Belgium – Brussels : The crisis in Syria and the situation created by Islamic State in the Middle East have shadowed the events related to the ‘Islamic States’ in Africa. Somalia, Nigeria, Mali and Libya, each with its own ‘Islamic State’, represent a serious threat to stability in Africa, and Europe, as well.
Despite the fact that Western powers involved in the fight against the jihadists in Africa, in cooperation with the friendly African governments, have repeatedly declared that the Islamist movements have been defeated, the reality is quite different.
Even though they started from different bases and cultural environments, the ‘Islamic States’ in Africa have enjoyed a surprising level of persistence in keeping and organising their ‘territories’, as well as a remarkable capacity to attract fresh recruits.
Another issue is that Western powers are treating these ‘states’ as if they were terrorist organisations. This is not so. A fundamental difference exists between a terrorist organisation, such as Al-Qaeda, and these four main Islamic movements in Africa.
Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Islamic State in Libya, are now acting on a transnational basis as they seize territory and organise, in one way or another, state structures. In addition, they have endless resources for recruitment.
The reason for their ‘success’ is quite obvious. It is the nonexistence of a real state, and the chaos resulting from the lack of any state structure, as is the case of Somalia, Libya and Mali. It is also the total and deep corruption that annihilates the state, such as in Nigeria.
In northern Muslim Nigeria, for example, it is the police who are feared more by the general population than the jihadists because they are the ones who are conducting torture, forcing bribes and looting. In Somalia, the state army soldiers are also looting because they are badly and rarely paid by the government.
To the above, one can also add the problem of endemic poverty that exists in all these countries and areas affected by jihadist movements.
It is also important to note that the Salafist form of jihad, despite the fact that Westerners have also been targeted at times, is directed against Sunni Muslim governments. What is more, it is the failure of these governments to fulfil the fundamental needs of their populations that has allowed the Salafist version of Islam to be so successful in areas traditionally belonging to more tolerant forms of Islam.
Salafism has extended and theologically legitimated the notion of a jihad against non-pious Muslim rulers as well.
Why this matters
The transnational character of the above mentioned movements affects bigger areas.
In Kenya, Al-Shabab recruits among Somalis and Kenyans in the country. Many of them, according to reports, are youth from Christian families. The group has also expanded its operations in Kenya and Uganda, in an area considered to be rich in energy resources. In addition, Al-Shabab continues to play an instrumental role in the jihadist activity and terrorism in Yemen.
As regards Boko Haram, the group operates in three states of northern Nigeria, as well as in Chad and Cameroon. It also maintains longstanding relations and cooperation with Al-Qaeda in Maghreb and similar groups in Mali.
In Libya, the presence and expansion of Islamic State has opened a new chapter in arms trafficking in many African states.
This transnational character facilitates operations of organised crime networks. The close relations between jihadists and mafia groups are well known. The trafficking of human beings, drugs, weapons, cigarettes and other contraband goods, as well as poaching and wildlife trafficking, is a lucrative business for Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Since military intervention has not brought about any solution, the situation in 2016 could become worse. Despite its heroic efforts, the African Union’s presence in Somalia failed because the governments and the local military and police have not managed to profit from the support of Somalis.
In Nigeria, despite the military’s large operation in the northern Muslim states, the local population continues to consider them as the enemy. The Nigerian military has been accused of carrying out massacres on the same level as the deadly Boko Haram.
In Mali, France’s intervention in 2013 failed to create a safe environment and the jihadists are now back.
In Libya, there is still chaos and anarchy.
In 2016, the four ‘Islamic States’ in Africa will continue to pose major security threats.
Libya, Niger and Chad have become a free natural corridor for smuggling migrants, illicit goods and weapons. Jihadist positions in Libya, which is an oil-rich country, will be hardly defended by Islamic State.
Somalia’s ‘Islamic State’ is threatening Kenya and Uganda and will continue to be a player in Yemen.
Nigeria’s jihadists could expand their operations and recruitment base in neighbouring countries where poverty, corruption and weak state structures exist. The continuous crisis in Nigeria, which is the richest and most populous country in Africa, could provoke centrifugal tendencies in non-Muslim areas like Biafra or even a new wave of disorder in Niger Delta.
Mali will continue to be one of the three principle routes for Colombian cocaine to Europe, as well as people smuggling and trafficking of contraband cigarettes and other goods.
If this environment in the African areas where ‘Islamic States’ are active is not drastically changed, 2016 will be a year marked by jihadist actions.
Western efforts trying to address the situation need to understand that strict control over any financial or humanitarian aid is necessary because local leaderships are corrupt. It is also important to understand that these local situations are the key reason Salafist Islam is so successful in some parts of Muslim Africa.
For all these reasons, military intervention should only be part of further action needed to convince the local populations that the alternative being proposed to them is more effective and more attractive for their future.