Although the United States continues to exert an aggressive counterterrorism campaign in the Middle East, the spread of Islamist ideology on the African continent has received comparatively little attention despite the numerous violent attacks perpetrated over the past several months.
Last week, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Counterterrorism held a hearing to examine the terrorist threat from groups across Africa and assess what more must be done do to protect the US homeland from attacks launched by these groups.
“In recent months, we have seen Africa-based Islamist terrorist groups perpetrate numerous acts of violence against innocent people,” subcommittee chairman Peter King (R-NY) said. “As Islamist jihadi groups extend their influence in Africa, they are increasingly calling for more attacks on US and Western interests, including attacks on the US homeland. As we fight ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, we cannot afford to ignore their allies and affiliates in Africa.”
Last year, the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram sparked outrage worldwide and the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign. Many of the girls were sold into slavery, prostitution, and forced marriages. Last week, news broke that the Nigerian military had rescued hundreds of girls from Boko Haram, but there is still no sign of the Chibok schoolgirls.
According to Amnesty International, at least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the start of 2014, and many have been forced into sexual slavery and trained to fight. Commenting on the report, Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said, “The evidence presented in this shocking report, one year after the horrific abduction of the Chibok girls, underlines the scale and depravity of Boko Haram’s methods.”
In February, Homeland Security Today reported that Boko Haram extended its reach with attacks in Chad, Cameroon and Niger. They also extended their reach in the virtual word with the establishment of their own Twitter feed in January, signaling that they have learned from other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda, the importance of social media as a mechanism for spreading propaganda and recruiting followers.
The kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls is not the only incident of recent terrorist violence in Africa. Over Easter, Kenyans mourned the nearly 150 people killed in an attack by Al Shabaab gunmen on a university campus. In February, Somalia-based Al Shabaab released a video detailing the group’s September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and called for Muslims living in the West to carry out similar attacks on Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., West Edmonton Mall in Canadaand the Oxford Street shopping area in London.
In addition to Boko Haram, ISIS and Al Shabaab, King said there are splinter groups and smaller sympathetic jihadist organizations in almost every North African nation, indicating that Africa is clearly ripe ground for terrorist recruiting activities.
“As like-minded Islamist groups join forces and conquer new territory in Africa, it is time the leaders of the United States treat every source of terrorism as the sobering threat it is—whether that source is in Syria or Somalia, in Mosul or Mozambique, in Tikrit or Tunis,” said King.
Two rival jihadist models in Africa
Although ISIS often gets the headlines, Al Qaeda is an equally formidable force on the African continent, and there’s little doubt both pose a threat to Western interests in Africa, according to Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Both groups are attempting to expand their international footprint—and they have been successful in recent months. Both Boko Haram and Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis have pledged allegiance to ISIS, which has helped ISIS gain footing in Africa. As part of its competition with ISIS, Al Qaeda has stepped up affiliation, establishing relationships with groups in the Caucasus, Tunisia and India.
In addition, the two groups have launched a number of successful high-profile attacks across the African continent in recent years. In February, ISIS released a propaganda video titled, “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” which showed the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by jihadists. And then in March, ISIS claimed responsibility for the massacre at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, which killed 20 people, many of whom were foreign tourists.
In addition to being behind the attack on Garissa University College in Kenya, groups linked to Al Qaeda also carried out the September 11, 2012 attack on the US Mission and annex in Benghazi and the raid on the US Embassy in Tunis three days later.
Still, there are differences between the two organizations. ISIS wants the world to see its international footprint, using online tools and social media to call and claim responsibility for attacks, recruit followers, and spread propaganda. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is more clandestine in nature and often masks the extent of its influence.
For example, in a report published in August 2012, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office concluded that Al Qaeda had a clandestine strategy for building up its presence inside Libya. Al Qaeda deliberately hides its presence in African countries, often using alternative names, such as Ansar al Sharia, to hide its designs.
Joscelyn says, “This simple tactic has led to some deep biases in the public reporting on jihadism in Africa and elsewhere. Namely, the extent of al Qaeda’s international network is consistently underestimated. And in some ways ISIS’ international presence has been overestimated.”
“This observation is not intended to downplay the seriousness of ISIS’ international expansion. ISIS’ “provinces” have grown dramatically in some key areas. But exposing al Qaeda’s clandestine strategy provides key context for understanding the unfolding story inside Africa,” Joscelyn added.
One of the dangers of ISIS’ expansion in Africa is the terrorist group’s efforts to not only gain local recruits, but to attract foreign fighters from around the world. For example, ISIS called for new recruits in West Africa when it announced its merger with Boko Haram.
“All Muslims, you should all come to your State, for we are calling on you to mobilize for jihad,” ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al Adnani said in March. “We incite you and call upon you to immigrate for jihad and to immigrate to your brothers in West Africa.”
