Africa is the new global terrorism epicentre

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The epicentre of terrorism has shifted out of the Middle East and into the Central Sahel, which now accounts for over half of all deaths from terrorism, according to a new report.

The latest Global Terrorism Index 2024 publication by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) found that while the number of terror attacks globally declined 22% last year to 3 350, deaths skyrocketed by 22% to reach 8 352, the highest level since 2017.

Although Israel suffered the largest terrorist attack in 2023, it was not the country most impacted by terrorism. Burkina Faso is now ranked first on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). In the 13 years that the GTI covers, it is the first time a country other than Afghanistan or Iraq has been top of the index: almost 2 000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso in 258 incidents last year, accounting for nearly a quarter of all terrorist deaths globally.

“The impact of terrorism in Burkina Faso has increased every year since 2014, with terrorism also surging in its neighbours, Mali and Niger. In Burkina Faso in 2023, deaths from terrorism were up 68%, even though attacks decreased by 17%,” the IEP reported.

Regionally, the report found that the impact of terrorism is far higher in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia than any other regions in the world. These three regions accounted for 94% of deaths from terrorism in 2023, with sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for just under 59% of all fatalities.

“The epicentre of terrorism has now conclusively shifted out of the Middle East and into the Central Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. There were just under four thousand deaths from terrorism in the Sahel in 2023, or 47% of the total. The increase in terrorism in the Sahel over the past 15 years has been dramatic, with deaths rising 2 860%, and incidents rising 1 266% over this period,” the IEP found.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger account for most of the terrorism deaths in the region. All three face uncertain futures, having suffered from coups, weak governance, and fragile relations with neighbouring countries, exemplified by their recent withdrawal from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).

There is some indication that terrorist activity in the Sahel is beginning to spread into neighbouring countries, as Benin and Togo each recorded more than 40 deaths from terrorism for the first time last year.

Particularly in the Sahel region, there is a strong correlation between organised crime and terrorism. “As terrorist groups like JNIM have expanded their territorial control in the region, there has been a surge in kidnappings, ransom demands, and attacks on gold mining operations. Terrorist groups integrate organised criminal operations by co-opting illicit economies, taxing both criminal and unregulated legal enterprises, and providing security for criminal groups and the transportation of illicit goods,” the IEP reported.

The IEP’s latest report found the average Global Terrorism Index score deteriorated slightly in sub-Saharan Africa in 2023 – of the 28 countries that recorded a deterioration globally between 2022-2023, ten were in the sub-Saharan region, and five of ten countries most impacted by terrorism in 2023 were in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, 15 countries recorded improvements in their score. In total, 22 countries in the region have a GTI score of zero, meaning that they have not recorded a single terrorist incident in the past five years.

Terrorist attacks in sub-Saharan Africa dropped to 1 205 in 2023, compared to 1 368 in 2022, a decrease of 12%. Despite the number of attacks decreasing, the number of deaths rose by 21% to 4 916 in 2023, compared to 4 066 the year prior, indicating an increase in the lethality of attacks across the region.

Burkina Faso, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda had the largest increase in the number of people killed in terrorist attacks.

Angola recorded the worst deterioration in GTI score in the region within the last year, after experiencing the country’s first attack since 2018 and its first terrorist related deaths since 2010. Three soldiers and two Brazilian civilians were killed in an armed attack on a military vehicle in May 2023. The Front for the Liberation of Cabinda Enclave claimed responsibility.

Uganda experienced the second largest deterioration in GTI score in the region in 2023, after having recorded no attacks nor deaths in the previous year. The country saw a resurgence in terrorism by the Islamic State, which carried out all five attacks in 2023 and was responsible for all 42 deaths that year. Thirty-seven of those deaths occurred in an attack at Lhubiriha secondary school in Mpondwe town on 16 June. The victims included students and staff at the school.

The IEP report found Benin and Togo also recorded significant continued deteriorations in their scores in 2023, driven by the spread of jihadist extremist activity from the neighbouring Sahel region. All 35 attacks and 90 deaths that occurred in Benin and Togo in 2023 were attributed to Islamic extremist groups including JNIM and ISWA.

Despite slightly improving in GTI score in 2023, Mali had the second highest impact of terrorism in the region. Attacks and deaths within the country fell by seven and 20% respectively, with 253 incidents and 753 deaths. The IEP found Mali faces many of the same issues as Burkina Faso and Niger, with JNIM being the most prominent terrorist group in the country.

Tanzania was the most improved country in the region in 2023, with the country recording zero incidents for the second consecutive year. Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire also recorded no incidents for the second year in a row, and Rwanda which recorded no incidents for the fourth consecutive year.