The Rise of Terrorist Groups in Sub-Saharan Africa

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ABUJA, Nigeria — Recent attacks and the kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls by Nigerian group Boko Haram on April 14 have captured top headlines and the world’s attention.

Though, Boko Haram is not the only terrorist group in the country. The group splintered in 2012, forming Ansaru, a militant organization that also fights for the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria. The U.S. Department of State has targeted Ansaru as a foreign terrorist organization, alongside Boko Haram.

Before 2001, there were no designated foreign terrorist organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, there has been a resurgence of terrorism in not only Nigeria, but also in Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and a host of other countries on the continent. According to the Global Terrorism Database, in 2008 there were reportedly less than 400 incidents of terrorism. The number of incidents in 2012 rose to nearly 1,200.

Bourgeoning terrorist organizations operating in these regions include al-Shabaab, which has built up its capacity in the past several years to execute attacks beyond its base in Somalia and into Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, while also signaling threats to Djibouti and Burundi. Al-Shabaab demonstrated its capabilities after orchestrating an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, which left 65 people dead.

Al-Qaeda has maintained a strong presence in the region since the 90’s and has claimed responsibility for major attacks over the years in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, with Kenya as the “most frequent target of Al-Qaeda attacks.”  Furthermore, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to compromise regional security along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast to the Sahel region, which encompasses Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger, Senegal, and Burkina Faso.

Although not officially designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S., the Janjaweed, Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are rebel groups that operate in East Africa in Sudan’s Darfur region and coordinate attacks against the Sudanese government and its forces. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are still at large in Northern Uganda. Christian militias have organized in the Central African Republic and Nigeria, and several groups have taken up arms against the Ethiopian government.

Why have terrorist organizations, as well as civil, religious and ethnic militias that use terrorist tactics, begun to emerge and thrive in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Political instability, lack of transparency, corruption and weak political parties and leaders continue to hamper democratic governance and the overall economic development of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Freedom House reports that top performers in the Sub-Saharan region have been “backsliding” as lack of adherence to rule of law, limited freedom of expression, and gender discrimination remain serious issues in all 48 countries.

The increasing strength of terrorist groups may also be explained by high rates of unemployment and conditions of desperation and hopelessness, which stem from chronic poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 48 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans live in poverty, and 60 percent of Africa’s unemployed are youth.

What’s more, the region is vulnerable to shocks, such as extreme weather, drought, and economic crises, which create even more instability. Countries in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa continue to face food insecurity and hunger.

These circumstances make youth in Sub-Saharan Africa ripe for recruitment into militia groups or regional terrorist cells, as group leaders can entice those living in poverty with goods and services. This strategy is also popular with political leaders in the region who often use their private access to public resources to command influence, which weakens the state’s legitimacy.

The fight for the implementation of sharia has also been become a key political tool for terrorist organizations. For instance, the marginalization of more than 30 percent of Kenyan Muslims and exclusion by the central government has left Muslims in the region without a course of redress, compelling many in the region to join extremist groups.

While sub-national and state terror largely characterize the terrorist activity in the region, groups in Sub-Saharan Africa have also converged with global networks of terrorists and insurgents. For example, Al-Shabaab merged with al-Qaeda in 2008 and Ansaru continues to collaborate with AQIM. International terrorism has grown in the region as a result of globalization, the Internet, the rise of new technologies and complex financial networks.

Weak governments and political instability, conditions of lawlessness and corruption, high unemployment, and susceptibility to environmental and economic shocks have contributed to structural changes in the region that allow for the rise of terrorist organizations like Boko Haram. Sub-Saharan Africa could become the new battleground for the U.S. war on terror and for combatting foreign terrorist organizations that threaten U.S. national security.

Development, strengthening democratic governance and human rights and addressing extreme poverty are all important parts of the U.S.’s counter-terrorism strategy in the region and a tool for reducing the number of Sub-Saharan Africans living in volatile conditions. Ongoing political and economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa could ultimately preclude the rise of terrorist groups in the region and the number of people who are forced to turn to them.

— McKenzie Templeton

Sources: Abdelkerim Ousman, Freedom House, Global Terrorism Database, Jackkie Cilliers, Journal of Terrorism Research, Karin Von Hippel, Nuclear Threat Initiative, UNDP in Africa, US Department of State
Photo: New York Times

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Ryan Miller

BORGEN Magazine is an initiative of The Borgen Project.

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