Islamic Militancy in Africa

By Østebø, Terje | Africa Security Briefs, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Islamic Militancy in Africa


Østebø, Terje, Africa Security Briefs


HIGHLIGHTS

* The rise of Islamic militancy in parts of the Sahel and Horn of Africa poses growing threats to regional stability. The appeal of these militants stems from their ability to tap into and persuade marginalized communities, particularly youth, that their grievances can be rectified by the establishment of a more pure Islamist culture.

* Despite breakthroughs, Islamic militants in Africa typically do not possess great military power and may not seek to govern at the state level. Rather, they tend to be homegrown phenomena, focused on local concerns.

* Islamic militant organizations in Africa generally only command the support of small minorities within Muslim communities. However, ill-considered interventions, especially those involving Western forces, can reinforce the militants' narrative, thereby strengthening their credibility and recruitment.

The seizure of more than half of Mali's land area by Islamic militants, the growing violence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and years of religious-inspired violence in Somalia have heightened attention on Islamic militancy in Africa. In the process, violent clashes between insurgent groups and governments in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa have increased, the armed capacity of militant organizations has expanded, terrorist attacks against civilians including suicide bombings have escalated, militants' strict moral codes - enforced through stoning and amputation - have been imposed, sacred historical sites have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Militants' ability to seize and control vast territory for extended periods of time has prolonged and obstructed the process of state-building in Somalia, while in Mali it has severed the northern from the southern half of the country and exacerbated a political impasse in Bamako. Protracted instability in parts of the Sahara-Sahel, furthermore, has the potential to ripple throughout the region. The prospect of the emergence of Islamic militancy and the escalation of tensions elsewhere on the continent is likewise a cause for concern.

While the risks of escalation are significant, the gains of these Islamic militant groups are not attributable to their military strength. Rather, their expanded influence is just as much a symptom of fragile and complex political contexts. More generally, Islamic militancy in Africa today represents the intersection of broader trends in contemporary Islam and local circumstances. Responding to the challenge is all the more difficult in that very little is known about these often secretive Islamic groups, some of which have only recently emerged.

THE EMERGENCE OF ISLAMIC MILITANCY IN AFRICA

Islamic militancy is understood here as Muslim groups and movements that, based on religious preferences, seek to enforce religious, social, and political norms through violence. Religious preferences are in turn defined as scriptural-based interpretations viewed by the actors as authoritative. Islamic militancy is, in other words, different from Islamic movements that seek political change through nonviolent means or to promote reforms of a religious nature - through, for example, education and da' wa (proselytizing). It should also be noted that Islamic militancy reflects a minority perspective within the spectrum of Islamic ideologies.

Islamic militancy in Somalia first surfaced in the mid-1980s with the formation of al hihad al Ishmia ("Islamic Unity"), which expanded its military operations in the early 1990s. Al Itihad disappeared from the scene after 1996, yet its ideas and main actors continued to play roles in the highly diverse United Islamic Courts (UIC) movement that emerged in the mid20008. In 2006, the UIC managed to secure control over Mogadishu for some months before being crushed by the Ethiopian intervention in December of that year. This subsequently gave rise to al Shabaab, which represented a new generation of Islamic militants ever more determined to use violent action to achieve their goals. …

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