With the decline of the state’s role in some African countries and the failure of the political elite to settle the nation-state project in the post-independence era, the continent has now become home to a growing number of violent non-state armed actors, particularly the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.
The growing power of these groups in conflicts and tribal and ethnic disputes and their centrality in political interactions, combined with the precarious social, political, and cultural structure, gave way to widespread insecurity and protracted instability across the continent. Undoubtedly, the crises and the state of instability were made worse by IS and Al-Qaeda elements moving to Africa as a new, more hospitable environment for their activity after being routed from their main strongholds.
Africa: A Favorable Environment for IS and Al-Qaeda
Many African countries have a high concentration of armed actors because the environment in these countries seems almost favorable for their activity due to several factors, including the absence of an influential role of state institutions, the precarious security systems, and the inability of institutions to put in place measures that mitigate ethnic and tribal conflicts.
In addition, state structures are incapable of lessening and mitigating border, tribal, and ethnic conflicts, leading to the emergence of armed actors as an alternative to state institutions by providing security and social services to the local population.
Further, in the majority of African countries, porous borders enable these groups to freely cross borders and gain access to weapons from external suppliers. What’s more, inter-state border disputes and the rise of armed opposition groups gave these organizations chances to grow, gain support, form alliances, and foster relationships with various governments or armed groups in exchange for mutual interests.
Also, the shaky state of security makes it easier for these organizations to engage in criminal behavior in search of funding and support. For instance, with porous borders, an increase in hotspots of tension and conflict (armed tribal and ethnic groups), and a lack of development projects, criminal organizations, in the absence of state control, are able to promote activities like the trafficking of drugs and weapons, as well as human beings, and the commission of cross-border crimes.
The social environment also allows for the expansion and penetration of these organizations into local communities, with them providing aid, health, and education services that governments are unable to provide.
Overall, these factors have greatly aided the armed actors in their pursuit of their goal by allowing them to rely on coordination and cooperation with the local population in exchange for providing them with protection and securing illegal trade for them. Meanwhile, armed actors from border areas play a significant role in facilitating communications between these groups and other actors in order to advance their interests despite ideological differences.
Geographical Map and Impact
East Africa is one of the key entry points for terrorists into Africa due to its coastal location along major shipping routes. This region aided in the entry of Al-Qaeda and IS fighters to Africa after their activity waned in other strongholds around the world. Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen was among the first violent organizations in east Africa to support Al-Qaeda. With this backing, Al-Qaeda and IS are expanding their reach into countries like Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, where conflicts rooted in identity and regionalism are on the rise. Perhaps this explains why, up until October 2022, East Africa had experienced the most terrorist attacks, with 30 bombings in Somalia and Mozambique, compared to 15 bombings in West Africa, the majority of which occurred in Burkina Faso and Mali.
In Central Africa, IS established branches and affiliated states and expanded in this strategically significant region thanks to its alliances with several local armed organizations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and Tanzania, all of which overcame the ideological differences to form alliances with radical Islamic organizations such as Al Qaeda and IS.
IS and Al-Qaeda have established a presence in or partial control over more than eight major Central African regions through non-ideological alliances with armed groups or groups that joined under their banner, such as the alliance between Al-Qaeda and the Allied Democratic Forces in Uganda, which works to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni’s government. Additionally, IS was able to hold its own in the battles it fought against the local armies, which helped it quickly gain support and spread among young adults aged 20 to 30.
In West Africa, the index of violence and terrorist bombings in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Congo, Mauritania, and the Lake Chad basin is on the rise, particularly in the wake of alliances with IS and Al-Qaeda by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Ansar Al-Din and Jama’at Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Mali.
What has complicated the political situation in those countries (Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) is the exponential growth of armed actors in West Africa, as well as the significant escalation of violence by armed actors, particularly after alliances with and backing from the Salafi-jihadi movements Ansar Al-Din and Jama’at Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Mali. Events also indicate that violence and terrorist bombings in that region will not likely decline. Foreigners aged 20-30 from a wide range of educational, professional, and socioeconomic backgrounds have taken the helm of armed groups, after coordination with the Boko Haram group in West Africa (Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin), Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia, and extremist Islamic groups in Central Africa.
The Conflict between IS and Al-Qaeda: Presence and Proliferation
Indicators of violence between IS and Al-Qaeda have increased significantly as a result of their fierce competition for greater control over African arenas, raising concerns about the possibility of an expansion of their conflict despite their shared ideology. Until September 2022, attacks traded between IS and Al-Qaeda amounted to 54 separate operations within Africa, driven by rivalry for influence and ideological divergences.
However, attracting and recruiting more fighters remains the most significant aspect of competition between IS and Al-Qaeda, along with competition over extracted economic resources such as gold and diamonds. Tribal rivalry dynamics are another facet of the competition between Al-Qaeda and IS in Africa, given that both organizations rely on ethnic and tribal alliances in which social and organizational factors overlap.
While many African governments worked toward pacification in West, East, and Central Africa in an effort to lessen the influence of non-state armed actors, their efforts were fruitless because they failed to address the underlying causes of the problems that have stymied the growth of these groups. Due to the inability of these governments to develop an alternative security strategy, many regions of West and Central Africa experienced intense armed actor activity and the use of effective organizational tactics that increased the combat capabilities of their members. Furthermore, many African countries suffered enormous financial losses as a result of alliances between armed groups and Al-Qaeda and IS in Africa.
In addition, the continued rise of Al-Qaeda and IS as a result of the deterioration of economic and security conditions in some African countries reproduces civil war as a result of the tribal and ethnic overlap that disregards national borders. Nonetheless, the situation is made more dangerous by the subpar performance of the security and intelligence agencies of many governments.