Firefighters try to extinguish flames from the wreckage of burning vehicles at the scene of an attack on a restaurant by the Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

August 05, 2022

The Underestimated Insurgency: African States at Risk for Salafi-Jihadi Insurgencies

Key Points

  • Salafi-jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State are spreading in Africa, posing new threats to countries that have either suppressed or not yet experienced significant and sustained jihadist violence. This proliferation and expansion of African Salafi-jihadi groups will fuel regional disorder, humanitarian crises, and a persistent and likely increasing global terror threat.
  • Identifying risk factors and tracking them over time can allow analysts to forecast potential Salafi-jihadi insurgencies and better understand the dynamics leading to worst-case security scenarios and the policies that can avert them.
  • Countries that have contained or defeated Salafi-jihadi insurgencies may still face significant risk, particularly if they have not addressed the underlying conditions that fuel insurgencies. These countries are most vulnerable if they experience political, security, or economic crises that reopen opportunities to weak or dormant Salafi-jihadi networks.

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Salafi-jihadi insurgencies have proliferated in Africa in the past decade. Salafi-jihadi groups had territorial bases in just four countries at the start of 2011: Afghanistan, Kenya, Pakistan, and Somalia.[1] By 2015, Salafi-jihadi insurgencies were active in 14 countries.[2] By 2021, the number had reached at least 35,[3] including a dramatic expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

This expansion has occurred because conditions favorable to Salafi-jihadi insurgencies have increased. The Salafi-jihadi movement had long existed on the fringes of society, failing repeatedly to ignite a mass movement.[4] However, governance crises such as state collapse or conflict can deliver the large-scale anti-government mobilization that Salafi-jihadis desire but have failed to create themselves.

The Arab Spring period’s mass mobilization and the conflicts that followed in some countries coincided with an expansion in Salafi-jihadi activity. Likewise, uprisings and intercommunal conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa have fed the proliferation of Salafi-jihadi groups. These groups benefit from opportunities to impose themselves on vulnerable populations and, in some cases, fill a void for communities with no viable alternatives.

Several risk factors tend to contribute to the for­mation of Salafi-jihadi insurgencies, even as individual cases vary. These factors, listed in the report, are derived from a synthesis of existing studies on insur­gency and state fragility and the case studies summa­rized in this report.

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1. Mary Habeck, “Understanding ISIS and al Qaeda,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, June 15, 2019,

2. Habeck, “Understanding ISIS and al Qaeda.”

3. Katherine Zimmerman, “Al Qaeda & ISIS 20 Years After 9/11,” Wilson Center, September 8, 2021,

4. Katherine Zimmerman, America’s Real Enemy: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement, Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, July 18, 2017,

5. Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index 2020, P3: Human Rights and Rule of Law,; and Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index 2020, P2: Public Services,

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