Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Africa’s growing terror

As Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, it turns a covetous eye to North and West Africa, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

One of the unexpected things that happened in the past two years was that Boko Haram replaced Islamic State (IS) as the deadliest terror group in the world.

In 2014, Boko Haram killed 6,664 people, more than the 6,073 that IS killed, according to a report released in November 2015 by the Sidney-based Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP).

The two groups, Boko Haram and IS, are jointly responsible for half of the deaths attributed to terrorism worldwide, according to the same report, which added that the world spent nearly $117 billion fighting terrorism last year.

Meanwhile, the deaths attributed to Boko Haram alone increased by 300 per cent, according to the same report.

“In 2014, the total number of deaths from terrorism increased by 80 per cent when compared to the prior year. This is the largest yearly increase in the last 15 years. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been over a nine-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014,” the IEP report noted.

In its 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report, the IEP acknowledges that the Middle East and Africa are the main theatre of operations for terrorist groups.

“Terrorism remains highly concentrated with most of the activity occurring in just five countries — Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. These countries accounted for 78 per cent of the lives lost in 2014. Although highly concentrated, terrorism is spreading to more countries, with the number of countries experiencing more than 500 deaths increasing from five to 11, a 120 per cent increase from the previous year. The six new countries with over 500 deaths are Somalia, Ukraine, Yemen, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Cameroon,” the IEP reported.

With the exception of Ukraine, all the newcomers to the club of 500-plus deaths are in the Middle East and Africa.

The next report on terror, covering 2015, is likely to come out in ten months or so. But judging by the trends of the past few months, one must consider the possibility that West and North Africa may experience a steeper rise in terror-related violence than other parts of the world, including Iraq and Syria.

Over the past few weeks, IS saw clear defeats in Iraq with the liberation of Ramadi in western Iraq and the continued attempts by the Baghdad government and Kurdish troops to take back Mosul.

Since the start of Russian air strikes in Syria, IS seems to have run out of steam in Syria.

But while the Middle East is starting to roll back terror, West Africa is still caught up in a whirlpool of violence in Libya, Algeria and the vicinity of Lake Chad.

It is almost a snowball effect. The fall of Muammer Gaddafi’s regime gave a boost to terror groups in Mali. The latter trained the fighters of Boko Haram at the time when Al-Murabitoun militia, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, controlled northern Mali.

Smaller groups in the area swore allegiance to IS. In March 2015, Boko Haram officially renamed itself the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP).

At one point, the Somali Al-Shebaab also swore allegiance to IS, but Al-Shebaab had trouble linking up with West Africa groups because of the geographical distance, and also because the Christian-fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army, positioned in South Sudan and northern Uganda, is acting as a buffer zone.

Reports that IS leaders are moving to Libya must be taken seriously, as a coalition of terror groups in North and West Africa may prove to be as difficult to roll back as IS is in Iraq and Syria.

For all its losses in the battlefield, IS is still gaining recruits from outside countries.

“The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria continued in 2014 and 2015. The current estimates are that since 2011 between 25,000 and 30,000 fighters, from 100 different countries, have arrived in Iraq and Syria. The flow of foreign fighters is still high with estimates suggesting that over 7,000 new recruits arrived in the first half of 2015. This highlights that the attraction of these jihadist groups is still strong. Europe comprises 21 per cent of all foreign fighters, while 50 per cent are from neighbouring Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries,” IEP said.

Meanwhile, rivalry for spectacular violence continues between IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates. Some analysts speculate that the attack on the Radisson Blue Hotel in Bamako, Mali, perpetrated by Al-Murabitoun on 20 November, was an attempt by Al-Qaeda to recapture the high ground of terror from IS, which is thought to have organised the 13 November carnage in Paris.

Helmi Shaarawi, director of the Cairo-based Arab and African Studies Centre, says that African countries are particularly vulnerable to terror because of their limited resources, their history of civil war, and the challenges their governments face from various insurgency groups.

Take, for example, Nigeria, ranked in the top five most vulnerable countries to terror (along with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan). It is not only fighting Boko Haram, but several insurgent groups in the Niger Delta and among the Fulani tribes.

Some analysts fear that pressures associated with the war on terror may further weaken African governments, especially in the Sahel region. Al-Tayyib Zein Al-Abidin, professor of political science at Khartoum University, says that the West needs to offer more help to cash-starved African countries as they struggle to keep terrorists at bay.

According to Zein Al-Abidin, the terrorists may become much harder to defeat if they manage to team up with disgruntled tribal or ethnic groups.

Although Western nations have taken a stronger stance on terror since the 13 November Paris attacks, the IEP report noted that only 0.5 per cent of worldwide terror attacks happen in the West.

“The majority of deaths from terrorism do not occur in the West. Excluding the 11 September attack, only 0.5 per cent of deaths from terrorism have occurred in the West since 2000. Including 11 September, the percentage reaches 2.6,” the authors of the IEP report said.

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