Since 2001, the common Western understanding of radical Islamic terrorism has revolved almost exclusively around the Middle East. The idea of violent jihadism automatically conjures up mental images of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria; images which, for the most part, are reinforced by media coverage. But, for the better part of five years now, a new jihad has been waged to the south that defies the classification of jihad as a peculiarly Middle Eastern phenomenon. Africa now plays host to a growing number of jihadist movements that have taken advantage of regional instability, ethnic strife, and the rapid decentralisation of transnational movements like al-Qaeda to expand massively in size and strength. From Timbuktu to the Horn of Africa, governments reel as they are forced to deal with constant pressure from violent extremists. Mali, Nigeria and Kenya all stand on the brink of collapse while Libya, Algeria, and Niger have already become havens for jihadists to train and organise.
How, then, did the flame of jihad sweep through the continent with such inexorable speed? There is no Arab-Israeli conflict here to galvanise radical Muslims, no Iranian-Saudi Cold War to provide political manipulation, no Gulf money pouring in to arm and equip insurgencies. However, Africa has no shortage of environments in which jihadist movements can thrive. Failed and failing states like Somalia and Mali are breeding grounds for radical violence, as extremists capitalise on people’s frustration, poverty, and ethnic divisions. In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s grip on the Muslim, impoverished, and agrarian north tightens with every rhetorical accusation it hurls against the Christian, wealthy, and industrialised south. Kenya struggles to keep from descending into ethnic civil war as al-Shabaab inflames sectarian tensions in an effort to create more of the social instability it can thrive in. On a continent brimming with corrupt and ineffective governments, bloody ethnic conflicts, and crushing poverty, militant jihadist groups have massive scope for recruitment and growth.
Another contribution to jihadi rise to power in Africa is a trend the West actually claims as a victory in the global War on Terror: the decimation of Al-Qaeda’s core and the decentralisation of the organisation as a whole. The central leadership of the terrorist movement that orchestrated the 9/11 hijackings has been steadily eroded over the years; most notably with the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. Western leaders have chosen to portray this as a sign that their counterterrorism efforts are succeeding and violent jihadism is on the run. But al-Qaeda and transnational groups like it are not disappearing, they are simply delegating. The group’s affiliates span the globe and now, without a central apparatus to focus them on global action, they are using al-Qaeda’s experience in insurgency, organisation, and weapons making to take local action. The most publicised incarnation of this is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but al-Qaeda’s tendrils are perhaps most widespread in Africa. al-Shabaab in the Horn, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, all have benefitted immensely from al-Qaeda’s dispersing network and translated their newly devolved muscle into rapid expansion in their local theatres. This can be seen even on a smaller scale in Somalia, as al-Shabaab struggles to maintain organisational solidarity following the killing of its long-time leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. Though the core organisation itself may be on the verge of defeat, it has already begun sowing the seeds for the future of jihadism in East Africa. Local sub-groups of al-Shabaab in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Djibouti have become increasingly active even as their parent body crumbles, driving home the point that the destruction of a central command often aids, rather than eliminates local terrorist growth.
If the West is to combat violent jihadism effectively, especially in Africa, it must not yield to the temptation of scoring political points and calling it a day. Killing Osama bin Laden and his cronies looked good to the world media and boosted public morale, but it was hardly the mortal blow Western leaders trumpeted. First Lady Michelle Obama’s support for the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign may drum up global outrage at the brutality of terrorist groups, but it does nothing to hinder their operations on the ground (despite an agreement with the Nigerian government, Boko Haram has still not released those two hundred kidnapped girls). African jihadism acts locally, and thinks globally. Unlike their Middle Eastern brethren, they draw their power not from hatred of Israel or oil money, but from the daily frustrations of local impoverished communities and the chaos of local ethnic violence. Correspondingly, they act against local governments and local ethnicities. This is not to say that they pose no threat to the world outside their locality; after all, the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber” in Detroit was a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a jihadist group with a local outlook. Counterterrorism efforts in Africa cannot be quick interventions with global ideological aims. They must be thorough undertakings that treat every regional case in Africa as a unique situation with a unique solution. The West cannot be afraid to roll up its sleeves and get its hands and boots dirty in order to pull up violent extremism by the roots. Otherwise, its seeds will continue to grow in the ashes of Africa’s most chaotic and violent nations.