Africa’s counter-terrorism strategies require upgrades with African Union engagement to address growing threats

Africa’s counter-terrorism strategies require upgrades with African Union engagement to address growing threats
A French soldier stands inside a military helicopter during France's Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Christophe Petit Tesson / Pool)

Global terror groups have set their sights on Africa, making a common African Union-led approach a matter of urgency. 

As Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda leaders have been targeted and eliminated internationally, the terrorist groups have expanded and consolidated their African operations. According to Jihad Analytics, half the attacks claimed by IS since the beginning of 2022 were carried out in 10 African countries. Among them were Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria — the four Boko Haram-affected countries of the Lake Chad Basin.

Boko Haram factions are also expanding operations beyond the region. For a long time, the eight primary target areas of violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin were North and Far North (Cameroon), Lac and Hadjer-Lamis (Chad), Diffa (Niger), and Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (Nigeria). However, in 2022 the scope has expanded, particularly with the establishment of Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) cells in other parts of Nigeria.

This has complicated counter-insurgency operations, especially where national militaries are already overstretched. The extension of terrorist activities beyond the Lake Chad Basin also puts these groups beyond the reach of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force — a military response to Boko Haram set up by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. 

There is the growing possibility of mergers or alliances of convenience involving the three prominent violent extremist groups in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, namely Iswap, Ansaru and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). The move to expand and consolidate operations is forging unlikely ties not only between terrorist groups but between them and organised criminals.

Two examples are the kidnapping of train passengers in Kaduna, Nigeria, in March and the jailbreak leading to the escape of prisoners affiliated with Boko Haram in Abuja, Nigeria, in July. The former involved a collaboration between the Boko Haram faction Ansaru and criminal gangs referred to as bandits. The latter brought together two Boko Haram factions, Ansaru and Iswap. 

Growing links are also being observed between Boko Haram offshoots outside their usual geographic zones of operation. A merger of the three breakaway factions may cause a spillover of terrorism in Nigeria and the wider Sahel. 

Ansaru is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, while Iswap owes allegiance to the IS core. JAS has reportedly reached out to IS, leading the global terror organisation to nudge its most successful affiliate, Iswap, towards an alliance with JAS. A merger could see a consolidation of fighters and resources. It may also lead to greater control of economic activities in the communities where these groups operate, improving terrorists’ access to income. 

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These trends could expand recruitment into violent extremist groups. Attacks such as the Abuja jailbreak show the ability of perpetrators to target capital cities in affected countries. Boko Haram has hit N’Djamena in Chad and Abuja in the past.

Collaboration between terrorists and other armed groups will affect counter-insurgency measures, making a careful analysis of the conflict dynamics vital. Only by staying ahead of the curve and being proactive can Lake Chad Basin and other African countries avoid becoming more deeply entrapped.

The rise of banditry and abductions signals worsening insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin. Nigeria is currently the epicentre, but the phenomenon is rising in northern Cameroon. Train attacks, hostage takings and arms flows increasingly characterise the already vulnerable region. Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones are particularly affected, with transnational expansion likely. 

In the 16 June 2022 edition of its Al-Naba publication, IS declared Africa the land of Hijra and Jihad and called on its members to relocate to African countries. Analysts have observed the growing involvement of IS and al-Qaeda in the affairs of their African affiliates. The prevailing belief is that the continent is the next stronghold for an ‘Islamic caliphate’.

Between January and June 2022, Nigeria had the second-highest number of IS-claimed attacks (305), just behind Iraq and ahead of Syria at 337 and 142, respectively. The actualisation of IS’ desire to ‘remain and expand’ in Africa may internationalise a conflict that has hitherto been primarily local.

If more terror attacks are launched from locations such as the Lake Chad Basin, these new target countries may be further isolated from the rest of the world through profiling and travel restrictions.

The African Union (AU) has shown a willingness to support regional organisations such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission in the fight against violent extremism. This was emphasised at an AU Peace and Security Council meeting on 23 September. Given the increasing complexity of the situation and a clear trend towards terrorist expansion in parts of Africa previously spared, the AU’s role is crucial.

Drawing on its experience in Somalia and the Lake Chad Basin, the AU’s security bodies should assess the current threats and upgrade their responses accordingly. This implies a consolidated approach that aims to stabilise affected regions, focusing on the military and the socio-political sources of violent extremism.

Greater AU support is also needed for the Lake Chad Basin’s stabilisation and recovery strategy. The AU should also consider bolder engagement with the 85-country member-Global Coalition against Daesh, which in December 2021 announced the establishment of an Africa Focus Group. DM 

Lake Chad Basin project, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, Dakar.

This article was produced by the ISS’ PSC Report.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Simply amazing how our government (and most of our political parties) moan when their superiority is questioned – which I suppose explains why they’re always moaning.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The problem is to give an impression of an AU as an organisation that is in good financial health and a capacity for decision making. We need to give a very honest picture of the state of the AU as a continental organisation that has about less than seven of its 54 member states paying their dues and heavily dependent on the EU, the Nordic countries and the US. Now hopefully the UK being out of the EU. When the African Standby Force was conceived, it was done so in terms of Chapters VI, VII and VIII of the UN Charter and the Responsibility to Protect
    with the principle of subsidiarity. Under Mbeki, South Africa put a lot of resources into the AU to drive its programme and various mechanisms were looked into to finance the AU Programmes. In essence, we have an African organisation that is heavily dependent on donors to finance each and every project that it conceives. South Africa, Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Botswana were six regular payers of the AU. In fact Botswana still meets its obligations to
    the AU trade union formation OATUU.
    What helped the African peace projects was the standing engagements with the G8, the EU and the Nordic countries. Critically, was what was regarded as the African leadership of Mbeki, Obasanjo, Wade, Bouteflika and Mubarak with the South African Reference Group. These problems that have emerged on top of the Great Lakes issue happen with zero African leadership.

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