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Rise of Terrorism in Africa

Ruchita Beri is Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 13, 2017

    The recent terror attack by al Shabaab in the port city of Barawe in southern Somalia, a suicide bomb attack by Boko Haram in Maiduguri in Nigeria, and an attack on a military post in Mali by an al Qaeda-linked terror group have brought the focus back on terrorism in the African continent. Over the years, terrorism has become the most important challenge to peace, security and development in Africa. The terror activities have grown exponentially in the continent, not only in terms of the number of attacks but also the number of countries affected due to increased proliferation of terrorist groups.

    In terms of statistics, according to the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, the terror attacks by radical groups in Africa have increased by 200 per cent and fatalities by more than 750 per cent during 2009-2015.1 A number of groups have been terrorising the civilians and governments alike in several parts of Africa. While global terror groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda have made their presence felt in the region, other local groups too have gained prominence over the years. The deadliest of these are Boko Haram, al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Shabaab. As a result, an arc of instability is spreading across Africa, from Nigeria in West Africa, Mali in Sahel, Libya in North Africa, to Somalia in East Africa.

    Nigeria: Boko Haram down, but not out

    In Nigeria, Boko Haram (meaning Western education is sin) continues to target civilians and government infrastructure despite several rounds of operation conducted by the Nigerian Army. Boko Haram, that came up in 2009, had emerged as the ‘world’s deadliest terrorist organisation’ by 2014. In the last eight years, it is said that Boko Haram has taken 20,000 lives, displaced 2.6 million people, created 75,000 orphans and caused about nine billion worth of damage.2 Links with the ISIS, with leadership tussle between Abubakar Shekau and ISIS favouring Abu Musab al-Barnawi, have turned the situation more complex. While there may have been some reduction in Boko Haram-led violence in the country due the Nigerian Army’s counter terrorism campaign, the group continues to expand its operations in neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad.3

    Sahel: Resurgence of al Qaeda

    In Sahel, there is a resurgence of al Qaeda. The four terrorist groups that continue to wreak havoc in the region - AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and Macina Liberation Front - have recently decided to combine forces and merge into a single group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims).4 They have also pledged allegiance to the al Qaeda leadership. This regrouping of terror groups is ominous for countries such as Mali and the neighbouring Niger, Cote d’ Ivoire and Burkina Faso that have borne the brunt of their attacks in the past.

    Somalia: al Shabaab on offensive

    In Somalia, the notorious al Shabaab is on the offensive and in recent months has taken control of some towns after defeating the troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).5 The group has increased its attacks on African Union bases, Somali government facilities, targets in neighbouring Kenya and, for the first time in a show of strength, has also launched attacks in the northern Puntland autonomous region. This comes as a surprise as the al Shabaab had steadily lost ground over the last six years. It lost control of the capital Mogadishu in 2011 and then was pushed out of Somalia’s major cities by the 22,000-strong African Union force deployed in the country.

    The withdrawal of the Ethiopian troops from Somalia and the announcement by the African Union to withdraw AMISOM too (triggered primarily by reduction in funding by the European Union), may have been to an extent responsible for al Shabaab’s comeback. The attacks in the north may be a move to regain control by the pro-al Qaeda al Shabaab leadership, after the recent declaration of allegiance to ISIS by Abdul Qadir Meemen, leader of the faction based in Puntland.6 Another issue of concern is the possibility of revival of friendship between the al Qaeeda of Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabaab. In the past, al Shabaab is reported to have trained cadre along with AQAP. The Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthis in Yemen seems to have benefitted the AQAP.7 This group appears to have rapidly gained control over chunks of territory in Yemen. The emergence of nexus between al Shabaab and AQAP could make the situation in Somalia deadlier.

    ISIS in North and Southern Africa

    The ISIS plan to establish a caliphate in North Africa was thwarted after it was routed out of Sirte, the last ISIS strong hold, in December 2016 by the Libyan National Army, with air support provided by the United States (US). Since 2014, pro-ISIS terrorist groups have been active in North Africa, particularly in Tunisia and Libya. In Libya, the instability following the collapse of the Muammar al Gaddafi regime, and the presence of numerous indigenous factions and also the porous borders, provided a fertile ground for the expansion of ISIS in the country. Moreover, Libya’s long unmonitored coastline too provided the ISIS with a channel to Europe. Between 2014 and 2016, ISIS expanded its presence in multiple cities in Libya, including Derna, Benghazi and Sirte. While the terror group was driven out of most of the region under its control, there are chances that remnants of the group may reconstitute and again create problems.

