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Africa Terrorism Is Symptom of Intractable Problems

  • Al Pessin

The past week's terrorist attacks in Kenya and Nigeria have renewed attention on militancy and terrorism in Africa. It's a rising trend, and a difficult one to reverse.

The September 21 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall by Somalia's al-Shabab militants was a shocking event in generally peaceful Nairobi.

A week later across the continent, the midnight killing of dozens of students at a college in Nigeria was equally shocking, but less surprising. There, the government is at war with the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.

Rising militancy in Nigeria and Somalia, as well as Mali, Libya, and several other African countries, has killed thousands in terrorist attacks and civil wars. And for the most part, it is linked to local grievances, according to Africa specialist Jason Mosley of London’s Chatham House research organization - speaking via Skype.

“Terrorism, broadly speaking, in Africa is still tightly constrained to regional or local political dynamics,” said Mosley.

Breeding ground

Poverty, corruption and political frustration create fertile ground for radicalism. There is at least an ideological link to global militant Islam, however, according to the director of the King’s College Center for the Study of Radicalism, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens.

“I don’t think any of these groups are directed specifically by al-Qaida Central. They are affiliated. They are fellow-travelers. They follow the same ideology. But, yes, a lot of these groups in Africa do have also local concerns. And some of them are actually divided,” said Meleagrou-Hitchens.

For example, Meleagrou-Hitchens said not all members of al-Shabab support launching attacks outside of Somalia, like the one in Nairobi, even though Kenya has troops on Somali territory.

But while poverty and other local issues spawn militant groups in many parts of the continent, Mosley said the number of recruits remains small, while the problems that motivate them are big and difficult to solve.

“De-radicalization efforts that are under way in places like Kenya or Somalia are one track. And of course ultimately and broadly speaking, the real answer is economic opportunity. This is more difficult than it sounds,” said Mosley.

And experts say that is particularly true in the areas where it is needed most - Africa’s poorest and most troubled countries.

“It’s likely that this problem, this trend of jihadist activity in Africa will continue in the foreseeable future simply because the problems on which the recruitment and the spread is based, like the poverty, like the corruption, are going to remain for quite some time,” said Meleagrou-Hitchens.

Experts say the combination of economic opportunity, education and leadership that could ensure that children like these do not grow up to be militants is hard to come by, and ever more urgently needed.

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