Countering Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Policy Makers Need to Know

Robin A Hardy. World Affairs. Volume 182, Issue 3. Fall 2019.

This essay addresses recurring and growing inaccurate reports from political officials as well as counter-terrorism analysts and journalists that the Sahara-Sahel group Boko Haram is a defeated entity. Notwithstanding concerted efforts to rout the movement, Boko Haram and its network of jihadists have expanded. Crucial misunderstandings surrounding what fostered and sustains the phenomenon—as well as a general naivety regarding the organization’s flexibility to adapt to attract combatants, financial support, and weaponry beyond Nigeria’s borders—have made performing basic adequate risk assessments overwhelmingly challenging. Policy makers and CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) practitioners would be wise to recognize that not only has Boko Haram morphed but its growing affiliates also terrorize increased territory. The threat of militant Islam in the Sahara-Sahel, therefore, has not been contained as some would have us believe. Rather, Muslim extremism has become entangled and more complex not only in Africa but across the Muslim world. When jihadists in one territory have taken a beating, surviving fighters have simply relocated to other geographies accompanied by connections for capital and munitions. In this way, Boko Haram—the fulcrum of violent Islam in the Sahara-Sahel—has become, over time, an international jihadist actor.

In late January 2018, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, announced that Boko Haram (BH) was defeated. This was simply the latest iteration in a string of claims from Buhari and other Nigerian officials since at least the spring of 2015, boasting the annihilation of one of the world’s most violent groups. If Nigerian leaders’ conceptions of what an end to terrorism looks like might rattle skeptics, curiously the notion of a defeated BH has surfaced elsewhere. For instance, in April 2018, the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies reported that BH’s internecine conflict meant that the group had lost its ability to prosecute major violence, while on May 10, 2018, in a report to the United Nations, the Coalition Against Terrorism and Extremism (CATE) declared that BH was no longer a viable entity in the Sahel. Recent pronouncements of a defeated BH are part of a growing global trend to reframe the threat of Islamic militancy. To wit, in what appears to have been an attempt to promote a narrative of American strength vis à vis Islamic extremism, in December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Syria was defeated. And yet ISIS continued to launch attacks in Syria, and today, in an ever-increasing portion of Africa, BH and its affiliates remain a serious threat: partnering on training and technology, all the while carrying out deadly attacks. The chasm between rhetoric and reality could not be more stark. Focusing on BH and its affiliates in the Sahara-Sahel, this essay will demonstrate that crucial misunderstandings surrounding the environment which fostered and sustained the movement, as well as a general naivety regarding BH’s flexibility to adapt to attract combatants and weaponry beyond Nigeria’s borders, have made performing basic adequate risk assessments overwhelmingly challenging.

Importantly, widespread exaggerations of BH’s demise combined with confusion about the group’s motivational origins, infrastructure, and tactical strategy have ramifications beyond the Sahara-Sahel. Indeed, if analysts and policy makers do not fully comprehend the motivational premise of Islamic terrorism in the region, there is little hope that Muslim religious extremism can be adequately neutralized—anywhere, not just in parts of Africa. In like manner, it is foolhardy for CVE practitioners to regionally target efforts, in this case, on states within the Lake Chad Basin, and believe that this tactic can bear long-term success. Jihadists in the Sahara-Sahel, including the historic prominent actor—BH—fail to confine attacks, recruitment, and financial support to the territory within national, regional, or topographical boundaries, repeatedly flaunting political authorities and, as a result, pose a threat that exceeds state borders. This form of hostility features an ephemeral characteristic which means that not only can violence erupt anytime, anywhere, but equally belies any coherent national or regional plan of action that does not include a potent global component.

As this essay argues, a central issue then is the well-worn problem of viewing Islamic terrorism through a prism of rural geography that stresses the danger of poverty. While it is true that underprivileged populations in certain parts of the world pose more risks than others, it is not the case that economic insufficiency in the Sahara-Sahel is the reason for the emergence of Muslim militancy in Africa or, for that matter, jihadism anywhere else. Framing religious extremism as a danger for Muslim states with rural, poor populations is not only inaccurate, but naïve. Simply put, home-grown Islamic militancy is identifiable in non-rural regions of the globe—France, Britain, Indonesia, and the United States—to name a few, and it can emerge and coalesce in economically prosperous communities. Thus, while the primary aim of this study is to dispel the myth that BH is a defeated entity, its tangential purpose, to unpack the misunderstandings about the group’s motivational origins and its adaptability which has led to its diffusion, is a critical lesson for analysts and policy makers facing jihadism internationally.

