Africa Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Daniel Woodburn Defense Development Islamic State Peace & Conflict Studies Security Terrorism The Middle East and North Africa

The Rise of Islamic Extremism in North and West Africa

The last few months have witnessed the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its goal of establishing a caliphate spanning the Middle East, most of Africa, parts of Eastern (and even Western) Europe, and a large segment of Asia. If the list of targeted areas that IS plans to incorporate into this caliphate isn’t enough to convince any onlooker of the outlandish nature of the IS vision, they should take a look at a map of what this caliphate would resemble. Bear in mind that the last caliphate to exist, approximately 750 years ago, though noteworthy in size and reach, was a fraction of what IS has set out to achieve. Furthermore, the three previous caliphates did not have to contend with highly complex geopolitical and regional situations (nor a globalised world for that matter), and in many ways were far more progressive and civilized than the image of a caliphate painted by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

For the current Syria and at present Iraq based band of well-equipped yet numerically-limited militants, such a goal is obviously well out of reach. However, with the help of similarly-minded extremist groups who openly affiliate themselves to IS, the jihadists may fancy their chances a little more.


Unfortunately North and West Africa, two regions that IS aims to incorporate into the caliphate in their entirety, are not short on such like-minded jihadist groups. This is well demonstrated by the amount of fragile alliance-making and breaking that has occurred in Mali since civil war broke out in 2012. No fewer than five significant jihadist groups have taken part in the attempt to gain control of the northern half of Mali, otherwise known as Azawad. Nor is the Malian debacle an isolated incident. 2014 has witnessed Boko Haram climb to the top of the list of the Nigerian government’s priorities while grabbing international attention, with its kidnapping of hundreds of school girls in April of this year.

It therefore comes as little surprise that, in the past few months, this multitude of highly publicised jihadist campaigns has prompted a new bout of debating and polarising of opinions regarding Islam. Though reminiscent of a schoolyard argument, Ben Afflek’s recent outburst on US TV in response to Bill Maher’s views on Islam is topical and of considerable importance in light of the increasing number of jihadist groups. This emergence has no doubt prompted many with previously bigoted tendencies and views to generalise and cheer on the likes of Bill Maher when he adopts a worryingly self-righteous and defensive stance grouping all Muslims  (jihadists, Islamists and moderates) together. Even taking into account the argument that both Afflek and Maher are wrong and missing the point, the fact is that these extremist groups are by no means representative of all 1.6 billion Muslims. They are a minority.

And yet in spite of their nature as minorities, these groups have caused untold amounts of damage to the countries whose governments they seek to undermine. Boko Haram has all but taken control of the northern Nigerian province of Borno. In Northern Mali (Azawad),  the ethnic Tuareg population who initially spearheaded the independence movement was quickly pushed to the fringes by their then jihadist allies. Awazad and the neighbouring areas of Algeria, Mauritania and Niger have ever since been plagued by jihadist groups running amok, integrating into the regional economy (or rather its black market remnants) through well-organised criminal activities such as kidnapping or drugs-trading.

This problem of terrorist integration in this particular region can be traced back to Algeria. A well-established criminal syndicate known as Le Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, specialising in cigarette-smuggling in the Sahel, decided to take advantage of southern Algeria’s resource-rich region and branch out into kidnapping. The Algerian government’s ham-fisted response failed to eradicate the problem, instead displacing it to neighbouring Mali. It therefore most certainly cannot be said that the likes of Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Western Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (to name but a few of the groups afflicting Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria) emerged out of nowhere in 2012; rather that nefarious yet highly economically-viable activities such as kidnapping have facilitated the proliferation of ancillary terrorist groups.

Combined with a broader and, thanks to IS, ever-spreading radical Islamist ideology (not to mention the potentially harmful precedent set by the Nigerian government in negotiating a ceasefire with Boko Haram last week), this paints a bleak picture of little improvement in those countries already bedevilled by Islamic extremism, while also making for worrying prospects for neighbouring countries who do not have a jihadist problem – yet.

Daniel Woodburn
Daniel Woodburn recently completed his Bachelor of Arts in War Studies at King’s College London in the UK. As a result of the wide scope provided by the course, his primary areas of interest have been honed to international development, conflict resolution, state building and security studies with a penchant towards the Middle East and Africa. Having finished his studies at undergraduate level he is now looking to acquire an array of experience relevant to his fields of interest with a view to following up on his Bachelor degree with a Master’s.