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islamic africa

If there is one continent where the conditions are ideal for the expansion of Islamic terrorism that is surely Africa. Widespread poverty, non-existent democracy, endemic corruption, low education, unemployment, low expectations for a decent life. There is a social humus capable of harboring the most extreme ideas and where violence can be fueled by resentment. And this can potentially happen anywhere across the continent.

Firstly, Africa is a region where about half of the population is muslim. In some countries there is a clear predominance: Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Mayotte, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia. If we take a closer look, in some of these countries Islamic terrorism is already present. Unlike the Middle East, this is not a sectarian terrorism because there is hardly any Shia in Africa. Apart from a few minor groups in Senegal and Nigeria, the overwhelming majority of muslims are Sunni. Yet, there is ample room to fight against the apostates: the Sufi confraternities that are widespread throughout the continent.

Secondly, there are those countries where christians and muslims are equally divided: Burkina Faso, Chad, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ivory Coast. In these cases it is also possible to wage a war against the infidels. Surely, Islamic terrorism in Africa does not share the same characteristics as the one in the Middle East. It is less dogmatic and rooted in doctrine, it is often associated with tribal or ethnic issues, but this does not imply it is less dangerous or bloody.

The afflux of terrorists from Syria and Iraq to Libya shows that if things go wrong over there, the ISIS will seek new bases and hideouts elsewhere. Libya, just like Tunisia and the other countries in the Maghreb, all share similar characteristics with the Middle East. Yet, the biggest threat is the spread of terrorism along sub-Saharan Africa. The recents wave of attacks in Bamako, Ouagadougou and Grand Bassam point to a real and growing threat.

muhamar gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi

Gaddafi's intuition

Muammar Gaddafi was an expert in terrorism, both because he employed it during the first phase of his reign, and then fought it during his last days in power. What the Libyan leader feared was the expansion of extremism in the Sahel. This is why he had proposed to the West to create an anti-terrorism center in Bamako, Mali, and to train a rapid intervention force that could be activated if need be. At the time, the French opposed the idea because it threatened their hegemonic political and military role in the French-speaking countries in the region, the Americans and the British simply didn't trust the Colonel, while the Libyans themselves pitched the proposal, but never detailed what exactly they had in mind. And so the Libyan dictator's intuition never saw the light.

What everyone feared was the soldering of Algerian Islamic terrorism with the Somali al Shabaab, thus creating a unique terrorist conglomerate along the sub-Saharan belt. Circumstances have proven Gaddafi was right. Although it hasn't still reached Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria have started to share the modus operandi and the techniques employed by the ISIS, including the preparation of explosive devices. This has been confirmed during the recent visit to Chad of US General Donald Bolduc, in charge of operations in Africa.

Who fights against terrorism in Africa

The colonial heritage, which we now call spheres of influence, implies that it is the former colonial powers that are now in charge of the fight against terrorism. The UK acts under the umbrella of the Commonwealth in the 18 African countries that are still members of the Queen's club, the French use the CFA (Communauté Financiére Africaine), Italy helps Somalia, Spain, Belgium and Portugal their former colonies, while the United States, lacking its own colonial past, deploys its troops across the continent simply because it is a superpower.

The French have the biggest military presence in Africa, with soldiers stationed in several bases in the French-speaking countries. The Foreign Legion counts on 2 thousand men in Djibouti, 1.500 are in the Central African Republic, around a thousand in Gabon and Chad, 400 troops in Ivory Coast under the mission “Licorne”, and several other smaller contingents scattered across Senegal, Guinea, Niger and Cameroon. The biggest deployment is in Mali, where Islamic terrorism almost took over the country and 3 thousand men of the Operation Barkhane are there to prevent it will happen again. France has shown it is ready to intervene in case of any regional emergency. It did so in 2013/2014 in Mali with Operation Serval, and before that in Chad with Operation Eparvier, and earlier in Ivory Coast and so forth. Paris still intends to play a lead role in any upheaval or unrest capable of threatening the status quo, whether it is terrorism-related or not.

The US military is more discrete, but not less efficient. The main American base is in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where about 4 thousand men are deployed, together with airplanes and navy. The operations are under the command of AFRICOM, that is based in Germany. The air raids against the al Shabaab in Somalia take off from Djibouti. The US is planning to open two more bases, one in Cameroon and another one in Agadez, in Niger. The United States are training, supporting, carrying out joint exercises with most of the sub-Saharan countries. They can also count on 57 of what they call “Cooperative security locations” across the continent. They train Special Forces in at least 30 countries under the ATA, Anti-Terrorism Assistance, budget.

Several other countries also offer their assistance to African countries, like the Italians in Somalia. But despite all these efforts, African nations are still incapable, at least in most cases, of defending themselves from terrorism. Nigeria, possibly the most blatant example, had to resort to hiring private military companies to fight Boko Haram. Mercenaries that were paid 400 dollars per day. The African Union has tried to propel the idea of a rapid intervention force against terrorism, but nothing has been achieved.

kony and lra

Joseph Kony and the Lord Resistance Army

The different faces of terrorism

There are several and diverse terrorist or rebel groups in Africa. A lot of them are inspired by religion, most are Islamic, but some – like the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda – are christian. They usually emerge where there is a widespread social discontent and often resort to a religious justification at a later stage. In some other cases, they are linked to liberation struggles or independency movements, like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali (NMLA) and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in Nigeria. Often tribal ties bring the members of these groups together. This is the case for Boko Haram, whose militants are mainly Kanuri; of Ansar Eddin and the NMLA, composed of Tuareg; of the LRA and its Acholi base; of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose members are Arabs; the Macina Liberation Front in Mali composed mainly of Fulani and so forth.

The common denominator between all these different groups is the exploitation of social discontent, injustice and misery. The biggest the despair, as in the Sahel, the higher the terrorism. Sometimes other factors are also at play. A criminal element, for instance, prevails in Mokhtar Benmokhtar's Mourabitoun. The famous smuggler pursues a so-called “economic” jihad. In other instances, what is originally a national phenomenon spills over into neighboring countries. The aforementioned Kanuris also live in Chad, Niger and Cameroon. It is not a coincidence that Boko Haram found a safe haven in these countries across the border.

Islamic terrorist groups in Africa are either associated with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The choice reflects the success of the moment and is not based on ideological or theological criteria. Furthermore, unlike in Syria, belonging to either one does not imply a conflict between opposing factions, although this may happen as in the case of Benmokhtar's affiliation with Al Qaeda during his infighting with other local groups. Very few groups have expressed their allegiance to the ISIS in Africa. The al Shabaab did so after a bloody internal debate. Boko Haram's chief Abubakar Shekau, instead, adhered enthusiastically. Either way, this does not diminish the threat posed by Islamic militancy. It is fortunate that AQIM and the ISIS haven't put in place a strategic cooperation in Africa. At least for now.

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