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African Democratic InstituteAfrican Democratic Institute Research Department
Africa and the Fight Against Islamic Extremism
Africa may soon be the new haven for extremist organisations; disunity and capacity deficits at state, regional and continental levels keep Africa and her member states at the mercy of fluid terrorist groups. Fragility of one state makes the continent penetrable and thus vulnerable – winning the fight against extremism will need more homogenous states, regional blocks and a better organised continent.

Extremist Nationalism

Islamic extremist groups offer new identities with a dangerous fusion of spiritual solace, monetary benefits, and religious brotherhood; this is the new extremist nationalism.

 Although it is extremely complex to have a single definition of nationalism due to its different sources and manifestations, Antony Smith`s definition from his 1991 book, National Identity is instructive. He defines nationalism as, “…an ideological movement aimed at attaining and maintaining the identity, unity (through social cohesion) and autonomy (through self-determination) of a ‘nation’ or people united under a national banner”[1]. The notion of one identifying, belonging and ultimately benefiting from their nation is essential to maintaining and sustaining that particular nation. Like any other society, there has to be systems that help accrue benefits to all that belong to it; there is no blind loyalty especially within nations. Any isolated or disenfranchised part of a nation is a threat to the well-being of the whole nation. African countries are currently grappling with making citizens benefit from being loyal to the broader nation. Consequently, Africa is slowly sliding towards becoming the newest haven for new nations with better benefits. Islamic extremist groups offer new identities with a dangerous fusion of spiritual solace, monetary benefits, and religious brotherhood; this is the new extremist nationalism.

Extremism in Africa 

African states have become constant victims of Islamic extremist groups, from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east; North Africa especially is under terror siege.

Although there is contestation amongst pundits on the proper name for the current wave of religious extremism – Islamic extremism is more accurate. Ryan Mauro characterises Islamic extremism as one driven by an interpretation of Islam that believes that Islamic law, or Sharia, is an all-encompassing religious-political system. Since it is believed to be proscribed by Allah (Arabic for “God”) Sharia must be enforced in the public sphere by a global Islamic state. As such, Islamic extremists consider it to be the only truly legitimate form of governance and reject democracy and human rights values[2].

According to the 2014 Global Terrorism Index, almost half of the fatalities from extremism in 2014 happened in Africa[3]. Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Mali, Libya, and Tunisia have all been on the receiving end of Islamic extremism. The wave of terror in Africa is growing; a notable breakthrough in the fight against extremism for Africa will only come if the continent deliberately unites in mobilizing resources, intelligence and response capacity. Individual states and regional economic blocks acting in isolation lack the relevant skills and capacity to eliminate extremist forces on their own. The classic example of Somalia will prove that not only is Africa made weak when one of its member states is under siege but Africa is made weaker if one of its member states acts in isolation or refuses to contribute to the African Union.

Extremist Groups in Africa

There a number of extremist groups in Africa; in its 2013 article on Africa’s Militant Islamist Groups, the BBC correctly identifies four Islamic extremist groups that stand out as imminent threats in Africa[4]:

  1. al-shabaab or al-Shabab

This is a Somali jihadist group, its origins trace from the ashes of another Islamist grouping, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) who until the end of 2006 controlled most of Southern Somalia and the vast majority of its population, including most major cities such as JowharKismayoBeledweyne, and the capital Mogadishu. It also banned radio stations from playing music and stopped local video halls from broadcasting foreign football matches. They are responsible for the Garissa University assault (April, 2015) that killed roughly 147 people. They also took responsibility for the twin attacks that targeted World Cup fans in Kampala Uganda (August, 2015) and killed 76 people.

1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

This is the oldest of the Islamist militant groups operating in North Africa; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) came into being in 2005 when it changed its name from the Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) and announced its allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. The GSPC was founded in 1998 following the dismantling of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – the militant group that fought the Algerian government during the 1990s. Abu Mus’ab Abdel-Wadood, also known as Droukdel, a former GIA fighter, became the group’s leader in 2003 and since then has been organizing operations in Algeria and Mali. AQIM carries out attacks against the Algerian military and also kidnaps Western tourists in an effort to weaken and ultimately overthrow the Algerian government, which it seeks to replace with Islamic rule based on a “pure” interpretation of the Quran. In 2007, AQIM attempted to assassinate the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. AQIM specifically targets its attacks on Algerians, the French and on Americans.


The Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) was formed in late 2011 and came to prominence in April 2012, when it joined two Tuareg groups, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar al-Din, in seizing control of northern Mali. MUJAO controlled the town of Gao between April 2012 and January 2013. Based in northern Mali, MUJAO is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and is comprised mostly of Arabs from Mali, Niger and Mauritania. Its founding members hail predominantly from AQIM’s Mauritanian contingent. Its leader, Hammad Ould Mohammed al-Khayri, split from AQIM to promote jihad and establish the rule of Sharia in West Africa. The MUJAO group was behind the 2012 kidnapping of Algerian diplomats in Mali[5].

3.Boko Haram

Boko Haram; prominent in Nigeria`s northern region – their name translates as “Western education is forbidden”. It is led by Abubakar Shekau, a hardliner cleric who has been reportedly killed on a number of occasions. They are infamous for the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian school girls in 2014[6]. Most of the attacks attributed to the group have targeted police stations, churches, schools and other educational institutions. A Nigerian jihadist group, Ansar al-Muslimin in the Lands of the Blacks (JAMBS), is thought to have been founded following a split from Boko Haram. Also referred to as ‘Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa’, or simply ‘Ansaru’, the group has claimed the abduction and killing of numerous hostages. Several groups using the title Ansar al-Sharia have emerged across the Arab world since 2011.

The Opportunity for Extremism in Africa

The socio-economic disparity between the rich and poor is growing exponentially in Africa, without bridging this gap the poor disenfranchised sections of society will remain Africa`s greatest threat. 

 1. Socio-economic disparities: In certain parts of Africa these groups have been known to offer financial support to struggling families and monthly stipends to desperate youths. Most recruitment conducted by extremist groups happens in poor communities where mostly youths are unemployed with little or no hope for a better future. In Nigeria, 70% of the population lives on less than US$ 1 a day[7]. Poverty and the existence of widespread corruption in the Kenyan government make wealth distribution slow, hindering rural communities from development. The 2014 Corruption Perception Index rated Kenya as 136th out of 176 countries[8]. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, have proved less organised when compared to their Middle-Eastern counterparts; however their access to desperate youths trapped in poor family units make them an imminent threat in the worlds` youngest continent.

2. Capacity deficit: lack of an effective response by targeted countries and the continent is currency to continuous attacks from extremist groups. African states are failing to combine their surveillance, military, resource, intelligence and training capabilities in a interdependent or supportive manner, resulting in isolated, uncoordinated preventative and reactive counter measures.

 Democracy deficit: “rule by the people” is one of the ultimate ideals that modern civilizations strive to create and preserve. Extensive representation and inclusiveness of people and their views is crucial to the functioning of a fair and just society. Somalia has been under anarchy for more than two decades, lack of a unifying figure or government, isattractive to extremist. For example, political grievances in Somalia, enable Al-Shabaab to re-build and thrive repeatedly. Often, any ostrecized section of society with deep hatred or displeasure with the state is a potential breeding ground for extremist groups.

In Nigeria, the history of coups, civil war and rebellion created a volatile environment in which extremism could thrive. The Biafran War – a movement for the emancipation of the Niger Delta – are all elements that contributed to violent responses by ostrecised sections of the country and the igniting of Boko Haram.

Winning the War Against Extremism

 The Case of Somalia

 The argument for a better organised continent is supported by the classic example of Somalia.

The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) is blueprint of how Africa – acting as a unit – is more successful. AMISOM is composed of troops from Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Djibouti – with an independent force from Ethiopia. AMISON and the Ethiopian troops jointly managed to push out al-shabaab on numerous occasions and re-capturing the capital, Mogadishu. They also managed to clear the rebel stronghold in Kismayo. This contingent of African troops helped Somalia’s re-emergence from over two decades of war and warlord rule as a failed state. This success not only ignites the hopes of an African army but shows how unity of purpose, sharing of intelligence and combined resources makes Africa safer and more resilient even in the face of terror.

Strengthening the Core: The African Union

The African Union Commission (AUC) is operated by varying Commissions that are overseen by the Chairperson of the AUC. However, the Assembly of the Union – which is a comprised of member state Presidents’ who rotationally elect their Chairperson yearly – have more functional powers than the AUC. This is ironic because the Assembly only convenes twice a year, and has little time to comprehensively tend to continental needs as they arise. Equipping the Chairperson with more powers will mitigate bureaucracy; hasten decision-making and implementation of continental priorities.

