Terrorism in Africa

Organized violence targeting civilians is a serious problem in some African states but the word terrorism is rarely a useful description for such fluid, complex, and long-term conflicts.

Explainer Updated 19 December 2022 Published 15 September 2021 6 minute READ

Terrorism in Africa

This article explains the history of terrorism in Africa, its causes, and future efforts to bring peace and stability. It focuses on certain nations in West and East Africa – Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.

To discuss terrorism in Africa it is essential to recognize the complexities involved. First, ‘terrorism’ is a problematic term. If terrorism is defined as the use of violence and intimidation against civilians, then some African governments have allegedly committed terrorist acts.

There are no easy, universal reasons for the roots of terror in Africa

Second, the term is often applied by western policymakers attempting to impose order on fluid, highly-factionalized situations. This habit can create problems as designating insurgent groups as ‘terrorists’ makes it much harder for governments to de-escalate conflict and negotiate peaceful settlements with insurgent groups.

Third, there are no easy, universal reasons for the roots of terror in Africa, the world’s second largest and most populous continent.

The causes of violence against civilians in one African nation differ greatly from another – just as in Europe the UK’s history of sectarian and religious violence is different to that of Serbia’s.

History of terrorism in Africa

The term ‘terrorism’ is problematic. On many occasions it is the right description for obscene acts of violence perpetrated against civilians, such as the June 2021 attack in Burkina Faso. But it is also true that, throughout the 20th century, weak, corrupt, and colonial regimes branded opponents ‘terrorists’ as a way to delegitimize their objectives.

In Africa especially, colonial powers labelled independence movements as terrorists to retain power, demonize their adversaries, and justify the use of extreme retaliatory measures. This was true of the French authorities in Algeria, the British in Kenya during the 1950s, the Rhodesian government during the 1970s, and the South African Apartheid regime.

Only relatively recently have western nations’ perceptions of terrorism in Africa become focused on Islamic jihadism. In 1998, truck bombs at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania killed more than 200 people, bringing Al-Qaeda to the attention of the US public for the first time.

Since then – and especially following the 9/11 terror attacks – a new narrative of a global jihadist threat became dominant, sometimes pushing the international community to intervene in local conflicts that have little to do with global terrorism or religious indoctrination.

What are the causes of terrorism in Africa?

The causes of violence and insurgency in African nations vary a great deal. The continent is vast with tremendous cultural and language differences at work, and the only truly shared experience is a history of European colonialism.  

However, in the Sahel region some similar factors are in play. Countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have suffered from successive weak governments characterized by corruption, impunity, and disorganization. Their elites have failed to provide security for vast sections of the population.

Military forces in the Sahel are often made up of poorly trained, under-equipped soldiers. Corruption has led to unpaid troops mutinying or deserting, as happened in Nigeria.

Worse than corrupt, militaries in the Sahel are often viewed by marginalized groups as oppressors. Soldiers are often non-professional, rarely fighting against other states, and instead used largely to protect the ruling incumbant.

In Mali, the army and allied militias committed atrocities in the central and southern regions in 2018 and 2019 but no trials of perpetrators ever took place. This lack of accountability and justice helped stoke hostilities between nation governments in the Sahel and their marginalized, poor, and neglected communities.

Jihadist insurgencies thrive in such a vacuum, offering some measure of order in the absence of adversarial government forces which provide few, if any, public goods.

Islamic terrorism in Africa

Islamic terrorism is a global phenomenon and a genuine threat to peace and stability in some parts of Africa.

Insurgent groups are often riven by internal conflicts and motivated as much by local objectives as by any international jihadist mission.

However, insurgent groups are often riven by internal conflicts and motivated just as much by local objectives as by any international jihadist mission.

The line between jihadism, organized crime, and local politics is often blurred and further complicated by global factors such as climate change, population growth, and migration.

Mali offers a clear example of how structural failings, poor governance, and weak state security have been the main cause of the growing insurgency, and long predate the ‘war on terror’ narrative.

Repeated coups – in 2012, 2020 and 2021 – and a history of repression of the northern population, have done more to expand jihadism than the military strength of Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State (IS) in the Greater Sahara, Ansarul Islam, or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

The French intervention in the Sahel since 2013 has been characterized as an effort to stabilize a troubled former colonial region, and is mainly a military effort to defeat these Islamist groups.

Up to 5,000 troops have been deployed, working with United Nations (UN) troops and other Western special forces, but it has had limited impact.

Arguably this is only the latest in a series of military interventions against Islamist forces which have ended up acting as a ‘praetorian guard’ to unpopular and predatory governments such as those in Mali, and failing to address the root causes of violence.

The French military strategy was further weakened after the death of Chad’s president Idriss Déby in clashes with non-Islamist forces in 2020. Déby, a long-time French ally, was viewed as the military power in the region and a bulwark against jihadism.

