The African continent suffered at least 1,426 incidents of terrorism-related violence between 1 January 2016 and 30 September 2016, according to data collected by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor. Sixteen different African countries were afflicted by terrorist activity over this period, which cumulatively accounted for 8,120 deaths. Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS were the deadliest militant organisations in the region. What can we expect from these groups, and efforts to counter them, in 2017?
Most of the violence recorded by the Monitor took place in West Africa, and was the result of activities of Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which continued to launch mass-casualty attacks against civilian and security interests in Nigeria’s north-east. While the past 12 months saw a marked reduction of Boko Haram violence in other parts of Nigeria, the sect continued to expand its operational presence into neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and, to a lesser extent, Chad, with areas proximate to Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled north-east experiencing the highest frequency of incidents.
With multi-pronged military operations against the group expected to continue in 2017, in addition to the movement fracturing amid a leadership struggle, it is expected that a continued contraction in the frequency and geographic location of attacks will be witnessed in the region. However, a notable trend in the latter part of 2016 was the Islamist militant group’s propensity to launch attacks against internally displaced camps and humanitarian agencies operating in north-eastern Nigeria. With the region experiencing an unprecedented famine, prompting the intensification of humanitarian initiatives, Boko Haram attacks against relief personnel and interests could become a defining feature of the group’s insurgency in over the next 12 months.
Adding to Boko Haram’s regional death toll were the operations of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its myriad local affiliates. Weak governance structures, an under-equipped local army, and a United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), continued to see Islamist militancy thrive in Mali’s northern regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. The burgeoning violence, which mostly targeted security personnel and interests, was also facilitated by the continued success of AQIM’s Matryoshka doll strategy. By creating splinter movements, who themselves would splinter in smaller factions defined along ethno-political lines, AQIM has been able to extend its violent reach into central Mali’s Mopti, Koulikoro, and Segou regions, placing the group’s area of operation within closer proximity to the country’s riverside capital of Bamako.
As well as spreading inside Mali, the AQIM contagion also spread into neighbouring countries. In the first quarter of 2016, AQIM’s al-Mourabitoun affiliate claimed inaugural attacks in Burkina Faso’s bustling capital, Ouagadougou, and Cote d’Ivoire’s resort town of Grand Bassam. Both attacks targeted facilities popular with foreign, particularly French, interests and were cited as reprisals for France’s ongoing counter-terrorism operations in Mali. Indeed, France’s spearheading of anti-AQIM operations in the Sahel region will continue to incite acts of violence against French interests and citizens across much Francophone Africa. The threat will be most elevated in countries assisting French-led military operations, particularly those bordering Mali. In this regard, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Senegal will all enter 2017 amid a heightened threat of AQIM violence.
In North Africa, Islamist violence was predominantly spearheaded by the various ISIS affiliates which have cropped up across the Maghreb. Among the most active was on ISIS' Sinai Province, formerly known as the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which launched dozens of attacks against security interests in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The group also demonstrated, however, that it possessed both the intent and operational capacity to execute attacks in the capital, as highlighted by the December 2016 suicide blast at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. In 2017, Sinai Province’s violence is expected to remain concentrated in the Sinai, particularly around the town of El-Arish, primarily targeting security personnel. However, the group may embark on a trend of targeting soft civilian interests across major Egyptian cities as a means of ramping up pressure on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
In neighbouring Libya, terrorism-related violence over the course of 2016 was orchestrated by a number of disparate militias. The most prominent of these was undoubtedly ISIS in Libya which – at its zenith – exerted territorial control over large swathes of the country’s Mediterranean landscape. A series of counter-offensives saw ISIS-held territory retaken, culminating with the recapture of Sirte, the last settlement nominally controlled by the group. That said, Libya’s ISIS chapter remains far from complete. The country’s volatile and fractured polity will remain conducive to ISIS recalibrating itself within the country, with Libya south-west possibly emerging as a new focal point. There is also the possibility of fragments assimilating with other Islamist groups that could later emerge as ISIS affiliates. ISIS’ trajectory in Libya may also influence the terrorism dynamic in neighbouring countries. Comprising fighters from countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, ISIS’ battle-hardened foreign combatants from Libya may return to their home countries where they could establish new or reinforce existing terrorist networks. This scenario will be particularly concerning to Tunisia and Morocco, the main exporters of foreign fighters to ISIS and who have dismantled a number of terrorist cells and plots within their borders.
In East Africa, the Islamist extremist theatre has and will continue to be dominated by al-Shabaab. In the past year, the al-Qaeda affiliate has continued to exploit the vulnerabilities of Somalia’s nascent government and disparate pro-government forces. In addition to launching complex attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, the group has recaptured several settlements that were liberated and then abandoned by African Union, Kenyan, and/or Ethiopian forces. While primarily focusing on Somalia, al-Shabaab will also continue in its attempts to execute retaliatory attacks against regional countries spearheading operations against its positions in Somalia. Kenya, particularly its north-eastern Garissa, Dadaab, Wajir, and Mandera counties, will remain most susceptible to al-Shabaab’s transnationalist operations.
The threat will also extend to Ethiopia and Uganda, as they remain militarily active in Somalia. A potentially new territory al-Shabaab could expand into in 2017 is Tanzania. Here the movement appears to have garnered the support of Muslim communities who cite ethno-religious marginalisation by its secular government. The risk of al-Shabaab expanding in Tanzania through local networks would increase significantly in 2017 should the country accept a proposal by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and deploy its troops to Somalia.
In central and southern Africa, terrorism-related activity was predominantly spearheaded by so called self-radicalised ISIS sympathisers. In Rwanda, security forces conducted a number of raids in the country’s capital, Kigali, and the town of Bugarama which targeted alleged supporters and recruiters of the group. There was no discernible evidence, however, that the suspects were planning any attacks within Rwandan borders. In South Africa, security forces conducted similar operations against ISIS sympathisers. The most notable of these was the arrest of twin brothers in the city of Johannesburg in July who were in the preparatory phase of launching attacks, purportedly targeting the United States Embassy and Jewish interests. The emerging ISIS threat in South Africa was also highlighted by two separate terrorism warnings issued by the US government over imminent acts of terrorism in the country. However, in both the cases of South Africa and Rwanda, any further related terrorism-activity is likely to remain informal and aspirational, as opposed to organised and operational.