From global jihad to local insurgencies: the changing nature of Sub-Saharan jihadism

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For more than a decade the Islamist insurgency in Sub-Saharan Africa has seemed unstoppable. 2022 saw another uptick in jihadist violence across the continent.

Fatalities increased by 48% compared to the previous year, while violent incidents increased by 22%. The annual number of attacks in the region have doubled since 2016, and Sub-Saharan Africa is now the region with the greatest annual number of terrorist attacks globally.

However, the jihadist insurrections in Sub-Saharan Africa are also evolving. They have become much more localised, building on local grievances and becoming intertwined with community and ethnic conflicts. The international dimension of jihadism has practically disappeared in the region and connections between insurgent groups remain limited to some sub-regional collaborations.

Jihadist groups’ increasing involvement in local conflicts and the protector role that they play for various communities have made them resilient and more popular than the government in some places. However, their increasing reliance on local funding (e.g., via extortion) often puts them at odds with the local population, as illustrated by the backlash against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Violence recorded in Africa between mid-2022 and mid-2023.

While Islamic militants are widespread across the continent in areas with Muslim populations, organised violent groups are concentrated in specific areas in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, Somalia, northern Mozambique and North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Countries neighbouring these areas are also impacted by cross-border militant activities, including the use of their territories for recruitment and the smuggling of arms and other illicit goods for revenue-generating purposes. This is the case notably for Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in East Africa and Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo in West Africa.

The Sahel

In the Sahel, jihadist insurgency impacts primarily Mali, Burkina Faso and, to a lesser extent, Niger. The epicentre of the conflict is the tri-border area between the three countries, the Liptako-Gourma region. However, central Mali and northern Burkina Faso are now seeing some of the worst violence following the departure of French troops from both countries. The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) is the main jihadist group operating in this region. It is an association of five major organisations and smaller factions, and the leader is Iyad Ag Ghaly, a long-time Tuareg militant who fought the Malian government as one of the leaders of the 1990s Tuareg insurrection. He is also the leader of Ansar Dine, which is a movement principally comprised of Tuareg militants. However, the most active jihadist non-state armed group (NSAG) in Mali today is Katibat Macina (one of JNIM’s factions), which is led by Amadou Koufa. The group is responsible for the insurrection in central Mali and for the main incursions into neighbouring countries. In Burkina Faso, the insurgency is now mainly in the hands of Ansarul Islam, a group very close to Katibat Macina. Islamic State Sahel Province is also increasing its activities in this region and is now in open conflict with JNIM.

Lake Chad Basin

The jihadist insurrection in the Lake Chad Basin is mostly centred on Nigeria, but Cameroon, Chad and Niger are also impacted. Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are the two dominant groups in the region. This insurrection began in 2009 and is now stable, with the number of terrorist events and fatalities in 2022 remaining largely the same as in 2021, but it is still very violent. In Nigeria, it is particularly affecting the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yabe. However, it is also increasingly mixed up with the activities of several non-jihadist militias that are involved in banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling and local community conflicts that are currently active in most of northern Nigeria. These militias are now more lethal than jihadist groups.

Somalia

Somalia has experienced an increase in violence in the last year, essentially linked to a successful counter-offensive against the main jihadist group, al-Shabaab. The ongoing offensive is a well-coordinated effort by clan militias (who are leading the fight), the Somali National Army, federal and state forces, and the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia. They are also supported by special forces from Western countries. Despite important territorial gains made by militias and the government since the beginning of 2022, al-Shabaab’s fighting capability is still considerable, and there are concerns that it maintains the ability to strike back. A critical issue is how to re-establish a state presence in newly liberated areas that have been controlled by the group for decades.

Mozambique

Northern Mozambique saw a recrudescence of militant activities in rural areas in 2022, after a decrease in violence following the 2021 separate interventions by Rwandan and South African troops, who managed to push out militants from major cities in the oil region of Cabo Delgado. The number of violent incidents linked to militant jihadists groups – mostly Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASJ, locally known as ‘al-Shabaab’), which has claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) – has increased. This has prompted concerns that the insurrection is expanding again in rural areas and to other regions.

