How Islamist militancy threatens Africa

Malian Islamist militants pictured in August 2012

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With Islamist militant groups across the Sahara region still able to flex their muscles despite the French intervention in Mali, former UN diplomat and security expert Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah considers their threat to Africa.

The countries of North and West Africa have become embroiled in a new war waged by violent Islamist militants - a conflict that has no front line.

Last week's suicide assaults in Niger on a military base and French-run uranium mine, and a siege in January of the gas plant in Algeria reveal the insurgents' ruthless tactics.

And the start of the withdrawal of French troops from Mali, four months after recapturing northern cities from Islamist insurgents, is being touted by the militants on internet forums as the beginning of their victory.

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Disgruntled young men have been happy to join radical groups that not only offer them an ideology, but money”

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But this is no sudden development.

Militants and armed radical groups have expanded and entrenched their positions throughout the Sahel and Sahara over the last decade under the umbrella of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM).

They move from one country to another - a hard core of operatives working in an area that covers parts of south-west and south Libya, southern Algeria, northern Niger, north-east Mauritania and most of northern Mali.

Poorly administrated, these vast desert spaces provide the groups with an ideal terrain.

Map showing Islamist groups in Africa

They also have connections in northern Nigeria, especially with home-grown militant group Boko Haram.


Analysts believe there are dormant cells in many large cities, including most capitals in the Sahel region.

There are several reasons that this network of militancy has flourished.

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One significant factor is the perceived arrogance and corruption of urban elites.

The marginalisation of poorer communities - both in rural areas and smaller towns - and minority ethnic groups has further alienated them from the governing classes.

Disgruntled young men have been happy to join radical groups that not only offer them an ideology, but money.

And it is the widespread drug trafficking in the region that is believed to have enriched militant groups.

Details about the operations are sketchy - large amounts of money are involved to ensure secrecy and loyalty.

Drugs from South America are taken across Africa to Europe, where they are more profitable and marketable.

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Information technology has been of a great help to a hard core of between 350 and 450 experienced AQIM fighters”

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A kilogramme of cocaine bought in Latin America for $3,000 (£1,990) can be sold in the capitals of West Africa for about $16,000; in North Africa it sells for $25,000 and can fetch about $45,000 in Europe.

Getting involved in the transit business as the conveyor or security agent provides not only a good salary but also the social recognition that money brings.

This is a tantalising prospect to many unemployed young men.

Western hostage taking is no less profitable for militant groups - and is another "business" that has grown in the last 10 years.

Between 80m-100m euros ($103m-130m) is estimated by the Center for Strategy and Security in the Sahel Sahara to have been paid in ransoms in this time, despite both the United Nations and the African Union discouraging such payments.

Information technology has been a great help to a hard core of between 350 and 450 experienced AQIM fighters estimated to work within the coalition of Islamist militant groups in the Sahel and Sahara region.


The leadership and high ranking officers are mostly Algerians and Mauritanians, but increasingly the Sahelians are moving up the ladder.

They are very mobile and knowledgeable about the region, can often avoid detection and the monitoring of their communications, and can count on hundreds of determined militias and armed sympathisers.

AQIM has its roots in groups in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. One of its key affiliates is the well-disciplined Mujao group, which was active in Mali and claimed responsibility for last week's Niger attacks.

There is also believed to be a connection between AQIM and the growing piracy of the Gulf of Guinea - similar to the situation in Somalia where the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab group has strong links with pirates operating in the Indian Ocean.

In both cases the main objective is to expand the source of their funding and to enlarge their popular support through redistribution of the loot.

Last summer also saw reports of a liaison between the Islamist militants in the Sahel, al-Shabab and a few other "informal units" operating in the porous borders area between Chad, Libya and Sudan.

Al-Shabab militants were reported to have travelled overland to Mali disguised as Koranic students or merchants.

Arms and ammunitions recovered from Islamist insurgent during a clash with soldiers in the remote northeast town of Baga, Borno state In Nigeria Boko Haram has managed to buy sophisticated weapons

En route it is believed they stayed in safe houses in major cities before joining groups in the AQIM network to share experiences.

The groups interact on more of an informal than a co-ordinated basis - facilitated by lax border controls and territorial continuity.

They also exploit the tribal systems and relationships between ethnic groups, using them to their advantage.

Most rebel groups' supplies and logistics come down from the Maghreb or the fighters seize them by force from local armies.

Frustrated border populations either help the combatants or fail to report on them to government officials, despite being given Thuraya satellite phones to do so.

Today, however, the Sahel and Sahara region is at a crossroads.

There is an opportunity for the region's governments to get a grip on the situation and take advantage of France's gains.

Improving economies coupled with nascent freedoms in North Africa could also help improve weak governance, a major ingredient of terrorism.

In coalition with the private sector and civil society organisations, they could fight poverty and disenfranchisement, which could help quell the rebellion.

But there is only a short window of opportunity.