Premature Confidence

Since 2009, when BH attacked government buildings in Maiduguri (capital of Borno State), the group and its affiliates have wreaked havoc across an increasing African territory, now to include much of the Sahel-Sahara. At the height of violence between 2014 and 2016, BH had risen to become the most deadly jihadist organization in the world (173-89) controlling 20,000 square miles in Nigeria—an area equal to the size of Belgium. Since 2017, violence in Nigeria has seen a decline. Yet, as of this writing, BH and its tentacles are responsible for chaos and carnage in a growing portion of the continent, including Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, and Somalia—in the central Lake Chad Basin alone resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 people, more than 2.6 million displaced, and a minimum of US$9 billion in property damage. A consistent motive among militants is the desire for the conversion of all to Islam and the implementation of the Shari’a—the core of conservative Salafist ethics based on the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Shooting sprees, assassinations, bombings, abductions, bank robberies, and cattle looting remain BH’s chief forms of terror, garnering global attention when militants kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok (Borno State) in April 2014. By late summer 2016, BH fractured between the followers of Abubakar Shekau (also known as Darul Akeem wa Zamunda Tawheed) and the son of Mohammad Yusuf, Abu Musab al-Barnawi (also known as Habib Yusuf), with the Islamic State’s (ISIS) support for al-Barnawi—a connection formed years earlier. Adherents of al-Barnawi’s branch have carried out extortion, kidnapping, and murders. Despite recurrent rumors of Shekau’s death, the gregarious jihadist continues to surface, engaging in prominent attacks the following summer, including on a military compound in Maiduguri in June, and is likely responsible in July for killing 50 members of an oil exploration team in the Magumeri area of Borno.

Last year, BH-linked violence continued. Figures for terror-related casualties notoriously vary for Africa; however, it appears that the region’s jihadists were responsible for the deaths of at least 1,035 individuals (in 2018), where attacks were unleashed in Yobe and Borno states (Nigeria), Chad, and Cameroon. Female colleges, mosques, military convoys, and bases were especially targeted. In stark contrast to claims of a defeated Islamic insurgency, therefore, violence not only persists in Nigeria, but if other global regions are making headway against Islamic militancy, this means that many jihadists will end up fighting for BH and associated partners especially in the Sahara-Sahel, a expansive geography where borders are permeable and governance is unstable.

Violence from BH and its affiliates has expanded across the Sahara-Sahel, but it is also true that since late 2016-2017, progress has been made primarily in the Lake Chad Basin as a result of counter-terrorism efforts. South African mercenaries—Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP)—and the Multi-National Joint Task Force of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Benin, and Cameroon (MNJTF), a coalition first launched in 2012 with African regional members and upgraded by 2015 with international partners, have together provided key financial support, weaponry, and training to the Nigerian military. While STTEP focused on training the Nigerian military to combat anti-government forces, the dual goals of the MNJTF have been to secure mutual borders with Nigeria and flush out BH fighters. The most striking results of stepped-up CVE efforts since late 2016-2017 have been witnessed in Nigeria: planned assaults have been averted on at least two Western embassies in Abuja; there has been a reduction of rebel-held territory in the northeastern corridor of the country; and thousands of hostages have been returned. But if increased counter-terrorism measures have made in-roads against BH, it is also the case that returned hostages were in many instances the result of large ransom payments and/or hostage swaps, and BH and its affiliates yet maintain superior fighting arsenals with massive stockades of rockets, tanks, and other lethal weaponry (Chapter 5). According to a grim forecast from the UNSC (2017) even after the launching of the MNJTF and STTEP, Islamists in the region remain a major threat for all sectors of society: civilians, private and government property, educators, students, clerics, and military and police personnel. Much work, therefore, has yet to be done if BH and associated groups are to be authentically defeated—the motivation behind the notable massive deployment of the Nigerian military (six military brigades in the spring of 2018) to the heart of BH insurgency in Borno State.

Diagnostic Challenge

Over the past ten years, intelligence analysts and policy makers have made two serious mistakes regarding BH and its tentacle groups. First, as I elaborate shortly, there has been a tendency to claim that BH emerged as a direct result of poverty in northeastern Nigeria. This, I show, is an erroneous contention not supported by the facts. Second, and relatedly, strategists who believed BH was a locally fueled/supported Nigerian phenomenon failed to recognize the willingness of the group to strategically adapt to secure combatants and arsenal from other organizations beyond the western Sahel. Both perceptions have proven to be disastrous.

