Terrorism in Africa: An Inside Look At the 3 Most Dangerous African Terrorist Groups



Al-Shabab is an insurgent group based in Somalia that employs guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics to seek territorial control over the country. The name means “the youth” in Arabic. It formed as the militant youth wing of the now defunct Union of Islamic Courts in 2006 in Somalia. Its presence is limited to Somalia and incursions across Somali borders into Kenya and Ethiopia. It may have also played a role in the 2002 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. It has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21.

The leader is Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was also behind the establishment of formal ties with Al-Qaeda in 2012 and emphasizes a more international agenda than in the past. He recently emerged victorious in a power struggle with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. Aweys, who is now in Somali government custody, emphasized a localized struggle in Somalia. Godane took over the leadership role following death of his predecessor (Moalim Aden Hashi Ayro) in a 2008 U.S. airstrike.

Unlike most Somalis, who have followed the Sufi Muslim tradition for centuries, Al-Shabab espouses a radical form of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. This has been a point of contention between the group and some, civilian Somalis. The group is not a single, monolithic organization. Commitment and goals vary among members. Most are likely more committed to national  than to international goals.

Al-Shabab’s activities can have an international impact. Their attacks across international borders, like the September attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, impact international expatriate and tourist presence as well as international business interests, in addition to the devastation it wrecks on local communities and businesses. (The Westgate Mall is jointly owned by Kenyan and Israeli interests.). Most of al-Shabab’s activities and demands remain focused on Somalia, however. They still control large swaths of southern-central Somalia, even as international (UN and AU backed) troops make headway along Somalia’s borders and coastline.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a network of smugglers, kidnappers-for-ransom, and insurgents who are active across much of the Sahel. The Sahel is the arid region of semi-desert at the southern end of the Sahara Desert. The “Maghreb” is the Northwest African region that included the old Islamic empires. AQIM may have aspirations for influence across northern and Sahelian Africa that echoes their extent.

The founders of the group were fighters in Armed Islamic Group (AIG) during the Algerian civil war (1991-2002). There have been several generations of groups with cross-over in membership and ideology over the past 11 years; AQIM is merely the current manifestation. It was formed in 2007.

AQIM broadly seeks to rid northern Africa of western influence and western style governments. Its rhetoric calls for the establishment of an Islamic polity in territories they have controlled, they have often imposed strict forms of sharia law. As with Al-Shabab, AQIM has links with the Al-Qaeda franchise, and draws heavily on Wahhabi Islamic teaching. Also similar to al-Shabab, AQIM is not a monolithic group, and there are often murderous disagreements among its commanders on how best to establish Islamic rule. Sometimes these lead to break away factions establishing their own groups, as occurred when AQIM fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away to form a group he calls “Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade” in December.

Abdelmalek Droukdel is AQIM’s current overall leader, though there his authority is limited by several high-ranking commanders. They exercise considerable autonomy from Droukdel and each other, and are as often rivals as comrades.

AQIM funds itself through kidnapping foreigners and holding them for ransom. Ransoms for Europeans can run as high as $4.5 million. AQIM is also heavily involved in smuggling across the Sahara. The ancient trade routes that once used to transport salt and slaves (among other commodities) now transport narcotics from South America and weapons, among other things. 

AQIM is a danger to U.S. and western interests only when those interests are located in the Sahara and Sahel. AQIM has yet to demonstrate the capability or the realistic political will to expand its activities beyond its current sphere of influence.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram is a diffuse, grassroots based radical insurgency that has waged a bloody campaign against the Nigerian state since 2010. The group is highly diffuse and operates in a cell-like structure across Northern Nigeria. At times they also traverse the porous borders into Niger, Cameroon, and even into Mali.

Like al-Shabab and AQIM, Boko Haram has been influenced by Saudi based Wahhbism, but with a particularly African flare. Many of the radical teachers who proselytize Islamic radicalism in Nigeria are influenced by Islamic teachers based in Khartoum.

Broadly speaking, Boko Haram rejects as evil the secular federal government in Nigeria, seeks its destruction, and the establishment of an Islamic state in its place. However, the group lacks essential structure and unified leadership. John Campbell (former ambassador to Nigeria) states that Boko Haram is "looking toward the creation of God's kingdom on earth through violence against those they see as Islam's enemies, rather than the achievement of a political program." 

The nominal head of Boko Haram is Sheikh Abubakar Shekau. He was the deputy of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf, and took over when the police murdered Yusuf in 2009. The group uses a number of tactics including bombings (suicide and timed explosions), targeted assassinations, drive-by shootings, and mass killings (using guns, knives, and machetes) in highly populated areas. They have attacked schools during class, their dormitories at night, churches and mosques during service, and set off explosives in crowded markets..

The group’s foot soldiers are largely the urban unemployed, and often the survivors of the Alma Jiri Qur’anic school system. These are street schools where children memorize the Koran and beg on the streets for their food.

Shekau often uses global jihadist rhetoric in his videos (his chosen method of communication with the outside world), but there is little evidence that their practical goals reach beyond Nigeria’s borders. Boko Haram is rooted in the grievances of poverty, under education, and chronic bad governance. This concentrates their activities on the national government and what the group perceives as outposts of federal oppression. They also target religious leaders and members of the public, Muslim and Christian, who are seen to be working against Boko Haram. That manifests itself in attacks on schools, churches, opposition mosques, security, and government buildings and personnel.

Boko Haram ideology is malleable though, so a shift toward a more international perspective at some point in the future — under different leadership, or following a particularly transformative catalyst — is not out of the question.

Emily Mellgard is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) working with Ambassador John Campbell on the Africa program. You can follow Amb. Campbell's blog here

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