Report: African Countries Struggle to Contain Terror Groups

FILE - A youth leads a group of hard-line Islamist al-Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia, Jan. 1, 2010.

Amid a decline in terror incidents worldwide in 2017, African countries struggled to prevent the expansion of terror groups in parts of the continent, according to a U.S. State Department report on terrorism.

"African countries expanded their efforts to develop regional counterterrorism solutions while they struggled to contain the expansion of terrorist groups, affiliates, and aspirants involved in attacks or other activities in 2017," according to the report, released last week.

Experts offer different explanations as to why terror groups have been able to expand in the continent.

Jacob Zenn, a terrorism expert with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said he believes that when it comes to ideology and development, the former should be given more attention.

"When it comes to extremism, intolerant religious teachings need to be countered. If not, jihadists would exploit intolerance and encourage people to express grievances through violence," Zenn said. "Thus, countering the ideology must be paramount.

"Naturally governing better is important, too, but in most cases that will be a long process and tackling jihadist groups is an imminent concern," he added.

FILE - Damage is seen following an attack by Boko Haram militants in the northeast city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, April 27, 2018.

Beyond quick fixes

Akinola Olojo, a researcher on transnational threats with the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), however, believes that the existing threat of terrorism in Africa calls for the adoption of international strategies beyond quick fixes.

"Countries in Africa and across the world must not assume that the decline in attacks signals the end of efforts aimed at addressing the root causes in affected countries," Olojo said.

"There should be an intensification of efforts to address the so-called 'push factors' in communities where socio-economic challenges enable recruitment into terror groups," he added.

Olojo expressed optimism that many countries are gradually recognizing the need to go beyond the military option while dealing with the threat of terrorism in the region.

FILE - Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb. 17, 2017.

East Africa

In East Africa, the U.S. report highlights threats posed to the region by al-Shabab terror group. Though it acknowledges that Somalia-based al-Shabab has not carried out any attack beyond Somalia and northeastern Kenya in 2017, the report says the group poses a threat to the security of the entire region.

"It [al-Shabab] retained safe haven, access to recruits and resources, and de facto control over large parts of Somalia through which it moves freely," the report said.

Some analysts, such as Olojo, charge that al-Shabab's apparent resiliency has a lot to do with its ability to appeal to people who feel marginalized.

"Although al-Shabab has also suffered setbacks in terms of defections of its members and casualties, the group still mobilizes propaganda that can appeal to vulnerable audiences in and outside Somalia," Olojo said, adding that online platforms provide the group with the ability to reach out to people beyond Somalia.

In October 2017, Somalian officials blamed the group for the deadliest terror attack in Somalia's history, when a truck bomb killed nearly 600 people in the capital, Mogadishu.

FILE - Two men carry the body of a victim following the explosion of a truck bomb in the center of Mogadishu, Oct. 14, 2017.

Asymmetric attacks

In the Lake Chad region, the U.S. report highlights a resurgence in asymmetric attacks on civilian, government and military targets by groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State.

Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a Texas-based research center, believes that the important issue to follow in the Lake Chad region is the leadership change within the Islamic State branch in West Africa (ISWAP).

"If a leadership change of this group [IS] does indeed happen, or has happened, there is concern that these more radical elements may change the targeting of their faction to include more civilian targets. That could mean terrible things for civilians in the region," Stewart warned.

He was referring to the emergence of a more radical faction of IS and reports that Mamman Nur, the de facto leader of ISWAP in the region, has been killed by the new radical IS faction.

Zenn, of Jamestown Foundation, agrees with Stewart that ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] has been, for the most part, very consistent with its attacks against military targets and has been relatively successful.

"As a result, ISWAP began to administer territories more effectively than [Boko Haram leader Abubakar] Shekau and focus their targets on the military, not civilians, which has seemingly benefitted their insurgent campaign," Zenn said.

But Stewart warns that with the new leadership, Islamic State, like the Shekau faction of Boko Haram, will shift its focus to non-military targets in the region.

FILE - A Malian Army soldier with the G5 Sahel, an institutional framework for coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security matters in West Africa, is seen in Sevare, May 30, 2018.

Sahel region

In the Sahel region, the U.S. report notes an umbrella of al-Qaida-affiliated groups and an Islamic State affiliate in the region have expanded their operations in central Mali and in the border regions of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

To counter the threat, the three countries joined with Chad and Mauritania to form the G5 Sahel Force to fight the militants, but experts say one major challenge of counterterrorism efforts in the region has been the vast, porous and unpopulated border regions of the three countries.

"The borders are long and porous and ethnic groups straddle on both sides of the borders, and terrorist groups know that states can be hesitant to chase them across the border of another nation. So they exploit everything they can," Zenn said.

Jonathan Sears, a researcher with Centre FrancoPaix, University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, argues that part of the problem has also been the apparent shortcomings in the provision of public services to the population in central Mali, which allowed militant groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State to exploit people's grievances.

"Where there is a lack of state public service provision, [these] so-called terror groups are providing some services, which strengthen their links within the population," Sears told VOA.