There have been 10 to 15 000 terror attacks in Africa over the last decade, with the majority of them taking place in northern Africa, according to a researcher from the Institute for Security Studies.
The Institute’s Martin A Ewi said it was his opinion that terrorism is the greatest challenge facing Africa and the international community. He noted that over the last decade, the number of terror attacks in Africa may even be as high as 20 000.
According to the Inter-University Centre for Terrorism Studies, there have been 1 432 terror attacks just in the Maghreb and Sahel between 2001 and 2012, with attacks peaking in 2009.
Ewi noted that several years ago, North Africa was most affected by terrorism, with Algeria being an epicentre for attacks. However, terrorism has shifted to Somalia and its epicentre on the continent is now northeast Nigeria.
The ‘triangle of terrorism’ in Africa comprises Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa and al Shabaab in Somalia. Ewi said that other important terrorist groups active in Africa include Mujao and Ansar Dine. He said that Boko Haram was probably the most fierce group as it has the capability to strike at any time it wants.
Ewi said that the face of terrorism had evolved in Africa over the years, with ‘terrorist’ organisations fifty years ago also considered to be liberations. “Many of our leaders did not see the liberation struggles as terrorism,” Ewi said, as the terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s was very different to that of today as it was liberation terrorism.
Ewi said that a turning point in global terrorism came after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. Islamic fighters returning home began advocating the establishment of Islamic (sharia) governments.
In Algeria, Islamists (the Islamic Salvation Front) won elections held in 1991, but after the elections were annulled by the army, the country was plunged into a ten year civil war. Ewi said that these Islamists are continuing a terror campaign till today – most recently, in January al Qaeda-linked terrorists, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, took more than 800 people hostage at a gas facility near In Amenas in Algeria in one of the biggest ever hostage scenarios.
According to Ewi, the Mujahedin marked a different period of terrorism in Africa. When Osama bin Laden based al Qaeda in Sudan around 1993, this led to a number of terrorist attacks – notably the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These were significant because they were the first suicide bombings on the continent, Ewi said. “The concept of suicide attacks was now known in Africa.”
Since then, terrorism in Africa has been driven by Islamic fundamentalism and is seldom about political or ideological goals.
There exist a number of challenges to counterterrorism, Ewi said, including political and cultural sensitivities, poverty and unemployment, and human rights abuses. While there is no direct link between poverty and terrorism, Ewi noted that poor people are more susceptible to terrorist organisations as they will look anywhere for a way to survive.
Recommending ways for African countries to deal with terrorism, Ewi said that African states should proactively contain terrorism, revise legislature, enforce international and regional anti-terror treaties and use intelligence gathering to prevent attacks.
Ewi was speaking at a Homeland Security seminar held at IFSEC South Africa yesterday. IFSEC is one of the biggest commercial security, homeland security and fire exhibitions in Africa and runs from June 18 to 20 at Gallagher Estate in Midrand.