Although the intensity of terrorist incidents seems to be declining globally, there has been a surge of violent Islamist activity across West Africa, where both new and established armed groups are destabilising fragile states and creating a regional security threat. While the problem remains local for the moment, the international community is keen to avoid any regional safe havens from becoming springboards for terrorist activities further afield. But instead of intervening directly, it is focusing on supporting African forces on the ground, calculating that 'African solutions to African problems' should be the most effective and lasting.
The most recent statistics on global terrorist incidents, produced by the United States National Counterterrorism Center, paint a broadly encouraging picture. In 2011 the number of terrorist attacks across the globe fell to a five-year low. Osama bin Laden's vision of global jihad has been rejected by mainstream Islamic opinion and al-Qaeda, which he led until his death in 2011, is in disarray. But these headline figures hide significant regional discrepancies: violent incidents in Africa and Latin America have reached a five-year high.
In Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria, Islamist militants have filled power vacuums created by ineffectual national governments, and have tapped into religious and socio-economic grievances. Militants' activities that begin in one country spill over into neighbouring states, destabilising the entire Sahel. Helping to foment regional violence has been the influx of weapons and mercenaries from Libya following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011. There is an abundance of unemployed yet well-armed and military-trained men at risk of joining militias or turning to crime.
Islamist groups currently operating in West Africa and the Sahel all seem to share a link with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), it had earlier split off from Algeria's Armed Islamic Group and re-branded itself in 2006. Each group's degree of engagement with AQIM is different. Though many are broadly Salafist in ideology, their specific goals may vary. Calling for a return to the original ways of Islam, Salafism is an ultra-conservative school of thought of which Algerian Salafism remains the most dominant branch in Africa; it is often used as a doctrine by violent jihadi groups but it does not promote jihadism or violence itself.
Although AQIM seems to act as a sponsor, providing weapons, training, funding and ideological guidance, it has itself benefited from the regional proliferation of Salafist movements. As the erstwhile GSPC, Algerian and American counter-terrorism efforts had greatly diminished its ability to conduct attacks and had forced it to relocate to more remote parts of the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Niger. In order to survive, it has relied increasingly on the proceeds from criminal activities, such as trafficking and kidnappings for ransom - activities that run counter to al-Qaeda's ideology. Thus, the emergence of groups sharing a similar ideological drive - that are prepared to spread jihadist propaganda and fight abroad - helps AQIM by reinforcing its message and standing.
Boko Haram's violence
Having emerged in the early 2000s as a Salafist group seeking to impose sharia law and eliminate Western influence in Nigeria, Boko Haram is perhaps the most active group in the region, claiming responsibility for numerous killings and other violent attacks. It has consistently made headlines since 2011 due to its near-daily attacks in northern and central Nigeria, of which a car-bomb attack on the United Nations (UN) building in Abuja in August 2011 and the Christmas Day 2011 church bombings are the most notorious. Around 700 people are thought to have been killed in attacks orchestrated by the group so far this year.
While Boko Haram's founders and original members came initially from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, new recruits now come most commonly from the ranks of northern Nigeria's disenfranchised, unemployed youth. Aside from its religious message, the group has tapped into the grievances of the majority-Muslim population in the north, who feel marginalised by the Christian-dominated government from the south and that they are victims of social inequality and economic underdevelopment.