At Via Meadia we’ve been closely following the ongoing Libyan afterparty, which saw thousands of heavily armed mercenaries flood south across the Sahara, promptly leading to war and a coup in Mali, which not so long ago bright eyed development optimists touted as one of Africa’s model democracies and a sign of a bright new day for the battered continent.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies has published a helpful write-up on the rise of radical Islamic throughout the Sahel and West Africa—a development that still only fuzzily registers in the minds of American politicians and voters:
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.
Mitt Romney mentioned Mali plenty during the presidential debate, but he could have also talked about Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, or Cameroon, all countries threatened by radical Islam and spillover effects of the Libyan intervention. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which started as an Algeria-focused organization, has been serving as a regional teacher and sponsor for various African jihadist groups.
Nigeria’s Boko Haram has been particularly active lately, killing more than a hundred in the past year:
Although primarily nationally focused, Boko Haram recruits members from neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and takes advantage of border areas to seek refuge. Although it has not shown an ambition to expand its terrorist activities abroad, it has had a substantial ideological impact in Cameroon, and to a lesser extent Niger and Chad.
To top it off, black Africans dissatisfied with Arab dominance of AQIM have recently started their own al-Qaeda franchise: the Movement for Jihad and Oneness in West Africa (MOJWA). Throw into the mix hundreds of thousand of displaced refugees and a severe food crisis, and you have ideal prospects for the continuing rise of radical Islam across the Sahel and West Africa, making Obama’s declaration that al-Qaeda is “on the path to defeat” seem Cheneyesque in its optimism.
Sub-Saharan Africa has it all from a jihadi standpoint: weak states, religious conflict, throngs of aimless and unemployed young men. Arms are easy to come by, easy to smuggle across weakly patrolled borders. Decades of low intensity conflict across the region have weakened what civil institutions exist and tribal conflicts provide many avenues through which jihadis can insinuate themselves and their politics into local quarrels. Jihadi ideology has the potential to energize and unify discontented groups, and networks financed by Gulf money can provide groups who embrace jihadi ideology with substantial advantages in local conflicts.
We are not without advantages in a struggle against global jihadis in this part of the world, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that rather than sputtering to a halt, the global war on terror is changing shape.