- - Thursday, January 9, 2020

Earlier this month, a U.S. military service member and two Defense Department contractors were killed in an attack by al-Shabaab terrorists against a Kenyan airfield used to provide counterterrorism support to country partners in East Africa. This followed an al-Shabaab attack at the end of December 2019 that killed some 80 people in a car bomb attack in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

In West Africa, in early November 2019, terrorists from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) attacked a military post in Mali, killing 53 soldiers and a civilian. In October 2017, ISGS forces ambushed a patrol of Nigerian and U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger, killing five Nigerians and four U.S. soldiers, in addition to wounding several others. This ambush sparked a political debate in the United States over the strategic benefit of the American counter-terrorism presence in Africa. 

This was especially concerning because jihadi terrorist groups in Africa, including the powerful Boko Haram in Nigeria, are affiliated either with al Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS), the primary transnational jihadist groups, which seek to establish a Muslim caliphate around the world. A U.S. withdrawal would weaken the global battle against these jihadi groups in the geopolitically significant African continent.

These issues are discussed in Stig Jarle Hansen’s extensively detailed “Horn Sahel and Rift: Fault-Lines of the African Jihad.” The author, a Norwegian academic, has conducted numerous field studies in Africa on jihadi terrorist groups, including writing a book about al-Shabaab, so he is well positioned to explain these issues.  

As Mr. Hansen explains, despite more than 30 years of Western efforts to counter the spread of jihadi terrorist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, which intensified in the early 1990s when al Qaeda established its base in Sudan (prior to moving to Afghanistan), for a variety of factors these jihadi groups not only continue to operate but are gaining strength in the African continent. 

Mr. Hansen examines how al Qaeda’s presence in Sudan helped to lay the basis for the spread of jihadism in the continent, jihadi terrorist groups in Algeria, which expanded into Chad and Mali, how several jihadi groups in Mali merged to form the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Nigerian Boko Haram, the Somalian al-Shabaab, and other groups.

He points out that some of these groups’ initial success was due to the patronage of their local presence by supporting governments. This was the case with the Sudanese government’s support of the Saudi Arabia-originated al Qaeda, until Osama bin Laden and his group proved to be a liability when their terrorist attacks, especially against the United States, backfired against Sudan, leading to their being pressured to leave the country in 1996 for Afghanistan, where they were welcomed by the Taliban government. 

In other African countries, these jihadi groups were indigenous, with some beginning as Islamist militants within their own communities. This enabled them to combine their local tribal grievances with jihadism to exploit their countries’ weak, ineffectual and corrupt governments, especially their lack of control over their territories, to gain various degrees of territorial control in the regions where they operated.

Some of their leaders also cemented their presence by forcibly marrying the daughters of local tribal elders. This practice also applied to local men, with Mr. Hansen writing that the local villagers’ were “forced to integrate with the jihadists … by getting their sons to join in order to appease the group and get them on side.”

In another measure, Boko Haram, in particular, became notorious for its mass kidnapping of 278 Nigerian girls in April 2014, with many of them, who suffered abuse from their captors, later released due to an international outcry.

To finance their activities, these groups also engage in banditry. Like other groups, Boko Haram, the author writes, “plundered the local villages for livestock and supplies, which became a valuable source of income for the low-cost insurgency group.”

The threats presented by these jihadi groups aren’t merely their violent and destructive attacks against government forces and civilians, but their anti-modernism. As Mr. Hansen explains, they oppose the notions of European Enlightenment, Western knowledge, social change (particularly its “foreign habits”), which they regard as sinful. They view Islam as an “ummah” — a physical and virtual nation — that is under incessant attack from its enemies which they are obligated to defend against.

With African countries urgently needing to modernize their societies, the jihadist groups’ reactionary and violent opposition to such societal improvement represents an additional layer of threat to the moderate segments in their societies.

With the African jihadist terrorist groups succeeding in “taking advantage of local grievances, reinterpreting them in the light of the global jihad,” and exploiting their countries’ ungoverned territories in order to operate, Mr. Hansen concludes that they will continue to operate because of their governments’ inability to defeat them.

Whether the United States and Western countries such as France, which is also engaged in the fight, can succeed in helping the affected African countries to defeat these jihadists is still an unanswered question as this noteworthy book explains.

Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

• • •


By Stig Jarle Hansen

Hurst, $34.95, 320 pages

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