What Africa Tells Us About the Fight Against Jihadist Terrorism
Ominous developments among jihadi groups in Africa deserve careful attention.
A vicious terrorist attack last month by a transnational jihadist group killed a large number of civilians in a region of strategic importance. That this sentence applies equally to the March 22 Belgium attacks, the March 27 Pakistan attacks, or the attacks in Cote d’Ivoire on March 13, shows what a grim month March was in the fight against militant jihadism.
While September 11, 2001, is commonly regarded as the “beginning” of the jihadist war against the United States, it bears remembering that al Qaeda’s first successful attack on American targets came three years earlier in Africa, with the August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Even less remembered is that in the aftermath, in a foreshadowing of the Bush Doctrine, President Bill Clinton asserted that the United States would use preventive force against terrorist threats. As Clinton argued in his radio address following Operation Infinite Reach’s cruise missile strikes on suspected al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan:
We also had compelling evidence that the bin Laden network was poised to strike at us again, and soon. We know he has said all Americans — not just those in uniform — all Americans are targets. And we know he wants to acquire chemical weapons. With that information and evidence, we simply could not stand idly by.
So just as Africa was home to the first successful hostilities in al Qaeda’s war against the United States, it also prompted the origins of America’s strategic doctrine to fight terrorism.
In the ensuing decades, the primary theaters of action in the war against Islamist militants have been the Middle East and South Asia. Yet there are worrying signs that Africa may be re-emerging as a new center of gravity in the conflict.
From Boko Haram to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to al Shabab, a proliferation of jihadist groups afflicts Africa from east to west. Moreover, the new Islamic State beachhead in northern Libya offers a pernicious fulcrum that could connect militants in the Middle East with terrorist aspirants in Africa. In addition to being a launchpad for attacks into Europe, Libya could also emerge as a way station on a jihadist superhighway, expanding the recruitment and reach of the prevailing constellation of jihadi groups in Africa.
Amid these evolving and proliferating terrorist threats, counterterrorism experts and policymakers are engaged in ongoing strategic debates over several fundamental questions. These include:
- How global a threat does violent jihadism pose?
- How much command and control do the Islamic State and al Qaeda exert over their respective franchises and affiliates?
- Is the Islamic State or al Qaeda a bigger threat to the United States?
- In what ways do jihadist groups learn from each other and adapt operational tactics?
- Should Africa be a bigger priority in the war on jihadism, or remain a tertiary front?
Taking a careful look at the most active jihadist groups in Africa might help identify indicators that policymakers, intelligence analysts, and scholars should all be following closely in order to answer these questions and track emerging trends.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram has, of late, largely diverted the gaze of U.S. policymakers by shunning large-scale attacks on Western targets in favor of wreaking havoc on rural Nigerian populations. As an Islamic State affiliate, Boko Haram actually surpasses core IS to rank as the world’s deadliest terror group, killing 11,000 people in 2015 — a staggering figure, and almost four times the total number killed in the September 11 attacks. More recently, Boko Haram’s execution of rudimentary yet perversely effective suicide bombings in rural Nigeria and in neighboring Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria, signifies a shift in primary tactics, as Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s military campaign pushes the militants out of the swaths of territory they once held in northern Nigeria.
While Boko Haram is nowhere near as defeated as Buhari claims, his campaign seems to have significantly downgraded the group’s capacity to engage in symmetric warfare. As a consequence, it is now competing for the jihadist spotlight by resorting to murderous depravity even more extreme, by regularly coercing girls to become suicide bombers and choosing soft targets such as refugee camps. This does not make these localized attacks irrelevant. Much the opposite. Boko Haram’s litany of brutal human rights abuses gained international notoriety with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign of two years ago. But its atrocities extend well beyond those kidnappings and these other recent attacks. Boko Haram also continues to profit from human trafficking, with government forces reportedly rescuing more than 800 hostages from the group last week.
In addition to the instability wrought by the unpredictable violence of Boko Haram’s suicide attacks, Nigeria currently faces myriad other threats, from the Biafran secessionist movement in the southeast to a significantly slowing economy due to falling oil prices and global shifts in oil production. Without addressing these challenges, Nigeria could be headed for major crisis, with a future resurgent Boko Haram looming even larger.
