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Security dynamics in Africa post-7 October

March 28, 2024 at 5:20 pm

Security forces are dispatched to the scene after bomb and armed attack on a hotel which is close to the Presidential Palace, organized by al-Shabaab terrorist group in Mogadishu, Somalia on March 15, 2024. [Abukar Mohamed Muhudin – Anadolu Agency]

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its annual intelligence assessment report on 11 March, highlighting that despite losses in their leadership ranks, the ISIS/Daesh and Al-Qaeda terrorist organisations are expanding their sphere of influence. According to the report, “global jihad” is shifting towards Africa, targeting citizens and Western interests, particularly American. Moreover, the report notes that potential attacks could stem not only from African branches of the aforementioned organisations, but also from small local cells or radicalised individuals.

The ODNI report suggests that the African continent, with its sensitive and fragile security dynamics, is on the verge of greater destabilisation this year. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) supports this view, and indicates an increase in actions and regional territorial control by non-state armed actors (NSAAs) in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa regions from the last quarter of 2023 and the beginning of 2024. The expansion in territorial control can be explained more by radicalisation trends on the continent than by concrete geospatial gains.

Over the past two years, ISIS/Daesh and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have exploited military coups (in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon, etc.) and governance crises, transforming this period into an opportunity window for propaganda purposes. A key factor triggering this situation has been the diverging positions of countries regarding the Palestinian-Israeli situation post-7 October.

This is characterised by Israel’s bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, and poses certain security risks, not just regionally, but also on a global scale.

Public protests, marches and the emergence of anti-Israel sentiment in Arab and Muslim-majority countries are becoming a significant concern for states while also potentially activating transnational terrorist organisations. In this regard, one of the most critical regions requiring attention is undoubtedly Africa, affected recently by coups, counter-coups and civil wars driven by NSAAs. The Sahel region, where numerous micro terror cells affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS/Daesh are active, and the Horn of Africa, which is combating the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab threat, are potential areas where attacks could erupt in support of and in “solidarity” with Hamas and the Palestinian people.

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In the context of the situation in occupied Palestine, the Horn of Africa region exhibits notable differences between the policies of its countries and the perspectives of the local populations. The stance on relations with Israel and reactions to the events of 7 October highlight conflicts between principles and interests. In some nations, there’s a tendency to legitimise attacks against Israel and categorise Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Declarations in favour of Israel in countries like Kenya and Ghana have met with strong local reactions. In the short run, it is safe to say that these responses can be manipulated by organisations such as Al-Shabaab and ISIS Somalia to generate public outrage and disrupt social harmony by criticising the governments’ pro-Western policies and their stance on the Palestinian issue.

Al-Shabaab’s appreciation for Hamas shortly after 7 October supports this argument. Since 2005, Al-Shabaab has been known for significant actions in and around Somalia. Gathering hundreds of people together, Al-Shabaab organised pro-Hamas protests in the southern Somalia regions of Jilib and Kunya on 15 October. Many analysts argue that Al-Shabaab wants to link the ongoing Palestine-Israel issue with “global jihad” movements. This is aimed at enhancing its prominence and activities in Africa by spreading radical ideas to recruit militants and gain the sympathy of the masses.

Similarly, the 2019 Nairobi hotel bombing was a response to the then US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, marking one of the bloodiest attacks carried out by Al-Shabaab beyond Somalia’s borders, with almost 30 people killed. Consequently, especially after 7 October, Al-Shabaab uses social media to intertwine its “cause” with Hamas, exploiting the plight of the Palestinian people. The emergence of this rhetoric at a time when the US is undergoing a withdrawal or “reduction” process in the region demonstrates Al-Shabaab’s pragmatic approach.

Similarly, in the Sahel region, political instability and security vulnerabilities create space to manoeuvre for organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS/Daesh. The coup in Niger led to a reduction in French military presence in the region and shook the defence capabilities of countries for combating terrorism. The defence agreement made between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali in September 2023 can be seen as an indication of an intent to strengthen joint defence efforts. This situation could turn potential “solidarity” attacks triggered by events in occupied Palestine into an opportunity for regional organisations. Moreover, the regional competitive environment suggests that violence and terrorist acts could increase due to organisations’ race to expand their “market share”.

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In the Sahel, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) terrorist organisation uses the perception of a “common enemy” against the state; the inadequacy of public services; instability due to coups; the distorted relationship network between foreign military operations; and the local population as tools to gain legitimacy on a societal base. The organisation, which utilises mass media effectively throughout the region, employed the rhetoric of expelling foreign forces during the French and US withdrawal from the region last year. Hence, like Al-Shabaab, JNIM incorporating the Palestine-Israel issue into its regional agenda is among the potential scenarios.

Meanwhile, ISIS Sahara Branch (ISGS) resorts to acts of terror and violence in the Tri-State Border area, covering certain regions of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. The Menaka and Gao regions of Mali are so-called centres where the organisation’s leadership is located. ISGS, not abandoning the tradition of local community infiltration among African NSAAs, benefits from the competition among nomadic communities in the Tri-State Border area. ISGS and JNIM, which approach Hamas’s struggle with purely religious motivations, try to expand their influence through the rhetoric they develop in this direction.

In conclusion, the prolongation and intensification of the Palestine-Israel conflict could lead to potential attacks by transnational identity-holding terror groups. One of the underlying reasons is the intent of radical and extremist terror groups to increase their global market share and brand value through violence and attacks. Moreover, the discrepancy between African states’ responses to the issue in occupied Palestine and the societal base grants operational flexibility to terror groups and NSAAs with different agendas in the region.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.