Security of African states demands the AU to be more decisive; decisions have be based on the guiding principles of the AU Charter, but timing and execution are the backbone of effectiveness when it comes to responding to extremism. The Peace and Security Architecture (PSA); an umbrella of AU mechanisms for promoting peace, security and stability in Africa is central to the success of any African intervention.

African Union Assembly Special Quorum

The Assembly needs to revise its decision making process; in addition to rotating its Chairperson annually, the Assembly can annually nominate a six member team of Presidents chosen per regional economic bloc to exercise oversight on urgent matters tabled by the AUC Chairperson. The current Constitutive Act of the Assembly allows the Chairperson to be assisted by a bureau of four Vice Chairpersons who are selected upon agreed geographical distribution[9]. The suggestion of the Special Quorum will give all members an equal power to act according to the Charter and the interests of the Union. Furthermore; it is time for the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), which is the supposed legislature of the AU/AUC to assume its functions. Emergency decisions of the Special Quorum and the AUC Chairperson will be reviewed by the PAP, the Executive Council (EC) of the AU Assembly, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the African Court of Justice (ACJ). Importantly, The Special Quorum and the African Union Chairperson should be able deploy African Standby Force (ASF) without seeking approval from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

African Corps

The concept of a Pan-African military force dates back to the era of Kwame Nkrumah; the father of Pan-Africanism, who envisaged an African High Command to prevent foreign intervention and assist liberation movements to wage war against colonial governments. More recently, Muammar Gaddafi proposed an African Army and offered to equip and house the army within purpose-built barracks in his hometown of Sirte, Libya. In place of an African Army, the African Union created the African Standby Force (ASF) whose major challenges are funding, language, different skills training, a base/s and equipment. To overcome these better, there is need for recruitment of young people into the formation of the African Corps.

The AUC Chairperson should be given have the capacity to recruit and train individuals who will form the African Corps and report to the AUC Chairperson through the Peace and Security Council. Although the AU rightly encourages overall participation of member states, they may start with the coalition of the willing. The coalition will contribute resources towards the upkeep and training of the African Corps. The African Corps will bolster member states and Regional Economic Communities` (RECs) capacities. The African Corps training will help instil African patriotism and preparedness in the face of countering extremist insurgency.

Intelligence Sharing

Africa needs a consolidated intelligence treaty which supersedes bilateral and or historical agreements by African member states with former colonisers or any other non-African state.

The Continental Early Warning Systems (CEWS) was established under article 12 of the PSC Protocol, to facilitate the anticipation and prevention of conflicts[10]. It gathers information on potential conflicts or threats to the peace and security of member states and provides this information to the PSC.

This is the most critical mechanism for security and stability in Africa. It is however disturbing that some African states i.e. Francophone states share intelligence with and sometimes only with France, instead of the AU. One could argue that the capacity deficit of Africa in areas of security and economy emanate from this disunity in purpose and action. All African states should work together in their RECs and supplement the power of the AU organs accordingly; the CEWS can only be effective if member states feed it.

In an effort to bridge the porous border systems in Africa, member states should work more closely with the PSC in monitoring and sharing intelligence on suspicious border activities and trends. Bribery at borders to gain access into surrounding countries is another challenge yet to be

[1] Guibernau, M. 2004. Anthony D Smith on nations and national identity: a critical assessmentHistory and National Destiny, Blackwell (Oxford).

[2] Mauro. R. The Clarion Project. 2014. What is Islamic Extremism? Available at: [Accessed: 21 November 2015]

[3] Global Terrorism Index. 2014. Available at: [Accessed: 7 November 2015]

[4] BBC. 2014. Africa`s Militant Islamic groups. Available at: [Accessed: 20 November 2015]

[5] France24. 2014. ‘Algerian diplomats held by Islamists are freed in Mali’. Available at: [Accessed: 2 December 2015]
[6] Aljazeera. 2014. ‘Boko Haram ‘to sell’ abducted schoolgirls’ Available at: [Accessed: 1 December 2015]

[7] The World Fact Book. 2013. Population below Poverty Line. Available at: Accessed: [1 December 2015]

[8] Transparency International. 2014. Corruption Perceptions Index 2014. Available at: [Accessed: 6 November 2015]

[9] African Union. 2015. African Union Handbook. Available at: [Accessed: 17 November 2015]

[10] African Union. AU Treaties and Protocols. Available at: [Accessed: 17 November 2015]