Africa plagued by old and new spectres of Islamist terror spanning the continent

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Africa plagued by old and new spectres of Islamist terror spanning the continent

New Delhi: From the arid and trackless expanses of the sub-Saharan Sahel countries to the steamy rainforests of Congo and Uganda to the sprawling bushland of Mozambique on the Indian Ocean, Africa is facing a major threat of Islamist terrorism from an amorphous bunch of Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates.

While the prevalence of older terror groups, spanning west to east Africa from Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia, which frequently operate across international borders, is already worrisome, the new terror actors amplify the threat.

Three recent events related to the phenomenon bring out the scope of the issue.

In the landlocked west African nation of Burkina Faso, the Al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin claimed to have killed over 100 soldiers in an attack on their base near the Niger border on June 11 and seized their weapons and equipment.

In Mozambique in May, the IS-affiliated al-Shabab group – different from the similarly-named Somalian group – overran the town of Macomia in northern Cabo Delgado province, forcing officials and civilians to flee into the bush to save their lives. The rebels went on to hold the town for two days and indulged in a spree of looting, before fleeing.

Active since 2017 in the province, the outfit has killed hundreds of people, forced thousands to flee, burnt towns and villages, and most spectacularly, in July 2021, forced French energy giant Total to suspend its liquified natural gas project in the wake of an attack on Palma town.

Then, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), one of the deadliest among the several armed groups running riot in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, hacked and burnt alive over 40 students in a school in neighbouring Uganda – the bloodiest attack in the country since 1988 when it had left over 80 students dead in a similar attack.

The ADF, accused of killing thousands of civilians, had, in 2019, pledged allegiance to the IS, which claims responsibility for some of their actions and terms the outfit its “Central African Province” (ISCAP). While this may be a propaganda claim by both, UN experts found that the ADF is getting funding from the IS, as it seeks to expand further in the heart of Africa.

Yet, due to more high-profile conflict situations around the world – the Russia-Ukraine issue, the Gaza mayhem, and the tensions in the South China Sea – the alarming situation of Islamist terrorism expanding alarmingly in a vulnerable terrain doesn’t seem to have gained the necessary attention of most of the world.

The situation is further exacerbated by geopolitics, as several affected states, mostly in the military coup-prevalent Sahel region, turn away from the usual sources of support – the US and former colonial power France – to a more distant power, Russia, for aid.

The West is also blamed for indirect responsibility for the spread of Islamist terrorism in the Sahel following its 2011 intervention in Libya, which left Africa’s fourth-largest country in a civil war with large swathes of its territory ungoverned.

Military takeovers in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger were justified by their proponents on their civilian governments’ inability to deal effectively with the spreading of Islamist terror. The same reason was cited to seek the removal of the French troops from the area for their “ineffectual” counter-insurgency mission.

As France lost influence in several of its erstwhile northwest and west African colonies, Russia, first through the Wagner PMC, and now the government itself, filled the void.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who was nicknamed Russia’s Africa Corps for his regular trips to the region through the last few months of 2023 onwards, and then, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov himself, discussed security measures and stitched up deals.

The new partnership did notch some successes, especially the joint security operation in Mali in end-April, eliminating Islamic State in the Greater Sahara leader Abu Huzeifa ‘Higgo’, blamed for the 2017 attack on US-led forces in Niger, leaving four American and four Nigerien soldiers dead and causing the US to reduce its operations in the area.

Help from most regional alliances is not available or sustained. The three Sahel states announced withdrawals from the regional bloc ECOWAS after coup-related sanctions.

In Mozambique, the 16-member Southern African Development Community deployed a 2,000-strong force in 2021 but is not renewing its three-year mandate and will pull out by mid-July, though northern neighbour Tanzania will retain some troops and so will South Africa.

The affected African nations, beset by chronic issues, need urgent support to prevent the Islamist terrorists from gaining ground – far from their usual haunts in the volatile Middle East or barren Afghanistan – and again emerging as a global threat.


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