Countering Violent Extremism in Africa

UN Police Officer meeting with residents in the Menaka Region of north-east Mali. (Photo: MINUSMA/Gema Cortes)

Violent extremism remains one of Africa’s most pressing security threats. Militant Islamist violence in Africa is largely concentrated in five theaters, each comprising distinct, locally based actors and context-specific challenges: the Sahel, Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, North Africa, and Mozambique. Employing asymmetric tactics and integrating within local communities, militant groups have sought to amplify grievances and intercommunal differences as a means of mobilizing recruitment and fostering antigovernment sentiments. Given these complex challenges, governments must prioritize building trust with local communities while developing more robust and mobile defense capabilities to sustain a security presence in contested regions. Following are a series of Africa Center analyses that track the evolution of the varied militant Islamist groups in Africa and ways to counter them.

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Debunking the Malian Junta’s Claims

April 12, 2022

Mali’s military coup has thrust the country into a deeper security crisis as the junta quashes dissent and resists a democratic transition.

Spotlight

The Growing Threat of Violent Extremism in Coastal West Africa

By Leif Brottem
March 15, 2022

Sahelian militant Islamist groups are threatening border areas of littoral states where grievances held by pastoralist communities may provide an entry point for extremist interests.

Spotlight

Trajectories of Violence Against Civilians by Africa’s Militant Islamist Groups

By Anouar Boukhars
February 8, 2022

Extremist group violence against civilians is driven by context-specific factors—outgroup grievances, intimidation to control territory, and a response to heavy-handed security responses—that require enhanced community-level mitigation and military professionalism.

Surge in Militant Islamist Violence in the Sahel Dominates Africa’s Fight against Extremists

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Surge in Militant Islamist Violence in the Sahel Dominates Africa’s Fight against Extremists

January 24, 2022

A 70-percent annual increase in violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel propelled a new record of extremist violence in Africa in 2021.

A displaced family in Cabo Delgado

Spotlight

Cries from the Community: Listening to the People of Cabo Delgado

By Gregory Pirio, Robert Pittelli, and Yussuf Adam
August 30, 2021

Stabilizing northern Mozambique will involve more than defeating violent extremists. It will also require rebuilding trust with marginalized and traumatized local communities.

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African Militant Islamist Group Violence Maintains Record Pace, though Slowing

July 27, 2021

The contours of African militant Islamist group violence are shifting, though maintaining a record pace of havoc resulting in an average of 14 violent events per day.

Tunisia’s Evolving Counterterrorism Strategy

Spotlight

Tunisia’s Evolving Counterterrorism Strategy

By Anouar Boukhars
July 16, 2021

To build on its commendable counterterrorism progress, Tunisia needs to elevate its prevention efforts and strengthen oversight mechanisms to prevent abuses by its security forces.

Spotlight

Nigeria’s Diverse Security Threats

By Mark Duerksen
March 30, 2021

Nigeria faces an array of security challenges beyond Boko Haram. Distinguishing these threats and understanding their socio-geographic contours is essential for adapting customized solutions.

Spike in Militant Islamist Violence in Africa Underscores Shifting Security Landscape

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Spike in Militant Islamist Violence in Africa Underscores Shifting Security Landscape

January 29, 2021

A surge of violent events by militant Islamist groups in Africa, led by escalations in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, sets record and widens instability.

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Expanding Its Threat and Reach in the Sahel

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Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Expanding Its Threat and Reach in the Sahel

December 18, 2020

Violence linked to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) more than doubled in the past year. Concentrated along the Burkina Faso-Niger-Mali border areas, ISGS events target civilians nearly half the time.

Militant Islamist Group Highway Attacks in and around Borno State

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Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Target Nigeria’s Highways

December 15, 2020

A rise in highway ambushes by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa pose a growing threat of isolation for Borno State’s 4 million residents.

The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel

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The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups
in the Sahel

By Daniel Eizenga and Wendy Williams
December 1, 2020

Composed of distinct operational entities, the militant Islamist group coalition Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen serves the role of obscuring the operations of its component parts in the Sahel, thereby inhibiting a more robust response.

Boko Haram Violence against Civilians Spiking in Northern Cameroon

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Boko Haram Violence against Civilians Spiking in Northern Cameroon

November 13, 2020

Northern Cameroon has experienced the sharpest spike of Boko Haram violence in the Lake Chad Basin over the past 12 months, namely in the form of attacks on civilians.

Keeping Terrorism at Bay in Mauritania

Spotlight

Keeping Terrorism at Bay in Mauritania

By Anouar Boukhars
June 16, 2020

Mauritania’s security reforms, including training, enhanced mobility, Special Forces, prudent procurement, and community engagement have strengthened its capability to confront violent extremist groups.

