In groups like Al Shabaab, we may be seeing a seminal shift in Al-Qaeda-led Islamist militancy: growth in the periphery as the centres in Asia shrink.
At least 10 people have been killed in a new attack Monday by Islamist militants near Kenya’s coastal town of Mpeketoni, where 48 people died on Sunday night after the al-Qaeda-linked group attacked hotels, a bank and a police station.
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab claimed both attacks, and said they were in revenge for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia and the killing of radical Muslim clerics at the coast. Earlier on the same Sunday at least 15 people were killed when suspected Boko Haram gunmen stormed a market in northern Nigeria.
Villagers in the farming community of Daku, in Borno state, described how they were surrounded by at least 20 gunmen who – not too dissimilar to what happened in Mpeketoni – fired indiscriminately and threw petrol bombs, engulfing the market in flames.
This rising tide of jihadism and emboldened terrorists, could undermine Africa’s growing ambition to rise to a position of global pre-eminence; overcome the legacies of war and conflict and utilise its huge resources to tackle poverty and underdevelopment.
The swift rise of the jihadi group, ISIS/ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant), in Iraq, and its blitz across large swathes of the country in the last two weeks continues to generate a great deal of media interest and speculation. The prospect of a renewed upheaval in Iraq and a sectarian conflagration that draws in Sunni neighbours and Shia Iran is certainly alarming and with huge ramifications for world peace and oil prices – a key commodity on which we all dependent.
But this is
a scenario that could be replicated in Africa, not least, because militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda have been on the resurgence in North, West and East Africa in the last one year, stepping up attacks, moving to new theatres and creating new havens. In effect, what we are seeing marks something of a seminal shift in the evolution of Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militancy – resilience and growth in the periphery even as the old centre in Afghanistan and Pakistan shrinks.
What is most troubling is the speed with which these groups have regained conventional capabilities on multiple fronts, and this clearly signals a disconcerting trend that poses huge existential risks to states in the Middle East and Africa. The resurgence of Islamist militancy points to the weakness and failures of existing containment strategies. In almost all cases, state and inter-state responses have failed to address the three most important drivers of the phenomenon – state dysfunction, local grievances and fanaticism.
The latter point is especially important and generally under-appreciated. Most of the active militant groups espouse a fanatical strain of Salafism – an amalgam of ultra-conservative teachings that have their origins in the Arab peninsula and the Indian sub-continent.
They view themselves as part of a global jihadist front and vanguard whose aims are to “purify” the faith and create Islamic emirates that would eventually culminate in a union – a grant Caliphate. Increasingly, they are coordinating their actions and responses, and exchanging expertise and intelligence. In many ways, it is this fanatical creed that lends the new militancy and insurgency with an uncompromising and inflexible character and underpins its formidable resilience, adaptability and longevity.
Many African states, bedeviled by systemic and structural weaknesses, remain particularly imperiled. The jihadists are increasingly able to survive and thrive – cleverly exploiting vulnerabilities to radicalise, recruit and challenge the states’ monopoly over politics and organised violence.
In North Africa, Libya stands out as a potential regional haven for jihadists affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is exhibiting all the hallmarks of a failing state. Politics remains highly fractious and combustible. Armed factions have proliferated and carved out huge fiefdoms across vast swathes.
Salafi jihadi groups, the most organised of the plethora of armed formations, have exploited the anarchy to organise. In the last two years they have extended their areas of control, especially in the oil-rich eastern regions. The violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime triggered a systemic meltdown that has allowed the jihadists to take control of huge quantities of lethal weapons, some of which have ended up in the hands of insurgents and militants in the Sahara and West Africa.
With the state’s power diminishing, violence on the rise, and functional territorial control passing to armed factions, a Somalia-like scenario remains a distinct possibility. And with that comes the prospect of a regional spillover – jihadism fuelling greater instability in the sub-region, just as we have seen in East Africa. A failed Libya is likely to become a staging post for militants seeking to destabilise the fragile post-Arab spring regimes that are beginning to show some signs of promise, especially Tunisia.
Mali and Niger, two impoverished and ill-governed states, have in recent years emerged as important theatres for a coalition of Islamist groups affiliated or inspired by AQIM and keen on expanding to West Africa. In early 2013, Islamist rebels in Mali launched a major offensive and quickly overran much of the north. The offensive was only halted and the insurgents forced to pull back following a French military intervention.
But a year after Operation Serval and deployment of some 6,000 UN troops, Mali remains fragile, the post-conflict political dispensation precarious, and the potential for reversal huge. There have been reports in recent months remnants o
f the rebellion – especially the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – regrouping in an attempt to re-launch the insurgency, buoyed by increased resources from narco-trafficking and kidnapping, as well as fresh supplies of weapons from AQIM.
Meanwhile, Niger is becoming an important transit base and logistical hub for Nigeria’s Boko Haram, according to UN experts. The town of Diffa, which borders Mali and Nigeria, has been cited as a key conduit for Boko Haram and other militants to smuggle men and weapons. Niger is a leading exporter of uranium and its growing vulnerability to the twin threats posed by the growing regional militancy and narco-trafficking has forced the regime to forge closer military and security ties with the US and France.
Troubled giants – Kenya and Nigeria Kenya and Nigeria’s unsuccessful struggles to contain the resurgent militant groups, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, is testimony to the potency of the new wave of Islamist militancy sweeping across Africa, and the limits of conventional counterinsurgency techniques to stem the tide.
These groups are today better armed, highly radicalised and seemingly determined to escalate their attacks beyond their strongholds. Judging from the pattern of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram attacks, in Kenya and Nigeria, the aim would seem to be to undermine social cohesion and foment inter-religious conflict. Recently in Kenya in growing hostility to Somalis, they seem to be succeeding.
These relentless and ferocious campaigns of violence, coupled with the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls have created a profound sense of alarm and despondency. It is also undermining faith in the military, security services, and the political class.
President Goodluck Jonathan is particularly vulnerable ahead of the general elections in 2015, with some pundits predicting he could be voted out by an electorate angry at his handling of the security crisis in the north and the response to Boko Haram. The Algeria model
In many of the African countries currently threatened by resurgent Islamist militancy and violence, there is a growing body of opinion in favour of a strong leader. Algeria’s costly and protracted suppression of Islamism is often cited as a model worth emulating.
Strongman image rehabilitated
Egypt, in particular, is one country where the fear of militant Islamism and anarchy has rehabilitated the image of the African strongman and catapulted an army general, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, to power. Echoes of this tendency to “securitise” the state and legitimise force to clamp down on all forms of dissent can be found in countries as diverse as Uganda and Ethiopia.
The security state has clear advantages over the liberal state in the war against jihadi groups, but only in so far as it allows such as a state to be more effective in tightening the lid on the jihadi pressure cooker. This may buy beleaguered regimes some time, but unlikely to fundamentally change the situation in the long term.
To reverse the tide, states will need to demonstrate seriousness and resolve to work in concert to resolve/pre-empt conflict and stabilise troubled hotspots that incubate militancy (Libya, Somalia, Mali); improve intelligence gathering and sharing at domestic and regional levels; reform and strengthen state institutions; create inclusive and fairer political systems; distribute state resources evenly and work in partnership with Muslim communities to undermine extremist ideas and youth alienation.