As of now, Boko Haram’s relationship with IS has not materialized to influence the former’s operations. But a shaky Nigeria could present a more enticing opportunity for the group to bring Boko Haram closer under its wing. This could involve sending weapons and funding, or providing training in tactics like oil theft, which Boko Haram has dabbled in before but could potentially do much more of given the government’s poor track record of preventing such illicit activities. A closer relationship with the Islamic State could also mean more Boko Haram attacks on Western targets. Whether or not these indicators point to Boko Haram being a global threat, its ongoing terrorization of the most populous country and biggest economy in Africa remains a serious concern.
Nearby, AQIM’s attacks on locales frequented by Westerners in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire, exhibit the group’s newly aggressive strategy. This escalation in bloodlust may be in response to the growth of IS in northern Africa, as the two groups engage in competition for recruits and notoriety. AQIM’s reincorporation of former general Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had been kicked out in 2013 for being too barbaric, illustrates its newfound willingness to adopt more aggressive and violent tactics. All of this should serve as a reminder that the rivalry between al Qaeda and IS may be more of a threat than a strategic opportunity, as the two groups compete to see who can shed more innocent blood and claim the mantle of global jihadist leadership.
Just as AQIM’s aggressiveness has escalated, so has its geographic reach. AQIM is, for the first time, executing attacks outside its traditional zone of operations in the Sahel, and has now executed attacks from Algeria to Cote d’Ivoire, an expanse of 2,000 miles, or roughly the distance from New York to New Mexico. The attack in Cote d’Ivoire, at a beach resort near Abidjan, marked its furthest operation yet. The presence of AQIM allies throughout the region facilitates these increasingly sophisticated and geographically broad operations from AQIM’s base in northern Mali and along the border with Algeria.
Since its inception in 1998, AQIM has developed into a successful and sophisticated terrorist group, a result of its relatively low exposure compared to other groups and a pragmatic modus operandi emphasizing extortion, kidnapping, and ransom. Some estimates have AQIM making nearly $100 million between 2008 and 2014, giving its members significant leverage in the Sahel and, now, beyond it. If AQIM continues to escalate its activities and IS follows suit in Libya and elsewhere, the result would be regional destabilization and many more innocent deaths.
Finally, there is the ongoing plague of al Shabab in Somalia. After several years spent playing defense against African Union forces, in the past few months al Shabab appears to be reemerging as a more strategic threat by stepping up the scale of its attacks and the significance of its targets. This year, it has already attacked a military base in southern Somalia, reportedly killing close to 180 Kenyan soldiers; stormed several Mogadishu resorts and hotels popular with tourists and government personnel, yielding significant civilian death tolls; and, for the first time ever, bombed a civilian airliner, almost causing it to crash.
The group has managed this despite ongoing internal divisions that have historically weakened it. Its leaders and foot soldiers alike are divided along clan, tribal, and national lines; between jihadists fighting a global war and insurgents engaged in a local struggle; and, now, in their loyalties to IS or al Qaeda. Al Shabab pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012, and its leadership remains firmly in al Qaeda’s camp despite a concerted propaganda effort by IS to persuade the group to change affiliations. Al Shabab’s leadership has gone so far as to threaten defectors to IS with execution. The allure of the financing and other tangible support al Qaeda can offer remains, for now, enticing enough for al Shabab to remain one of al Qaeda’s three significant global affiliates. As al Qaeda and IS compete for prominence in the region, we could see more direct coordination between al Qaeda and al Shabab, with a renewed commitment to attacking Western targets in the manner of AQIM. Al Shabab has, in the past, demonstrated its capacity to transcend Somalia: it was the first jihadi organization ever to enlist American citizens as suicide bombers in 2011. This example of international influence alone could be a harbinger of further malignancy if al Shabab is drawn into the broader regional turmoil.
To be clear, the epicenters of strategic gravity for global jihadism for the near term will continue to be the IS in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan’s frontier provinces, and perhaps Yemen and northern Libya. But as terrorism analysts and policymakers continue to wrestle with understanding, predicting, and thus mitigating further terrorist advances, these recent developments in Africa merit careful watching, scrutiny, and possibly greater action.
Photo Credit: MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB / Stringer
Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.