Terrorism Is Making a Comeback, and Africa Is the Hot Spot

Things could get even worse after the pandemic.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A man passes in front of the rubble of the Medina hotel in Somalia.
A man passes in front of the rubble of the Medina hotel in Somalia.
A man passes in front of the rubble of the popular Medina hotel of Kismayo, Somalia, a day after at least 26 people were killed in an attack claimed by al-Shabab, on July 13, 2019. AFP via Getty Images

After years in abeyance, global terrorism is again rearing its head. Although deaths are down, attacks are up, politics are overtaking religion as a motivation (at least in the West), and the age-old factors of poverty, marginalization, and weak governance provide a combustible mix that could herald a comeback for terrorism as pandemic movement restrictions ease.

These are among the headline findings from the latest Global Terrorism Index (GTI), put together by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace. The composite picture: Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the locus of terrorism, spearheaded by the expansion of the Islamic State and the persistent presence of Boko Haram, even as Afghanistan remains the most terror-wracked country in the world. Not that traditional hotspots like the Middle East or East Africa are off-limits: Attacks this week in Israel and Somalia underscored the persistent nature of the threat.

The most notable shifts: more terror attacks, with fewer deaths. In 2021, some 7,142 people died in terrorist attacks, just down from the year before, but a one-third decline from the 2015 peak. What’s accelerating is the pace of attacks, which jumped by 17 percent to 5,226 attacks last year—the highest number since 2007, when the GTI started counting. The report said that was largely due to violence in the Sahel and instability in countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar.

After years in abeyance, global terrorism is again rearing its head. Although deaths are down, attacks are up, politics are overtaking religion as a motivation (at least in the West), and the age-old factors of poverty, marginalization, and weak governance provide a combustible mix that could herald a comeback for terrorism as pandemic movement restrictions ease.

These are among the headline findings from the latest Global Terrorism Index (GTI), put together by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace. The composite picture: Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the locus of terrorism, spearheaded by the expansion of the Islamic State and the persistent presence of Boko Haram, even as Afghanistan remains the most terror-wracked country in the world. Not that traditional hotspots like the Middle East or East Africa are off-limits: Attacks this week in Israel and Somalia underscored the persistent nature of the threat.

The most notable shifts: more terror attacks, with fewer deaths. In 2021, some 7,142 people died in terrorist attacks, just down from the year before, but a one-third decline from the 2015 peak. What’s accelerating is the pace of attacks, which jumped by 17 percent to 5,226 attacks last year—the highest number since 2007, when the GTI started counting. The report said that was largely due to violence in the Sahel and instability in countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar.

As always, the prevalence of terrorism is linked to socioeconomic conditions. Terrorist organizations exploit deprivation and alienation to recruit members, with the Islamic State, for instance, promising disaffected European youth “a new life and new opportunities,” the report said, while Boko Haram offers huge salaries in the Sahel.

Extreme brutality, as seen from the Islamic State in Iraq, is used to retain recruits, who fear the consequences of trying to leave, and to attract violent individuals. Terrorist groups can “provide a powerful sense of belonging to disenfranchised individuals. Being in a group is conducive to survival because it offers protection from potential threats,” the report said.

That’s why the end of pandemic-related restrictions after three years of social and economic disruption could be kindling for more terrorist activity. The report noted that the easing of lockdowns and emergency controls on movement could see a spike in attacks if the underlying conditions that lead to radicalization are not addressed. Years of economic and social inequalities and hardships have led to higher youth unemployment and a larger potential pool for radicalization.

In terms of terrorist groups, GTI singled out the Islamic States as the deadliest, underlining its expansion via affiliates in Africa’s Sahel that has made that region the core of the terrorist resurgence. The Sahel—consisting of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal—is of “serious concern,” the report said. Deaths there from terrorism have risen by more than 1,000 percent since 2007, and almost half of all deaths from terrorism globally last year happened in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Sahel.

The expansion of Islamic State affiliates is behind the surge in terrorism in many of the Sahel countries. Terrorism deaths in Niger more than doubled in 2020 to 588 deaths. The proliferation of Islamic State affiliates and al Qaeda-linked groups have turned Africa into a terror haven.

“Deaths attributed to Islamic extremist groups such as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab recorded deaths as far south as Mozambique, with 43 per cent occurring in the Sahel,” the GTI report said.

Al-Shabab, the al Qaeda affiliate behind most of Somalia’s 308 terrorist attacks in 2021, has been emboldened by the withdrawal last year of U.S. and African Union security and peacekeeping forces—helped along by the political instability that followed the Somali Federal Parliament’s decision to extend the government’s term indefinitely. Like the Taliban and their affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Shabab abhors a vacuum and is filling the space left by departing counterterrorism forces.

Al-Shabab said it carried out an attack on an African Union mission where troops from Burundi were stationed, causing multiple deaths. Total deaths from terrorism in Somalia since 2007 total 6,166, with most attacks targeting police and military.

In terms of countries affected by terrorism, there are a lot of usual suspects. Since 2019, Afghanistan has topped the list. Iraq and Somalia completed the podium. Pakistan slipped in last year’s ranking from eighth to 10th—but that could change, given the uptick in terrorist activity inside Pakistan following the Taliban’s takeover of neighboring Afghanistan last summer.

One surprise was the inclusion of Myanmar on the list. Terrorism—strictly defined—has been rising in the Southeast Asian nation since the military retook power after elections in February 2021 and imprisoned democratic leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Attacks spiked from 25 in 2020 to 750 last year, causing more than 500 deaths. That is an indication of widespread dissatisfaction with the leadership of Myanmar’s military junta, as most attacks are against government personnel and security forces.

The worst attack, by a group called the Yesagyo Peoples’ Defense Force, killed 30 soldiers last August when their vehicle convoy was bombed. The GTI report said tensions between the military and anti-junta groups are likely to lead to more violence, with neither side willing to give ground.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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