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Policy Thoughts

03 March, 2016


Islamism on the Rise in Africa


by Hussein Solomon


When Hassan al-Turabi, Africa’s leading proponent of political Islam and the man who hosted Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders in Sudan in the 1990s, expresses concern regarding the rise of militant Islam in Africa, the world better pay attention. Interviewed by Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal, Hassan al-Turabi noted that these Islamists, “…want to hit, to struggle and destroy – but they do not want to build anything”(*1).




Site of deadly January attack in Ouagadougou (Photo by Zenman, CC BY-SA 3.0)

There is sufficient evidence to substantiate this assertion. Strife-torn Libya has become a new hub of operations for Islamic State (IS). Intelligence reports suggest that the number of IS recruits has doubled over the last few months(*2). Moroccan authorities, meanwhile, uncovered a 10-person IS-cell which planned to commit terrorist atrocities across several cities in the country(*3). Islamic State’s West African affiliate, Boko Haram, meanwhile was extremely active in the opening months of 2016. In January Boko Haram fighters killed 86 people in the village of Dalori. To make matters worse, Dalori is just a few miles from the military’s anti-Boko Haram Command Centre. A month later, Boko Haram sent female suicide bombers into a crowded refugee camp killing 58 innocent people whilst injuring scores of others. Boko Haram’s killing spree proved the lie in Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s December 2015 declaration that Boko Haram was “technically defeated”(*4). Whilst Buhari was referring to the fact that the Nigerian armed forces have been able to re-take territories formerly occupied by the terrorists, Boko Haram is far from defeated. They merely switched to asymmetric warfare and also reinforced their operations in neighbouring countries. In other words, the ground offensive on the part of the Nigerian armed forces merely displaced the terrorist threat to surrounding states. A similar dynamic of displacement is also occurring in Libya southwards. Islamic State fearing further Western air strikes has moved their fighters south – towards Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad(*5). To prevent displacement, it is imperative that regional forces act forcefully in tandem with Western aerial strikes so as to squeeze the terrorists in Libya’s southern deserts.


To compound matters further still, Islamic State and Al Qaeda are both vying for influence and recruits on the African continent. Islamic State has sleeper cells in Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan whilst it has armed groups in a further seven countries. These include Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, Mali and Niger. Meanwhile Al Qaeda is active in Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Libya(*6). In their bloody competition, each terrorist group seeks to outdo the other in acts of barbarity to serve as a magnet to more recruits and to emphasize their potency and relevance. The January 2016 attack on the Burkina Faso capital by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was one such example(*7). Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate in the Horn of Africa, Al Shabaab, meanwhile overran an African Union military base and butchered 100 Kenyan troops(*8).


In this entire sorry sage, African states have proven themselves unable to robustly take the fight to the terrorists. In 2013 it was France which saved Mali from being taken over by the Islamists. Paris continues to maintain a presence of 3,500 troops in the West African region. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, dispatched military personnel to Nigeria to assist in the fight against Boko Haram. The United States has a drone base in Niger and another is being constructed in Cameroon(*9). Whilst these are laudable initiatives on the part of the international community, surely these measures are not sustainable – having foreigners to fight your wars! Surely the primary responsibility to protect their citizens lay with African governments. As the West assists these African states stave off the terrorist threat, it is imperative that Western capitals also make use of their political leverage to compel African governments to do more to protect the lives of the innocent. As for the African Union, its paper tiger Peace and Security Architecture better grow teeth and fast!


(*1) Yaroslav Trofimov, “Jihad Comes to Africa,” Wall Street Journal. 5 February 2016. Internet: Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

(*2) Rudroneel Ghosh, “Focus Libya: Countering Islamic State in this North African nation requires a genuinely international effort,” The Times of India. 25 February 2016. Date accessed: 2 March 2016.


(*4) “Confronting the terror of Boko Haram in Africa,” The Chicago Tribune. 17 February 2016. Internet: Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

(*5) “ISIS terrorists out of Libya threaten Nigeria, Niger, Chad,” The News. 13 February 2016. Internet: Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

(*6) Ahmed Aziz, “Daesh, al-Qaeda compete for influence in Africa,” Anadolu Agency. 17 February 2016.Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

(*7) Ibid.

(*8) Trofimov, op. cit.

(*9) Ibid.



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