Al Qaeda-inspired militancy is on the rise in Africa as disparate groups with local grievances find common cause in the global terror group’s tactics and ideology and, in turn, offer it new theaters of operation. Military pressure, drone strikes and the assassination of Osama bin Laden have diminished Al Qaeda globally, leaving it weaker than at any point since its first terrorist spectacular, the 1998 bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
But while Al Qaeda central wanes, affiliates elsewhere are growing stronger, nowhere more so than in Africa, where groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Al Shabaab are finding ways of hitching Al Qaeda’s ideology to their local struggles.
“Africa represents a fertile ground for diminished ‘Al Qaeda-core’ to re-group, re-energize and re-launch its mission of global jihad,” according to a recent report by the Royal United Service Institute, a London-based think tank.
The report pointed to the potential for an “arc of instability encompassing the whole Sahara-Sahel strip and extending through to East Africa.” It warned that Al Qaeda’s new strategy seemed to be “going native,” using local militant groups and their conflicts to gain a foothold in new countries.
But while the report saw the impetus coming from Al Qaeda central, other observers say it is the African affiliates that are in the driving seat.
“Much of this is being driven by the Africans themselves,” Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at Washington’s Atlantic Council, told GlobalPost.
“They are finding in this ideology, which is not native, a way to transcend the local particularities of their individual fight and invest it with a greater meaning that has purchase beyond their borders,” Pham argued.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram offers a powerful example of a local insurgency adopting the rhetorical and tactical style of Al Qaeda to great effect.
Firmly rooted in the neglect and economic marginalization of Nigeria’s Muslim north, Boko Haram has developed its own signature attacks — the bloody church assault, for instance — but has learned from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabaab how to build improvised explosive devices and deploy suicide bombers.