With Nigeria’s Boko Haram overtaking ISIS as the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, and with three out of five of the world’s most lethal terror groups operating in Africa, the beleaguered continent will continue to face a grave terrorist threat.
While much attention has been focused on ISIS and the Middle East in recent times, this fixation overlooks an alarming trend: that despite a rise in extremist violence generally, Africa – not the Middle East – has seen the sharpest uptick in terrorism.
Indeed, according to the Global Terrorism Index, released in November 2015, Nigeria experienced a 300% increase in terrorist deaths between 2013 and 2014, with some 7,512 deaths recorded in 2014; the largest ever increase.
Much of this can be attributed to Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group that, with its attacks on villages in Northeast Nigeria, has overtaken ISIS as the world’s deadliest terror group.
But other groups, including the Fulani militants in Nigeria’s Middle Belt and al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, continue to pose a serious threat. While they operate largely outside the global spotlight, they remain a serious risk that governments, citizens and businesses that reside in various parts of West and East Africa.
Boko Haram: the world’s deadliest group
In the past few years, Boko Haram has exploited lawlessness in Nigeria’s Northeast and the free flow of weapons caches from Libya, to transform itself from a modest insurgency to a powerful force capable of launching shocking transnational attacks in the Lake Chad region.
Since the insurgency took hold in 2009, the group has killed more than 20,000 people and left over 2.2 million people displaced; in 2014 alone, Boko Haram killed more than 6,600 people, 10% more than ISIS –together they accounted for 51% of all deaths from terrorist violence. That makes the group the deadliest in the world. The past summer, Boko Haram also attacked Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Yet the group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015, poses the greatest danger in Nigeria, now one of the global epicenters of violent extremism. In January last year it undertook its deadliest attack ever in the town of Baga, in the Borno Province bordering Chad. The attack killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Since then, Nigerian President Muhamad Buhari, who took office in May, has pledged to put down the insurgency.
The former army general has taken a tougher stance than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, working with regional forces to drive Boko Haram out of areas it seized in early 2015.These forces, which include 10,000 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, continue to make headway and, on 10 January, President Buhari declared the group ‘can no longer launch military style attacks as they had done in the past.’
That would be welcome news if it were true. But others are not so sure. Boko Haram, says Jean-Marie Guehenno, the CEO of International Crisis Group, ‘is resilient, adaptable, and mobile.’ Accordingly, the group has resorted to suicide attacks rather than village raids, but still retains much of its lethality.
At the same time, local governments are failing to address the grassroots factors behind radicalization, including widespread unemployment, economic inequality and social alienation.
And Buhari, for all his progress, has still failed to bring back the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls – a key measure of success he outlined leading up to the election. So, while a more sustained and coordinated campaign has diminished Boko Haram’s capabilities recently, the group remains one of – if not the deadliest – in the world.
Fulani Militants: Nigeria’s other terrorist group
Terrorism in Nigeria is also fueled by a militant group of Fulani herdsmen. Operating in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the Global Terrorism Index estimated that the group was responsible for 1,229 deaths in 2014. That represents an astonishing surge in violence; in 2013 they were responsible for just 63 deaths. It is also fastest growing terrorist group the world.
The little-known group comprises individuals from the semi-nomadic pastoral Fula people that exist in several West African nations. Unlike Boko Haram, however, the Fulani militants have localized goals, which center on greater access to farmland and livestock. More often than not, their victims are civilian farming community’s in the Middle Belt.
While there have been some reports linking Boko Haram with the Fulani militants, particularly with smuggling and organized crime, further cooperation appears unlikely given their diverging goals, territorial claims, and ideologies.
Nevertheless, the Fulani group poses a serious threat to security, especially since the groups movements and attacks are opportunistic and haphazard. Its increased propensity for violence has meant that the group now ranks as the fourth-deadliest in the world – more lethal even than al-Shabaab. Buhari may have his sights set on Boko Haram, but he can ill-afford to turn a blind eye to the Fulani militants.
Al-Shabaab: an unknown entity in East Africa?
al-Shabaab, Africa’s third deadliest terrorist group – and the fifth deadliest in the world – suffered a series of military setbacks in recent times but remains a threat in the south of Somalia and parts of Kenya.
The group is allied to al-Qaeda and is estimated to have between 7,000-9,000 fighters. For the past 16 months it has clashed with Somali, African Union and US military forces and, in 2014, the group killed over a thousand people, roughly double that of 2013.
Recent events, however, indicate that the group has become deeply divided. While many militants are focused on regional objectives – especially since the group began as a resistance movement – others have become transfixed by a transcontinental jihad and the alluring prospect of a global Islamic state.
Consequently, while the core of Shabaab fighters remain loyal to al-Qaeda, a small but powerful element, which includes Mohamed Kuno, the mastermind of the Garissa University attacks, has pledged allegiance to the ISIS and left behind al-Shabaab.
This ISIS-affiliated group is around 100-200 strong and poses a perilous dilemma for security forces; while the rift will weaken the capabilities of al-Shabaab overall, the defections may lead to a surge in attacks as the opposing groups compete for attention, glory, and new recruits.
The bottom line
Although the West will focus its attention on ISIS and the Middle East for the foreseeable future, these terrorist groups will continue to wreak havoc in many parts of West and East Africa, especially in the Lake Chad region and Kenya and Somalia.
Having become a new epicenter for global terrorism, Africa cannot be ignored in 2016.