Youth are disproportionately at risk from extremism, particularly in situations where they have little to lose. In northern Mozambique, poverty, unemployment, low levels of participation in governance and the lack of inclusive development stand out. The Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique has gained some traction due to its members’ promises of material benefits such as food, employment, and community. It is critical that youth be actively engaged by local officials on a continual basis.
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.
The rise of farmer-herder violence in Africa is more pernicious than fatality figures alone since it is often amplified by the emotionally potent issues of ethnicity, religion, culture, and land.
While the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado grows increasingly violent, the unpoliced coastline of Northern Mozambique allows for the trafficking of hundreds of millions of dollars of heroin. The ruling Frelimo party reportedly pockets at least of $100 million of revenue from this trade each year. Efforts to combat the insurgents, who doubt that the government’s deals for natural gas exploitation will benefit all citizens have stalled, worsened by heavy handed tactics of government forces and their allied Russian and South African mercenaries. A better understanding of the dynamics at play, along with a recognition that criminalized power structures seek to protect themselves, will be required to craft adequate responses to the violence.
Long before extremist violence appeared in northeastern Mozambique, the region was a haven for smuggling of illicit goods and people, all facilitated and supported by a corrupt and broken system of governance from the local to national level. Multinational corporations were invited to exploit natural gas and ruby deposits. Local communities had no voice or support from the government. Mozambique will need to engage with the communities of Cabo Delgado and respect and protect their rights.
In August 2016, Boko Haram split into the groups Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati (JAS) as a result of the internal divisions surrounding the succession of militant Abubakar Shekau as leader of the jihadist group, and a debate over whether Muslim civilians can be targeted. ISIS-WA decided to focus on large scale attacks on military targets, which reflects a more long-term vision for bringing civilians frustrated with the government into its fold. In contrast to the JAS focus on soft civilian targets, ISIS-WA‘s new approach poses a serious threat since it provides an alternative means of governance.
Somali and international efforts have shifted to planning for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to transition directly Somali security forces without an interim UN mission. The implementation of the Transition Plan will require new institutions, processes, and commitment to good governance, changing the Somali state and providing lessons for security sector reform. AMISOM’s eventual exit will influence how the AU and the UN mandate and authorize future missions.
In-depth interviews with more than 100 youth in Northern Mali found that they join armed groups out of sense of duty or to gain respect, because they feel excluded and the government doesn’t support them, they have experienced abuse or corruption at the hands of the governments, or in hopes of joining the military. To build lasting security in the region, the Malian government, donors and NGOs should focus on violence prevention at the community level, rather than only on “at risk” youth. Improved service delivery, including mitigating the perception that security forces serve only segments of the population, and inclusive community-government decision-making would further improve local governance.
Marginalized young Fulani people in central Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger behave in different ways when faced with violent extremism. Data gathered from 36 focus groups held in four villages in each of the three countries shows that one important determinant of support for extremist groups is experience or perception that the government is corrupt and abusive. Another is whether conflict resolution mechanisms to regulate access to natural resources, in particular water for crops and land for pasture, function adequately. While jihadi justice is seen as swift, if at times inhumane, some young people who perceive complicity between the army and ethnic militias also see violent extremist groups as their only defense.
While multidimensional poverty and a lack of education may make certain people more at risk than others to join violent extremist groups, the tipping point—that moment when a person decides to join the group—appears to be when an at-risk individual experienced a government arrest or killing of a family member or friend. This shows that state security conduct is the key to whether an individual joins a violent extremist group. Therefore, more oversight of the state security sector in terms of human rights compliance, accountability, rule of law, and civilian participation is imperative.
Violent extremist organizations have expanded their ambitions, capacities, and geographical reach into the Sahel and West Africa. Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other militant groups present a continuing threat to the stability of the region. As they come under increasing pressure from regional and international security forces, their future evolution is uncertain, but they have proven their ability to adapt and rebound in the face of previous setbacks. 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.