To begin with, VE (Violent Extremism) analysts have been quick to argue that BH is directly connected to poverty and joblessness in Nigeria, but it is just not that simple. Lack of economic opportunity is a feature of BH, but it is in no way central to its origins. If a direct line between severe economic hardship and extremism were a consistent dynamic for sustained Islamic terrorism, unleashed violence would be present throughout the entire Muslim Sahara-Sahel belt, a region that is known for crushing poverty. As it happens, Nigeria is far better off economically than many of its Muslim neighbors, including, for instance, Chad and Senegal, poorer countries that have seen jihadist spillover from neighboring states and isolated incidents of violent extremism, but have not experienced the violence seen in northeast Nigeria. Indeed, while Chad’s GDP hovers around US$9.98 billion (2017, last reported), Nigeria’s economy is many times larger at approximately US$375.8 billion (2017, last reported). A similar contention can be made for Senegal. Senegal’s economy is substantially less robust than Nigeria’s with a GDP of US$16.37 billion (2017, last reported) and yet the country has proven to be able to control violent extremist elements. In fact, despite a recent recession caused by dropping crude oil prices, for the past two decades, Nigeria—the most populous nation in Africa—experienced spectacular economic progress. Since the early 2000s, the country’s GDP has risen from US$46.386 billion in 2000 to a high of US$568.499 billion in 2014. Nigeria is rapidly positioned to be among the top 25 industrialized nations of the world with exports of US$52.9 billion (last reported) in 2018. It is thus not severe poverty that fueled the Sahara-Sahel’s central terrorist organization, BH, but instead the rapid infusion of Western capitalist culture to the interior of Africa that has overturned traditional Islamic society. Nigeria has mechanized and modernized, and it is the “evil” West that has played the largest role in this endeavor. In fact, the United States is Nigeria’s largest foreign investor with more than 40 percent of the country’s petroleum exports per annum.

While endemic poverty is not the primary antecedent for BH militancy, Nigerian extremists and their sympathizers believe that the country’s Christians are pagans who have unfairly benefited from the West—disproportionately enjoying profits from southern Niger Delta oil exports, a long-held grudge rooted in the era and effects of European colonialism. Making matters worse, Western culture now infuses the entire country, including the northeast, the base of BH. Nigeria’s Muslims possess a sense of cultural disparity with the West—intensified in Nigeria’s interior where the majority Muslim population are bitter toward Christians who they believe continue to benefit from connections to the West. It is this environment that has become ripe for a struggle against “unbelievers” who are despised for being wealthier, better politically connected, promoting democratic institutions, speaking English, and supporting secular education with its associated mixing of the sexes, and the teaching of evolution—which often is associated with Western-style schools (Chapter 5). Western capitalist culture is to blame, but so also are its social media by-products: Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, for example. These Internet outlets are perceived to have eroded Muslim lifeways—yet ironically, technological means with which jihadists convey their anti-Western message (Chapter 4).

BH and its tentacle groups in the Sahara-Sahel are therefore a result of socio-economic chaos brought on by expanding globalism or, in other words, a rolling economic, industrial, and technological sea-change that by the end of the 20th century reached places in sub-Saharan Africa such as northeast Nigeria. Globalism, accompanied by the onslaught of Western capital and culture—even to the interior belt of the continent—has been responded to by a growing movement for Muslim protectionism and religious reform. It is thus not surprising that one of the original leaders of BH articulated a direct connection between the organization’s beliefs and the effects of Western influence. In a 2009 interview with Mohammad Yusuf (not long before he was killed by the Nigerian police), the Islamist linked Nigeria’s problems with Western colonial rule, a dynamic that he claimed persists today: “Our land was an Islamic state before the colonial masters turned it to a kafir land. The current system is contrary to true Islamic beliefs” (Telephone interview conducted between “Daily Trust” reporter and Mohammad Yusuf, quoted in). For extremists in Nigeria and across the Sahara-Sahel, the only answer to economic inequality and the loss of traditional Islamic mores has been the forcible implementation of conservative Islam.

