Current Affairs

Africa now eye of global terrorism storm

Africa now eye of global terrorism storm
  • PublishedFebruary 5, 2021

While the common perception worldwide is that the centre of terrorism is the Middle East, the fact is that Africa has now become the centre of terrorist activity – according to a new report on the global scourge. Neil Ford reviews the report and calls for a solution to ending or limiting this very damaging trend.

While most people around the world would probably point to the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan as the focus of global terrorist activity, actually Africa is now home to more terrorist hotspots than any other region.

According to the latest Terrorism Index, which is produced annually by analysts Verisk Maplecroft, seven of the 10 highest risk countries are on the African continent. Amid the terrible human suffering and loss, the research provides useful information on the scale and direction of the attacks carried out.

The Index assesses the number and magnitude of terrorist incidents in 198 countries based on the number of fatalities in any given year. It appears that both the reach and effectiveness of terrorist groups in Africa are growing, as terrorist violence is on an upward trajectory, with 13% more incidents in the last quarter of the year than in the previous three months.

Verisk Maplecroft view terrorism as a tactic which can be employed by a range of different actors, including those not conventionally described as terrorists. The Index defines a terrorist attack as “a politically motivated, violent act carried out in pursuit of a political objective and distinguished by its capacity to inspire fear or shock”.

It is designed to maximise shock value by compelling an audience, often physically removed from the site of the incident, to comply with the perpetrator’s political agenda out of fear over potential future attacks.

Five countries received the lowest possible score of 0.00 out of 10.00 in the Index: Burkina Faso, Mali and Somalia in Africa, alongside Afghanistan and Syria. The rest of the top ten comprises, in descending order: Cameroon, Mozambique, Niger, DR Congo and Iraq. Nigeria is ranked in 11th position.

In addition to the seven African states ranked in the top 10, the research found that another nine witnessed “significant increases in the frequency and severity of attacks”.

Over the course of 2020, four of the five countries to experience the biggest falls in their Index rating were in Africa. Burundi saw the greatest deterioration, falling 37 places to become the 27th-riskiest nation worldwide. Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania experienced similarly dramatic declines, falling to 30th and 32nd position respectively.

Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal also saw their scores significantly worsen. The fact that just two African countries registered improvements in their risk rating, Rwanda and Central African Republic, gives particular cause for worry.

IS and al-Qaeda

The global Terrorism Index concludes that the centre of gravity for Islamic State (IS) has now moved from the Middle East to Africa and to some extent, South Asia. It reported that 982 people were killed by IS in Africa last year, 41% of the global total, and a 67% increase on the 2019 figure for the continent.

Many Islamist groups are allied to al-Qaeda or IS, although the connection is sometimes made after groups have already been active for a time and they are generally motivated by more local factors.

As well as attacks upon civilians, government institutions and companies, conflict between local IS and al-Qaeda affiliates is also increasing, particularly in the Sahel – between Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM), which is allied to al-Qaeda, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Terrorist insecurity in one country makes it more likely that it will also be experienced across the border in neighbouring states, so whole regions can be destabilised.

This has been seen in Asia, with Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq-Syria. In Africa, the biggest example is the Sahel, where Islamist groups launch attacks across the Sahara and the Sahel on Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Boko Haram, which operates across the Lake Chad Basin countries, has again become more active over the past year, while other groups are active further west.

Verisk Maplecroft attribute the rise in West African attacks to the ability of extremist groups to exploit the fragility of national governments, weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apart from having an obvious impact on the people affected, such attacks are also relevant for governments and for companies operating in the energy and mining sectors in particular, where assets, personnel and distribution routes are particularly vulnerable.

“Mining companies operating in the Sahel are currently the most exposed – although terrorist groups have so far refrained from directly attacking major gold and uranium sites,” Verisk Maplecroft reported.

Rather, they have targeted government and military installations in an effort to weaken government authority and extend their territorial control.

Operations in the landlocked Sahelian states are particularly vulnerable because mining companies depend on their logistics networks to transport their raw materials to Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Guinea ports. Insufficient military coverage in such areas can enable ambushes and roadblocks. The research authors forecast that extremist groups operating in the Sahel will seek to expand their operations towards the coast.

The situation in the central Sahel has remained unstable since militants invaded northern Mali in 2012. International forces, often under French leadership, have been deployed in the area since 2013, and now number 15,000 under a UN mandate. Large parts of the region have long been virtually ungoverned, partly because of the low population density.

Fears over attacks on road transport could encourage the development of new rail projects in the region. Mali aims to build a new $8bn railway to the Guinean port of Conakry and finance the $1.5bn renovation of the existing railway to the Senegalese port of Dakar to allow the development of iron ore, bauxite and uranium mines, thereby reducing its dependency on gold production.

Much will depend on whether Beijing is prepared to help finance the projects. According to Mali’s Ministry of Transport, China Railway Engineering Corporation will construct the Bamako-Conakry line and China Railway Construction Corporation the Bamako-Dakar railway, although it is understood that binding contracts have not yet been signed.

The Index calculates that Boko Haram has been responsible for more than 37,500 combat-related deaths and 19,000 deaths from terrorism since 2011, mainly in Nigeria.

Although it has now split into two factions, one of which is allied to IS, the violence continues. Most recently, one faction – Islamic State West Africa Province – claimed responsibility for the murder of at least 43 farmers in Borno State, on 28 November.

According to Egypt’s Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism, there were 52 terrorist attacks in Africa in December, including 22 launched by al-Shabaab in Somalia and 18 by Boko Haram.

Cabo Delgado

The deteriorating situation in Mozambique is the result of attacks by militants in the Cabo Delgado region in the far north, where international investors are developing onshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects on a common site.

The Mozambican military has proved unable to counter the threat, to the extent that the militants have been able to take and hold towns for extended periods.

Now operating under the name of Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), they have committed a number of high-profile massacres, although the veracity of some attacks has been questioned.

The government of Mozambique has been reluctant to accept support from foreign forces, perhaps because of the role that the militaries of some neighbouring states played in the long Mozambican civil war.

However, an extraordinary meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was due to be held this January to consider regional cooperation. Maputo would do well to accept any military support on offer.

The lessons of other conflicts elsewhere on the continent should point towards a socio-economic rather than a purely military solution to the Cabo Delgado conflict.

Terrorist groups and militants generally prosper in underdeveloped areas and the far north of Mozambique is one of the poorest parts of the country. The contrast with LNG projects worth tens of billions of dollars makes for uncomfortable reading and creates an environment within which terrorism can more easily prosper.


In most instances, companies are almost wholly reliant on governments to guarantee the security of their assets, so human rights violations by security forces can damage the international reputations of the firms involved.

Alexandre Raymakers, Senior Africa Analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, advised companies to invest more time and energy into identifying emerging threats and adopting precautionary measures to mitigate against future security risks because of the growing number of terrorist hotspots in Africa.

It seems unlikely that the number and intensity of attacks will fall over the course of this year. Raymakers said: “As the economic fallout from Covid-19 empties government coffers, governments will struggle to implement the comprehensive counterterrorism strategies required to contain these security threats.”

With the finances to address the socio-economic grievances that often fuel insurgencies in short supply, the authors warn that the preference of African governments for security-centred solutions can result in substantial human rights violations being committed against civilian populations.

This can result in a vicious circle of increasing violence. An extreme risk of terrorist activity often goes hand in hand with violence by security forces and human rights abuses. 

Written By
Neil Ford

Neil is a journalist, writer, editor and consultant, specialising in international and African affairs.

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