June 27, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Islamist Extremists Threaten Africa’s Rise

As of late June 2012, one of the unfortunate consequences of set-piece media reports of the very real "bad news" out of Africa—civil conflicts, authoritarian regimes, and natural disasters—is that most of the continent's "good news" tends to get eclipsed. Yet, what The Economist infamously labeled as the "hopeless continent" a little over ten years ago is today home to six of the world's fastest growing economies over the past decade. As a whole, Africa is expected to grow faster this year than any other region or country apart from China and India, and remains on track to see a total gross domestic product of US $2.6 trillion by the end of the decade.

These positive indicators are the result of wise choices made by African leaders and peoples regarding economic reform and the rule of law, as well as significant forces that have been at work bolstering Africa's economic prospects. Demand from abroad—especially from emerging markets—for the continent's primary commodities is boosting prices and, in turn, motivating new investment in their exploration and extraction. At the same time, demographics mean that Africa is not only one of the most populous regions on the planet, but also one of the youngest; this suggests that the size of the African workforce is growing more rapidly than its counterparts elsewhere. Moreover, Africa's population is not only rising, but rapidly urbanizing, thus adding further impetus to positive economic growth due to the benefits of agglomeration and economies of scale. In addition, Africa has benefited from recent technological innovations, which many have embraced with alacrity, using them to "leapfrog" traditional stages of development.

And yet these signs of hope are threatened by the spread of violent extremism by Islamist groups along the continent-wide Sahel belt and the increasing links between the various extremist groups—and between the militants and other illicit networks.


Al-Qaeda Spreads across the Sahara

Al-Qaeda's franchise in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been an unintended beneficiary of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Buoyed by the flow of arms and fighters out of Libya, the group initiated skirmishes with government forces in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger during the last months of 2011. More ominously, AQIM also increased its linkages with other rebel forces in the Sahel, including the Polisario Front, which, in the name of the self-declared "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic," contests Morocco's claim to the Western Sahara. In late October, three aid workers—an Italian and two Spaniards—were seized by AQIM militants (aided by Sahrawi sympathizers) inside a camp administered by the Polisario separatists near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The connection was not surprising given that the large numbers of idle young Polisario fighters with no prospects present the terrorist group with a ready pool of potential recruits, both for its military operations as well as the drug smuggling and other criminal activities it is increasingly involved in.

However, it has been in Mali where AQIM has scored its biggest gains. As reported in our May 29 IntelBrief, since the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its Ansar Dine allies—led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a convert to Salafism with close ties to AQIM—took advantage of a coup in the capital of Bamako to seize control of the northern part of Mali, the al-Qaeda franchise, its offshoot Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya ("Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa," usually known by its French acronym MUJAO), and other militant Islamist groups have been able to operate openly across the Texas-sized area. Not only have these extremists used force to impose their harsh creed on the local populace, but, as regional leaders like Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou have recently warned the public, they are attracting new followers to the Sahel jihadists from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Boko Haram's Increased Radicalism and Lethality

Meanwhile, further south in Nigeria, Boko Haram—three of whose leaders, Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar, and Khalid al-Barnawi, were added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the U.S. State Department on June 21—has proven to be an increasing threat to the security and stability of Africa's most populous nation. As underscored by the more recent assaults it carried out against churches across Nigeria's "Middle Belt," the group continues to foment sectarian strife in the country between Christians and Muslims—a strategy acknowledged as such by no less a figure than Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

More significantly, the group has clearly given evidence that it has undergone a dramatic transformation, both with respect to its ideological evolution towards Salafism and jihadism and its operational capacity to conduct suicide attacks, including increasingly sophisticated operations involving the use of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). Targets seem to be chosen as much for their iconic value as for any other calculation, often highlighting the real threat that the militants can strike anywhere and can make the country ungovernable for the Jonathan administration, which sacked its defense minister and security advisor over the weekend after more than 150 people were killed in Boko Haram attacks last week.


Al-Shabaab Continues to be a Threat

In East Africa, al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia are probably at their weakest point in years, thanks not only to their own strategic overreach and the consequences of the famine (which their policies exacerbated), but also the combined military pressure applied by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force based in Mogadishu, the Kenyan military intervention in southern Somalia (which was incorporated into AMISOM at the beginning of June), and the more discrete Ethiopian operations along the country's western border.

However, it is too soon to count al-Shabaab out. In fact, just like it did after the massive Ethiopian intervention five years ago, the group may well be shifting back to asymmetric tactics like roadside bombings, suicide attacks, and targeting of civilians. Furthermore, the group potentially can tap into a large and restive potential ethnic Somali population, both indigenous and refugee, within neighboring countries—as the grenade attacks suffered by Kenya since its intervention in Somalia last October, including a deadly attack on a bar in Mombasa earlier this week, have brought into relief.

In fact, despite the reversals it has suffered over the course of the last year, it was only this February that hardline al-Shabaab leaders succeeded in formally affiliating with al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri. As noted in our April 20 IntelBrief, as al Shabaab loses ground in the southern and central areas, its remaining operatives will likely try to find a new, Afghanistan-like haven in the cave-ridden Golis Mountains in northern Somalia and will seek to spread out from there to Kenya, Tanzania, and the countries of the Sahel.


Linking Up?

Even more worrisome than the threat the various Islamist militant groups in Africa pose individually is the growing evidence of links between them. Speaking in Washington on Monday to seminar for senior military and civilian officials from Africa, Europe, and the United States, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Carter Ham, warned that AQIM, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab were sharing money, trading explosives, and training fighters together, adding, "What really concerns me [are] the indications that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts."

Although it is unlikely that, even together, these groups are capable of taking over any African state, much less regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Kenya against which AQIM, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab, respectively, are arrayed, the extremists can nonetheless cause a great deal of mischief. Counterinsurgency campaigns are, at the very least, expensive affairs which divert resources from much-needed investments in infrastructure, education, and health, which Africa's emerging economies need to make if they are to position themselves to take advantage of the current growth opportunities. In many cases, the understandable reliance by governments on security measures to combat the threat posed by violent extremists brings with it the risk not only of further alienating minorities and other marginalized segments of the population, but also of undermining, however unintentionally, the fragile institutions of democracy in Africa. Moreover, even if violence can be kept far from commercial centers, it will nonetheless have a dampening effect on the confidence of investors for a region whose potential many are just now beginning to discover.



This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.



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