Radical Islam gathering strength in sub-Saharan Africa
NAIROBI: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), Shebab fighting for the control of Somalia, or Nigeria’s home-grown sects – radical Islam is taking hold in sub-Saharan Africa in many varied forms.
The groups all claim to be inspired by the Taliban or al-Qaeda, which carried out its first big attacks on African soil – the 1998 truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which several hundred people died.
Aqim, commanded from Algeria, operates in the vast Sahel region where it has staged multiple kidnappings, and in some cases killings, of Westerners over the last three years.
Somalia’s Shebab are trying to impose their brand of Sharia law on war-torn Somalia. In recent months they have multiplied suicide attacks aimed at toppling the UN-backed transitional government.
Nigeria, where 12 norther n states reintroduced Islamic Sharia law in 2000, is in the spotlight after the son of one of the country’s prominent bankers was charged with trying to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on December 25.
In July, Boko Haram, a Taliban-inspired sect whose name means “Western education is a sin” and which seeks to unite Muslims under a Caliphate, carried out simultaneous attacks in four northern states.
“Some Islamist groups in subSaharan Africa have recently become more radicalised, particularly in terms of inflammatory rhetoric and a few recruits for armed jihad,” Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), said.
There are also some signs of cross-fertilisation between different groups.
According to Isselmou Ould Moustapha, a Mauritanian journalist for the Tahalil Hebdo weekly, “in Aquim’s training camps in the Sahara, elements from Somalia’s Shebab and Nigerians from Boko Haram” rub shoulders with North Africans and with recruits from Niger and Mali.
Also present at the camps are fighters back from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Since 2008 the north and east of Mali, near the Algeria border, has served as a refuge for ar med Islamists who have kidnapped Westerners. Six Europeans abducted in Mauritania since November 2009 are thought to be held there.
The Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had visited Yemen where government forces are battling al-Qaeda.
The LSE’s Gerges notes “alarming signs of increasing interaction and fertilisation between Somalia’s Shebab and Yemeni local jihadist groups”.
“Notwithstanding this recent radicalisation, a product of declining social conditions and failing institutions and ideological mobilisation, Islamism in sub-Saharan Africa is much more politicised than militarised and less volatile than Islamism in the Arab world and Pakistan-Afghanistan,” Gerges said.
One factor worrying intelligence services in the US and elsewhere is the popularity radical Islamist movements enjoy in diasporas.
“There is strong evidence that the majority of the suicide bombers in Somalia were from the Somali diaspora, that al-Shebab benefits from a vivid popularity in Eastleigh,” said Roland Marchal, a French expert on the Horn of Africa, referring to a Somali neighbourhood of Nairobi.
“This is not only a Somali dynamic: over the last three years, Wester n states have repeatedly expressed concerns on the radicalisation of diasporas that create a new wave of recruitment for radical organisations either in the West or in war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan … and Somalia,” he said. – Sapa-AFP