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 51.

    Islam is NOT a religion of extremism
    Allah says:
    “…Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind…”Qur’an 5:32

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    There are many examples of both Jewish and Christian terrorism, however, we must never generalize and call all Christians and Jews terrorists. Similarly, we should not put all Muslims on trial but only those that committed the crime should be judged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.


  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    act of inciting terror in the hearts of defenseless civilians, the bombing and maiming of innocent men, are FORBIDDEN acts acording to Islam
    If an individual Muslim were to commit an act of terrorism, this person would be guilty of violating the laws of the very religion they claim to follow - Islam Would it be fair to condemn all Muslims as a result when the religion itself is against such acts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    extremism and radicalism have NO PLACE IN ISLAM. suicide is FORBIDDEN IN ISLAM let alone suicide bombing. the QURAN says 'KILLING ONE PERSON IS LIKE KILLING THE WHOLE HUMANITY' so people who claim that islam breeds terrorism have lack of knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I have lived and worked in Africa most of my adult life - I'm 71 - the problem is not just poverty. Nigeria has had extremist groups right back to Colonial days as have other sahalian area. A feeling of not enjoying a fair share of the cake no matter how meager - is the problem. Fat cats, big cars, big houses etc is not easy to swallow from the gutter. Some youngsters get a guilt conscience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Being myself from Africa and in now in my 40, I truly believe africans have become rich and well of over the years. More and more growing number of external marks of richness. Roads, schools, hospitals, cars, clothing, housing, variety of foods. I always feel concern when journalists link religious extremism and their unrepentant killing spree to poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I sincerely believe we get it wrong when we link the expansion of islamist threats in Africa with poverty. As most of the suicide bombers are from rich families or were born and breed in Europe. Africans living in Africa are just victims of people who are eager to make a name for themselves for the sake of religion

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    6 Hours ago
    (...) the underlying cause is economic.

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

    Really? how about the Saudi's involved in 9/11 or the Islamists in Europe involved in terrorist activities? They aren't poor

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I am not a prejudice individual by nature but I will admit the Islam religion scares the heck out of me. I cringe at the thought of that religion taking over and my daughter being subjected to it, not to mention any granddaughters I may have. They are radical, untrustworthy (two just bombed the Boston Marathon that were living off welfare!) and way too violent! Islam breeds cowards in cloaks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I am concerned by Ed Milibands lack of comment on any issue related to Islam, I read an article in which it mentioned due to his faith (Jewish) it would be unwise to make a comment about the recent atrocities, this to me smacks of hypocrisy and running scared of Islamic lunatics, we should all stand together weather you are religious or not, these extremists are not capable of compromise just evil

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Islamist militancy or something else?
    Speaker, Transitional Somali Parliament, Sharif Hassan Shiekh Adan, accused Ethiopia of sabotaging “any chance of peace in Somalia.”Why would Ethiopia sabotage peace? Ethiopia is acting under coordination of US/UK (Anglo-American oil giants) wanting to destabilize Africa, justify military interference & expand NATO from Chad & Sudan to Horn of Africa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I wrote something similar to yours and BBC removed it. I believe that truth now seems to be objective, so long as it does not speak the truth about Islam

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    It is sad that BBC has removed my comments. Which part of it was derogatory. I must say that I am really sorry for our country. It is as if any reasonable truth about Islam is no longer tolerated in our society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Why just Africa, Islamic intolerance and genocidial aims make it a global threat.

    Which s seems the BBC refuse to acknowledge.

    Sharia philosophy belongs in the Dark ages along with Flat earth theories

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    217. Bigleeroy - The BBC's censors wouldn't be able to handle the deluge of anti-immigration comments they would get if they allowed comments on real news stories.

    I still haven't seen anything about Ed West's impartiality review of how the BBC deliberately favours pro-immigration and minorities. Eventhough they are a publicly funded (i.e. white British tax payers).

    Can the censors find me?

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    What else can be expected when Colonials after looting, plundering, exploiting walked out leaving new corrupt masters,with strings attacked. Notwithstanding that the abuse is worst and the plight of ignorant & illiterate masses remains the same. As a result these poor turn to the blasted religion, where the Mullahs, Clerics and Ayatollahs, with further coercion turn them into radicals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Not only N. Africa. Iranian terrorist Quds Force has staged more than one deadly terrorist attack in South America:

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Why is my comment removed that asks the BBC to report on what Lord Mandelson said about Labour's deliberate and covert policy to bring in non-European immigrants to gain votes? He is on record saying that. Why is this being moderated? Censorship is rife.

    BBC how is your impartiality review going? Doesn't look good from what Ed West reported on.


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