Somali Islamists publicly punish man (Photo by Abdurrahman Warsameh, available at Flickr)

October 01, 2009

Theater of Jihad: Africa

Demographics: Though precise figures for the number of Muslims living in Africa do not exist—partially a function of the fact that obtaining accurate statistics has proven too sensitive for African governments with heterogeneous populations—they are believed to constitute roughly 45 percent of the continent’s total population (around 400 million people). While many of the continent’s Muslims are concentrated in the Mediterranean littoral countries, Islam has made considerable inroads into West, East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African Christians, who have been eclipsed by Muslims and who are believed to make up nearly 40 percent of the continent’s population, have historically predominated in the south, but that dynamic is changing with Central African nations increasingly becoming a fault line for inter-faith tensions.  


In June 2006, Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad), Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia’s virtual Internet publication, published a piece by Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Azzam al-Ansari on the virtues of waging jihad on the African continent. The article, entitled “Al Qaeda is moving to Africa,” proved to be prescient: several months after its publication, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the merger of Al Qaeda and the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a union that would result in the creation of the local franchise known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM). While AQIM’s emergence on the jihadist scene did not mark Al Qaeda’s first foray into Africa—Osama bin Laden’s movement took up refuge in Sudan in the early 1990s and launched its first “spectacular” attack against the United States in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998—the 2006 alliance represented the global jihadist movement’s most significant and ambitious venture there to date.   

Part of Al Qaeda’s decision to expand into North Africa and bestow its imprimatur on Algerian Islamists once ostracized in extremist circles was no doubt born of necessity. Increasingly beaten out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula in recent years, Al Qaeda’s need for a sanctuary and base in Africa—be it in the Maghrib, Horn, or the remote pan-Sahelian corridor—has increased exponentially. In short, the primacy of Africa in both Al Qaeda’s thought and action has grown in proportion to its failures elsewhere. But exigency alone has not accounted for its interest in the continent. As Ansari’s detailed sketch of the network’s Africa strategy makes clear, it also sees the region as some of the world’s most fertile terrain for waging global jihad.  

Indeed, from Al Qaeda’s vantage point, Africa affords it the opportunity to grow and expand beyond just the current “hot wars” in Somalia and Algeria: not only do many of the intelligence and internal security services of African governments remain weak and ineffectual, but the continent’s widespread privation also leaves its populaces susceptible to the influence of Islamist da’wa (proselytization and charitable) networks and long-term radicalization. Coupled with the prevalence of tribal and ethnic hostilities—as well as conflicts pitting Christian against Muslim, a dynamic increasingly on display in Nigeria, where shari’a law has been adopted in a third of the country’s thirty-six states—the easy procurement of weapons, and the geographic proximity of the Middle East and Europe, Africa makes for an ideal base of operations, a reality not lost on Al Qaeda. The scant attention paid to the continent in U.S. policymaking circles has only augmented the appeal.   

So too have Africa’s natural resources and raw materials, a benefit also mentioned by Ansari. Like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia-cum-political party, Al Qaeda has been known to trade in “conflict diamonds”, buying and selling gemstones in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere in West Africa. The diamonds have allowed Al Qaeda to fund operations, acquire weapons and cash, and convert hard currency into a fungible commodity, a necessity in the wake of 9-11 when many of their financial assets were frozen and illegal transactions interdicted.    

Yet, on the surface, these and other strategic advantages might seem to be offset by the prevalence of Sufism in African Islam, a mystical interpretation of the faith considered heretical by both Salafist and Wahhabi doctrine. As such, Sufi orders have historically resisted attempts by proponents of either trend to make inroads on the continent, especially in the Horn. This hostility, however, has steadily eroded over time. Since the end of colonialism in the 20th century, African Muslims have become more hospitable to Salafist ideology, a result of the many members of Islamist revival movements who have partaken in Salafist-led training and education programs in Egypt and Saudi Arabia only to propagate a more rigid, militant, and intolerant interpretation of Islam upon returning to their home communities.  

This phenomenon was especially acute during the 1970s and 1980s, when the Gulf oil windfall drew many Africans to the region in search of employment opportunities. On the continent itself, Saudi-funded Wahhabi mosques and madrassas have also infiltrated countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa at an impressive rate over the last decade. The intrusion of Salafist-jihadist dogma into the African landscape in recent decades may facilitate Al Qaeda’s strategy in on the continent, but the increasing significance that the group is affording to the continent reflects a greater pragmatism in its modus operandi. Indeed, in expanding into Africa, Al Qaeda has become more willing to compromise its ideological tenets in order to reap the strategic benefits that result from carving out a presence there. Thus, not only does the continent’s widespread Sufi following then not present an impediment to Al Qaeda’s agenda, it is actually seen as an advantage. As Ansari’s 2006 article explains, “Many Mujahideen in other countries have learned that working with the Sufis is easier than working with any other trend, such as the Shi’a or the Communists.” Ultimately, it is this lack of dogmatism—an ideological rigidity that has so often undermined Al Qaeda’s success elsewhere—that may make Africa a more dangerous theater than any other region where the group is currently engaged in jihad.