Terrorists' guns and bombs are slowly changing Africa's way of life—is the age of innocence over?

Militarisation of American foreign policy attracting hordes to militant causes, and why is the often-maligned election box could save us

FOR the last decade or so, the swanky hotels sprouting all over African capitals have been considered a sign of growing affluence on the continent, providing a setting for big deals targeting either an increasingly spendthrift middle class or its plentiful resources.

Now they risk being seen as representative of what seems set to be the continent’s top challenge—security, the response to which risks rolling back both the economic and democratic gains of the last two decades.

Metal detectors and body searches were already mainstream in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, even in shops and churches, but for a number of countries, it is a new phenomenon that could well be emblematic of how quickly Africa’s attention is turning from prosperity to self-preservation, the innocence shed by transnational terror groups racing to expand their operational spheres.

The militants are here

From Accra to Abidjan, capitals not recognised as targets for militants, heavily armed security officers are now increasingly visible, scouring anything within sight for potential targets.

“This situation where we are searched before entering hotels is new to me and Ghanaians,” Dotse Mortoo, a 38-year old construction engineer said at Accra’s prestigious Kempinski Hotel. “We could be at risk more than we think with what we are seeing nearby.” 

Mortoo was referring to the  January 15 attack in Burkina Faso, where more than a dozen nationalities were among the 30 people killed when three assailants attacked an eatery and a high-profile hotel in the capital Ouagadougou.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed the attack, the assailants identified as hailing from northern neighbour Mali. The group had in November attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, again slaughtering dozens.

The two hotels are the kind of setting preferred by foreign visitors, from diplomats and expats to businessmen, executives and aviation crews, a common sight as the African economy took off on the back of a commodities super cycle that is now gasping for breath.

Burkina Faso was not the most obvious target—while its 1,325-kilometre border with fragile Mali left it exposed, most of the fissures had been on the other side.

Cost of Al-Qaeda’s ISIS envy

However, the weekend strike at its very heart lends credence to the fear that franchise holder Al-Qaeda, for months overshadowed by the Islamic State, is revitalising its operations as it seeks to rebuild a global brand that competes with its rival, which it spawned

A day earlier, Al-Qaeda-allied militants struck at a Somalia military base manned by Kenyan soldiers, in a massacre whose exact death toll remains unknown. The militants claimed they took more than 100 lives in the dawn attack, while the Kenyan army has only said a “company size” —military structure-speak for a group of anywhere between 80-250 soldiers—was attacked. 

Already active in Mali, Niger, Mauritania (countries that have all suffered military coups since 2008) and Algeria, Al-Qaeda’s seeming expansion southwards leaves many unlikely countries sweating on the risk they could be next, victims of either geography, a weak centre or uncertain economies.

Algeria’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who heads Al-Murabitoun that was behind the Ouagadougou, as is former military commander of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. (Photo/AFP).

Hedged on all three sides by countries that are battling extremists, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast could find themselves caught up in an energy-sapping battle. Ivory Coast had to in July  scramble forces to its northern border with Burkina Faso following an attack there by militants, and while the focus of Francophone Africa’s largest economy has been on its increasingly solid post-conflict recovery, Abidjan is already finding itself drawn into the regional militancy threat.   

On Wednesday, authorities there asked the UN mission to carry out a joint terror attack response exercise, the first time this has been done in the country, a day after France warned it and Senegal that militants may be planning attacks on their main cities. Senegal, among Africa’s most stable democracies, also last month arrested suspected militants.

But the rejuvenated and expanding Al-Qaeda then runs into a Boko Haram problem in Nigeria, a country in which it also has cells. The militants, who also operate in northern Cameroon and Chad, in March pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS); in preceding years it had earlier worked with Al-Qaeda according to the US State Department. 

There remains much debate over just how strong Boko Haram’s links to the Syria-headquartered Islamic State are, with arguments that despite also seeking a caliphate, the Nigerian militants do not view themselves as anything other than a regional outfit.

Boko Haram may have signed up in anticipation of much-needed IS resources as it came under intense pressure from the Nigerian military, which it has so far withstood despite a change in government. But the IS now also  has operations in Egypt, Algeria and Libya, countries which in turn encircle the Al-Qaeda operation in West Africa, and which are themselves also bases for their rivals. It is a jihadi-Salafism terror constellation resembling the interlocking but multi-colour symbol of the Olympic Games.

Their expanding, if competing, interests suggest a bigger collision could feasibly happen, such as in Syria where in addition to other foes they also battle each other. It is a departure from recent analyses, where IS has been seen as the post-Al-Qaeda threat. And while IS is more organised, including in its bold attempts at state building, and Al-Qaeda is sometimes described more as a syndicate of groups for convenience, the two outfits are united in their use of terror as a mobilising strategy.

The US factor in Africa

On the continent, they are currently spread across a belt that runs from east and north Africa to the west coast—a combined operation that is parallel to a “trench” of American military outposts that range anywhere from camps and compounds to installations— a staggering US operation that  we highlighted in October.

Analysts have for years  drawn correlations, some successfully so, between American military interests and the growth of terror outfits, especially in the Middle East but also in Africa.

