In recent months, the number of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic extremists has increased across Africa, which has prompted questions about the resurgence of armed groups that operate in the region.
- 21 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab fighters stormed and took over a beachfront restaurant in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. When the siege was over, more than 20 people had been killed in the attack.
- 15 January 2016 – Gunmen stormed a café popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. They fired at people and set the café ablaze and then attacked a nearby hotel. At least thirty people were killed after a more than 12-hour siege. The North African branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility, stating that fighters from al-Murabitoun, an affiliated terror group, had carried out the assault.
- 15 January 2016 – Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia, killing an unknown number of Kenyan peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab has since claimed that it killed about 100 Kenyans, adding that they had also captured several soldiers. Kenyan authorities have not released a death toll. Kenya has provided a major contingent to the AU force that is fighting al-Shabaab and assisting the elected government of Somalia.
- 28 December 2015 – Boko Haram Islamic extremists struck a city and a town in northeastern Nigeria with rocket-propelled grenades and multiple suicide bombers. At least eighty people were killed in Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno.
- 20 November 2015 – Islamic extrmeists seized dozens of hostages at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. At least twenty people were killed along with two gunmen during the more than seven-hour siege. AQIM and al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was their first joint attack.
In the wake of the 15 January attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, hotels across the West African region, from Dakar to N’Djamena, are strengthening security, adding armed guards and increasing cooperation with the local authorities as a pair of high-profile attacks have exposed the growing Islamist threat to foreign travellers.
On Friday 15 January, al-Qaeda fighters killed thirty people at a hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The assaults, which was the country’s first militant attack on such a scale, came just two months after Islamist militants killed twenty people at a Radisson Blu Hotel in neighbouring Bamako, the capital of Mali. Despite intelligence agencies and security experts warning that further such attacks may occur in West Africa, both incidents have demonstrated that militant groups operating in the region are expanding their areas of operations. Furthermore, both attacks likely mark a new strategy by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies, including al-Murabitoun.
In both instances, the attacks targeted establishments that were popular with Westerners, dozens of whom were taken hostage. Witnesses at the scene of the attack in Ouagadougou also reported that the gunmen singled out white foreigners for execution. In the wake of this growing threat, high-end hotels in major cities across the region have been quick to react. Analysts have warned that Abidjan and Dakar, the largest cities in Ivory Coast and Senegal, are viewed as particularly attractive to Islamist militants because of their large Western expatriate population coupled with a stead flow of tourists and business travellers. However analysts have noted that they have no information on specific threats in either city. This however has not prevented local officials from taking the necessary precautions. At the Sofitel Hotel Ivoire, which is one of Ivory Coast’s most luxurious hotels, uniformed police officers were posted around the grounds. Furthermore, the use of metal detectors and body searches have been increased while guard dogs have been used in order to help patrol the lobby. Meanwhile in Senegal, gendarmes have been deployed at roundabouts and on major streets in neighbourhoods that are popular with Westerners. Well before the attacks in Ouagadougou, Dakar’s Radisson Blu installed additional cameras both inside and outside, ordered vehicle barriers and increased security personnel. According to the hotel’s general manager, Jorgen Jorgensen, “of course, there is always a risk, but I can assure you that we have in place all the precautions to control the building in the most professional way.” In the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, which was hit by deadly attacks by Islamist militants in June and July, the government has called upon hotels to carry out car and body searches as well as increase their collaboration with local authorities.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury hotel in Mali in late November, shot to global notoriety when his militants carried out an assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago. Long known as “The Uncatchable,” international militaries have tried to catch him on numerous occasions. Despite several reports of his death, it is evident that Belmokhtar remains alive and continues to have the capabilities of carrying out deadly attacks across the Sahelian region.
In mid-November 2015, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian revealed that United States bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland. Washington has pledged a reward of US $5 million on his head. Of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region that straddles the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office in Gao, which is located in northern Mali. Colonel Luc Laine has stated that “it reminds me that he exist and wants to do me harm.”
A source within the Malian intelligence services has disclosed that “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists.” He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south region of Algeria, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed. In May of this year, he reaffirmed that his group, al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to al-Qaeda, effectively denying allegiance, which was paid to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group by another of the movement’s leaders.
