FROM Kenya, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, terrorists have left a deadly trail since October, and hard questions are now being asked on just how much trouble Africa is in. They don’t wear designer clothes or speak with elite college accents, but the terrorists have brewed an evil and genius plot, and Africa should worry.
The terror groups don’t give weekly briefings, and rarely reveal much about their strategic goals, but what is the worst we can assume and what vulnerabilities do they seem to be exploiting?
The focus on the slaughter, beheadings, and suicide bombs by Boko Haram in Nigeria; the recent spate of executions of Christians by the Somali terror group Al Shabaab in northeast Kenya; the mayhem in Libya; and the daring attacks by extremists in Egypt, including one they launched in the Mediterranean Sea on November 12, leaving five Egyptian sailors injured and eight others missing, have the media focusing on the individual atrocities.
Not much is being done yet to look at what is likely to be the common outcomes from all the violence by various jihadi groups in Africa. The one link talked about is that most of these groups, from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) in Egypt, Ansar Al-Shariah in Libya, and Boko Haram have pledged support for the Islamic State group, which overran large areas of Iraq and Syria. According to General David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, IS has set up training camps in eastern Libya.
Shape of the caliphate
Libya has been plagued by instability since the overthrow of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and indeed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently boasted of vows of allegiance from militants in the country.
Most of the country is increasingly lawless, with militant groups active in every corner. In Benghazi, Libya’s main city in the east, militants belonging to Ansar Al-Shariah, designated by the UN as a terrorist group, are fighting a bloody war over control of the city against the forces of retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan army.
The situation in Libya is so dire that neighboring countries are preparing for an avalanche of terror coming from post-Gaddafi Libya.
They seem to be on a roll, and the Nigerian government seems to be unable to stop them.
On the face of it, it might at first not seem to be too big a deal that groups like Egypt Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) have pledged support for IS. Al Shaabab, though, has not embraced IS in the same way.
However, more than active support or links, the most deadly thing IS has done was in June, when it put forward the goal of creating a caliphate (a political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion) covering the Middle East Africa, a chunk of Asia, and cutting through the middle of Africa, placing the upper half of the continent in its domain.
It takes in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea.
The caliphate idea might sound absurd, but it is a captivating grand global vision expressed in both religion and land and its riches, not just religion. That hard geographical expression, has brought more clarity to global jihadists, and added a practical, real world prize for those who join, rather than mystical 72 virgins in heaven.
Many laughed off Boko Haram’s Shekau
The extremists, as IS proves, have exploited the tendency not to take them seriously enough in the early stages, to good effect.
When Boko Haram’s Shekau Abubakar pledged allegiance to IS, and declared a caliphate in the northeastern areas of Nigeria that it controls, his statement was yet again treated as the loud delusions of a mad man. Now, no one is sniggering.
It followed its caliphate statement with a string of deadly attacks that sent the Nigerian army fleeing. Today Boko Haram is estimated to control nearly 20% of Nigeria, an estimated 20,000 sq. miles (51,800 sq. km). If its “territory” were an independent country, it would be Africa’s 41st biggest nation.
However, a closer look at the IS caliphate reveals some interesting patterns. Of all the regions it seeks to conquer, the easiest would be Africa because it has dysfunctional and weak states. These it can overcome with comparatively little cost.
The men and treasure that IS has spent, and the casualties it has taken in trying to conquer parts of Iraq and Syria, are too high compared to what Boko Haram invested for an almost equal prize.
The Al Shabaab case
Even Al Shabaab controlled most of Somalia, until a combined Africa Union force, AMISOM, bankrolled by the UN and NATO started to slowly roll them back from the end of 2007.
It will not have been lost on the militants that no single state in Africa, relying on only its resources, would have bloodied it. But even with AMISOM - with contingent armies from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia - has not quite defeated it yet.
So Boko Haram is proving that Africa is the most cost effective place to launch a global jihad. And, unlike the Middle East, the middle area of – what IS calls the “Land of Habasha” and the lower region of its “Maghreb zone” can provide food and water, for its soldiers.
Today, starting a training camp in Libya might seem “small”. Like in Nigeria, in another year, something big could have come out of it.
The IS caliphate map has three regions: Maghreb, the Land of Alkinana, and the Land of Habasha. It would take a lot for it to try and conquer the African countries in these regions individually. But then it seems the jihadists have figured that out too.
The domino effect
That is where the increased attacks in Nigeria, Libya, Egypt and Kenya have a few things in common. Nigeria is the most populous nation on the continent, and has its largest economy – and like Libya, Egypt and Kenya – is a coastal state. Kenya is the largest economy on the east coast of the continent. Egypt is the most populous nation in the north and the richest economy.
Libya is rich, and if you can’t get Algeria, it has the next largest landmass. And unlike Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, it is a little further off mainland Western Europe, meaning that whatever evil schemes someone gets up to there will be more off the radar in Europe, and so will experience less of a push-back.
If you want to take most of West Africa, all you have to do is to collapse Nigeria. And if you then take Libya too, you can squeeze the nations of Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso in between to death, and put yourself at the border of Tunisia and Algeria.
Ethiopia will be the biggest stumbling block in the east to the carving of a caliphate. They are a hardy people, and at over 90 million Africa’s second largest population – just a little bigger than Egypt. And that is why Egypt is important.
If it falls, it allows for an easy march in what will be highly sympathetic Sudan, and then into both South Sudan and Ethiopia. And because the historical Ethiopian enemy Somalia will be too eager to join in a war against Ethiopia, it will be surrounded on all its borders and easier to overcome—in theory, if nothing else.
Kenya is the gate
And that is where Kenya fits in. Taking Kenya places you on Ethiopia’s southern border. And countries like Uganda will fall like dominoes with their vital trading link through Kenya cut off.
IS has been wise to leave the rest of Africa out of its scheme. For starters, the number of Muslims in these countries is relatively small. But second, a bridge of countries that cuts across the continent, from Angola, Zimbabwe, to Mozambique, protects the lower middle of Africa.
These countries have a history of resistance against European colonialists, and have once-battle hardened armies that can still brush the rust off and form a formidable front. Other countries like Ethiopia and Uganda too have the same tradition, but they are isolated and cannot form a long networked defence line.
So, bring down Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, and Kenya and Africa is yours. It is audacious and sounds like fantasy…but it is hugely tempting, and the fruits from doing that will be massive for the jihadists. Mad and murderous they might be, but stupid they are not.