, civil wars and violence. In addition, these regions also witnessed an overlapping of extremist ideology with heritage, economic situation and social fabrics.
Therefore, this study seeks to analyse counterterrorism strategies in Africa. Special attention is paid to anti-terror initiatives and visions adopted by the African Unity. Also, the study debates national strategies initiated by different African governments to resist this threat. In the meantime, the study focuses on the U.S.-led Western counterterrorism strategies.
Accordingly, the study is divided to three axes. The first axis discusses terrorism in Africa, and the most notorious terrorist groups and their operations. The second axis deals with the counterterrorism strategies and policies in Africa. Finally, the study debates the challenges, which are facing anti-terror mechanisms and efforts in the continent.
First-Terrorism in Africa and the deadliest Jihadist groups:
The threat of terrorism in Africa subsided in 2018, regardless of desperate attacks launched by Boko Haram, al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, ISIS and militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The success is mainly attributed to counterterrorism strategies initiated by African governments. For example, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria adopted an effective counterterrorism mechanism to defuse the threat of Boko Haram. In Somalia, President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ initiated a real war against al-Shabab al-Mujahideen.
According to the GTI, the threat of Jihadist groups across Africa began to subside in 2017. In its latest report, the GTI said that Boko Haram and ISIS had lost most of strongholds they established in Africa in 2014 and 2015. The GTI’s report said that these most violent groups are now desperate for maintaining their existence. The report categorised Nigeria as one of the top five countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq) mostly affected by terrorism. Nonetheless, Nigeria has reportedly seen the biggest decline in the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts.
Together, these five countries accounted for three quarters of all deaths from terrorism in 2016. It has also been reported that fatalities caused by terrorism decreased by 13% between 2016 and 2017 compared to a decrease of 10% (25637) in 2015. In 2016, Nigeria witnessed a sharp decline (80%) in the number of deaths (3100) attributed to Boko Haram; the Jihadist group was responsible for 5556 fatalities in the previous year. The success in this war is chiefly attributed to the tough and effective campaign the Nigerian government, in collaboration with the NGOs, has launched against the Boko Haram, which is said to be plunged into divisions. Nigeria’s success in its anti-terror war has had positive implications for its neighbouring countries, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which witnessed a decline of 75% in terrorist activities in 2017.
On the other hand, the GTI’s report for 2017 ranked Libya the 10th out of the world’s countries, which suffered greatly from terrorism in 2017. Libya’s neighbouring country Tunisia was ranked the 41st, followed by Algeria, which came the 49th. The Arab Maghreb country of Mauritania was ranked the 134th.
With terrorism spreading geographically in Africa, Jihadist groups, which emerged as the deadliest in 2018 are:
1-Boko Haram: Formerly known as Jamat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wa wal-Jihad (group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad). This Islamic State in West Africa, known as Boko Haram until March 2015, is a Jihadist militant organization based in northeastern Nigeria; and is also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.
Founded by Mohamed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram has been led by Abubakar Shekau since 2009. Boko Haram did not initially seek violent actions as its main goal was to “purify Islam in northern Nigeria.” But the group made a U-turn on its objectives on 7 March 2015 when its leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
Since it adopted Jihad (the holy war), Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes. According to the GTI, Boko Haram is ranked as the world’s deadliest terror group.
After its founding in 2002, Boko Haram’s increasing radicalisation led to a violent uprising in July, 2009 in which its leader was summarily executed. Its unexpected resurgence, following a mass prison break in September 2010, was accompanied by increasingly sophisticated attacks, initially against soft targets, but progressing in 2011 to include suicide bombings of police buildings and the United Nations office in Abuja.
According to the GTI, Boko Haram was responsible for about 1639 attacks from 2009 to 2015, in which 14,436 people were killed, 6,051 injured and 2,063 abducted. However, the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014 triggered the international campaign “Get Our Girls Back”. The federal government in Nigeria said that Boko Haram’s terror had impacted 14.8 million people in the country, including 5000 people, who went missing and about 2.3 million people displaced since May 2013.