Eastern Congo

Conflict has been spreading across the eastern DRC since 2022, and jihadist groups play a role in this new phase. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a key actor in the conflict, started in Uganda as an ultra-conservative Muslim rebel movement. Later it was pushed out of Uganda by the national army and is now based in the Rwenzori Mountains in eastern DRC, collaborating with other Islamist insurgent groups in the region. The ADF pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2017. ISIS started claiming ADF attacks in 2019, and in 2020 the ADF adopted the name of Islamic State Central Africa Province, also known as Wilayat Wasat Afriqiyya.

Sub-Saharan jihadism: localised with diverse strategies

Claims of allegiance to al-Qaeda or ISIS hide the fact that insurgent groups in Sub-Saharan Africa are essentially local insurgencies, which receive little or no external support. In fact, while most jihadist groups claim a transnational allegiance, there is very little evidence that al-Qaeda or ISIS has any capacity to provide meaningful support to these self-proclaimed franchises. These jihadist groups are, instead, largely self-financed. Some collaboration exists at the sub-regional level; for example, the ADF allegedly helped train ASJ fighters in Mozambique. However, these networks of collaboration are now very limited compared to their previous strength.

Sub-Saharan jihadist groups have adopted somewhat different strategies in the use of violence against local populations. ISIS affiliates are remarkably violent and brutal, leading a war against what they consider apostate regimes and other Muslim sects, like the Shia. However, their use of terrorist tactics creates profound resentment and does not allow them to establish themselves in communities in a sustainable way. Al-Qaeda affiliates tend to be less violent and more pragmatic, especially now that they have abandoned international jihadism and are aiming to control territory by offering an alternative local governance system – one that is allegedly more in line with Islamic law and principles compared to the state’s system. The group often collaborates tactically with non-religious armed movements and has indicated its willingness to negotiate with the state. Al-Qaeda affiliates’ approaches increasingly resemble the strategy of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the later years of its insurrection. Most NSAGs remain loosely institutionalised and relatively fragmented, with many splinter groups operating with little direction from the leadership. ISIS and al-Qaeda franchises are also increasingly at odds with each other. Notoriously, an ISWAP splinter group is now fighting against JNIM and various other militias in northern Mali.

Jihadism and local grievances

Since most jihadist groups have largely abandoned international goals and connections, they have become increasingly involved in local conflicts and exploiting local tensions. Most of the conflicts in the regions where they operate are centred around access to and the management of natural resources, amid faltering governance responses by states. These conflicts have been exacerbated significantly by accelerating climate change.

In the Sahel, the pastoralist–agriculturalist divide has been traditionally and structurally adversarial. Many Fulani communities practise transhumance herding and must move southward due to droughts, which have become a constant occurrence in northern Sahel. At the same time, many agriculturists are moving into traditional grazing areas. Thus, the jihadist insurgency is building on decades of tensions over access to land. Agriculturists belong to ethnic groups that are also dominant among the urban and political elites, who have little incentive to resolve these tensions. For instance, some countries have introduced transhumance bans that have significantly worsened herders’ plight. Salafi jihadists are sometimes viewed as protectors of the Fulani population and their traditional land rights, including in the areas bordering Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. This situation has been exacerbated in the Sahel by the creation of ethnic militias that have been responsible for massacres and perpetrated violence against certain ethnicities, such as the Fulani.

Jihadists are also involved in smaller intercommunal conflicts. In northern Ghana, for example, JNIM is an actor in the Mamprusi–Kusasi conflict (which is fuelled by long-standing tensions between different ethnic groups in the town of Bawku). In Somalia, al-Shabaab had originally garnered popular support by establishing an alternative governance system rooted in justice and conflict resolution, outside of clan rivalry. The group had promoted a narrative of equity that resonated with minor clans and youth who felt marginalised by major-clan leadership. In Mozambique, the ethnic component of the conflict in Cabo Delgado is key, as Muslim Mwani people have felt disfranchised since the country’s independence. Large gas resources have been discovered in the north of the country, but the northern population has enjoyed no subsequent improvement in economic conditions. This has further fuelled grievances against the state.

