Is all Jihad in Africa Local? Africa and Militant Jihadism

Analysts that separate the jihadist ideology of ‘transnational’ groups from that of ‘local’ groups risk underestimating the central role of jihad as an armed political struggle in creating radical social change.

In the last decade, Africa has experienced a steady increase in jihadist movements, with the number of active militant jihadist groups on the continent doubling in number from 10 in 2010, to 20 as at 2017. Certain analysts attribute the rise of extremist violence on the continent to local groups’ affiliations with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, particularly noting the effect of these ties in providing the necessary manpower and financial resources needed for groups to carry out their violent activities in the region.

In a recent article, Hilary Matfess discusses why such assessments fundamentally misrepresent the nature of African jihadist militant groups. Using the Allied Democratic Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo and al-Sunnah wa Jamaah in Mozambique as case studies, Matfess contends that analyses that characterize local groups primarily as subsidiaries (or potential subsidiaries) of transnational jihadist groups, while overlooking the fluidity of group identities and their ties to local politics, distort understanding of the fundamental nature of these African groups. She also argues that such analysis has dangerous policy implications that enable ‘the kind of government abuses that have previously driven recruitment into armed groups.’ Thus, in understanding the operations and activities of African jihadist militant groups, Matfess prioritizes the role of domestic drivers of insurgencies, highlighting the detrimental effect of underdevelopment, youth unemployment, and government repression in creating a permissive environment for terrorist recruitment and activities.

Why Definitions are Important

Matfess’ assessment of the local characteristics of the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique is a welcome development in understanding the comparative dynamics of jihadist militant groups in Africa. This is because increasing news coverage of local jihadist militant groups’ attacks and their professed shared objective of establishing an Islamist state in their various regions have led many commentators to assume that all jihadist militant groups in Africa behave in the same way. As Matfess’ analysis shows, these groups have different characteristics, and as a result, distinct patterns of behaviour.  Yet, in her assessment, Matfess, fails to define what she means by ‘transnational jihadi ideology’ or her characterization of the term, ‘transnational jihadi groups’. Matfess implicitly assumes in her analysis that ‘transnational jihadi ideology’ is what distinguishes transnational jihadist groups from local groups operating in Africa. However, her not defining ‘transnational jihadi ideology’ is problematic because it promulgates the idea that the ideology that drives transnational jihadist groups like the Islamic State is fundamentally different from the ideology driving the local groups operating in Africa.

‘Jihad’, from a purely linguistic sense, means striving or struggling. And although often translated to mean ‘holy war’, jihad has many meanings. Jihad can refer to internal or external efforts to practice Islam in the face of oppression and prosecution, or can be understood as a means to inform people about the faith of Islam. In the context of extremist violence, particularly how groups have used the term (irrespective of region), the central role of jihad is to overthrow ‘apostate regimes’ and to restore the regions where these groups operate into territories governed by Islamic principles. This is the case with groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, Jamaat-e-Islam, and even the Islamic State. These groups have used the central role of jihad in framing their organizational structures, leadership and membership motivations, their recruitment efforts, and also what strategies each group employs regarding who each group views as legitimate targets in creating a Sharia State. Consequently, analysts that separate the jihadist ideology of ‘transnational’ groups from that of ‘local’ groups run the risk of underestimating the central role of jihad as an armed political struggle in creating radical social change.

On ‘Transnational Jihadi Groups’

Matfess, in limiting her characterization of transnational jihadist groups to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, additionally overlooks the increasing transnational nature of African groups like Boko Haram or recently formed, Jama’at Nusra al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM). Scholars like Todd Sandler posit, for example, that terrorism is transnational when an incident in the venue country concerns perpetrators or victims from another country. So, if terrorists from another country perpetuate a terrorist attack in a different country, then the incident is one of transnational terrorism. This is also the case when a terrorist attack in a country harms citizens from another country, or if one or more victims or perpetrators are not citizens of the venue country where the attack is conducted. In contrast, domestic terrorism is homegrown and home-directed.

Boko Haram’s activities indicate that the group is active in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon; of the 310 violent events involving the group between January and May 18, 2019, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, indicate 50 per cent occurred in Nigeria, 3.5 per cent in Chad, 18.4 per cent in Niger, and 28 per cent in Cameroon. Similarly, JNIM’s activities demonstrate the group’s area of operation in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, with 36.8 per cent of the group’s violent activities occurring in Mali, 59.8 per cent in Burkina Faso, and 3.4 per cent in Niger during this same time period. These African groups illustrate—like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda—their ability to perpetuate/mount violent attacks in other countries, calling into question Matfess’ characterization of transnational jihadist groups—are they, for her, groups that hold territory in multiple countries? Or is she basing her characterization off the links these groups have in multiple countries? Or is transnational something else entirely?

The Role of Ideology in Counterterrorism Efforts

Moreover, it is perhaps erroneous to make a broad sweep about local grievances (discounting the importance of jihadist ideology in Africa), particularly in understanding the operations and activities of local groups. This is because unlike the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, which both have minority Muslim populations (1.5 per cent and 18 per cent respectively), countries with significant Muslim populations like Nigeria and Mali, cannot afford to ignore or downplay the role of ideology in the recruitment process of groups operating in those territories. Indeed, African scholars like Akinola Olojo have continued to emphasize the need to engage Islamic clerics and scholars as propaganda tools in de-radicalizing former members that have been ideologically convinced that they are fighting a ‘religiously just-cause.’ This, according to Olojo, is necessary in countering and deconstructing the narratives espoused by jihadist militant groups, seeing as they ‘manipulate’ the teachings of Islam to fit their agendas.

Nevertheless, as Matfess correctly points out, the rise of extremist violence on the continent cannot be solely attributed to religious ideology. For African countries experiencing increased violence from jihadist militant groups, deteriorating social and political conditions allow for religion to be manipulated in favour (or disfavour) of certain interests. Consequently, African governments, in addition to using ideology as a propaganda tool to counter extremist violence, must also confront the socio-economic and political issues that make local populations sympathetic to the causes and objectives of these groups in their fight against extremist violence. This combination of approaches might just be the key in helping African governments finally win the hearts and minds of their local citizens