Jihad’s African frontier

by Talmiz Ahmad

April 14 marked the first anniversary of the abduction of over 200 girls from a small school in a remote corner of Nigeria by a shadowy jihadi organisation, Boko Haram. In the last two years, jihadis have attacked several high-profile targets in the Horn of Africa and across North Africa and the Sahel. Jihad is now a pervasive presence in Africa.

The origins of the “Africanisation” of jihad go back to Algeria where, from the early 1990s, Al Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan fought in the ongoing civil war. From this low-key presence, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emerged in 2007, and has Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia as its operational space. A breakaway group, Al Mourabitoun, headed by the veteran of Afghanistan and the Algerian civil war, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is active in the Sahel, covering southern Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Mali.

Northern Mali, with its forbidding terrain, porous borders and absence of governance, has emerged as the new regional base for jihad, bringing together a loose coalition of diverse jihadi groups, where new fighters are recruited, weaponry is stocked, training is provided, personnel are shared and operations are coordinated. Jihad in the Sahel is closely linked with criminal activity, including smuggling of arms, drugs and other contraband. Now, hostage-taking has become big business, with millions of dollars being collected as ransom for Westerners kidnapped in the region.

The Horn of Africa has also seen the emergence and consolidation of jihad in the shape of Al Shebab in Somalia, which from 2006 led the fight against “foreign invasion” and then embarked on a series of deadly attacks in Somalia and neighbouring countries, including the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 and the Garissa University massacre in Kenya in April this year. Al Shebab merged with Al Qaeda in 2012.

Boko Haram is the new jihadi outfit in northern Nigeria. From 2009, it has been headed by Abu Bakr Shekau who has led the movement in a campaign of violence and intimidation, including massacres, beheadings, bombings and suicide attacks, culminating in the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls last year. Boko Haram now controls over 20,000 sq km of Nigerian territory in the north, and is well-financed through bank robberies, ransom payments, smuggling and theft of weapons across the region.

In March this year, Shekau swore an oath of allegiance to the “Caliph of the Muslims” and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

The most striking aspect about jihad in Africa is the rapid territorial spread of the jihadi groups over the last 10 years and the increasing interactions between them: while consolidated in specific territorial spaces, the groups see great advantage in consultation, cooperation and even operational coordination with each other, with their capabilities being bolstered by advice from Al Qaeda veterans and recently the ISIS.

Foreign military intervention has aggravated the problem. The West-led assault on the Gaddafi regime in 2011 unleashed thousands of jihadi fighters who, flush with weaponry and jihadi zeal, fanned across the Sahel. Later, French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 led to increased reprisal attacks against French targets and nationals who number 30,000 in West Africa, besides radicalising North African-origin expatriates in France itself. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia has made it a legitimate target for Al Shebab.

But there is a more serious aspect of the scenario. Boko Haram, with its oath of allegiance to the ISIS, has given a specific territorial definition to the nascent caliphate, while encouraging the various jihadi groups to become part of one fraternity. The ISIS already attracts numerous militants from North Africa, and has recently launched an attack in Libya; in due course, operational cooperation between African jihadis and the ISIS is a possibility. These fraternal links could in time even blur the divide between Al Qaeda and the ISIS, and promote the coalescing of disparate jihadi elements into a global Caliphate that embraces radical elements from Pakistan to Afghanistan, across West Asia and all of northern Africa, posing the most serious security challenge for the region and the international community.

The proliferation of jihad in Africa is the result of the coming together of diverse factors, including the breakdown of state order in Somalia and Libya, the ability of highly motivated elements to mobilise local grievances into hardcore militia, and, above all, the near-total absence of state authority in large parts of Africa which has created a pervasive socio-economic malaise characterised by denial of security, education, health and employment opportunities to the vast majority of people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

India has invested heavily in the development and modernisation of Africa over the last several decades. It sees the continent as a long-term energy and economic partner, and a political ally in shaping a new global order in which Asia and Africa would emerge as significant players in this century. Thus, India has to be actively engaged in addressing the challenge of jihad not only because it jeopardises progress in Africa but also because the coalescing of jihadi forces poses a direct threat to India as well.

Recognising that there is no quick-fix military solution to the scourge of jihad, India will have to participate in the ongoing projects for socio-economic and political development in Sub-Saharan Africa, expanding regional infrastructure and providing social services which are almost entirely missing in the region. India could also consider entering into the development of the region’s security capabilities — both police and military — long dominated by Western countries. But, ultimately, the long-term solution lies in establishing a credible political order in the region. The slow but certain progress in this direction in the last few years, manifested most recently in the successful elections in Nigeria, suggests that there is room for optimism here.

The road of reform and development will be long and arduous, but the challenge of jihad is both dangerous and daunting.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat


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