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Fending off global terror influx in Africa

THE global terrorist influx into Africa with Nigeria as one of its epicentres is gathering renewed international attention. Expert assessment of recent jihadist expansion in sub-Saharan Africa coincided with a summit of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS held in Rome, Italy, where a new continental task force was proposed among other measures to combat the growing threat. Nigeria and other countries should deploy vigorous proactive strategies in coordination with international partners to crush the home-grown groups and deny jihadism its desired continental operational base.

Recently, The Guardian (London) reported that following recent gains in Nigeria, the Sahel, in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ISIS propaganda published by the group’s leadership in its heartland in the Middle East is increasingly stressing sub-Saharan Africa as a new front which, may compensate the group for significant setbacks elsewhere. A French expert on jihad, Olivier Guitta of GlobalStrat Risk Consultancy has also predicted: “Africa is going to be the battleground of jihad for the next 20 years and it’s going to replace the Middle East.” But some African leaders still appear ignorant of the existential danger posed by global Islamic terrorism. The West and Middle East countries that have borne its brunt harbour no such illusions about the menace to the world of jihadists seeking safe harbour in weak states.

At the Rome summit, the United States-led 83-member coalition acknowledged the eviction of ISIS from territorial control in the Middle East and the freeing of eight million persons from its devilish grip in Iraq and Syria. But they focused “with grave concern” on the penetration of sub-Saharan Africa by ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates, especially in the Sahel region, East Africa, and Mozambique. Tentatively, measures to address the threat included a proposal, promoted by the host, Italy, for a new multinational African Task Force to uproot terrorists from the continent.

The reality on the ground is explosive. Terror groups, home-grown and foreign, have established a foothold in Africa. Evicted from some of their redoubts in the Middle East, jihadists are moving faster to fulfil their long-held ambition of seizing Africa for their caliphate. At the end of 2016, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), announced that the group had “expanded and shifted some of our command, media, and wealth to Africa.” Since then, from the Maghreb to East Africa, to the Sahel and West and Central Africa, and further down south, both ISIS and its estranged parent, al-Qaeda, have linked up, taken over local groups, built militias, and spread terror and insurgency over large swaths of territory. Alarmingly, a 2019 survey by Statista showed that 38 African countries were impacted by jihadist terrorism. By 2020, seven of the top 10 countries adjudged at the greatest risk of terrorism were in Africa with Nigeria topping the list. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project said terrorist attacks on civilians in Africa rose from 381 resulting in 1,394 fatalities in 2015 to 7,108 attacks that killed 12,519 civilians in 2020. In Nigeria, over 350,000 have died according to a new tally and over three million persons displaced by the 12-year-long Boko Haram insurgency.

Africa has long been a target for global jihadist terrorism that sees its weak institutions, porous borders, mass poverty and alienation and its vast untapped territories and resources as ideal for hosting its caliphate. According to a US National Defense University study, by 2016, the slain ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed to have moved “command, media and wealth,” to Nigeria, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and North Africa as “provinces” of the caliphate. Affiliates and many home-grown terrorist groups across the continent have since pledged allegiance to ISIS or al-Qaeda. Both are now actively spreading their toxic ideology across the continent. The authoritative Defense One magazine explained that jihadists, capitalising on porous borders, “fraught political transitions and lack of security sector accountability,” were destabilising Africa’s fragile states.

It is estimated that ISIS maintains an operational presence in at least 20 separate countries with a $100 million fund. Ominously for the continent, the two global terror franchises have been burying their bitter rivalry and joining forces. In Nigeria, the death of its bloodthirsty leader, Abubakar Shekau, facilitated the takeover and merger of al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram by ISIS-affiliated ISWAP, expediting better coordination, organisation, funding, and logistics for the terrorists. After killing Shekau, it was reported that ISWAP inherited many of his followers as well as his treasury and weapons. In territories they control, ISWAP has established governance structures in hitherto ungoverned areas, swelling its ranks with recruits.

Faced with mass killings, displacement, hunger and state failure, Nigeria and Africa must deepen both domestic and international responses to defeat the terrorism threat. The research assessed the economic impact of terrorism in Nigeria between 2007 and 2019 at $142 billion with Libya a distant second with $5 billion.

First, leaders must stop living in denial; Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen demonstrate how terrorism can destroy fragile states. Terrorism conflates with the forces pulling Nigeria apart and tipping it closer towards implosion. Similar scenarios are ongoing in Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya.

Islamic terrorism is a dangerous, corrosive ideology; it brooks no compromise and is sworn to the destruction of the existing order and its replacement with the Salafist vision of the caliphate.

Defeating it requires zero tolerance for religious extremism. It demands robust intelligence capabilities, combining covert human and signals (ICT) versatility, financial surveillance involving tracking and cutting off funding sources and effective conventional and commando warfare.

This fight must be intelligence- and technology-led, together with formidable air power supported by the coalition allies. Their leaders should be targeted and neutralised and sponsors identified and prosecuted.

There is an urgent need for a task force to push back against IS gains in Africa. With the operational presence of at least 20 countries, according to the World Politics Review, jihadist terror groups like ISIS can only be defeated with a global strategy. Adaptable, crushed in one, they emerge in another country. Misplaced national pride should be dropped in favour of securing the full spectrum of international assistance. African countries should desperately seek the quick realisation of the African Task Force proposed by the GCDI. The 16 African members of the coalition should persuade other African Union countries to join in this and other anti-terrorism bodies. Until foreign coalitions joined the fight, Iraq was helpless against ISIS and its takeover of one-third of its territory. Nigeria needs such full-scale intervention. The 5,000-plus French troops and the US drone base in Mali are the bulwarks against the Islamist takeover of the West African country.

As experts have long contended, you cannot defeat terrorism with guns blazing alone; African countries must provide effective governance, reduce poverty and secure lives and property, especially in ungoverned areas, to win hearts and minds and deny jihadists local sympathies and recruiting grounds in their territories.

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