Born in 1972, in the ancient desert city of Ghardai, which is located 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, Belmokhtar stated in a rare 2007 interview that he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen who were combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. He had joined the in 1991, when he was barely 19 years old. He claims that it was in Afghanistan that he lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel. He also states that it was there that he made his first contacts with al-Qaeda. He later joined al-Qaeda’s ranks and would eventually rise to a senior position.
Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, just a year after the government sparked a civil war by cancelling an election, which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. At this point, he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent camping of civilian massacres in its battle against the government. During the violence, the group would sometimes wipe out entire villages. His knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger effectively enabled him to thrive in the region.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, who had now gained the nickname “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, opted to go with them. Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – effectively becoming al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch. Since then, AQIM has managed to create a tight network across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone. They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have been able to finance their operations through the making of millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages.
In 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali, officials reported that Belmoktar purchases weapons in Libya, adding that he was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu. There have been conflicting reports about his departure from al-Qaeda, with some reports stating that he was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in northern Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.” Other reports have suggested that he separated from AQIM in a bid to form another terror group that would further its spread in Africa. In January 2013, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” and led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault. The attack occurred just a few days after France launched a military operation aimed at helping Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
In May 2013, just two months after he was reportedly killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Nigeria’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger. Al-Murabitoun was formed months later, in August, when his “Signatories in Blood” group joined forces with another regional jihadist group, MUJAO. In March, the group claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako. Five people were killed in that attack.
Just days after the 20 November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility, stating “this blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has built a base in Libya, from which to exploit tribal conflicts and expand across Africa, though experts have said that the jihadists remain vulnerable even if the West’s attention is elsewhere.
Since the overthrow and death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya has collapsed into a chaotic country, which has seen militias competing against one another for control. The country’s current insecurity has made it an ideal place for IS to expand into. While Libya not only offers an alternative base for the group, if it is forced out of its current territory in Syria and Iraq, many experts fear that it could also take advantage of the ongoing tribal conflicts and could expand southwards into the Sahel desert region of central Africa, particularly Chad, Niger and Sudan. According to one expert, “IS is provoking tensions and making alliances,” particularly between the competing Tuareg and Toubou tribes.
While for now, IS has only a limited foothold in Libya, it is enough to project violence into neighbouring states, particularly Tunisia, where the group has already claimed three deadly attacks this year. Furthermore, Libya lies just 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the Mediterranean from Italy, and is a route for thousands of refugees, which is another weakness that IS militants could exploit.
Within Libya, IS jihadists have gradually built up control of several towns that were of minimal interest to other militias already operating in the country. Most notably is Kadhafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. According to Geoff Porter, head of the US-based North Africa Risk Consultancy, “Libya without a state is not really a functioning place. IS in Libya would be vulnerable to the same problems as the Kadhafi regime – including the need to import 70 percent of its food – and there’s a much smaller population from which to extort revenue and taxes,” adding, “were they to be eradicated in Syria and Iraq, they could try to relocate the bulk of their activities to Libya, but they would be a potentially more manageable threat.” The country’s long coastline and desert plains effectively leaves IS vulnerable to outside attack. However as in Syria and Iraq, the major problem for the West will be finding partners on the ground to fight IS militants. Libya currently has two governments who are vying for power: a militia alliance, which includes Islamists, that overran Tripoli in August 2014; and the internationally recognized administration that fled to eastern Libya. While Western efforts have focused on fostering a reconciliation between the tow sides, hoping that they will then turn their firepower on IS and other jihadist groups that operate in the country, months of UN-brokered talks have made minimal regress. For now, IS has been held in check by the armed opponents that operate in the country. IS was driven out of the city of Dernam in June by an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is also jostling for control in other areas.
Despite the threat that IS could take over Libya, there is little chance that the West will intervene in Libya any time soon as its attention is almost entirely focused on Syria. However there have been some international leaders who have warned of the growing threat. Amongst the few leaders to focus on Libya is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who warned last week that it could be the “next emergency.” The Untied States has also been quietly targeting IS in the country. It has claimed to have killed its Libyan leader, Abu Nabil, with a drone strike that targeted a compound in Derna on 13 November.
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.