In 2014, African governments and citizens witnessed an increased terrorist threat from Islamist groups in various parts of the continent. Although there are a number of different groups operating in Africa three garnered particular attention: Boko Haram in Nigeria; al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya; and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt. Africa Integrity assesses that it is likely that the risk posed by these groups, and others like them, will increase over the next year. Moreover, there is a worrying new aspect underlying the growing Islamist terrorist threat in Africa, which is the influence of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) and its role as an inspiration for other militant Islamist movements.
In Nigeria, since the much publicised kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April 2014, Boko Haram have made significant advances in the northeast of the country. In August 2014, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, announced that they were establishing a caliphate in the region. Since then, the group has altered its previous hit and run tactics for the seizure and defense of territory. In November 2014, it was reported that Boko Haram controlled territory in northeast Nigeria equivalent to the size of Wales or the State of Maryland. Although the Nigerian military have stopped the group from taking over key cities in the region, such as Maiduguri, it has been largely ineffective at reclaiming territory seized by Boko Haram. Moreover, in the latter part of 2014, the group increased the intensity of suicide bombings outside of the territory it controls, paying particular attention to Maiduguri and Kano. For example, on 28th November, suspected Boko Haram suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Kano’s central mosque killing over 100 people. Moreover, Boko Haram’s activities have spread across the porous border with Cameroon, where the group has kidnapped a large number of people and engaged in battles with the Cameroonian military. Due to the Nigerian military’s failure to inflict significant damage on Boko Haram in 2014, it seems highly likely that the group will remain a major threat in 2015. Africa Integrity assesses that there is a good possibility that it may expand its territory and terrorist attacks on other cities in the region are likely to continue. This is illustrated by the attacks on the town of Baga in early January 2015. Furthermore, as Nigeria’s general election approaches in February 2015 it is highly likely that Boko Haram will try to disrupt the proceedings and prevent elections from taking place in areas under its control. This will inevitably increase the ethno-religious societal tensions often associated with elections in Nigeria.
In East Africa, al-Shabaab has seen a resurgence in activity after the decline in attacks following the killing of its leader, Ahmed Godane, in September 2014. Aside from its continued insurgency in Somalia, which in November 2014 included an attack on a UN convoy in Mogadishu, it has primarily focused its attacks on Kenya. After major attacks in coastal areas earlier this year, Mandera County has now become the main target for al-Shabaab in Kenya. In late November to early December 2014, two major attacks took place in the region. One was on a bus travelling to the capital Nairobi, claiming 28 lives, and the other was an attack on a quarry, which claimed a further 36 lives. In response Kenya’s chief of police resigned and the country’s security minister was fired. Thus, as we move into 2015, the counties in Kenya bordering Somalia remain under a major terrorism threat from al-Shabaab. Moreover, there have been warnings that al-Shabaab may be planning another “Westgate” style attack, which would focus on one of Kenya’s major cities, after the foiling of a plot in Uganda in September 2014. The group has promised to avenge those who have been killed by the Kenyan armed forces in Somalia, which has given rise to calls for Kenya to withdraw from the conflict. Although such a withdrawal may provide some respite for Kenya, it is likely that it would embolden al-Shabaab in Somalia.
In Egypt, there also appears to be an intensification of terrorist activity. Previously this has been primarily focused in the Sinai region but more recently attacks have taken place in other areas of the country. For example, in November 2014: one policeman was killed and another injured in Sharqiya; a bomb in a Cairo metro station injured 16 people; and, most significantly, an Egyptian navy ship was attacked in the Mediterranean, which injured a number of navy personnel and left eight lost at sea. In the Sinai region recent attacks include the greatest infliction of casualties on the Egyptian security services since the removal of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, when 31 people were killed at two military checkpoints in October 2014. Although attacks in the Sinai are primarily orchestrated by the group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the other attacks do not seem to have been coordinated by a terrorist organisation. Nonetheless, it does indicate an increasing appetite for militant Islamism within the country, which Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis may be able to take advantage of due to the removal of a legal political Islamist alternative by the current regime. There is therefore a strong possibility that terrorist attacks in Egypt will increase in 2015, as Islamists turn to more extreme alternatives. (For further information on Egypt’s increasing Islamic extremism please read our earlier publication Egypt: A Rising Islamist Tide?)
A worrying new aspect of the growing Islamist terrorist threat in Africa is the influence of the self styled Islamic State (ISIS), and its role as an inspiration for other militant Islamist movements. When Shekau announced the establishment of Boko Haram’s caliphate in northeast Nigeria, he referenced ISIS’s supposed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, in Algeria and Tunisia groups who have proclaimed allegiance to ISIS have committed beheadings hauntingly similar to those committed by ISIS. Furthermore, its role is not merely limited to inspiration. In Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has sworn allegiance to ISIS and even changed its name to Welayat Sinai or the State of Sinai. Since then, the leader of ISIS has referred to the State of Sinai as part of his wider caliphate, and it has been reported that prior to this he sent an “emissary” to Egypt to convince Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to join ISIS. Similar attempts to unite Islamist forces have also been seen in Libya, where the commander of US forces in Africa confirmed that small numbers of ISIS fighters are operating in training camps. This attempt by ISIS to unite Islamist movements in Africa is of particular concern, as it will enable groups to share supplies, coordinate attacks and aspire to become transnational movements. In turn this will make them significantly harder to destroy for conventional armed forces. Thus, there is a possibility of the risk of terrorism increasing dramatically in Africa if ISIS are able to continue inspiring and working with other Islamist groups within the continent.