Combatants presently fighting on far fronts, such as Syria, may well return - whether victorious or defeated - to boost the morale and numbers of the Saharan radical groups confronted by French troops.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah is the former UN envoy for Somalia and West Africa and now runs the Center for Strategy and Security in the Sahel Sahara in Mauritania


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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I find it funny how few BBC articles allow comments. I guess their censorship board cannot handle the deluge of negative comments against all their taboo topics that would happen.

    When is the BBC reporting on Lord Mandelson admitting that Labour deliberately and covertly began mass immigration for votes because they were losing the working class?

    Or how about the BBC admitting their bias?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    9 Swing Lowe
    The underlying cause is forced conversion to Islam

    No the underlying cause is economic. The article clearly points to arrogant & corrupt urban elites, marginalisation of poorer communities & ethnic groups, and young, unemployed men joining groups who offer money.

    There's a clear connection between poverty and radicalism. Give them a prosperous future & the problem will be resolved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @ powermeerkat
    I am not arguing with you that Bashar and his regime have oppressed people.

    But the conflict is about religion as the rebels are funded by equally oppressive regimes because of they are Sunni not because they want to help stop oppression.
    As if they did they would start in their own back yard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Re #26

    "Difference in Syria is Hezbollah."

    Acc. to many reports at least 8000 Hezbolah fighters crossed the Lebanon border and are trying to save Assad's homicidal regime.

    Which indicates that its leader, Nassrallah, is clearly suicidal.

    P.S. Please stand by for an IAF action against Russian-supplied S-300.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    re 20. Mark_x

    Difference in Syria is Hezbollah... throw them into the mix, and the US in particular will also consider them a significant terrorist threat and existential threat to Israel.

    I think the support of the Syrian opposition is based upon the flawed US logic of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend"

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Re #23

    Btw. Russia is not supplying S-300 missile system and other heavy weapons to Assad regime because it's pro Shia. Moscow simply tries to retain its last naval base in the Middle East and its last (besides Iran) major customer for its obsolete weapons in the region.

    If Assad regime was Sunni, Russia would do exactly the same.

    Just as it would arm Sunni Iran, if it was still anti-US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Unfortunately our support of the Arab spring in North Africa has helped take the lid off this can of worms. Is it any wonder the vacuum left is being filled with militants?

    There will be a humanitarian crisis. The whole of North Africa could look like Somalia.... I feel sorry for anyone living in this mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @ 19.powermeerkat

    It has everything to do with religion it is a Sunni rebellion that is supplied weapons by Sunni Arab countries against a Shia secular government.

    Not really.

    Sunni just happen to be a huge majority in Syria oppresed since 1964 by a v. small sect of Allawites from which both Assads hail.

    While Shiia Iran, using Hezbollah, Quds, etc., tries to control the ME.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @ 19.powermeerkat

    It has everything to do with religion it is a Sunni rebellion that is supplied weapons by Sunni Arab countries against a Shia secular government.

    There would not be any refugees or even a war if not for arms from Arab countries. What our government wants for its allies is to remove the Russia weapons and Hezbollah support.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @7. 'North Africa gives access to the soft underbelly of Europe.'

    The soft underbelly of Europe knows very well how to deal with them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    This story shows the inconsistencies in the BBC's reporting and the government’s policy.
    The same Islamic militants that are threatening Africa are allied to the Al-Qaeda rebels in Syria. So why do we not see that supporting the rebels in Syria we are potentially creating more problems.

    Is there any sanity in the government?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "US militarism in the Sahel crisis."

    Can you supply any hard core data corroborating that silly claim?

    And re Syria... This "democratic peaceful country" has been living under marshal law since 1964 (sic).

    Rebellion against Assads' homicidal regime having nothing with a religion, but mostly with a huge majority having been oppressed by a small authoritarian minority for many decades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Re #16 "Mostly the spread of Islam has been through aggression & each expansion has resulted in death & destruction."

    It's been going on since the VII century A.D. With Islam destroying ancient Arab and Persian culture/art./science keeping all those areas in the Dark Ages till this very day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Uneducated, disilliusioned young men are being offered well-paid work, prestige and certain future glory. How do you fight that? The satisfying certainty that fundamentalist religion provides is almost impossible to reason with. Law enforcement is the only option. Difficult in lawless regions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Mostly the spread of Islam has been through aggression & each expansion has resulted in death & destruction. Mohamed was a soldier and is used as a role model, this aspect of his life is used to justify violence.
    Muslims have no leader who can keep in line lone star vigilantes or groups, therefore making all Muslims accountable for harbouring people who radicalise and preach hatred in Allahs name

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The violence that comes from some sections of Islam is not surprising. After all, Muhammad was a warrior and 'military leader'.

    To me, this explains why unrestrained violence is so prevalent in modern Islam.

    And BBC -- please provide more coverage of how the Christian communities are being massacred by these people!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    And yet we are supporting these types of extremists in Syria.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    God must surely be crying to see his sons are killing each other in the name of their belief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    We need to get a grip here and not allow our better judgement to desert us when we need it most. The majority of Muslims are decent, fair minded. Just because a few extremists have tarnished the name of Islam, we should not paint the whole faith in a bad light. Moderate Muslims have been the driving force of necessary change in the whole world. Do not look at world events with tinted glasses.


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