Rise of terrorism in Africa


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 neighboring 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 neighboring 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. 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.8, 9

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 Organization 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 recognized the “linkages between terrorism and mercenarizm, 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 fifteen states before it could come into force. However, it took more than a decade to finally operationalize 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 utilizing 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.

1. “Numbers Show Dramatic Rise of Terrorist Attacks in Africa Over Past Six Years, HIS Says”, Business Wire, June 27, 2016 (accessed March 30, 2017)

2. Freedom C. Onuoha, “Split in ISIS-Aligned Boko Haram Group”, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, October 27, 2016 (accessed March 30, 2017)

3. Ryan Cummings, “Africa’s 2017 Terrorism Outlook”, Centre on Religion and Geopolitics (accessed March 15, 2017)

4. “Rising Terror: Extremist groups in Africa’s Sahel announce merger”, The New Arab, March 03, 2017 (accessed March 14, 2017)

5. Conor Gaffey, “Somalia’s Al Shabaab militants ramp up attacks after rejecting President’s amnesty offer”, Newsweek, April 10, 2017 (accessed April 10, 2017)

 6. Joshua Meservey, “Al Shabab’s Resurgence”, The Heritage Foundation, January 04, 2017.

7. Michael Horton, “Why U.S. troops may fight alongside Al-Qaeda in Yemen”, The American Conservative, April 05, 2017 (accessed April 10, 2017)

 8. Joseph Siegle, ISIS in Africa: Implications from Syria and Iraq”, Centre for Security Studies, Zurich, March 28, 2017 (accessed March 30, 2017)

 9. Rachel Ehrenfeld, ISIS Growing Presence in Libya Threatens Europe and the U.S”, American Center for Democracy, February 19, 2016 (accessed March 27, 2017)

10. Peter Dube, “Terrorist group Isis makes inroads into southern Africa”, Africa Review, September 29, 2015 (accessed March 27, 2017)

11. Simon Allison, “Good talk, not enough action: The AU’s counter-terrorism architecture, and why it matters”, Institute for Security Studies, Policy Brief 66, March 2015 (accessed March 30, 2017)

12. OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, 1999”, African Union Peace and Security (accessed March 27, 2017)

13. “Plan of Action of the African Union High-level Inter-Governmental Meeting on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism in Africa”, Algiers, Algeria, September 11-14, 2011, African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (accessed March 27, 2017)

14. “Protocol to the OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism”, Addis Ababa, July 08, 2004, African Union Peace and Security (accessed March 30, 2017)

15. Simon Allison, n.11.

16. Ibid

17. Hussein Solomon, “Why Western Efforts at Counter-Terrorism in Africa are Failing?”RIMA Occasional Papers, 4 (6), November 2016 (accessed March 28, 2017)

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

 20. “African militants learn from Al Qaeda in Yemen”, Public Radio International, September 10, 2012 (accessed March 29, 2017)

 21. Dipak K. Dashi, “Somalian pirates hijack dhow with 10 Indian crew members”, The Times of India, April 04, 2017.

This article was originally published by Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.