BACKGROUNDER |AFRICA: A CONTINENT AT RISK FROM TRANSNATIONAL JIHADISM
By Mark von Riedemann
The question facing Africa is not whether the continent is the next battleground against Islamist militants, but rather when will sufficient lives be lost and families displaced to move the international community to action? Already the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, and millions, respectively.
Sub-Saharan Africa is ripe for the infiltration of Islamist ideologies. On account of generations of poverty, corruption, pre-existing intercommunal violence between herders and farmers over land rights (exacerbated by the consequences of climate change) and weak state structures, this area has become a breeding ground for marginalised and frustrated young men. This in turn has become a recruitment opportunity for extremists who prey on them with promises of wealth, power, and the ousting of corrupt authorities. This is bound all the more closely to the core of the human person by a profound manipulation of religion. Battle-hardened Islamist extremists have moved south from the plains of Iraq and Syria to link up with local criminal groups in the Sub-Saharan countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Mozambique (see country reports).
The violence is horrific. Boys are forced into the ranks as child soldiers, rape is used as a weapon of war, and there are mass beheadings of men – Muslims and Christians alike – who dare refuse to join the jihadists. Research by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reveals that the number of people killed by armed groups in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, and Mali from January to mid-April 2020 more than doubled compared to the same period in 2019; and in Burkina Faso, as of February 2020, 765,000 people had been displaced by terrorist groups, up from 65,000 in the 12 previous months.
The militants, in many cases profit-driven mercenaries or local fighters pursuing local interests, incited by preachers adhering to an ideology of Salafi Jihadism, target state authorities, the military and the police, as well as civilians – including village leaders, teachers (who are threatened because of the secular curriculum), Muslim and Christian leaders, and the faithful. The financial resources of these armed terrorist groups are derived principally from looting, extortion, human and drug trafficking, and kidnapping.
Although Muslims and Christians are equally victims to extremist violence, with the growing Islamist radicalisation Christians tend increasingly to become a specific target for the terrorists, eliminating the characteristic social and religious pluralism and harmony of the region.
According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, the threat from militant Islamist groups in Africa is not monolithic but comprises a constantly shifting mix of roughly two dozen groups actively operating – and increasingly cooperating – in 14 countries. The most active Islamist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa include: the Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is a coalition of Islamist affiliates such as the Front de Libération du Macina (FLM) and Al-Qaeda (AQIM); Boko Haram; Ansaroul Islam; the Katiba Salaheddine; the Jihad al-Islamiyya; Al-Shabaab in Somalia; and the transnational Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), West Africa (ISWA), Central Africa (ISCA) and Somalia (ISS).
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New to this sinister club is Mozambique. The jihadist group Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) aligned with the Islamic State, has launched an insurgency in the majority Muslim province of Cabo Delgado and taken control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, which possesses key infrastructure for the processing of the enormous natural gas reserves discovered off Mozambique’s northern coast. From Mozambique, jihadists proclaim that they have established Islamic State “provinces of the Caliphate” in Comoros, northern Madagascar, and across the Indian Ocean to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (see the country reports).
The Danish Institute for International Studies notes: “It is widely agreed upon amongst scholars of transnational jihadism that its two leading organizations, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, rarely start new conflicts. Instead, they tap into local grievances, establish linkages with marginalized groups in the society, and in the long run, transform what may initially have been an ethnically, or politically motivated conflict, into a religiously framed, armed struggle.”
In a 24th February 2020 interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Professor Olivier Hanne – a French Islamologist and author of “Jihad in the Sahel” – was asked how the situation in the region was likely to develop. He stated: “I fear that over the next five years the territorial expansion of the armed terrorist groups will continue. Drug trafficking will become more organized and increase. After having extended their grip on the Muslim Sahara, the next target will be the places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another … in the next five years these African states will need the support of the West if they are to avoid catastrophe.”
 “How transnational jihadist groups are exploiting local conflict dynamics in Western Africa”, Danish Institute for International Studies, 10th May 2020; https://www.diis.dk/en/research/how-transnational-jihadist-groups-are-exploiting-local-conflict-dynamics-in-western-africa
 “Threat from African Militant Islamist Groups Expanding, Diversifying”, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 18th January 2020; https://africacenter.org/spotlight/threat-from-african-militant-islamist-groups-expanding-diversifying/
 “The Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel, A Year On”, by Héni Nsaibia, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 3rd March 2021; https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/conflict-between-al-qaeda-and-islamic-state-sahel-year-29305
 “Civilians reel as violence spins out of control in Mozambique”, by T. Bowker, Al Jazeera, 11th November 2020; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/11/we-want-the-war-to-stop-attacks-spread-in-mozambique (accessed on 20th November 2020).
 “How transnational jihadist groups are exploiting local conflict dynamics in Western Africa”, Danish Institute for International Studies, 10th May 2020; https://www.diis.dk/en/research/how-transnational-jihadist-groups-are-exploiting-local-conflict-dynamics-in-western-africa.
 “In Africa’s Sahel, ‘places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another are next target’ for Islamist terror”, ACN News, 27th February 2020; https://www.churchinneed.org/in-africas-sahel-places-where-christians-and-muslims-live-alongside-one-another-are-next-target-for-islamist-terror/