Islamic extremist groups pose growing threat in Africa
ISLAMIC militants have been expanding their operations in Africa, creating an arc of instability stretching from Mauritania to Somalia.
The countries most affected – Mali, Nigeria and Somalia – share common denominators: ethnic or religious divisions and extreme poverty.
All three countries are strategically relevant. Mali is a central trafficking route. Somalia has access to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer and has the continent’s biggest proven natural gas reserves.
Security experts say the Sahel, an area of arid land which stretches from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic coast in the west, has become a centre of gravity for jihadists and organised crime.
The focus has been on Mali in the heart of the Sahel in recent months where French troops have retaken large areas in the north from Islamic extremists.
The militants had moved into northern Mali on the back of a nationalist uprising by Tuareg rebels in January 2012. The Tuareg rebellion, led by the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad), came after a military coup in the capital, Bamako, in the south of the country. This left a power vacuum in the north.
The rebellion was initially supported by the Islamic group, Ansar Dine. Four more Islamic groups now operate in the region: AQIM, MOJWA, al-Muwaqun Bi-Dima, and the most recent and more moderate Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA).
The Tuareg rebels have been marginalised since April by Islamist movements seeking a united theocratic Malian state.
AQIM, MOJWA and al-Muwaqun Bi-Dima all impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the territories they control. They are also heavily engaged in criminal activities.
AQIM in particular provides logistical support and transport along the drug smuggling routes of the Sahel where networks from East and West Africa converge.
Another important source of funding for the groups is the kidnap of foreign nationals for ransom. More than 50 westerners have been kidnapped by AQIM since 2003.
AQIM took advantage of the power vacuum and regional divisions to extend its power in northern Mali. But the group does not enjoy widespread support among the population.
AQIM is the militant group with greatest regional – and international – reach. Its criminal activities have made it al-Qaeda`s richest branch. It is also linked to a complex network of affiliates and allies operating from Nigeria to Somalia.
One of these affiliates is al-Shabaab which operates in Somalia in East Africa. The upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism took hold in Somalia because it has been a failed state for ten years.
After 2008, al-Shabaab aligned itself with al-Qaeda which gave it money and training. In 2011, a successful AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) campaign forced the group to retreat from most towns, including the capital, Mogadishu.
Some members of al-Shabaab, rather than overthrowing local regimes, want to prioritise the fight against the ‘far enemy’, namely the West, particularly the US and some European countries.
They want to become integrated into the global jihad movement. Al-Shabaab is estimated to have between 7,000 and 9,000 members.
Nigeria is considered by many as one of Africa`s new powers with growing demographic, economic and military weight on the continent.
But ethno-religious divisions, unequal regional development and poverty - mainly in the north east - are a major source of instability for other radical groups such as Boko Haram to exploit.
Boko Haram, which translated means ‘Western education is a sin’, caught the world’s attention in 2009 after it launched a violent campaign against Nigerian security forces.
Its main goal is to replace President Goodluck Jonathan`s regime with a pure Islamic State and to expel Christian communities from northern Nigeria.
By the end of 2012 Boko Haram was active in 14 of the country`s 36 states.
The group is focussed on defeating the secular government. It does not seem capable - or interested - in attacking Western targets.
Members of Boko Haram have recently received training and funds from AQIM in Mali.
Another Islamist terrorist group operating in Nigeria is Ansaru.
This group was created in early 2012 and its main goal is ‘to reclaim the lost dignity of Muslims of Black Africa’ and create an Islamic caliphate from Niger to Cameroon and northern Nigeria.
Ansaru focusses its attacks on foreign nationals and foreign interests.
Most groups operating in North Africa still present a major challenge for African and global security.