Rise to Peace blog

Islam vs Islamism? The Realpolitik of Islamic Jihadism in Africa

Decades of internecine conflicts, and bloody civil wars have left inedible scars across Africa, and the consequent weakening (or failure) of multiple nations across the continent. Islamist terrorist groups such as Ansar Dine (Mali), Boko Haram (Nigeria) and Al-Shabab (Somalia) have found fertile ground by exploiting the specific deteriorating political and economic conditions of individual African states. Jihadist groups have positioned themselves as a superior alternative to the corruption of central governments across Africa, and in doing so allowed them to win the support of some of the most desperate communities on the continent.

Why is Islamism able to spread?

In the past twenty years alone almost a hundred political conflicts have occurred in West African states alone. In north Africa Chad and Sudan are still witnessing a fratricidal war that has been going on and off for more than forty years. While in central Africa Angola has experienced thirty years of civil war. This instability and violence mean that the threat to regional peace and security posed by Islamist terrorist groups often goes overlooked. During the same period, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives in more than 9,000 terrorist attacks by religious extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

Regional conflicts, prolonged internal violence, and civil wars nearly invariable leads to collapses of governance.  Throughout history, in any country whose central government fails to guarantee the security and welfare of its citizens, its people are driven to alternative organizations to fulfill such basic needs as food, shelter, and security. Often in such crises smaller entities (ethnic groups, tribes, clans, armed insurgencies, criminal gangs, and religious sects) find it necessary to step in, to cover many essential statal functions. And across all African regions Jihadist groups have done so too. Organizations such as Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Mali, have all established some forms of para-state structures within their territory.

One of the primary motivations behind such moves is it endears support for the Jihadist groups among regional populations. The support generated by such “hearts and minds” operations will be crucial for further Jihadist insurgent operations within this territory. And crucially jihadist organizations are heavily reliant on discontented young recruits drawn from local populations to sustain their forces. Jihadist terror groups often provide a form of hope and agency to those mired in endemic poverty and desperate social inequality. 

Regional Disparities

In the countries of the Sahel region, where the population mainly resides in marginal rural areas, the people are heavily reliant on the complex network of organized crime that was already embedded in the region before Islamist ideology. None the less jihadist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), have also exploited the regional power vacuum to engage in both people and drug trafficking already rife in the region. This vacuum has also allowed Jihadist groups in the Sahel to recruit, train, and arm the local population, undisturbed by government interference.

If potential recruits in the Sahel are drawn to Islamist groups primarily by social and economic reasons, in East Africa and Somalia, decades of petty tribal conflicts and endemic corruption have stripped the traditional regional clans of legitimacy. Into this void Al-Shabaab have stepped in, recruiting among the disillusioned and those already vulnerable to Islamist ideology.

In cases like central Mali and western Niger, jihadists offer protection against bandits, justice against abuses by central governments, training, and armaments to address territorial disputes between local ethnic groups. In the north of Burkina Faso, on the other hand, the jihadist occupation of rural areas through intimidation and violence has had the effect of provoking clashes between locals and jihadists, rather than basic cooperation.

Islamist groups have been able to exploit not just political instability but specific regional rivalries between clans, ethnicities, and religious groups to their advantage. Clashes, such as the ethnic conflicts between Sufis and Islamists in Nigeria and Senegal, often dating back to the times of European colonialism continue to ensure Sufi’s political dominance and has been the source of much ethnic tension and violence

European nation’s influence on the African continent continues to this day such as the French intervention of 2013. While regional national governments have coordinated anti-terrorist operations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger combined intervention, also changed the impact of Islam in the sub-Saharan region. The immediate result was a weakening of their jihadist groups and their removal from the city centers. The jihadist groups have retreated to their base of support among the population of rural areas, where Islamist ideology is prevalent among the most marginal ethnic groups.

The impact of ideology

In addition to the lack of social mobility, religious education must also be considered, since spreading basic Islamist education can predispose (or prime) the population to jihadist doctrine. In Somalia after the collapse of its state education system in, private Islamic schools proliferated. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many of these schools are heavily focused on religious studies, were Wahhabism ideology dominants.

However, the presence of a strong tradition of the Islamic faith in a country is by no means a prerequisite for Islamist terrorism.  Senegal, where about 90% of the population is Muslim, has experienced relatively minor religious conflicts. In comparison, Nigeria, where Muslims make up 50%  of the population, Islamist extremism ideation has featured in many disturbing episodes of regional violence.


The impact of Islamist ideology in Africa is highly context-dependent on the specific geopolitical realpolitik of their base of operations. Individual Jihadist groups have adapted their strategies and tactics to exploit the unique characteristics of regions, and the specific needs of its ethnic groups. Such significant disparities mean it is both useless and unhelpful to apply a unified and singular explanation for the rise (and impact) of Islamist ideology in Africa.

When developing anti-terrorist and anti-extremist policies rather than focus on forced military interventions, the international community should focus on measures that enable regional governments to peacefully manage local conflict. And to limit the ability of Jihadist recruit by supporting efforts to improve the provision of services, and governance to marginal communities in rural areas throughout the sub-Saharan Region

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