Boko Haram’s Flexibility and Agility Has Defied Defeat

If invasive Western capitalism/culture is the de facto basis for BH, it is also the case that VE analysts failed to anticipate the amorphous nature of BH to splinter, expand, and associate with jihadists throughout the Sahara-Sahel and beyond. More recently, some analysts have shown connections between the early (non-violent stage) BH and Islamists such as Osama Bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan (see, for example). Yet it is also true that not long after BH became violent (2009-2010), a loose conglomerate of mutually empowered terrorist organizations extended across Africa and the Near and Middle East. And if, at times, competitive and combative, these groups nonetheless adopted a unified mission focused on the destruction of all nonbelievers—domestic or overseas—including and especially America (aka the West) and their Jewish allies in Israel. Thus, while BH activity may have died down after the death of Muhammad Yusuf, soon BH had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, and at times has partnered with groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabab (HSM), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including its west/central sub-groups of al-Qaeda in Mauritania and al-Qaeda in Mali . Jihadists in the region again fractured and combined when a merger took place between AQIM with al-Mourabitoun, the Mujahideen of Ansar Eddine, and the Front de libération du Macina—and eventually formed into Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims). Yet another key group emerged in 2016 related to Ansar Eddine called Ansarul Islam, primarily targeting Burkina Faso and Mali. So, despite repeated reports of internecine conflict leading to the demise of Nigeria’s terrorism, not only violence from BH persists but erstwhile competing jihadists now loosely linked to BH continue to operate within and beyond Nigeria’s borders, often assisting each other with training, capital, and materiel (176-78).

What is more, the fact that BH has expanded to partners beyond Nigeria has increased its breadth for lethal weapons acquisition. Unsurprisingly, the post-Gadhafi Libya has proven to be a treasure trove for Sahara-Sahelian Islamic militants due to the emergence of arsenal traffickers who are now active throughout the Sahara desert. BH’s weapons are extensive and consist of not only the iconic motorcycles, cellphones, and Kalashnikovs, but have expanded to include a regular use of hand-held grenades, rocket propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles, vehicle mounted machine guns with anti-aircraft visors, T-55 tanks, Panhard ERC-90 “Sagaie,” and several plastic explosives such as Semtex, sometimes used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) (41-44). Training for BH and its affiliates has also increasingly come from outside of Nigeria, most prominently from AQIM in the far northwest and HSM in the far northeast. While BH has demonstrated strategic ability to adjust to secure more combatants and arsenal, this willingness to “partner” outside of Nigeria has allowed for maximum damage in an ever-growing territory. BH is being targeted by a coalition of anti-terrorism forces especially in the Lake Chad Basin, yet the fact that more factions are now involved means that the problem is diffused, more extensive, more violent (3), and thus more difficult to eradicate. Forensic analysis of training and attack sites across the Sahara-Sahel increasingly reveal the coordination of disparate but linked jihadist organizations, coordinating for maximum lethality. According to VE analyst, despite internecine conflict, the willingness of terrorist organizations to collaborate across the Sahara-Sahel and beyond was already apparent as early as 2013:

The 2013 hostage sieges in Kenya and Algeria indicate that African jihadist groups are cooperating with one another even as their leaderships wage internal power struggles… The raid upon Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013 may have been part of an emerging pattern across Africa, wherein jihadist groups collaborate with each other and boost their collective operational reach, even as their leaders compete for credibility at the intra-organisational level by authorising attacks in parallel on prestige targets.

Guerilla Islamic militancy has become a transnational phenomenon in the Sahara-Sahel, responding to and exceeding Abubakar Shekau’s (2017) call for the realization of a West African caliphate that extends throughout the whole of West Africa (

Implications and Why Policy Makers Should Not Forget about the Sahara-Sahel

With the aim of disentangling rumor from reality, I have argued that in spite of (especially) MNJTF progress in the Lake Chad Basin, the fact that BH and its affiliates continue to terrorize increased territory in the Sahara-Sahel means that Islamic militancy in the region is not on the decline, but instead has spread across a larger geography. Since at least Shekau’s assumption of BH leadership in 2010-2011, the jihadist pointedly addressed his “call to arms” videos to his “brothers and sheikhs” across an expansive territory: from Mali in the Sahara to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan in Central Asia. Hence, while Nigeria’s president, the country’s top officials, and some VE analysts have claimed BH to be “defeated,” a close assessment of continued attacks in the Sahara-Sahel as well as a recognition of linkages between BH and other organizations in Africa show that violent extremism (especially in the Sahara-Sahel) is on the rise. The threat of jihadism on the African continent, therefore, has not been contained by any means. Rather, the technology, training, and access to capital and weaponry have both expanded and become more entangled. When one territory has been routed by counter-terrorism forces, surviving fighters have simply relocated to other geographies accompanied by key connections. In this way, BH—the fulcrum of violent Islam in the Lake Chad Basin—has become, over time, an international jihadist actor.