According to Joscelyn, ISIS has attracted at least one American recruit to wage jihad in Africa. The FBI has alleged that Specialist Hasan R. Edmonds, a member of the Army National Guard in Illinois, intended to join ISIS in North Africa.
“I am fine being in Egypt, Sham, or Libya to be honest akhi [brother],” Edmonds said, according to the FBI. “I just want to answer the call.”
Al Qaeda continues to pose a threat on the continent as well. Al Qaeda has two official, regional branches in Africa: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab in Somalia. Senior Al Qaeda operatives within Al Shabaab’s ranks have planned attacks in the West. When one of these leaders, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was killed in 2011, authorities found plans for attacking London in Fazul’s possession.
There are also a number of other jihadist groups in Africa that are part of Al Qaeda’s international network including Ajnad Misr (Egypt), Ansar al Din (Mali), Ansar al Sharia Libya, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (which has been inactive of late), Ansaru (Nigeria), Al Mourabitoun (North Africa and Mali) and the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade (Tunisia), and Al Muhajiroun (the “Emigrants of East Africa”).
However, with thousands of foreign fighters under its banner, the momentum is on ISIS’ side, according to Daniel Byman, director of research, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. ISIS’ mastery of social media has proven effective in mobilizing “lone wolves” to attack in the West and luring new recruits to Syria.
Just recently, Homeland Security Today reported that a United Nations report found the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries.
While Byman states that “Who will emerge triumphant is not clear,” he believes the “Islamic State’s rise risks Al Qaeda’s demise.” In turn, the US should exploit this split to weaken the movement and decrease the threat to the US at home and abroad.
“The United States and its allies should try to exploit the fight between ISIS and Al Qaeda and, ideally, diminish them both,” Byman said. “The infighting goes against what either organization claims to want, and it diminishes the appeal of jihad if volunteers believe they will be fighting the jihadist down the block rather than the Asad regime, Americans, Shi’a, or other enemies.”
Byman added, “The Islamic State’s self-proclaimed mission—establishing and expanding a caliphate—is also a vulnerability. If it fails at this mission by losing territory, its luster will diminish.”
Ultimately, however, questions regarding the rivalries and links between the terrorist organizations should not obfuscate the important reality that these Islamist jihadists are all fighting for the same goal: establishment of a global caliphate.
“While there are important differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the two are at odds with one another in a variety of ways, they are both inherently anti- American and anti-Western,” Joscelyn said. “Thus, they constitute a threat to our interests everywhere their jihadists fight.”
Similarly, Homeland Security Today Editor In Chief Anthony Kimery has consistently reported that, “It doesn’t matter what a particular group calls itself, they’re all jihadists working toward the common goal of eliminating or subjugating Infidels and Apostates and imposing global sharia.”
US response to rising jihadist threat on the African continent
Time and time again, the US has made the mistake of underestimating the threat posed by Africa-based jihadists to US persons and interests at home and abroad, according to the testimony of Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center.
For example, the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism convened a hearing on Boko Haram in 2011 when the terrorist group was still obscure. Pham, who participated at that hearing, said other witnesses believed Boko Haram was simply a misunderstood social justice movement that should not be placed on the foreign terrorist organization list.
“There is a recurring trope that emerges time and again: terrorism in Africa generally gets short shrift and, when attention is focused on specific groups or situations that appear to be emerging challenges, the threat is either dismissed entirely or minimized—until tragedy strikes,” Pham said.
Since its establishment, US Africa Command’s (USAFRICOM) military and counterterrorism efforts have been hindered by lack of resources. Although the commanders of USAFRICOM have managed well with what they had, adequate resources will be essential to supporting intelligence in the region.
“Given the geopolitical, economic, and security stakes, the failure to invest more in institutions, personnel, training, and strategic focus is incredibly shortsighted,” Pham said.
Byman agreed, stating efforts to diminish the appeal and strength of both Al Qaeda and ISIS through intelligence-gathering and the strengthening of local regimes must be “properly resourced and bureaucratically prioritized.”
As the US deepens its relationship with Africa, an unwanted consequence will be an increased risk to the US homeland. With the strategic importance of the United States’ relationship with Africa, the answer is not to curtail engagement, but rather to devote adequate resources to securing against threats originating in Africa.
“The administration and the Congress deserve credit for efforts over the last few years to shift the narrative on Africa towards a greater focus on the extraordinary opportunities on the continent,” Pham said.
“However," Pham continued, "if this momentum is to be maintained and those opportunities grasped, the United States needs to redouble its own efforts and also work closely with its African partners to manage the challenges and overcome terrorism and other the threats to security which stand in the way to an incredibly promising future.”