Chaos in Afghanistan Is Hiding a New Threat: Terror in North Africa

Boko Haram terrorists
Credit: AK Rockefeller, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the world reels from the shock of the rapid gains made by Taliban in dislodging the Kabul government and establishing an Islamic Emirate following the withdrawal of American forces, a hidden danger lurks in the background. Africa does not figure in the imaginations of most people when they think of geopolitics or terrorism, it is the Middle East that figures much more prominently. Yet, it is Africa where Islamist extremists have made the most rapid gains, and unlike in the case of Afghanistan, they have done it while being largely invisible from the front pages of the newspapers and magazines.

Islamist terrorism in the region of North Africa is not a new phenomenon; it dates much further back than the US’ War on Terror. The extremism can be traced back to the early post-colonial days, when the newly independent countries of North Africa had to follow their own destiny free from colonial rule. While several options were available for the newly independent countries, some people believed that the only path they should have followed is a pure rule of Islam. Anything else, including democracy, liberal values, or even Arab Socialism, amounted to sacrilege against Islam. 

While many of the countries of North Africa followed a soft version of Islamism, it was clearly not enough for the Islamist radicals. Some responded politically, other responded through terror. Terrorism at this stage was only against the domestic regime, however, and different from the present Islamist terrorism which is directed against the Western world at large, even if the execution is against domestic targets. This new kind of terrorism, which some trace back to the advent of globalization and modernism and others to the more recent Global War on Terror, is the focus of this essay. 

Terrorism in the Post 9/11 era

9/11 marks a watershed event in modern history, and rivals events like the outbreak of Second World War and fall of Berlin Wall in importance. The post 9/11 era has seen the axis of terrorism shift to the region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA), yet it’s the Middle East that has hogged most of the media attention. Part of the reason is the direct US intervention in the region (the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq), but also the general disinterest of the American population in a continent like Africa. 

The weak state institutions in many of North African countries, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, meant that they provide safe havens to terrorists who want a sanctuary to lay low or even operate from. The state apparatus is not strong enough to take meaningful action against the Islamic radicals, even if they have the will to do so. In many cases, the Islamic extremists have sought to challenge these state institutions, putting them on the defensive. The helplessness of the Nigerian government against the challenge posed by Boko Haram is a prime example of this. 

In certain cases, the states themselves have been sponsoring terror activities in other countries. Sudan has, until recently, been on the US’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. In Libya, the Gaddafi regime used to sponsor terrorists to strike Western targets. After his fall, the ensuing chaos ensured the rise of extremist Islamists, many of whom pledged their allegiance to the global Islamic terror networks like Al-Qaeda. In the case of Algeria, the end of the decade long Algerian Civil War led to an even longer insurgency by the Islamists, who were earlier supported by states like Sudan and Libya. After the end of the Civil War, the insurgency was continued by Al Qaeda Organization in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which became the premier Islamist terror group in North Africa. 

Terrorism in the era of ISIS

When ISIS burst into the scene in and made rapid gains in Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2015, the world’s eyes were glued to the region of the Middle East. The way in which city after city fell to ISIS, and the establishment of a Caliphate (a territorial entity, unique for a terror organization) was something remarkable. The media attention also meant that it didn’t take too long for the establishment of a global coalition to defeat ISIS, led by NATO. The sustained air campaign by NATO, along with the bolstered Iraqi army meant that ISIS’ gains were quickly reversed, although it did take another 4 years of ISIS to be defeated. 

At the same time when ISIS was losing ground in the Levant, it was expanding in Africa. Whether this was a hedge to a predicted loss in the Middle East, or the next step towards global domination is unclear, but the timing is significant. With the world’s attention captured by the events in the Middle East, ISIS expansion in Africa went largely unnoticed. At the end of 2016, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISIS had “expanded and shifted some of (their) command, media, and wealth to Africa” and claimed it as part of the Islamic Caliphate. 

ISIS strategy in Africa was, however, quite different from the strategy it employed in the Levant. Unlike there, in Africa it did not go for the establishment of a state-like entity, perhaps because it feared that such an entity would be vulnerable against attacks by the Global Coalition against ISIS. Instead, ISIS co-opted many of the existing terror organizations in the region, who then swore allegiance to it. While it did also compete with many of them as well, leading to brutal conflicts, where it could chose diplomacy and co-option. 

Terror in Africa in the new era of Taliban

The rise of ISIS in Africa did not go entirely unnoticed. With ISIS defeated in the Levant in 2019, the global coalition finally got an opportunity to turn its attention to the rise of ISIS in Africa, particularly the Sahel and Maghreb region which have been the most affected. Had a sustained campaign been initiated similar to that in the Middle East, it is most likely that the nascent organization would have been routed and the threat of ISIS in Africa removed. Unfortunately, Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden’s execution of it in a rather hasty manner meant that the world’s attention got distracted again. 

This has twin problems. Not only does it give an opportunity for ISIS to grow in Africa unchecked, the coming to power of Taliban in Afghanistan could mean exporting terror to Africa under the banner of Al-Qaeda. While there could be some infighting between ISIS and Al-Qaeda as seen in the past, the presence of both groups mean that the African continent is more vulnerable than ever before to the actions of such elements. 

Unfortunately, as long as the crisis in Afghanistan remains, it is unlikely that there would be a coordinated global action to root out terror organizations from Africa (and North Africa in particular). Till that time, the states there are left to fend for themselves, and they severely lack the capacity to do so.

Soumyadeep Bidyanta is a Master’s student at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research interest is in the region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.