In Africa, the Jihadist Wave is Spreading like Wildfire

“My name is Olivier Dubois, I am French and I am a journalist. I was kidnapped in Gao on April 8th, 2021, by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM). I am calling on my family, my friends and the French authorities, asking them to do every possible to have me released.” This video lasts 21 seconds and appears to have been filmed in northern Mali. Dubois speaks calmly while being filmed in a tent dressed in traditional clothes. Many wondered why a black, French journalist, who had been resident in Mali for six years and therefore knew the place extremely well, could have been kidnapped so easily. The answer is a simple one: he was doing his job. The reporter had left on his own to go to Gao with the objective of meeting the GSIM’s lieutenant Abdallah Ag Albakaye. Other sources instead believe that Dubois wanted to try and meet Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of this terrorist organisation.

It appears that the organisation of this meeting had been managed by a local middle-man (immediately arrested by the French Army during Operation Barkhane), someone the French journalist had known for some time. Having flown out of Mali’s capital Bamako and landed in the northern city of Gao, Dubois left his hotel and got into a car he believed would take him to see the person he wanted to interview. Instead he never returned. After years of French citizens being kidnapped in Mali, Sophie Petronin (kidnapped for the second time in 2016 and released last year) had been the jihadists’ last French hostage, in a country in which a violent campaign had started in 2013 that among its various objectives also included targeting westerners. Kidnappings of this kind are exploited to earn money through ransoms and become famous through the international media.


Islamist escalation

For over twenty years, with the attack on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (224 people killed), Islamic terrorism has increased exponentially in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006 the qaedists belonging to al Shabaab launched their offensive in Somalia, increasing their radius of action a few years later, especially in Kenya and Uganda. In 2009, three years after being founded in Maiduguri, a city in north-eastern Nigeria, Boko Haram started to organise equally violent operations that for a number of years also involved neighbouring states such as Chad, Cameroon and Niger. In 2013, when France went to war on Mali territory, attacks in Mali and Niger also started. Early on in 2016, jihad spread to nearby Burkina Faso with attacks on the capital, Ouagadougou. In March that same year, jihadists surprised the international community by attacking the Grand Bassam tourist resort in the Cote d’Ivoire. During the same period Islamic militants had intensified their presence in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2017 the jihadist threat started to also involve northern Mozambique, in a conflict that deteriorated significantly last year. In 2019 Benin too was not spared.

The jihadist wave is spreading like wildfire, even affecting countries that for decades were considered happy islands in the turbulent region of the Sahel and East Africa. These are groups of Islamic radicals that, at times, even fight each other. They communicate constantly using the most modern means of communication such as social media and apps. Most of their followers arrive regularly from other parts of the world (westerners, Middle-Easterners or Asians). They share the objective of fighting the “infidels” even including Muslims described as “moderates”, and impose the harsh customs of sharia, Koranic Law. There are also quite frequent cases in which armed groups of Islamic origin swear loyalty to both al Qaeda and Islamic State. When they instead become divided between these two factions, then they easily find themselves competing with one another. They indiscriminately kill and kidnap men and women, adults and minors, civilians and authorities, locals and foreigners. They attack cities and villages, public and private buildings, sophisticated shopping malls and modest local markets. The films portraying their operations, whether suicide attacks or not, are one of the most effective means of radicalising and recruiting on-line thousands of potential jihadists. The basic reason for their success, however, remains the lack of development in the areas in which they operate, where unemployment is an endemic phenomenon and jihad is one of the few remunerated alternatives for the most ordinary citizens.

The last country in the Sahel to be entirely overwhelmed by the jihadist tsunami was Burkina Faso. The images of the coffins that carried to Spain the bodies of journalists David Beriain and Roberto Fraile, veterans of many wars outside Africa, are still fresh in our minds. Irish anti-poaching activist Rory Young (born in Zambia) and one of the forest rangers accompanying a convoy of about 40 people, were also killed. At least six people were injured. Headlines in the international media on April 27th, the day after the attack, stated that “these journalists were filming a documentary about Young and his battle against poachers in the south of Burkina Faso. They were ambushed, briefly held prisoners and then killed.” The Burkina authorities blamed the GSIM, a jihadist military organisation operating in the Maghreb and West Africa founded following the merger of other groups such as Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “The GSIM is Al Qaeda’s official branch in Mali – underline experts – Its main leaders, Ag Ghali, Hassan Al Ansari, Yahya Abu Hammam, Amadou Kouffa and Abu Abderaham al-Sanhaji, swore loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri in March 2017.”

The Italian Luca Tacchetto and Canada’s Edith Blais were kidnapped in that same area in December 2018. The country had imploded after former Burkinabé president, Blaise Compaoré, had fled in 2014. Jihadist groups had come from neighbouring states such as Mali and Niger, or had formed in an autochthon manner. The three attacks in Ouagadougou damaged parliament, hotels, restaurants, diplomatic buildings, and caused more than 60 deaths, mainly among foreigners as well as wounding hundreds. Since then, the jihadist wave has targeted the entire country from north to south and from east to west, while these armed groups have increased in both number and power.