It is a contested narrative because while there is correlation, causation has not always been as clear. However,  the data does show that pre-AFRICOM (the US military command for the continent based in Germany), there were few transnational actors, if any, outside of the collapsed Somali state.

The Global Terrorism Database, run by the University of Maryland, shows a spike in terror incidents in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa starting from 2007. The US state department own data also show that of then global terrorist acts between 1990 and 2004, only 6% took place in Africa.


Terror incidents in Africa (green) and Middle East (red). SOURCE: GTI)

The US was already the unwitting architect of the Al-Qaeda—and a smattering of other African terrorist groups— with its plans during the Cold War to counter Soviet ambitions in Central Asia that hatched radicalised and orphaned fighters, and now the local vacuum created by its response to 9/11 that led to the birth of the Islamic State. 

Now its growing military interests in Africa have brought new high-value targets for jihadists closer.

However, as in the West where “soft” targets where people live have tended to bear the brunt of terrorists’ guns and bombs (for example twice in Paris last year) as they seek to shut down normal life there, attacks in Africa seem to be building up along the same pattern.

America’s Africa footprint

Research shows the US military now has more than 60 identifiable army sites in at least 35 countries in Africa, from major camps such as Djibouti’s Lemmonier to near invisible lone compounds and fuel bunkers. Many have only been established in the last seven years, when AFRICOM became an independent command, but a significant number also predated the Stuttgart, Germany-headquartered operation.

Because of this network, where a site is only a few hours out from another, giving it an unrivalled footprint on the continent, US Special Ops provided intelligence during the Burkina Faso anti-terror operation.

The existing web could get even thicker. In December, the US Pentagon  highlighted a plan for more military bases, including in Africa, in an approach aimed at amalgamating existing sites into a a more ordered system.

While at pains to describe the proposal are early stage, this will likely further increase American military presence on the continent, rallying more militants to an already-attractive cause. Thus the very actions taken to counter terrorism, actually also provide fuel for more terrorism.


A map of US military operations in Africa. www.tomdispatch.com

The modus operandi of jihadist militants remains broadly similar: to show Muslim youth that there is no alternative to terrorism. Their calculation is that violence carried out in the name of Islam stokes public fear and anti-Muslim sentiment, leading to irrational and panicked national and communal reactions that paint the religion as a group threat; US presidential aspirant Donald Trump is among those exploiting this fear.

Spooked populations tend to put governments under pressure, causing them to overreach as is happening in some countries in Europe, and in West Africa and the Maghreb where governments are banning Muslim women from wearing veils, thus creating a siege mentality among Muslims that breeds a rich recruitment ground for would-be terrorists.   

Anger of the marginalised

Disenfranchisement and marginalisation further adds to this resentment—the Islamic State has partly been so successful in Syria and Iraq because it exploited growing Sunni anger about being deliberately left out of state affairs.  

Not being able to vote, or in the case of third-term bids knowing your vote does not exactly count—make African youth easy fodder for recruiters, as acknowledged by American Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who has referred to the need to watch Africa’s near-20 elections this year carefully.

Additional grouse with US presence has been its support for regimes that offer little outlet for expression. In Djibouti, which hosts the crown jewel of the US army operations in Africa, president Ismael Omar Guelleh is set to extend his 17-year rule of the nation in elections in April, despite at his swearing in 2011 having said he was taking his oath of office for the “third and final time”.

Radicalised Africans tend to exacerbate the problem on the continent of governments that have lost the ability to oversee polities, especially in vast ungovernable spaces, or lack the resources to fight back. Consider that by 2050, Nigeria is expected to have a Muslim majority and the scale of the threat becomes more apparent.

The result is usually the tightening of the state’s control over the population, including through clamping down on individual freedoms, and creating a vicious cycle of disgruntlement.

It is clear that despite a slew of continental deals, including with the West, to counter terrorism the region is ill-prepared for such a fluid battle.

African citizens are now urged to accept the new “normal” of terrorism.

And with high poverty levels, terrorism threats become just another risk to many Africans—and an attractive one for some given the sort of big pay packets militant fighters are paid.

But the biggest long-term danger is that terrorism hurts domestic ways of enlarging the national cake: resources are diverted and spent in the dark, national productivity hurt, risk profiles of economies heightened, inequalities heightened—one presidential family is now looking to build a gated community that would be the largest in the country. 

It is a complex battle but which Africa can fight both at the local and national level. The Ivory Coast government has reportedly asked religious leaders and Muslim organisations to notify police about newcomers in their communities and of any suspicious behaviour.

It is a community-level approach that has been tried in other countries to varying results—in Ethiopia it has broadly worked, while in Kenya it remains stillborn. 

But the national level remains the better bet—hold regular, and credible, elections that strengthen faith in the ability of institutions to create space and opportunities for the continent’s 1.1 billion people. 

It is not a magic bullet by any chance, but it is much better than leaving the continent’s survival in external hands—and pockets—and cramping its hard-won spaces, where even previously simple joys like traipsing round to the kiosk become like Russian Roulette.  


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