To survive without external financing, insurgent groups have developed elaborate methods of local fundraising. For instance, Somalia’s al-Shabaab has added to its traditional revenues from road taxes by managing sections of the charcoal trade and taxing cattle export and new building constructions throughout the country. It has also penetrated various state institutions, establishing an elaborate network of corruption. It is estimated that in 2022 al-Shabaab raised about $100 million through taxes and extortion, compared to the $250 million in taxes officially collected by the government. In the Sahel, JNIM revenues are derived from taxation on roads, kidnapping, the protection of gold mines, vehicle theft and diverse types of smuggling (especially now that the northern border is no longer controlled by French troops) as well as direct taxation of communities. The fact that insurgent groups are mostly dependent on local fundraising encourages them to adopt a strategy of territorial control in order to generate more opportunities to extract funds.

The above developments put NSAGs increasingly at odds with local populations, as communities perceive that the cost of supporting jihadists groups is higher than the benefits such groups provide. For instance, it is widely accepted that the revolt of local clan militias in Somalia was triggered by al-Shabaab’s abuse of power and the pressure it placed on a population affected by a long-lasting and devastating drought. In the Sahel, more and more reports of abuse by militant groups are surfacing. The increasingly extractive nature of these movements is limiting their further territorial expansion as they are met with resistance from communities that see their protection as too costly. However, in some other areas, like northern Mali, abuses by national armed forces still generate popular appeal for jihadist groups, despite their increasing demands on the population.

Improved quality of governance as a way forward

As some jihadist groups try to base their legitimacy on protecting communities from the abuse of the state or other NSAGs, the effectiveness of states’ responses to local populations’ needs and demands is becoming central to the fight against jihadist groups. Across the continent, the ability of the state to project a positive response on the ground, alleviate tensions between communities, and maintain effective and accountable security services is essential to countering insurgencies. In Mali and Burkina Faso, inexperienced military juntas have proved incapable of addressing the spike in violence which followed the French armed forces’ pull-out from both countries and the deployment of the Wagner Group in Mali. Many lessons can be learned from countries like Mauritania, which quelled a significant insurgency in the 2010s, and Niger, which has managed to keep violence levels under control despite many jihadist incursions in the west of the country.

The governance of the security sector is particularly important, given its prominence in the fight against extremists. Security forces must effectively protect the local population; be adequately trained and equipped; and be sufficiently flexible and rapid in their interventions. The examples of Mauritania and Niger show that security forces can be successful in pushing back insurgents if they are perceived as legitimate and enjoy the support of local communities. Niger, which was facing a rapidly progressing jihadist insurrection in 2021, has since drastically reassessed its approach in this sense, resulting in a significant drop in violent incidents.

Providing economic support to the population in areas that are at risk of insurgency is another important component for an effective prevention strategy. In all Sub-Saharan African countries affected by Salafi jihadism, efforts have been made by the international community to increase development aid. For instance, aid flow to Somalia increased by nearly 300% from 2000–20 and more than nine times for Niger during the same period. However, the increase in aid can only have an impact over the long term for two main reasons. Firstly, the areas in which jihadists operate are often arid and far away from large urban centres. Prospects for improving the local economy and availability of jobs are therefore seriously constrained by geographical conditions. Secondly, the governance structure needed to implement projects in marginalised areas is often lacking.

Previous examples demonstrate that the most effective approach in fighting insurgencies is outreach by the government to local communities and traditional authorities, and even groups involved in illicit economies, to listen to their grievances and negotiate arrangements that can improve their lives within the boundaries of the law. This type of approach has been dramatically lacking in Mali. Conversely, Niger has established agencies for this purpose, such as the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, and Mauritania has carried out considerable outreach to local communities and religious authorities.

Likewise, programmes targeted at young people vulnerable to recruitment by jihadist movements have been implemented with some success in Kenya, Mauritania and Somalia. These have involved negotiating with local community groups that have ties with jihadist movements and trying to address their grievances, so that community leaders can themselves convince their youth not to join extremist groups. Establishing communication channels with some of the less extreme militant groups has also been a successful strategy in places like Niger and Mauritania.

The experiences of countries which have been successful in combatting jihadist insurgencies show that finding an effective balance between providing security, supporting local development, and negotiating with communities and some armed groups is essential. This is, however, very difficult to achieve as it requires effective institutions and political leadership – things that need to be implemented by countries themselves. It is very challenging for foreign institutions to influence such processes.

Written by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and republished with permission. The original article can be found here.