By The Economist
The assault on the Westgate shopping centre in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in September by Somalia’s main Islamist insurgency group, al‑Shabab, has refocused international attention on violent Islamist activity in several parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, notably the Sahel and the Horn. A number of large, sparsely populated states, with significant Muslim populations, are seen as new hotbeds of regional disorder and Islamist terrorism that together form part of a unified, global threat to Western interests. However, a more rational view recognises a range of groups with varying factions, structures, aims and tactics.
Sub-Saharan Africa hosts two groups that are formally affiliated with al‑Qaida: al‑Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from Algeria and al‑Shabab in Somalia. Structurally, the links between these al‑Qaida-affiliated groups and the central organisation are difficult to establish, and many observers believe them to be tenuous. Internal discontent over the question of affiliation with al‑Qaida—and the pursuit of a global, jihadi agenda—has been much clearer, resulting in deep rifts and the fragmentation of both al‑Shabab and AQIM. The AQIM splinter group, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), defined itself explicitly in terms of a regional West African—as opposed to globalised—agenda when it split from AQIM in mid‑2011 (both now operate in Mali). The splitting of Somalia-based Hizbul Islam from al‑Shabab in September 2012 was fuelled by similar ideological differences.
Many other militant Islamist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa have no formal links to al‑Qaida. They include al‑Hijra (formerly the Muslim Youth Centre) in Kenya, Boko Haram in Nigeria and three other groups in Mali: Ansar Dine, the Islamic Movement for Azawad and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion (also known as the Masked Men Brigade and the Khaled Abu al‑Abbas Brigade), which announced in August that it had merged with MUJAO to form a new group known as al‑Murabitoun. There are links across Africa between some of these groups. It is unlikely that recent violent Islamist activity in Mali would have been possible without interactions between local militant groups and transnational Islamist networks through AQIM. There are also unconfirmed reports that AQIM has trained Boko Haram militants in the Malian Sahara. Suspected linkages between al‑Shabab in Somalia and al‑Hijra in Kenya are embodied in the alleged target of the US dawn raid in the Somali coastal town of Barawe in early October: Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir is believed to be a senior al‑Shabab leader with good connections to al‑Hijra.
Domestic agendas and international targets
A notable feature of Islamist militancy’s role in Sub-Saharan Africa has been the ability of some groups to take control of large expanses of territory, including towns and cities, in which they can implement their radical ideologies. Large swathes of Somalia have been in effect administered by al‑Shabab since 2007, and northern Mali was controlled for most of 2012 by Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM. Nonetheless, these groups have increasingly embraced an asymmetric warfare strategy against their much larger and better-equipped governmental and international adversaries, as in purely military terms Islamist militancy in Africa does not constitute a major threat. Al‑Shabab is thought to command about 5,000 fighters, the various militant groups in Mali probably less than a thousand each and Boko Haram perhaps a few hundred.
Most of al‑Shabab’s activities are undeniably within Somalia, where the group continues to control large areas in central and southern regions—and enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law—but has been driven out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and the southern port of Kismayu in 2012. Much of the group’s Islamist militancy is connected to Somali nationalism: al‑Shabab’s attacks outside Somalia have focused on countries contributing troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). These include a double suicide bombing in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, which killed 76 people watching the football World Cup final on television in July 2010 (Uganda has contributed troops to Amisom since 2007) and numerous attacks in northern Kenya and in Nairobi, since Kenyan troops invaded Somalia in October 2011 and thereafter joined the Amisom force. The Westgate shopping centre siege in September was the worst terrorist attack in Nairobi since 1998, when an al‑Qaida bomb at the US embassy killed more than 200 people.
A principal focus on localised, domestic affairs also characterises most Islamist militia groups in West Africa. Boko Haram has carried out bombings and assassinations of civilians and regional government leaders in Nigeria’s northern states with increasing frequency and intensity since 2009. In northern Mali, Ansar Dine has sought to impose sharia law among the civilian population, capturing the city of Gao alongside MUJAO fighters in March 2012. Although MUJAO’s stated goal is the spread of jihad across a larger part of West Africa, the group has employed the tactic of kidnapping Westerners for ransom to raise funds.