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Terror Spreads in Africa

The Islamic State fell in the Middle East – but violent Islamist extremism is exploding across Africa.

Guest: Mary Harper, Africa Editor at the BBC

The Islamic State fell in the Middle East – but violent Islamist extremism is exploding across Africa

Two years after the fall of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq, jihadist militants are making huge inroads in Africa. As the continent battles the coronavirus and poverty, Islamist attacks are spreading across the Sahel, West Africa and beyond – with far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world.

Mary Harper, the BBC’s Africa Editor and expert on violent radical Islam in Africa, joins Altamar to explain the impacts of Africa’s surging terrorist activity. Since the early 1990s, Harper has reported on the continent from conflict zones such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, Algeria, and the two Congos. She has written for The Economist, Granta, The Guardian, The Times and The Washington Post and is the author of the book “Everything You Have Told Me is True” about the East African jihadist group Al-Shabaab.

“Huge swaths of the continent are affected by violent extremist Islam…it’s spreading its tentacles,” says Harper. Militants aligned with the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and a “very complex myriad groups of jihadists” have spread across the Sahel and West Africa, including Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Cameroon. “Further into the East…you’ve got another kind of radical Islam…Al-Shabaab, which is based in Somalia, but hits countries like Kenya, Djibouti and elsewhere,” she explains, and “if you start going South down from Somalia, through Kenya, Tanzania, and into Mozambique, you’ve got an intensifying Islamist insurgency.”

The repercussions aren’t limited to Africa. According to Harper, growing jihadism on the continent means the rest of the world also faces “a mixture of a security threat and an economic problem.” Terrorism is already spurring migration into Europe: “Tens of thousands of African migrants…ending up in Europe…are fleeing violence, including jihadist violence,” she says. “If you look more globally…some of these groups…have directly verbally threatened to attack shopping malls in Paris, London, the United States. They have sympathizers and funders who are based in the United States and elsewhere,” she explains. Islamist forces are also attacking international operations in Africa: “Obviously that is going to have an impact on mineral extractions that are often led by Western companies…people are quite wary to get involved.”

At a time when African nations are coming together through the African Union and new trade initiatives, they have also launched joint anti-terrorism operations in different parts of the continent. Nevertheless, Harper argues that “the cooperation is not necessarily very effective or even present at all…They’re not very well coordinated and there’s quite a lot of confusion.” Worse yet, “Quite often the forces that are involved in trying to defeat Islamist groups, they themselves carry out human rights violations in the process.”

International forces are also struggling to combat the jihadist threat in Africa.  While the Trump Administration scaled back U.S. support, France still maintains its largest overseas military operation in the Sahel. “International air power can be quite effective as long as it is targeted as intelligently and accurately as it can be,” says Harper. But, she notes, while international forces “seem unable to contain this problem,” the situation would worsen without them: “There’s a lot of rhetoric about how it’s awful to have these international Western powers intervening…but perhaps they are necessary and they do help at least reduce the problem.”

Overlap among militant groups further complicates matters. The “more or less globalized groups…often attach themselves or blend in with existing militant groups or rebel groups or ethnic militias” and exploit local grievances, explains Harper. “The more embedded they get into the local society, they often start taxing the local population,” she says. While radical Islamist groups in Africa are often funded from abroad by groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Harper also pointed to an African jihadist group that had possibly “raised locally…to help fund Islamist extremist groups elsewhere in the world…if it is true…that’s a whole new level of threat.”

Find out more about the spread of violent radical Islam in Africa, available for download here.

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