The growth of Salafist ideology in East Africa has challenged long established norms of tolerance and interfaith cooperation in the region. This is an outcome of a combination of external and internal factors. This includes a decades-long effort by religious foundations in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to promulgate ultraconservative interpretations of Islam throughout East Africa’s mosques, madrassas, and Muslim youth and cultural centers. Rooted within a particular Arab cultural identity, this ideology has fostered more exclusive and polarizing religious relations in the region, which has contributed to an increase in violent attacks. These tensions have been amplified by socioeconomic differences and often heavy-handed government responses that are perceived to punish entire communities for the actions of a few. Redressing these challenges will require sustained strategies to rebuild tolerance and solidarity domestically as well as curb the external influence of extremist ideology and actors.
Since 2009, Northeastern Nigeria’s Boko Haram has killed nearly 17,000 and displaced nearly 2.2 million in its quest for an Islamic caliphate. Yet interviews with former youth members suggest many initially joined for strategic reasons, not religious ones. The former members had diverse demographic backgrounds and often joined through friends or colleagues in order to get business support or as a result of frustration with government inadequacy. As Boko Haram has become increasingly violent, corrupt, and hypocritical, the narratives that served as their recruiting tools are being steadily undermined and an opportunity has opened for the government to claim greater legitimacy.
Violent extremism is expressed in myriad ways throughout the Greater Horn of Africa, but some contributing factors span the region. Long-term problems with socioeconomic marginalization, unemployment, and poor infrastructure have combined with evolving demographic shifts, refugee flows, and environmental degradation to expand the population vulnerable to extremist messages. Systemic corruption also alienates citizens from their governance institutions. To build resilience to radical messages, East African countries must build tailored solutions in partnership with the private sector that include seemingly disparate elements such as service provision, community engagement, and literacy building.
Since 2011, thousands of North African citizens have gone to Syria to join the country’s civil war. Through its research, Small Arms Survey found that North African fighters are more likely to come from countries with stable but authoritarian governments. These governments provide fewer opportunities for local expression, forcing potential fighters to look to Syria to engage meaningfully with their jihadist beliefs. Yet African fighters then tend to return home out of disillusionment with the on-the-ground reality in Syria. Their return to local jihadist groups—with reinvigorated dedication and militant experience—could have serious consequences for regional security in North Africa and beyond.
Emerging conflicts in the Sahara and Sahel reveal the influence of transnational ethnic and tribal ties, which serve to facilitate transnational smuggling and movement of radicalized militants. Al Qaeda-associated attacks in Algeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso also reflect the growing cooperation and cross-fertilization among regional militant organizations. This fluidity of alliances between nonstate actors and increasing interconnectedness of African conflicts require coordinated regional solutions.
Ethiopia is witnessing an expansion of the Salafi movement. The Ethiopian government has increasingly interpreted Salafism as extremist movement that is seeking political power and Islamization of the state. However, Salafism is a religious organization whose ideological roots support detachment from public and political life. This misdiagnosis has prompted a misguided campaign by the Ethiopian government to limit religious expression. This could provoke precisely what it fears, a politicization of Salafism as a means to protect its religious freedoms.
Tanzania is experiencing an increase in multiple distinct but interweaving threats. These threats manifest locally and regionally in growing militant Islamist sentiment, fighters returning from Somalia, disputes over the Zanzibar islands, and national elections in 2015. If these issues remain unaddressed, Tanzania could experience a similar rise in deadly terrorist activity as has occurred in Kenya. To preempt the spread of violent extremism in the country, investments are needed in intelligence, law enforcement, and capacity building in Tanzania.
Although Burkina Faso has remained relatively peaceful and stable in an insecure region where violent extremism has undermined security, structural challenges within the country—such as endemic corruption, religious tension and chronic underdevelopment—render the country vulnerable to extremism. The Burkinabé government, civil society and stakeholder states should seek to nurture resilience by promoting development and community engagement and thus prevent the spread of violent extremism into the country.
