Terrorism and militant activity remain a major security concern in several countries in Africa. Since early 2019 multiple attacks have signalled the continued operational capacity of various militant and terror groups while possibly indicating an increase in their strength and reach.
Of particular concern, has been the persistent terrorist threat in East Africa as al-Shabaab and similar groups have grown over the years from being a localised security concern in Somalia to a regional threat.
In January 2019, Kenya saw a surge in terrorist activity peaking in Nairobi on 16 January 2019 when al-Shabaab militants stormed the DusitD2 hotel complex in Nairobi’s Westlands area killing 21 people. The extended siege was the worst terror attack in Nairobi since the Westgate Mall attack in 2013, with the complex likely targeted due to its high presence of foreign nationals and companies. Involving both explosives and heavily armed militants, the attack occurred despite heavy security at the complex and heightened security measures implemented since 2013. The al-Shabaab operatives who carried out the attack also seem to be behind a second attempted bombing on 26 January outside a cinema in Nairobi in which one person was injured.
In response to the attacks, on 4 February the US embassy in Nairobi warned its citizens to exercise caution, claiming credible intelligence that further attacks were being planned against foreigners in the country. The alert specified Nairobi, Naivasha, and the coastal areas, including Mombasa, as potential targets, especially malls, hotels, and places of worship.
Kenya has faced a terrorist threat from al-Shabaab for several years after its intervention as a peacekeeping force in Somalia. The group frequently conducts cross-border raids and low-level attacks in Kenya’s counties of Lamu, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. While Kenyan intelligence and security forces have frequently thwarted attempted attacks in major cities, the recent incidents underscore the limitations of this success. Of great concern, is that the 16 January 2019 attack showed that al-Shabaab has a significant operational presence within Kenya as the attackers were able to travel to and operate within Nairobi for a period of time preparing both weapons and explosives.
In response, Kenya has again increased countrywide security presence and operations, and high-value targets such as hotels and airports have also stepped up private security.
Somalia has long been driven by insecurity and terrorism, and has become a major destabilising actor in the Horn of Africa and East Africa regions. The major source of these attacks is al-Shabaab, which originated in the country and maintains a countrywide operational capacity despite recent gains by the government and coalition troops.
The group carries out almost daily attacks on both military and civilian targets, mostly in areas frequented by foreign nationals as seen in its twin attacks on 4 February. The first occurred in Bosasa, Bari region, when armed gunmen assassinated an Italian national who was a director of the Dubai-based P&O Ports, which owns the concession to manage Bosasa Port. The second, in Mogadishu’s Hamarweyne district, killed at least 11 and injured a further 10 in a car bombing outside a mall.
Somalia’s security environment has been further complicated by the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a growing force that has orchestrated low-level attacks and assassinations in the past. However, al-Shabaab and the IS, despite both being Islamist militant organisations, have declared war on one another and the two groups have conducted several attacks on one another, including a multi-day battle in the Bari region, in the last week of January 2019.
While Somalia has seen some security improvement in recent years, the established presence of al-Shabaab and the IS expansion, means progress will remain stagnant for some time.
The ongoing insurgency in Mozambique by the group Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah has continued into 2019. The insurgency erupted in October 2017 and has remained a stubborn presence in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The most fatal attack this year was on 6 January 2019 when at least seven people were killed in an attack on a truck transporting civilians between Palma and Pundanhar in the Nangade district.
However, the more concerning incident occurred on 21 January 2019 when militants attacked the village of Maganja, Palma district. This is a worry as Maganja is only 7km from the US energy company Anadarko’s local operations. This is the closest attack yet to the developing oil and gas operations in Cabo Delgado province, and the depth of the challenge was underscored by the fact that security forces only responded to the attack the following morning, despite a military camp being based only 4km away from Maganja in Quitupo.
In addition, early in January 2019 three Ugandan nationals, including an Islamist extremist wanted by Ugandan authorities, were arrested on suspicion of being in the country to establish militant training camps. This, combined with recent arrests of Tanzanian nationals, indicates that the insurgency is developing into a regional challenge.
While media attention in 2019 has focused on the East Africa terror attacks, terror groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continue to operate in the Sahel region. Islamist extremist militants have conducted several attacks in Burkina Faso in recent weeks. On 27 January, militants killed 10 people in the village of Sikire in the Soum Province, and the following week on 4 February, 14 were killed in an attack by suspected AQIM militants on Kain in the Yatenga province. The rise of Islamist militants operating in Burkina Faso stems from continued insecurity in neighbouring Mali where groups such as AQIM thrive.
Boko Haram remains the major militant terrorist threat in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. The group frequently conducts raids and attacks on villages and suicide attacks on civilian and military targets. It has sustained a strong presence in northern Nigeria despite authorities attempts to combat the group as borne out by a major attack in Rann in the Borno State on 1 February, in which at least 60 people were killed.
Terrorism and militant groups are an established security concern in many countries in Africa and set to continue on this trajectory. Signalling a deeper contagion, trends indicate that these groups are no longer isolated organisations operating with states, but have developed, or are developing, into regional threats operating and recruiting across borders.