The very rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is bringing back the nightmarish thought that global jihadi terrorist groups will again find a haven where they can reorganize and thrive. It also draws attention to Africa, where jihadi groups have been on the rise. Twenty years after September 11, they are expending their war of terror in large portions of the continent. A scenario where a country such as Mali — with its corruption, lack of political cohesion, and weak armed forces — would be overwhelmed by jihadi groups is realistic: it nearly happened in 2013. Reflecting on the lessons of Afghanistan for Africa is urgent, as Western nations become extremely reluctant to increase their engagement in fighting these insurgencies after the Afghanistan fiasco.
Terrorism linked to radical Islamist movements has decreased since 2014 when it had reached a record year, both in terms of number of incidents and deaths. Terrorism outside of countries experiencing a jihadi insurgency has declined even more sharply, suggesting that the capacity of many groups to conduct attacks against civilians outside of their areas of day-to-day operations has been seriously curtailed. The Global Terrorism Index, which measures terrorist incidents around the world, shows that deaths linked to terrorist attacks declined by 59% between 2014 and 2019 — to a total of 13,826 — with most of them connected to countries with jihadi insurrections. However, in many places across Africa, deaths have risen dramatically.
Violent jihadi groups are thriving in Africa and in some cases expanding across borders. However, no states are at immediate risk of collapse as happened in Afghanistan. Islamist insurgencies in Africa have three main geographical areas of operation. One is Somalia, where a very old insurgency has for years created instability in bordering regions in Kenya and is now inspiring violent groups in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second is in the Sahel region of West Africa, with the border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso particularly affected, but also neighboring countries such as Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin. Last is the area around Lake Chad and northeast Nigeria, from where the conflict directly impacts northern Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. All these insurgencies exert a huge toll on the local population, which is the target of most of the terrorists’ attacks.
Despite massive efforts by European nations and the United States — with France and the United Kingdom on the front lines — and with full support from multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the development banks, jihadi insurrections have persisted and are even expanding. The U.S. has around 6,000 troops in Africa, mostly involved in the fight against terror groups. In the Sahel, France led two very large military operations. The first, known as Serval, stopped the advance of insurgents and avoided the total collapse of the Malian state through a coordinated attack of four powerful armed groups in 2013. It was followed by another operation, Barkhane, which is currently morphing into the multinational Takuba task force which, Paris hopes, will have much larger participation from other nations. France had up to 5,400 troops in the Sahel until President Emmanuel Macron’s recent decision to reduce its presence. In 2007, the African Union launched, on the request of the U.N. Security Council, its Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) with the involvement of 11 African nations and roughly 20,000 personnel deployed in the field as well as important financial and technical backing from Western nations. Additionally, the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) has been present in Mali since 2013 with a staff of 18,000, leading what has become the deadliest of all ongoing U.N. peacekeeping operations.
The reasons for these insurrections are complex, and are typically rooted in local grievances, competition for local resources (in particular land for grazing), poor governance, and the lack of capacity by governments to deliver services and provide economic opportunities to their population, especially in peripheral areas. Many of the more structured jihadi movements, as in Afghanistan, have started during civil wars. Al-Shabab in Somalia started as an affiliate to the Islamic Courts Union that emerged to bring some order at the end of a devastating civil war that started in 1991. In Mali, a number of jihadi organizations such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and the Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) were set up or strengthened considerably at the time of the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in 2012. Also contributing to jihadi insurrections is the quest for a global identity and the search for purpose among marginalized and frustrated youth, amidst a collapse of their traditional family structures. In that context, proselytism by Salafist religious groups, often financed by foundations based in Saudi Arabia, contributes to spreading divisive messages among the young population.
Some of the conflicts in which jihadi movements are involved have been brewing for generations and are often rooted in a history of violence at the communal level. In order to gain the support of the local youth, many jihadi groups tend to use specific ethnic grievances to their advantage. Boko Haram in Nigeria started recruiting among Kanuri youth, which had accumulated many grievances against the Nigerian state and felt that their region, Borno, had been largely marginalized by the government. More recently, the Macina Liberation Front, or Katiba Macina, has emerged in central Mali under the leadership of a Fulani preacher, Amadou Koufa. Katiba Macina managed to attract into its ranks many young Fulani who feel frustrated after years of accumulated grievances towards the government and other groups, notably around access to pasture, theft of cattle, and widespread marginalization. These insurrections often present themselves as franchises of global jihadi movements such the Islamic State group and al-Qaida to bolster their image; however, today, in most cases they have very weak linkages to these movements and do not seem to receive financial or military support at any meaningful level. These groups also often splinter and their more able commandants have been killed over the years in military operations or infighting. However, this has not really reduced their lethality.
Local insurrections in Africa do not have today the capacity to act globally but they have a dramatic direct impact on the well-being of the civilian population. It is estimated that the Boko Haram insurrection has cost 30,000 lives since 2009 and has forcibly displaced three million people. In Burkina Faso alone, casualties surged from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019, the number of displaced persons rose tenfold to about 500,000, and an additional 25,000 sought refuge in other countries, according to the U.N. Continued insurrection undermines the credibility of governments and creates tensions among local populations while reinforcing existing conflicts. Mali, a country that had achieved impressive progress on democracy before the 2012 war in its north, has experienced three military coups in the last eight years, all linked to a sense that the government is not able to effectively address these insurrections. However, if Western nations start seriously cutting their support to governments, insurrectionists could take control of large territories, more effectively connect with global movements, and become a global threat. For example, the Biden administration has recently reduced its support to the Somalian army fighting al-Shabab and according to officers in the field it has already translated into some territorial gains by the jihadi group.
Many lessons can be drawn from Afghanistan, and countries like France are starting to change strategies. Now we know that simply pulling the plug on security efforts can be disastrous, that development aid tightly controlled by Western governments tends to increase corruption and undermine local institutions, that ignoring the type of local governance mechanisms that have been there for centuries because we do not like or understand them backfires, and that pushing aside local actors we do not like only delays crisis. Hopefully the United States and its allies will be able to reflect on some of these lessons and apply them as they approach their fights against jihadi insurrections in Africa. France is already trying to adjust its strategy in the Sahel. One lesson is clear for Western nations: just moving out does not resolve the problems.