Understanding Fulani Perspectives on the Sahel Crisis

Spotlight

Understanding Fulani Perspectives on the Sahel Crisis

By Modibo Ghaly Cissé
April 22, 2020

The disproportionate representation of Fulani in militant Islamist groups in the Sahel has led to the stigmatization of the entire Fulani community. Reversing this will require renewed outreach and trust-building between Fulani leaders, government authorities, and neighboring communities.

Chadian soldiers in Bosso, Niger

Spotlight

Chad’s Escalating Fight against Boko Haram

By Daniel Eizenga
April 20, 2020

A rise in Boko Haram and ISWA attacks in Chad has been met with a military surge to clear the area. Enduring success will require a sustained presence and an intensified regional commitment.

Spotlight

How Violent Extremist Groups Exploit Intercommunal Conflicts in the Sahel

By Laurence-Aïda Ammour
February 26, 2020

Rising violence by militant Islamist groups in the Sahel is straining intercommunal tensions, threatening the foundations of social cohesion in the region.

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Threat from African Militant Islamist Groups Expanding, Diversifying

January 18, 2020

Militant Islamist groups in Africa set a record pace of activity in 2019, reflecting a doubling of militant Islamist activity from 2013. Expanded activity in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin underscores diversification of threat from Somalia.

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Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy

By Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars
December 31, 2019

The Arab Maghreb is a vitally important region that impacts the security and politics of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the broader Middle East. It is also home to the conservative, literalist interpretation of Islam known as Salafism, which has emerged as a major social and political force.

Mali soldiers in Gao

Publication

Responding to the Rise in Violent Extremism in the Sahel

By Pauline Le Roux
December 2, 2019

Reversing the escalating violence of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel will require an enhanced security presence coupled with more sustained outreach to local communities.

Ansaroul Islam militants in northern Burkina Faso, date unknown. (Image: Screen capture from video obtained by Héni Nsaibia from source in Mali)

Spotlight

Ansaroul Islam: The Rise and Decline of a Militant Islamist Group in the Sahel

By Pauline Le Roux
July 29, 2019

Burkina Faso’s first militant Islamist group, Ansaroul Islam, has faced setbacks, pointing to the weaknesses of violent extremist organizations lacking deep local support and facing sustained pressure.

Spotlight

Exploiting Borders in the Sahel: The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara

By Pauline Le Roux
June 10, 2019

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has pursued breadth rather than depth of engagement in its rapid rise along the Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso borders.

Spotlight

The Many Drivers Enabling Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique

By Gregory Pirio, Robert Pittelli, and Yussuf Adam
May 20, 2019

The violent extremist threat in northern Mozambique exploits underlying societal vulnerabilities of inequity, insecure land rights, and distrust of authorities.

Confronting Central Mali’s Extremist Threat

Spotlight

Confronting Central Mali’s Extremist Threat

By Pauline Le Roux
February 22, 2019

The Macina Liberation Front has opportunistically played on perceptions of ethnic, economic, religious, and political marginalization to become one of the most active militant Islamist groups in Mali.

Progress and Setbacks in the Fight against African Militant Islamist Groups in 2018

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Progress and Setbacks in the Fight against African Militant Islamist Groups in 2018

January 25, 2019

Declines in violent activity linked to Boko Haram and al Shabaab are balanced by increases in the Sahel, generating a mixed picture of the challenge posed by militant Islamist groups in Africa.

The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique

Spotlight

The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique

By Gregory Pirio, Robert Pittelli, and Yussuf Adam
March 25, 2018

The emergence of a new militant Islamist group in northern Mozambique raises a host of concerns over the influence of international jihadist ideology, social and economic marginalization of local Muslim communities, and a heavy-handed security response.

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More Activity but Fewer Fatalities Linked to African Militant Islamist Groups in 2017

January 26, 2018

Militant Islamist group activity in Africa continues to be highly context-specific. Those with strong local ties have shown considerable resilience, while ISIS has struggled to gain traction in the Maghreb.

Spotlight

The Lion’s Head and Tail: A Discussion on Countering Insurgencies with General Mahamane Touré

October 10, 2017

Former Malian Defense Chief of Staff General Mahamane Touré reflects on lessons learned from Mali’s counter insurgency efforts in the North.

A Fulani man herds cattle in northern Cameroon

Spotlight

Africa’s Pastoralists: A New Battleground for Terrorism

By Kaley Fulton and Benjamin P. Nickels
January 11, 2017

Islamist terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sahara are attempting to exploit pastoralist grievances to mobilize greater support for their agenda, write Kaley Fulton and Benjamin Nickels.

Evolution of Militant Islamist Group Activity in Africa

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The Evolution of Militant Islamist Group Activity in Africa 2010–2016

January 10, 2017

The geographic spread and frequency of violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in Africa has expanded steadily since 2010, with a peak in 2015. Eight African countries now regularly face attacks by an assortment of militant Islamist groups.

