Violence attributed to Islamist groups has dramatically increased in sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade, and continues to infect new venues where it has been absent. In the recent attacks on Palma in northern Mozambique, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is claiming responsibility. In other instances, say, in the Sahel and the Horn, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups make the claim.
Some analysts see a Faustian bargain between IS or al-Qaeda and insurgencies that are driven by local grievances associated with corrupt governments that have marginalized those far from the national capital. The essence of the bargain is that IS and al-Qaeda are able to demonstrate their prowess despite reverses in the Middle East—valuable for recruitment and fundraising. For locally based insurgencies, ties, no matter how tenuous, enhance their prestige and win international publicity.
The extent to which these bargains translate into tactical, strategic, or financial partnerships with IS or al-Qaeda varies from one insurrection to another. However, for both sides of the bargain, incentives are to exaggerate its importance. Insofar as Western policy makers associate IS and al-Qaeda with the insurrection, the prestige and therefore the power of both grows. However, perceiving local insurgencies as primarily an aspect of international terrorism, rather than as a response to local grievances, can lead to policy mistakes recalling some made in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. After all, IS and al-Qaeda are core Western security concerns, while local African insurgencies are not.
This post by John Campbell was published by the Council on Foreign Relations and is licensed under Creative Commons.