Relatedly, while some believed BH to be a group that began as a result of economic depravity in northeast Nigeria—a problem that required more job opportunities and social services—this perspective failed to recognize that other Muslim states in the region are worse off economically and do not themselves suffer from sustained Islamic militancy. Thus, if northeastern Nigeria is comparatively poorer to the southern region of the country, it was not persistent poverty that generated violent extremism in Borno, but rather a general malaise toward the effects of globalism: the technological, economic, and cultural revolution fueled by the West. Moreover, the contention that BH was a locally fueled and supported organization that simply required targeted counter-terrorist action in the northeast similarly failed to acknowledge the group’s ability to adjust, permitting it to metamorphose into a robust and complex phenomenon across a larger area of the Sahara-Sahel; in other words, BH’s potential to develop into a cauldron of loosely affiliated organizations across more territory of the continent, wherein tactics, technologies, and relationships could be mutually advantageous. Muslims across Africa, notwithstanding differences in language and ethnicity, who feel resentment toward the Western economic and cultural powerhouse, share not only Koranic beliefs but also the Arabic language with which their doctrine is recorded: a lethal combination for kāfirūna. The VE community, therefore, should have taken Shekau seriously in December 2013 when he threatened those outside of Nigeria—even Americans—who would dare believe they could defeat BH:

You are boasting you are going to join forces with Nigeria to crush us. Bloody liars. You couldn’t crush us when we were carrying sticks. By Allah, we will never stop. Don’t think we will stop in Maiduguri. Tomorrow you will see us in America itself. Our operation is not confined to Nigeria. It is for the whole world.

Is BH dead? The answer is decidedly no. While it is tempting for some to view a recent decline in BH violence in Nigeria as reason to label the group “defeated”, this perspective lacks attention to detail and nuance. As this essay has shown, one has only to recognize that extremist attacks have occurred in more areas across the Sahara-Sahel since 2017. BH, itself, has morphed by associating with other terror organizations, increasing its breadth of lethality. An axle of violence in the Sahara-Sahel, BH is now just one of many jihadist groups, inspiring and partnering across a greater geography. Recently losing territory in northeast Nigeria does not then mean that policy makers can take their eyes off the region. Syria and Iraq serve as adequate paradigmatic reinforcement in this regard: there is rarely a willingness among jihadists to cease engaging in terrorism: once routed, desperate fighters relocate, regroup, and reload.

Moreover, no intelligence indicates the death of BH senior leaders. If we are to take the organization’s tactics seriously, we must be prepared for continued fraternization that could lead to destabilization beyond the Sahara-Sahel. BH-inspired and BH-linked terror have thus far concentrated on states within the Sahara-Sahel belt where disgruntled traditional Muslim communities resent the invasive phenomenon of the Western economic-cultural behemoth. Some states within the region have been more vulnerable than others due to weak governance and porous borders. But we must be vigilant in fringe areas where sustained Islamic militancy has not achieved a permanent foothold, for instance, Western Sahara, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, since the presence of the triad of bitterness toward the West, political instability, and permeable borders are a potent cocktail for jihadist activity.

If BH has developed and evolved over the past few years now to include association with newer groups and erstwhile disparate factions, co-mingling and sharing financial support, recruits, training, and increasingly devastating means of destruction, this is a problem for not just the Sahara-Sahel. As this essay has argued, a tendency to designate only rural impoverished Muslim regions as risk-laden is naïve. Should a Muslim community feel resentment toward the forces of Western-fueled globalization (which is at odds with conservative Islamic tenets), and if governments are not watchful, even more developed areas of the globe are vulnerable—Paris, Nice, Brussels, Colombo, or San Bernardino, for instance. To be sure, violent extremism is no longer a local or state-specific phenomenon in Africa or elsewhere. It can no more be strictly relegated to Nigeria as it can be to Mali, Somalia, Syria, France, Belgium, or Sri Lanka. No doubt, policy makers must take seriously Shekau when he warned that the Islamist operation is “for the whole world”).