In nearby Mali the situation started to become serious immediately after the 2012 coup d’état. The vast central—northern region had for some time been occupied by separatist groups, criminals and jihadists. This was a region the Malian government had always found difficult to govern from Bamako, a city that also experienced many attacks on hotels, clubs and tourist resorts. At least 190 soldiers, deployed with the UN mission in this country (Minusma) were killed in Islamic terrorist attacks. There are currently a number of foreigners from France, Colombia, Romania, Australia, the United States and Germany, as well as an unspecified number of local people,  who are currently hostages in the Sahel, especially in Mali.

In Niger, images from the helmet cameras of four US soldiers who were victims of the so-called ‘Tongo Tongo ambush’ in October 2017, which also killed and wounded Niger soldiers, are still very much alive in our minds. Last August, jihadists killed six French humanitarian aid workers and two local tourist guides in a safari park near the capital Niamey. But it is Nigerian soldiers who are the most numerous victims in the regions close to Mali’s borders, with dozens killed during a long series of attacks on their army bases. In the south-east of the country instead, for well over five years there have been continuous attacks by Boko Haram. The Nigerian militants operate in the Lake Chad area and have been responsible for the death and recruitment of civilians as well as having often overpowered Chad’s military forces, considered the best in the Sahel. In March 2020 Chad’s army lost 92 soldiers in a clash with Boko Haram in what was the most serious defeat in Chad’s recent military history.

In Nigeria, following Boko Haram’s division in 2016 into two equally battled hardened groups, Islamic militants led by Abubakar Shekau adopted a new strategy to expand their radius of action. Usually accustomed to attacking in the north-east as well as in the capital Abuja, in recent months they have entered agreements with local armed militias in the north-west so as to carry out mass kidnappings of students who attend primary, middle and high school as well as universities. “Over 700 students were kidnapped last December – reported the well-known Nigerian daily newspaper Premium Times –. Hundreds of schools in the federal north-western states have in fact been closed.” After hesitating for years, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, publicly confirmed his interest in facilitating moving Africom, the United States Africa Command, from the German city of Stuttgart to Nigeria. Buhari’s days seem to be numbered however, since more and more people, including high ranking members of the army, are applying pressure to ensure he stands down.

In nearby Benin, jihadists kidnapped two French tourists and killed a well-known Benin guide in the Pendjari Park two years ago. Although the tourists were rescued a few days later, two French special forces soldiers were killed during the operation carried out in Burkinabé territory while the Islamic militants were probably fleeing towards Mali. In February 2021, French intelligence was obliged to publicly declare that “the main jihadist leaders in the Sahel intend to expand in Benin and the Cote d’Ivoire.” However, news about Senegal is also worrying since during that same period local authorities there arrested four alleged members of a jihadist cell present in the town of Kidira, at the border with western Mali. It is an area in which the semi-nomad Peul ethnic group believes it has been alienated and discriminated by the state as has happened in other countries in which they live. Such dynamics are similar to a pressure cooker that seems close to exploding.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) there have been many massacres carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Although originally from Uganda, from where they launched an uprising of Islamic origin in the mid-1990s, the Islamists have recently expanded especially in the North Kivu region. The ADF’s leader Jamil Mukulu had met with Osama bin Laden when he was living in Sudan. Furthermore, for years this armed group cooperated with al Shabaab militants who continue to occupy vast areas of Somalia. The Somali jihadists, although obliged ten years ago to withdraw from the capital Mogadishu, have not lost their capacity to attack anywhere and at any given time.

Also referred to as ‘shabaab’ (youth) are the Islamic groups that have taken a brutal grip on the province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. Hundreds of civilians have been killed as well as dozens of Mozambican soldiers. Due to this violence, the French oil giant Total announced that it has suspended all work linked to one of the most important energy projects on the continent. Analysts, however, often find it difficult to decipher the many jihadist groups on the African continent as well as their various affiliations. Ever since Islamic State lost ground in the Middle East many factions have been formed depending on the areas in which their operations take place: ISWAP (The Islamic State in West Africa Province), ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara), and ISCAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province). “The expanding of Islamic State affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in a wave of terrorism in many countries on the African continent – underlines the Global Terrorism Index – Seven of the 10 countries with the greatest increase in terrorism are Burkina Faso, Mozambique, DRC, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia and Cameroon”.


Informal network

Jihadist groups are able to communicate with one another when necessary. Thanks to social media, the internet, telephones and written letters, Islamic militants exchange messages, details about operations, hostages, contacts and videos. While these groups often fight one another in the Middle East, it is thought that in West Africa they are better at working together. One clear example of this is the GSIM, equipped with at least 2,000 militants who have recently decided to join forces and share their efforts. “While al-Qaeda and Daesh are enemies in Syria and in Yemen, alliances in West Africa tend to be more fluid because they are often supported by tribal bonds and practical rather than ideological concerns – as stated by leaders of African armies – These affiliates have common enemies such as western and local governments from which they are trying to remove control.”

Europe is moving very slowly, focusing on economic interests linked to Africa’s raw materials and ignoring the consequences affecting social dynamics between ordinary citizens and local authorities. The rifts increase while alternatives diminish. In this void, migration and jihadism often remain the only extreme solutions for those wishing to make a living. International cooperation, lacking effective coordination,  is the fig leaf able to hide a disease that seems to be spreading across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Continuing along this path will only save a few and kill many.


Cover Photo: Nigerian security forces on the site of a sabotage attack allegedly perpetrated by Boko Haram – Maiduguri, February 12, 2021 (Audu Marte / AFP).

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