Economic losses incurred in the northeast area of Nigeria as a result of the group’s terror were estimated at US$5 billion.
Boko Haram launched a series of terrorist attacks in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, including the mass abductions of 100 schoolgirls from a polytechnic college in Dabchi, north-east Nigeria. However, the group eventually sent the girls back to their families; four girls are still missing, nonethtless.
The group’s war of terror in Nigeria included a deadly attack in June this year. The Nigerian police said that 20 people were killed and 48 injured in a series of bombings Boko Haram launched in north-east Nigeria. In August, about 19 people were killed when the group’s militants attacked a refugee camp in the same area. Before they left, the militants torched huts and destroyed crops.
2-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Youth Movement) in Somalia: this Jihadist group was founded in early 2004 after breaking away from the Islamic Courts Union, which was defeated by the Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, TFG. Al-Shabab’s strength was estimated at 7,000 to 9,000 militants in 2014. The group has started to retreat in 2015. Although al-Shabab has withdrawn from major cities, it still holds control on large parts of the rural areas. The group is active in more than 18 areas in southern Somalia, such as Mogadishu, Wawadur, Guhar and Garbahari. In March 7 this year, al-Shabab managed to seize large parts of the southern city of Belaad, which was under the control of the government forces.
Al-Shabab had attempted in August last year to have a safe refuge in the city of Garade, the Puntland State, after the government, in collaboration with the African Union Mission to Somalia, (AMISOM) intensified its airstrikes on its strongholds in southern and central areas. In August last year and following the withdrawal of the Ugandan troops, al-Shabab fighters managed to seize the strategic city Ligua, which lies on the Mogadishu-Bidwa road.
As of June 2012, the U.S. State Department has open bounties on several of the group’s senior commanders.
In early August 2011, the Transitional Federal Government’s troops and their AMISOM allies managed to capture all of Mogadishu from al-Shabab militants. An ideological rift within the group’s leadership emerged, and several of the organization’s senior commanders were assassinated.
It was in August 2014 when the Somali government-led launched Operation Indian Ocean to clean up the remaining insurgent-held pockets in the countryside. On 1 September 2014, a US drone strike, carried out as part of the broader mission, killed al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair. U.S. authorities hailed the raid as a major symbolic and operational loss for al-Shabab, and the Somali government offered a 45-day amnesty to all moderate members of the militant group. The group remains nonetheless strong and active, and has been responsible for exceptionally deadly terrorist attacks such as the Westgate shopping mall attack and the Mogadishu bombings.
Although al-Shabab’s threat has focused on domestic areas in Somalia, the Jihadist group used to export its war of terror to neighbouring countries, such as Kenya, which witnessed a terrorist attack in March this year, in which five policemen were killed.
Al-Shabab’s deadliest attack took place in April 2015 when its militants stormed Garissa University in north-eastern Kenya, killing 147 people, mostly students. Four of the gunmen were surrounded in a dormitory, and died when their suicide vests detonated.
In September 2013, the group’s militants launched a deadly attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the capital, killing at least 72 people, including 61 civilians and five terrorists.
The militant group also claimed responsibility for several attacks, which ocurred in coastal areas, in which 100 people were killed. The group renewed its attack on the international forces in Kenya in early 2015 and killed two soldiers.
3-Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): this militant group is linked to the Jamaa Salafiya, which broke away from the armed Islamic Group in 1997 after a dispute over the killings of civilians. AQIM revealed its threat by kidnapping foreigners. The militant group developed a regional strategy after Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri allied his organisation with the Jamaa Salafiya, which is fighting the Algerian government to establish an Islamic state.
AQIM gained notoriety in the Western societies after attacking foreign tourists residing in hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire. The militant group threatened in May this year to attack Western companies in north and western Africa. In its statement, AQIM claimed that these foreign establishments were legitimate targets. It also urged Muslim customers to boycott Western products. AQIM also threatened to attack French troops (Operation Barkhane) deployed in Mali in August 2014 to fight militant groups in Africa’s Sahel region.
4-Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM): This Jihadist group was formed in the Maghreb and West Africa by the merger of Ansarul-Din, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Sahara branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. JNIM was formed by Iyad Ghali.
