Active Islamist extremist groups now operate across much of East Africa, West Africa and the Sahel. Countries currently experiencing Islamist insurgencies and/or terror attacks include Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, and Somalia.
While regional governments and security forces struggle to contend with these insurgencies, the presence of militant terror organisations in sub-Saharan Africa is unsurprising as the region has many structural challenges which make it fertile ground for such ideology and movements.
Many of these states are structurally weak in terms of both infrastructure and political coherence. Decades of poor governance, rent-seeking, and limited central state ability to enforce its power over peripheral communities has weakened these communities’ loyalty to the state, whose laws have diminishing control over these elements of society. This is exacerbated by porous borders and the free movement of people and communities, while many of Africa’s borders stem from Europe’s division of the continent and do not follow geographic or societal realities.
In addition, persistent insecurity coupled with widespread corruption in police forces and judicial systems undermines public faith in these institutions. Many vulnerable communities fear security forces as much as militant organisations as both groups commit crimes and atrocities. This is compounded by economic factors such as weak economic management, poor investment and distribution of economic resources, and large informal markets. While none of these factors guarantee the emergence of Islamist militant organisations, they create a fertile environment for these groups to take root. This is especially true as the weak state structures in peripheral areas sees communities turning to cultural and religious ideology to regulate society.
Groups such as Uganda’s Allied Democratic Front (ADF), Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia have successfully embedded in weak states and international extremist organisations such as the IslamicState and Al-Qaddafi have found similar environments conducive to their respective international growth.
The Islamist militant movements in sub-Saharan Africa have increasingly become internationalised in recent years. Al-Shabaab has long been allied with Al-Qaeda, as is Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) – formerly known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2015, IS also began collecting affiliates in the region after Boko Haram swore allegiance to the group. This was followed by the ADF and the emergence of an IS affiliate in Somalia. Meanwhile, both Al-Qaeda and IS have found room to grow in Africa as international security and intelligence organisations target their Middle Eastern and European operations.
At the end of April 2019, IS also claimed to have a presence in Mozambique implying that the Ahu-Sunnah wa Jama’ah insurgency in northern Mozambique was aligned with the group. While this connection has yet to be firmly established, it is clear that Ahu-Sunnah wa Jama’ah has started recruiting militants from throughout the region notably Uganda and Tanzania.
This internationalisation of regional terrorist networks is a major concern for local security forces. The affiliations will come with international supply networks and militant knowledge that boosts local insurgencies in terms of both logistics and capacity. It has also raised fears that experienced militants from the Middle East may travel to sub-Saharan Africa to continue waging jihad as coalition forces drive them from Syria and Iraq. There is also a proven connection between terrorist organisations and criminal activities as these groups use illicit activities, particularly banditry and trafficking to fund their activities. Linking with international terror organisations means regional insurgencies become better connected to global criminal networks.
Despite this growing connectivity with international militant organisations, various Islamist militant insurgencies in sub-Saharan Africa still operate within fairly confined geographical areas – Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) in the Maghreb, Boko Haram in the Nigeria/Niger/Chad/Cameroon border region, ADF along the Ugandan/DRC border, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, and Ahu-Sunnah wa Jama’ah in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
It is clear though that these groups are growing and the expanding influence of global jihadists in the region says further connectivity is possible especially given poorly demarcated borders that allow for free illicit movement but limit national security forces’ efficacy. Accordingly, it is clear that as the militant challenge continues to regionalise, the response to must do likewise with more transnational cooperation and forces urgently needed to tackle these organisations.