The situation in the Sahel is not hopeless. The relative resilience of Niger – a country sharing many of the challenges faced by Mali – demonstrates progress is possible if more inclusive governance can be built.

Terrorism in West Africa

Perhaps the most notorious terrorist activity in West Africa during the 21st century has been in Nigeria due to the activities of terrorist group Boko Haram.

As with Mali, Nigeria – one of the world’s most populous nations – has a long history of corruption and inefficiency in its government and military, exemplified by the unprecedented 2020 #EndSARS movement.

These mass protests demanded action against the brutal tactics of Nigeria’s police, but also expressed dissatisfaction with corruption and injustice across government and society.

Military spokespeople labelled the protests subversive and soldiers opened fire at unarmed protesters at Lagos’ Lekki Toll Gate in October 2020. 

Weakened by corrupt patronage networks and reluctant to acknowledge its own failures, Nigeria’s federal government is increasingly challenged by youth to become more accountable and improve livelihoods. But against this backdrop, Boko Haram has defied government claims it has been defeated and continues to operate in the country.

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Boko Haram

Boko Haram has roots partly in the legacy of colonial rule, and partly in poverty and marginalization. The movement, founded by cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, based its support in north-eastern Nigeria, where there is a history of antipathy to western-style schooling and hostility to the central government.

Boko Haram is far from a unified fighting force and has changed dramatically since 2016.

Boko Haram preached the creation of an Islamic state and launched attacks on government buildings in 2009. Nigerian security forces captured and summarily executed Mohammed Yusuf that same year, and the situation rapidly deteriorated.

Boko Haram spread fear through indiscriminate massacres, sporadic suicide bombings, and mass kidnappings – such as the notorious abduction of 200 children in 2014 – and the group’s declared allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2015.

But Boko Haram is far from being a unified fighting force and has changed dramatically since 2016. And the Nigerian government is making attempts to reintegrate former Boko Haram fighters into society.

But the insurgency remains and has spilled into the neighbouring states of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, with fighters regrouping and recruiting in conditions of absent security and endemic poverty. The UN assesses the Boko Haram conflict has displaced more than 3.4 million civilians across the region.

Terrorism in the Horn of Africa

The ‘War on Terror’ did much to feed terrorism in the Horn of Africa. The 2006 Ethiopia invasion of Somalia was encouraged by the US as it sought to oust the Islamic Court Union – an alliance of Sharia Courts – and Al-Shabaab – a militia – which had seized control of capital city Mogadishu.

The invasion led to a spiral of worsening violence on both sides. Human rights groups accused Ethiopian forces of war crimes while Al-Shabaab developed into a full insurgency in the south of the country and declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Calling for a Sharia Law state, it began launching suicide attacks in 2007, a new element in the conflict. Despite US air strikes aimed at its leadership, Al-Shabaab retains influence over significant parts of Somalia, enforcing a brutal form of sharia law, funding activities through taxation of the population it controls, smuggling, and other means.

It continues to take responsibility for major terror attacks, such as a bomb on a flight departing Mogadishu in February 2016, a massive truck bomb in Mogadishu in October 2017, and on the US base at Baledogle in September 2019.

Somali pirates

Piracy in the Western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden has almost disappeared  since its peak between 2008 and 2012. Again, local factors are key to understanding the history.

Somalia was and continues to be one of the poorest nations in the world and piracy created considerable employment – for hijack crews and local militias guarding hijacked ships, and for local cooks, producers, and traders looking after hostages.

Although the amount of ransom was often kept a commercial secret, a realistic total figure for ransoms paid to Somali pirates during 2009 is around $70 million. To put this into context, cattle exports from Somalia in 2009 were worth $43 million. In 2008, the UN estimated 40 per cent of the proceeds of piracy directly funded local employment.

In 2013 Somali piracy collapsed, due to better management practices by vessel owners and crews, armed private security on ships, and other factors.

Terrorism connections – to Al-Shabaab or others – are difficult to verify but it seems more likely groups such as Al-Shabaab taxed or received bribes from pirate proceeds rather than organize the attacks themselves.

By 2020 the concentration of piracy attacks had shifted from the Horn of Africa to the West African coast, with the Gulf of Guinea accounting for more than 95 per cent of global crew kidnappings.

The future of terrorism in Africa

To bring stability to countries affected by terrorism, external actors – both national and multilateral – must switch their primary focus from the military defeat of insurgent groups to tackling poor governance and helping development.

Solutions must be as much political as they are military.

Solutions must be as much political as they are military. In the Sahel, both US and European Union (EU) efforts to reinforce states through military training have been largely ineffective.

Western-trained military forces were behind successive coups in Mali and directly created the power vacuum in parts of the country where jihadist forces took control.

It is vital the international community hears the voices of people affected by terrorism, violence, and insurgency. Technology provides real opportunities to link those affected directly to policymakers, charities, government, and society more widely, and to create solutions which are as much African as they are international.

Much of our work in the Chatham House Africa programme is devoted to this area.