Also known as Abul-Fadl, Iyad Ghali is the son of the Tuareg tribe tribe, which led the armed resistance against the Malian forces in the 1990s of the last century. After its leaders swore allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahri, JNIM, which is the largest and most powerful militant group in Africa, is viewed as the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali.
Iyad Ghali in 1988 founded the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. In the latest episode of the Tuareg upheavals in 2012, he featured as the founder and leader of the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine.
JNIM launched in November 2017 two separate attacks on the UN peacekeeping forces and Malian military checkpoints, killing 10 of the UN troops in the area.
Escalating its violence in Africa, JNIM attacked in March this year the French embassy and a military post in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. About 8 people were killed in the attack.
5-ISIS in Africa: This militant group was formed in Sahel and Sahara by Abulwalid al-Sahrawi, who broke away from AQIM. In his capacity as the leader of Al-Mourabitoun, Abulwalid pledged loyalty to ISIS’s leader Abu-Bakr al-Bughdadi in May 2015. His conversion prompted revenge by Al-Mourabitoun’s second-in-command Mukhtar Belmukhtar. Abulwalid was ousted and Belmukhtar declared himself the new leader. Belmukhtar also renewed his allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahri. AQIM retaliated by launching a revengeful attack on the newly-founded group,especially after it managed to increase its influence by drawing support from ISIS fighters in Libya and Nigeria. AQIM also developed its strategy in 2016 by forming al-Fatah al-Mobin (incontestable opening), an armed group tasked with hunting for ISIS’s fugitives in the area and kill them. As a result, the ISIS in Africa had gone underground for two years. Celebrating its alleged big victory, one of AQIM’s leaders, Aba Hisham Abu-Akram, claimed that they had eliminated ISIS from Africa.
But, the fragile security in Africa and porous borders helped the recurrence of the threat of ISIS in Sahel and the Sahara. The ISIS’s alleged rebirth was announced in a statement released on January 12 this year. In its statement, Africa’s ISIS claimed its responsibility for a series of attacks on French troops in Niger.
ISIS in Africa also claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. and Niger joint patrol in Niger in October last year, in which four American soldiers and five Niger troops were killed.
Second-Counterterrorism strategies in Africa:
A two-level counterterrorism strategy has been initiated in Africa. The first is associated with the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent over the next 50 years. The Agenda 2063 was announced during celebrations marking the AU’s 50th anniversary. African leaders and heads of state signed the Solemn Declaration, which highlighted the Continent’s ambitions and aspirations in the next 5 decades. The Solemn Declaration also highlights the fact that Africa is qualified for celebrating prosperity in the forthcoming 50 years for its wealth of natural resources. Africa has about 90% of the world’s reserves of natural resources.
Agenda 2063 strategy aims at eradicating poverty by 2025, modernizing agricultural activities and trade, and constructing an immense road networks and basic infrastructures honouring international standards to connect African countries, facilitate trade and communication. African heads of state and leaders also committed their Agenda 2063 to launching a continental trade free zone in Africa, and lending more support to young people who are the engine of renaissance in Africa.
The Agenda 2063 also stresses preventing disputes and armed conflicts by 2020. The AU has pledged to end disputes and policies, which could lead to genocides or crimes against humanity in the continent. Article 12 of the Protocol of the Peace and Security Council approved the formation of an African Force to intervention in member states to promote peace, security and stability.
However, it has been agreed that no regional troops should intervene in a neighbouring state. Somalia was the exception. This war-ravaged country appealed for military interventions from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda after the African Force deployed there failed to live up to the expectations of the Somalia’s government.
Unfortunately, Somalia’s war against al-Shabab terrorist organisation will run into more difficulties. Djibouti, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are preparing to withdraw their troops in 2020. In addition, about 1000 African soldiers are scheduled to leave Somalia late this year. Seizing the security vacuum, al-Shabab has established strongholds in rural and tribal areas.
It is all the more unfortunate that the Federal Government of Somalia, together with the American and African troops in the country, plays down the tribal role in efforts sought to minimize the threat.
