The forgotten front in the War on Terror

Image: Creative Commons


From the Maghreb to Mombasa, Islamic terrorism is now rife in much of Africa. Corruption, poverty and fragile political institutions are but some of the problems which need to be overcome if this battle is to be won. Unfortunately for the peoples of Africa, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has drawn the world’s attention to the Middle East and away from Africa. This pivot away from Africa will have disastrous consequences not just for the region, but for the world.


The main threat to Kenya is al-Shabaab - a Somali-based terrorist group affiliated with al-Qa’ida. Al-Shabaab has carried out numerous atrocities in the region, most notably the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and the recent attack on Garissa University. The Westgate attack killed 67 Kenyan and non-Kenyan nationals. It captured the attention of the world’s media, albeit briefly. The Kenyan battle with al-Shabaab is failing. Recent anti-terror legislation, rather than being used to combat terrorism, has been used to undermine civil liberties in the country. This has served to further exacerbate political and religious divisions within Kenya, and has driven more people towards extremism. The rise of al-Shabaab has caused serious problems for Kenya’s tourism industry, one of the nation’s largest employers. As tourists avoid Kenya’s beaches, unemployment has risen. It is feared that this will be exploited by al-Shabaab, who prey on the unemployed and marginalised for recruits. Kenya is thus trapped in a destructive cycle of violent terror and economic stagnation.


Moving from East Africa to West Africa, Nigeria is likewise engaged in a struggle for its survival with Islamic militants. The threat to Nigeria comes from “Boko Haram” – a Nigeria-based group in the north east of the country that seeks to overthrow the current Nigerian government and replace it with a regime modelled on the Islamic State in the Middle-East. Boko Haram continues to conduct near-daily attacks against a wide range of targets, including Christians, Nigerian security and police forces, the media, schools, politicians, and Muslims perceived to be collaborators. Boko Haram has expanded its activity into neighbouring countries and has claimed responsibility for attacks in Cameroon. The organisation made world headlines with the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Borno State in April 2014. Despite some help from the international community, Nigeria continues to try, with limited success, to oust the group from north-east Nigeria. The severity of the terrorism threat posed by Boko Haram led to presidential elections being postponed in the interest of national security. With recent reports from Nigeria suggesting that the nation is bankrupt, the struggle against the group looks to be at a stalemate. Nigeria is vital to the continent as it is one of the largest and most developed countries. In addition, Nigeria plays a central role in peace keeping operations within Africa. Boko Haram is not solely a Nigerian problem, but a global problem.


Similarly, Mali faces collapse as it struggles to fend of Islamic groups such as Al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) who seek to establish an Islamic state in the region. The siege at the Amenas gas plant in Algeria drew attention to this region and the threat faced by the Mali government. The response from the international community to Amenas was swift and French military intervention in its former colony served to fight back and contain the threat posed by Islamic extremism. However, like all foreign military involvement, French intervention has inevitably stoked the perceived global struggle with the West and, as a result, driven more individuals to fight for the militant Islamic cause.


If the world earnestly seeks to prevent terrorist atrocities it must not turn its back on Africa. Military intervention, whilst initially solving the problem, in the long term only serves to aid groups hostile to the West. Only through strengthening ties with the region and seeking to address its political, economic and social problems can terrorism be defeated and Africa begin to recover from the devastation it has caused. African governments must lead the efforts against terrorism on the continent but they must not do so alone. The West abandon Africa they at their peril. The failure to combat African terrorism will allow these groups a safe haven to stage attacks further afield. If African and Western lives are to be saved, the world must act now.


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