    In Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia, an ISIS affiliate, has been responsible for a large number of terror attacks in the country. It has also been the main facilitator of ISIS fighters from the country to West Asia. Tunisia, has earned the ignominious tag of being the key recruitment ground for the ISIS (about 6,500) in Syria and Iraq.89

    ISIS is recruiting youth from eastern as well as southern Africa to fight its wars in Syria and Libya. In Kenya, coastal Tanzania and Zanzibar, youth from the Muslim communities are vulnerable to the ISIS recruitment drives. Reports suggest that at least 140 youth from South Africa may have joined the ISIS.10 These terrorist outfits are using both internet as well as networks of radical clerics to lure the youth from the region.

    Way Forward

    There is a growing recognition in Africa that terrorism is a transnational problem and, therefore, there is a need for cooperation at the continental level to effectively deal with it.11 Over the years, African countries have devised various measures to deal with this threat at the pan-African level. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, adopted at Algiers in 1999, had put in place a solid framework to deal with the scourge of terrorism.12 It not only defined terrorism but also laid out areas of cooperation among the member states as well as guidelines for the extradition. This was followed by a Plan of Action on Prevention and Combating terrorism in 2002, which put forward several measures for border surveillance, issue of machine readable passports, checking illegal transfer of weapons, introduction of legislation preventing the financing of terrorism, and sharing of information and intelligence on terror activities.13 The Plan of Action incorporated international standards for combating terrorism, in line with the provisions of the UNSC Resolution 1373 of September 28, 2001. It also called for the establishment of the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT).

    However, the most important instrument is the 2004 Protocol to the 1999 Algiers Convention. This Protocol recognised the “linkages between terrorism and mercenarism, weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, corruption, transnational crimes, money laundering and illicit proliferation of small arms”.14 The Protocol also addressed a major weakness of the 1999 Convention, which is, lack of an implementation mechanism. The 2004 Protocol mandated the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to monitor and facilitate the implementation.

    Unfortunately, despite the existence of these instruments, terror networks continue to operate in the region. This is mainly due to the tardy implementation of the counter terrorism framework by the member states. For example, the 2004 Counter Terrorism Protocol needed ratification by minimum 15 states before it could come into force. However, it took more than a decade to finally operationalise this key instrument in 2014. Moreover, some of the key states facing terror attacks such as Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and Chad are yet to ratify it.15 Much of the delay has to do with insufficient financial resources and lack of necessary political will amongst African states to implement it. A large number of countries do not have the funds to enforce the counter-terrorism measures. For example, bonder fencing would be extremely costly and most of the states are in a dilemma about utilising the limited development-oriented funds for such tasks.16 Also, a large number of African countries, while understanding the transnational nature of terrorism, shy away from seeking external intervention or support as it is considered a challenge to their national sovereignty.

    Another important factor could be the very nature of states in Africa.17 Most of the counter measures to deal with terrorism have dealt with enhancing the capacities of the states in the continent. However, this has proved to be counterproductive in some cases, as greed and corruption overwhelmed feelings of nationalism amongst section of political elites. For example, it has been reported that in Somalia the arms transfers from the US found their way to al Shabaab due to corruption in the ranks of the Somali National Army.18 Similarly, there are reports that suggest that Boko Haram may have supporters within the state structures in Nigeria, particularly in North Nigeria.19

    There is no doubt that terrorism is a global problem and countries across the world including India have for decades suffered from this scourge. While the rise in terrorism in Africa may not impact India directly, there is no denying the fact that this may not remain the case in future. First, recent revival of piracy off Somalia’s northern coast, an area often used by al Shabaab, has reopened the old debate of possible connections between al Shabaab, AQAP and the pirates.20 The fact that the pirates hijacked an India dhow, adds to the vulnerability for the country.21 Second, as Nigeria is India’s largest trading partner in Africa, Boko Haram’s continued attacks in the country makes it an issue of concern for India too. At the Third India Africa Forum Summit in 2015, and during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kenya and South Africa in 2016, the issue of cooperation in counter-terrorism was raised. As African countries look towards the international community in their fight against terrorism, friendly support from India will go a long way in taking the relationship forward.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.