Africa Battling New Warfront With Jihadist Threat

The Jihadist threat: Africa's new warfront

Several top officials of the al-Qaeda-linked group have either defected or have been killed in recent months
Several top officials of the al-Qaeda-linked group have either defected or have been killed in recent months

What happened next door in Burkina Faso last weekend is a clear reminder that no country in the world is free from terrorist attacks.

Several top officials of the al-Qaeda-linked group have either defected or have been killed in recent months
Several top officials of the al-Qaeda-linked group have either defected or have been killed in recent months

In the wake of 9/11 in the United States, which culminated in the declaration of the global ‘war on terror’, the dominant perception was that only Western nations were targets of terrorists. Never in anyone’s wildest imagination did it dawn that African countries, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, would come under the radar of Islamic fundamentalists.

Sub-Saharan Africa got its initial shock when extremists moved into Mali in 2012 after grabbing weapons abandoned in the wake of the removal from power of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. Then names like Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb popped up. The threat, as well as impact, of jihadist activities in Africa went on the ascendancy as home-grown terror groups began to emerge.

Boko Haram militants are wreaking havoc in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab is causing mayhem in East Africa with Kenya suffering the brunt of the group’s campaign of terror. In 2013, Al-Shabaab militants assaulted the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring 240, according to official government figures. At the end of January 2015, gunmen of the Islamic State (IS) killed nine people in a luxury hotel in Tripoli, announcing the group’s arrival in North Africa. IS has further threatened to use Libya which, to all intents and purposes has become a failed state, as its base to launch more attacks.

It also has to be acknowledged, though, that jihadism in Africa did not just begin with the aforementioned events. It should be recalled that Sudan was Osama bin Laden’s base from 1991 to 1996, and has had to bear that heavy legacy in its dealings with the United States ever since. And also, even long before these recent upheavals, there were the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 that left over 210 people dead and 5,000 wounded.

By every indication, therefore, the insurgents and insurgency appear to be gaining ground in Africa, as the effect of their activities continues to disrupt peace/order, create an atmosphere of insecurity, and draw back the clock of development in various parts of the continent. In addition to the physical damage they inflict on the society, the real danger the insurgents pose rests in the potential destructive impact they cause in terms of their ability to radicalise segments of society in support of their agenda, particularly the younger generation.

Of course, there could be some form of solidarity amongst all these groups, but one central issue that is yet to be well interrogated is whether or not there is a link/connection between the myriad of terrorist organisations operating across the globe. That would be an important point to ascertain.

The causes of religious extremism in Africa, and other parts of the world for that matter, are varied, ranging from political, and economic to social and cultural factors. Poverty, weak institutions and corruption which prevail on the continent can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.

Experts also argue that radical Islamism, from its local roots, is partly a creation of the class war that exists in many states. Drawing attention to the specific element of exclusion, Mohammed Kattib in his work The globalization of jihad indicates: “North African immigrants felt trapped in the lower levels of French society. They felt left out of the French mainstream and denied of its opportunities. This feeling and the conditions of poverty in which they live fuelled their hatred of the French state and the symbols of its wealth. The extremists were able to exploit this situation and transform it into a conflict between Muslims and Europeans, even though it was entirely devoid of any religious overtones or context”.

In any case, no matter the causes, there is hardly any good sense that can justify the wreaking of terror, misery and the destruction of human lives and property that have become the regular feature of jihadist insurgencies across a continent that has a lot of catching up to do in terms of development, and whose people are already reeling under so much squalor/deprivation.

And let no one delude themselves into believing that this is all about the love for Islam. Many more Muslims have been killed by jihadists across the world than Westerners or Christians – from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, to Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria. Perhaps the intentions of such criminal groups is evident in the type of places they strike. They go for ‘soft targets’ such as discos, bus terminals, cinema centres, hotels and shopping malls where they can unleash maximum harm and terror on defenceless, ordinary people.

Collaborative Strategy:

Just like a pestilence or epidemic outbreak, insurgency recognises no territorial boundaries. In fact, in some instances Jihadists exploit the existence of national borders to their advantage, as pursuing them across national borders can sometimes give rise to difficult legal implications. It is for this reason that one buys into the logic that dealing with insurgent groups in contemporary times can no longer be the preoccupation of a single nation, but must assume a regional and global approach if it should be successful. Among other things, there has to be effective/efficient networking and comparing of notes by various intelligence agencies of countries across the continent.

In order to gain local support, governments should adopt a less heavy-handed and more consultative approach in their strategies to combat terrorism on the continent. In the wake of the unfortunate event of 9/11 and the subsequent declaration of the global ‘war on terror’, the strategy has been mainly a military one and even though this has failed miserably there has hardly been a change of strategy.

Military options or the ‘Strong Man’ approach may be necessary in some situations but the battle for public opinion should also remain an integral part of the agenda, as the current controversy in Ghana over the two Guantanamo detainees has shown. Air strikes and drones can kill the terrorists and erase their camps but cannot eliminate the motivation and ideology that breeds extremism and radicalism. What is needed is some occasional policy review, as well as a stronger diplomatic and intelligence effort on the ground.

Of particular essence is the need for states with known jihadist threats to build bridges with moderate Islam. African governments will have to do more careful listening to the voices of moderate Muslims whose brand and philosophy of Islam preach peace and unity, rather than the voices of far right and hard-line Islamophobic experts. The understanding and goodwill gained from such cooperation could be useful in shaping other forms of international diplomacy to deal with the rising threat of global jihad.

Source: (A GNA feature by Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq)

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