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Militancy and the Arc of Instability: Violent Extremism in the Sahel

September 28, 2016

Violent extremist organizations have expanded their ambitions, capacities, and geographical reach into the Sahel and West Africa, creating an arc of instability across the region. The Africa Center’s Benjamin Nickels joined a panel experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss the continuing challenges facing the Sahel.

Spotlight

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province

August 25, 2016

Dr. Raymond Gilpin discusses how Boko Haram has evolved since it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015.

Publication

Islamist Extremism in East Africa

By Abdisaid M. Ali
August 9, 2016

Abdisaid M. Ali reviews the mainstreaming of Salafist ideology in East Africa and the polarizing impact of this more exclusivist interpretation of Islam.

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Boko Haram: An Evolving Emergency

February 9, 2016

Regional forces have begun to constrain Boko Haram, but tensions and a lack of coordination have hampered progress. On Capitol Hill, Africa Center Dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Raymond Gilpin dissects the issue.

Place nations unies, Ouagadougou

Spotlight

Terrorists Strike Burkina Faso: What are the Implications?

January 25, 2016

The terrorist attack on a luxury hotel in Ouagadougou is the second time in recent months that groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have conducted attacks of this type outside their base area. Benjamin Nickels assesses the significance of these attacks and steps that might be taken by Burkinabé authorities and their partners to address future threats.

Spotlight

Extremism: Root Causes, Drivers, and Responses

November 20, 2015

Efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) in Africa long pre-date ISIS. Drawing on its CVE work over the years, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies highlights some of the recurring themes.

Dr. Ben Nickels at Wilson Center

Video

Trajectories of Terrorist & Armed Groups in Africa

November 12, 2015

To block the spread of recruitment and radicalization in West Africa, African policymakers and their partners should seize the window of opportunity to support preventative measures in as-yet untouched communities.

Islamic State fighters

Spotlight

The Islamic State and African Terrorism

July 17, 2015

The growing competition between the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda for influence on Africa’s terrorist groups was the theme of a recent panel presentation by Drs. Benjamin Nickels and Joseph Siegle from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Spotlight

Assessing the Terrorist Attack in Tunisia

March 23, 2015

The deadly terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunisia on March 18 turned the global spotlight on this North African nation, which has made significant strides in consolidating democracy since its long-serving ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted from power in January 2011.

Al-Qaida crée une brigade dirigée par des Touaregs

Spotlight

Understanding Terrorist Threats in Africa

September 26, 2014

Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Boko Haram, while all different, each display three common characteristics that aid in understanding terrorist actors in Africa.

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Boko Haram and the Isolation of Northern Nigeria: Regional and International Implications

By Joseph Siegle
October 31, 2013

Boko Haram’s violent campaign for an Islamic state in northern Nigeria has led to the growing isolation of this region. Trade in Kano, the economic hub of the north, is estimated to have been cut by half in recent years. Roughly $15 billion worth of annual trade and two million traders from neighboring countries used to flow through Kano. As Boko Haram’s violent attacks have increased, fewer traders are crossing the border to take the risk. This coincides with a stream of  businesses leaving northern states from Borno to Kaduna for greater stability in the south. Boko Haram’s high-profile kidnapping of French tourists in February 2013 accelerated the plunge in travel in the region. Internet and cell phone access have similarly been restricted due to Boko Haram’s bombing of 24 base transceiver stations belonging to at least six telecommunications companies in the northeast. 

Left with nothing: Boko Haram’s displaced ©EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello

Publication

Mitigating Radicalism in Northern Nigeria

By Michael Olufemi Sodipo
August 31, 2013

Mitigating radicalism, in northern Nigeria as elsewhere, requires a sustained approach targeting every stage of the radicalization spectrum.

Dr Hussein Solomon

Interview

Ask the Expert: Dr. Hussein Solomon on Radical Islamism in Africa

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
April 19, 2013

In this edition of Ask the Expert, Dr. Hussein Solomon, a leading expert on militant Islam and counterterrorism strategies in Africa—who lectures at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of the Free State in South Africa—assesses the state of fundamentalism on the continent.

Boko Haram’s Evolving Threat

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Boko Haram’s Evolving Threat

By J. Peter Pham
April 30, 2012

Support for Boko Haram among some of northern Nigeria’s marginalized Muslim communities suggests that security actions alone will be insufficient to quell the instability.

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West Africa’s Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM’s Sahelian Strategy

By Modibo Goïta
February 28, 2011

Counterterrorism efforts among Sahelian governments remain uncoordinated and too narrowly focused to contain and confront AQIM’s long-term and sophisticated strategy in the region. To prevent AQIM from further consolidating its presence in the Sahel, regional policies must be harmonized and security forces refocused so as to minimize collateral impacts on local communities.