Amid fears Islamic State fighters are inspiring jihadists outside the Middle East, analysts warn it has emboldened extremists in Africa operating in voids left by weak governments and rampant corruption.
The United States has described the IS group in Iraq and Syria as the strongest-ever Islamist threat with its “apocalyptic end of days” ideology.
Their advance has sparked concern in Africa, with leaders from across the continent meeting Tuesday in Kenya to discuss the threat, the first such conference organised by the African Union.
Islamist groups who belong to the Al-Qaeda franchise have already firmly implanted themselves across swathes of territory: from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, extremists in the Sahel to Shebab fighters in the Horn of Africa.
“The scale and sophistication of recent attacks, along with the increased regionalisation of terrorism by Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shebab, demand a more robust collective response, both at the regional and continental level,” warned the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in a recent paper.
African spy chiefs, who met in Nairobi this week ahead of the conference, voiced concern that jihadists on the continent may be inspired by IS.
– ‘Sophisticated’ funding, porous borders –
“It is important for countries of Africa to come together, pool resources, share intelligence and information in order to be able to confront this challenge,” Kenya’s Director of External Intelligence Chris Mburu told reporters.
Kenya, whose army invaded southern Somalia in 2011 before joining an African Union force battling Shebab Islamists, has suffered a string of attacks blamed on the extremists, including the four-day bloodbath in the upmarket Westgate mall in September 2013.
Spy chiefs, who gathered for the AU’s Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA), said in a final communique that key threats and challenges included “alliances being built by terror groups worldwide, sophisticated sources of funding” as well as Africa’s “porous borders”.
African jihadists are apparently watching and learning from IS, although there is little evidence of direct links between the groups.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a modestly funded local uprising made up of poor youths with little tactical training, has, like IS, also declared an “Islamic caliphate”.
But by evoking a Nigerian caliphate, experts suggest leader Abubakar Shekau was trying to raise his own profile rather than submit to like-minded extremists in the Middle East.
“I think right now Shekau’s moves are coming from a desire to emulate IS,” said David Cook, a religious studies professor at Rice University in Houston who studies Boko Haram.
Africa’s multiple groups, all with differing domestic agendas, may view IS with “ideological sympathy”, said Peter J. Pham, from the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
But while “there may be declarations of support” he was doubtful of “actual linkages”.
However, individuals may be encouraged to join the fight.
“Many fighters move across the Sahel, move into Libya — where they do their initial training — and from there go on to Syria and Iraq,” Pham told AFP.
– Tackle ‘root causes’ –
As leaders prepare to meet, solutions are far from simple.
US President Barack Obama in early August promised to step up support for African armies battling Islamic extremists or conducting dangerous peacekeeping missions, after meeting with leaders and officials across the continent.
“Countries need to tackle the threat through intelligence and information-sharing,” said Macharia Munene, professor of international relations at Kenya’s United States International University.
But rampant corruption, poor governance and disorganised, inadequate security forces are hampering the fight.
“The policy response to extremism and terrorism in Africa needs to focus more on addressing the root causes of the problem, rather than military support for Africa’s strong men,” said David Shinn, former US ambassador in Africa and now an adjunct professor at The George Washington University, in a recent article.
Simply boosting military spending alone is not the cure.
“Exclusively security-focused responses” have proved “inadequate” in the past, ISS warned.
For some, violent ideology and joining the battle offers employment, cash and an “opportunity to do something other than to sit around,” Pham said.
“You also have to deal with the basic causes, the driving factors of jihadi extremism: under-development, political, social and economic marginalization.”