Concerning the threat of Boko Haram, the AU approved in January 2015 the formation of a military alliance to fight this Jihadist group in east Africa. The 8700-troop alliance was formed by Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria and Benin. After two months, the alliance opened its headquarters in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad.
The second level of counterterrorism strategy in the continent is associated with unconventional policies adopted by African governments. For example, the government of Nigeria initiated policies to encourage women to take larger part in anti-terror campaigns. Within this context, mothers in rural areas received training on how to protect their children against extremist and fundamentalist ideologies. Boko Haram’s abductions of schoolgirls and its killings of children prompted Nigerian women to organise mass demonstrations, in which they condemned the government’s shortcomings to eradicate the Wahabi ideology.
The Nigerian government has also decided to upgrade the education systems and curricula to encourage the value of creativity, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. These extraordinary policies were laid on the table after the governments and security authorities realized that military intervention alone cannot help eradicate the threat of terrorist groups on the long-run.
In Kenya and following the deadly attack on the Westgate Shopping mall in September 2013, the government instituted measures and extraordinary initiatives to help maintain order and security. They included the appointment of 10-family vigilance committees in each district. The initiative, called ‘Know Your Neighbour’, commits the locals to report about strangers and their movements in the place. In April 2014, the Kenyan government launched “Salamwatch”, an initiative recommended to help arrest the illegal migrants and human traffickers.
The third level of the counterterrorism in Africa is dedicated to the U.S. role to protect the Western interests in the continent. Washington is keen to increase its military presence in Africa to deny its rivals, such as China, the opportunity to gain bigger ground in the region.
Two U.S. air bases under construction in northeastern and northwestern Niger are planned chiefly for drones, which have proved effectiveness in launching devastating strikes against militant groups in different parts of the world.
The two bases, described as the largest in the history of the U.S. military will have been completed by 2024. The U.S. has also established a drone airbase, A.B 201, in Agadez in Niger. About 650 American forces and 800 Niger troops are deployed in this airbase.
However, learning the tragic lesson from Somalia, the US has become deeply concerned that a small battalion would not by any means score any concrete success against militant groups. Accordingly, the Pentagon has decided to increase its elite force in this war-ravaged African country by 500 troops.
Third-Challenges to counterterrorism strategies in Africa:
- Merged or splintered militant groups: Jihadist groups in Africa are allying themselves with more powerful and internationally-infamous organisations to increase their regional influence. Accordingly, Boko Haram declared its allegiance to ISIS. Likewise, militant groups, which broke away from al-Shabab, pledged loyalty to ISIS’s leader Abu-Bakr al-Bughdadi.
Obviously, the anti-terror strategies in Africa ran into more difficulties after the increase in the number of breakaways, such as the Ansar Dine movement, whose founder Iyad Ghali abandoned diplomacy and resume his violent resistance to the Malian government. Iyad Ghali was appointed the Malian consul in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after he agreed to lay down his arms as part of a peace accord signed by and the Malian government and al-Tuareg rebels in 1992. Returning from Jeddah, the chief rebel went into hiding in the mountainous Agaraga.
After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, al-Tuarge fighters, who joined the war in Libya, fled to Mali with their heavy weapons; and pledged allegiance to Iyad Ghali
- Alliance between militant groups and gangs of organized crimes:
Militant groups in Africa sought to strengthen their relationship with gangs of organized crimes to help finance their activities and the purchase of weapons. The militant groups also raised funds by imposing taxes on locals, zakat, or smuggling oil and gas via seaports under their authority. Likewise, al-Shabab replenished its budget by smuggling charcoal through Kismayo port in Somali.
- Low growth rate:
The northeastern parts of the African countries, Nigeria, Somalia, Cameroon, Libya, and Kenya are infested with malnutrition, illiteracy and poverty, which are frustrating efforts to establish security and initiate the much-needed development programmes.
- The presence of foreign forces:
Seeking to win the support of local tribes, militant groups in Africa claimed that they are fighting the French and the American occupation forces, which are exploiting the people’s natural resources. The locals are also encouraged to view the foreign forces as kafir (non-believer).