Africa, the new outpost of terrorism

Tomaso Clavarino
Tomaso Clavarino is an Italian freelance journalist and photographer. He has contributed to several newspapers, magazines and media outlets such as Der Spiegel, the New Republic, La Stampa, Vanity Fair, Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica and Sportweek, focusing his work on human rights issues, on the aftermaths of conflicts and on the African continent. He followed the 2012 coup d'etat in Guiné Bissau, from where he has reported also on the prison system of the country, the post-Arab Spring turmoil in Tunisia, and reported from India, North America and Europe. He was one of the finalists in the young reporter category for the 20th edition of the Prix Bayeux Calvados for War Correspondents, a 2014 grantee from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, DC, and a Helge Hummelvoll Fellow at the 65th edition of the Missouri Photojournalism Workshop. His website is
Africa, the new outpost of terrorism
While the eyes of the world are on Iraq, where all the mistakes of a disastrous American policy (also towards counterterrorism) are clearly seen, it is another part of the world where Islamic extremism is growing and becoming even more radicalized.

Even without the huge amount of dollars coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, as happens in Syria and Iraq, in recent years Islamic extremism has found fertile ground to flourish in Africa.

In 2013 and 2014, Kenya, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and Tunisia have been theaters of some of the bloodiest terrorist actions that the African continent has ever seen. African terrorist groups are proselytizing, primarily because Africa’s Islamists are able to take advantage of the fact that many of the continent’s countries have porous borders, vulnerable and corrupt central governments, undertrained and underequipped armies and booming drug trades that provide a steady source of income.

There are vast and lawless spaces in Africa that are so far away from major American military bases – the only one is in Djibouti – that it would be difficult for the US to mount any effective counterterror initiatives.

A local employee works inside the US military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonier (AFP Photo / Pedro Ugarte)

These are the reasons why Islamists were able to conquer northern Mali and use it as a base for planning strikes in Niger and in Algeria, and it’s just one example.

In North Africa, the number of Islamic terrorist groups is increasing, such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Mulathameen Brigade (the ‘Masked Ones’), led by the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who fought in Afghanistan and in his own country’s civil war in the 1990s; the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, led by a former close Gaddafi ally Iyad Ag Ghaly; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and Ansar Al-Shariya in Tunisia.

According to many analysts they are recruiting foreign jihadi fighters, with a quantity of them returning from Syria. Islamist militancy in the Sahel increased following the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, and also in this case, as in Iraq, Western countries have much to answer for. For instance, while the French intervention in Mali succeeded in retaking the country from the Islamist militants, it has led the latter to disperse throughout the region, representing a huge threat to many countries.

Smoke billows from the site of an explosion across an area in which strongman Moamer Kadhafi has his residence, in Tripoli on June 7, 2011. (AFP Photo)

Elsewhere on the continent, Islamist militancy has been very active in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, where Boko Haram is fighting to establish a ‘pure’ Islamist state based on Sharia law, killing hundreds of people in attacks on schools, army bases and churches. The information that Boko Haram is trying to connect with Al-Qaeda-linked groups in North Africa to expand Islamist influence in this uncontrolled area without rules and without the presence of strong governments is nothing new. Indeed members of Boko Haram have also traveled to Somalia, where they have been trained by the current leaders of Al-Shabaab.

Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militant group, an inflexible offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union that was removed from power in 2006 by the Ethiopian army, has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities: perhaps the best-known is the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013. Al-Shabaab can proselytize in a poor country left to its own devices, and it finances its activities with drug trafficking, ivory smuggling and piracy, which has led it to carry out terrorist attacks outside Somalia – in Kenya, for sure, but also in Uganda.

So it is no coincidence that the United States has decided to start training elite counterterrorism units in four countries in North and West Africa. The program began last year in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali, with training carried out by instructors from the Army’s Green Berets and Delta Force.

According to data from US State Department all African countries except Eritrea receive some form of US military assistance, although the Pentagon’s military footprint in Africa is still small compared with other parts of the world.

It is advisable to keep one eye on Syria and Iraq, and the other on Africa, as the next expression of militant Islam is likely to come from this area.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.