Sub-Saharan Africa emerges as global epicentre of terrorism


Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for nearly half of total global deaths from terrorism, according to a new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, which reveals that despite an increase in attacks around the world, the impact of global terrorism continues to decline.

In its 2022 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), the Institute revealed that in 2021, deaths from terrorism fell by 1.2% to 7 142, while attacks rose by 17% to 5 226, highlighting that terrorism is becoming less lethal.

Two thirds of countries recorded no attacks or deaths from terrorism – the best result since 2007. The number of deaths has remained approximately the same for the last four years, however, the Index does highlight that terrorism remains a serious threat with Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for 48% of total global deaths from terrorism.

The GTI data shows a shift in the dynamics of terrorism, with it becoming more concentrated in regions and countries suffering from political instability and conflict, such as the Sahel, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Violent conflict remains a primary driver of terrorism, with over 97% of terrorist attacks in 2021 taking place in countries in conflict.

The report found there were serious deteriorations in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), especially the Sahel. Forty-eight per cent, or 3 461, of all terrorism deaths globally occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa, with four of the ten countries with the largest increases in deaths from terrorism residing in the region: Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Niger. Three of these countries are in the Sahel.

On a more positive note, the Institute for Economics and Peace found there was a 10% improvement in terrorism deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa. The improvement can be attributed to the successful counter insurgency operations targeting Boko Haram where deaths caused by the group declined by 72% between 2020 and 2021 from 629 deaths to 178 deaths. Nigeria recorded the second biggest reduction in deaths. Attacks by the group also significantly deceased, halving from the prior year to 64 attacks.

The Institute for Economics and Peace said the Sahel is of serious concern. The expansion of Islamic State (IS) affiliates led to a surge in terrorism in many countries in the Sahel. Highlighting the magnitude of the problem, terrorism deaths have risen by over 1 000 % between 2007 and 2021 in the Sahel. Terrorism deaths in Niger more than doubled in 2020, rising to 588. Deaths attributed to Islamic extremist groups such as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab recorded deaths as far south as Mozambique, with 43% occurring in the Sahel.

The situation in the Sahel is rapidly deteriorating, with eight attempted coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Chad in the last eighteen months. The underlying drivers are complex and systemic, including poor water utilisation, lack of food, malnutrition, strong population growth, and weak governments, with most of the terrorist activity occurring along borders where government control is weakest. Adding to the complexity, many criminal organisations increasingly represent themselves as Islamic insurgents.

JNIM is the fastest growing group globally, recording the largest increase in the number of attacks and deaths in 2021. It was responsible for 351 deaths in 2021, an increase of 69%. In contrast ISWA is the most lethal group in the Sahel, with the group responsible for on average 15.2 deaths per attack in Niger.

According to the GTI, Niger recorded the second largest increase in terrorism deaths in 2021, increasing by 129% to 588 while attacks remained consistent. The increased lethality is largely driven by the growing sophistication and organisational capabilities of ISWA.

Mozambique recorded the largest drop in terrorism deaths with 414 fewer deaths in 2021, an 82% decrease from the previous year. The fall was driven by successful counterterrorism measures against IS performed by the Mozambican forces in conjunction with Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community.

The Institute for Economics and Peace found that Islamic State remained the deadliest terror group globally, recording the most attacks and deaths of any group in 2021. However, globally 52% of all terrorist incidents are not ascribed to a group. “Despite this, the strength and influence of IS and its affiliate groups, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), Islamic State – Sinai Province (ISSP) and ISWA, are showing signs of decline,” the Institute said.

It also found that politically motivated terrorism has now overtaken religiously motivated terrorism, with the latter declining by 82% in 2021. In the last five years, there have been five times more politically motivated terrorist attacks than religiously motivated attacks. There are now noticeable similarities between far-left and far-right extremist ideologies, with both targeting government and political figures.

The GTI report also looks at the relationship between insurgency, conflict and terrorism. It found that once groups exist for more than 12 years they are very hard to stop. In contrast to this, over half of all terrorist groups do not survive beyond three years. This emphasises the need to focus counter-terrorism operations while the groups are still nascent.

Terrorism is being influenced by technology, and the GTI found that as new technologies have become more pervasive, so has their use by terrorist organisations. The advent of the IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq is a good example, and resulted in more than 70% of US forces deaths in the five years from 2001. Smartphones using GPS systems are capable of guiding cheap drones with deadly precision, with attacks by missiles and drones becoming more common. Advancements, such as AI, 3D printing or autonomous vehicles may in the future be weaponised. These new risks will drive future advancements in counter-terrorism tactics.

View the full report here.