Boko Haram has been able to conduct its operations largely due to its ability to recruit young men. This recruitment is spurred by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and weak family structures that make young men susceptible to radicalization. Extreme religious teachings by imams act as the final stimulus. The Nigerian government should address the conditions that support recruitment by monitoring imams and providing education and job creation programs. Reducing its ability to recruit will significantly diminish the strength of Boko Haram.
While commonly perceived as a domestic problem, the threat posed by Boko Haram has important multinational drivers and implications. Both the Nigerian government and external partners, consequently, must make a priority of keeping links between northern Nigeria and the outside world open. The challenges posed by Boko Haram are emblematic of an emerging security paradigm in Africa today where local grievances are fused with international ideology, funding, and technology. Effectively addressing the multilayers of this transnational threat will require the sustained engagement of Nigeria’s neighbors and international partners.
Ongoing attacks by Boko Haram and other violent Islamist groups coupled with an at times arbitrary response by Nigeria’s security forces have contributed to a deteriorating security situation in the north. Increasingly frequent attacks and bombings also mask longer-running radicalization dynamics. A sustained approach targeting every stage of the radicalization spectrum, from addressing socioeconomic grievances, to cross-cultural peacebuilding initiatives, to rehabilitating radicalized members of violent Islamist groups, as well as a more measured use of force are needed to reverse this broader trend.
Pakistan has for years struggled against violent extremist ideologies that underlay several intrastate conflicts and transnational threats, problems now emerging in Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa. With weak legitimacy, the Pakistani government’s counter-extremism strategy has achieved little, but religious and secular civil society outfits have initiated their own successful community engagement efforts despite limited organizational management, inter-group connectivity, and personal security. Government efforts to compensate for these shortcomings could produce further counter-extremism successes.
Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger and other states in the Sahel appear to be experiencing a new “Salafist era.” Since the introduction of Saudi Wahhabist institutions in the 1970s Salafism has expanded gradually in the Sahel, though with varying success as it interacted with differing political contexts and contrasted sharply with prevailing Islamic institutions. However, states in the Sahel may be able to leverage their religious and ethnic diversity to temper and reverse extremism’s rise.
While not often considered a hub in global terrorist networks, South Africa has seen a steady and growing pattern of domestic and al-Qaeda-linked terrorist activity over the past decade. Coinciding with the creeping expansion of terrorist threats in other parts of the continent, this Security Brief examines lessons learned from South Africa’s experience and their potential relevance to other African countries and their security sectors. Also available in: FRANÇAIS | PORTUGUÊS
Islamism has been present in the Horn of Africa for decades and is currently making significant impacts across the region. Encompassing a variety of actors and ideological traits, it is a heterogeneous phenomenon with political and reformists groups as well as violent extremist elements. Stability in the region, from the community to the national level, will hinge on engagement strategies that incorporate the non-violent elements of this diversity into the public sphere.
Most countries in Southern Africa lack comprehensive legal frameworks that criminalize terrorism and the methods to finance it. However, as numerous local arrests of international terrorists suggest, the sub-region is attracting terrorist networks. To prevent such activity, states should institute legal reforms and better coordinate anti-money laundering efforts through available international and sub-regional working groups.
The penetration and persistence of extremist ideology in the Horn of Africa remains unclear and moving along many trajectories. Multiple groups from Sudan to Zanzibar have created divergent forces of ideological influence, perhaps complicating efforts by al Qaeda to establish a unified base of support across the region.
Highly commended report that links social, economic, political and cultural factors to extremist ideology and support for terrorism. Develops extremist profiles and “at-risk” populations as well as explores individual motivations.
African Counterterrorism Cooperation provides an overview of terrorist threats and responses in each region of the continent. With contributions from leading African security scholars, this volume is a insightful compendium of knowledge on terrorism in Africa that reflects a balance of African and American perspectives on what can and should be done to address this emerging threat.
Security Topics: Countering Violent Extremism