The Rise of African Islamists

[Image credit: European Commission_Boko Haram Displaced in Yola_June 2015]

Zaf Shah is currently in his final year of International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Bradford. He has previously advised local government on the PVE (preventing violent extremism) agenda, and has also provided training to the West Yorkshire Police on community Cohesion and Racial Awareness. His appointment as a Muslim affairs specialist allowed development and better understanding of Muslim affairs from a local community perspective. Zaf has also worked in Pakistan at a local Madrassah which gave him a valuable insight into the world of violent extremism

Over the last fifty years or so Africa’s wars have been well documented, but ironically these weren’t always wars where violent religious groups were vying for control of the region or its resources. Throughout the last fifteen years, conflict theorists and academics alike have focussed their efforts on the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  Indeed, the tide has turned and there is now a different kind of threat.

Whilst the United States and its allies had concentrated its military might in the Middle East fighting a supposed ‘war on terror’, Islamist groups such as Al Shabbab, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb regrouped and took advantage of the chaotic conflict patterns in Africa. Warfare is returning to Africa through intra state religious conflicts, pitting the aforementioned violent Islamists against state powers in geographical regions of West and Central Africa in particular, along with of course the Horn and Somalia. It serves to briefly mention the difference between Islam and religionised politics of Islamism, which strives to employ religious symbols for political aims. Islamism originates from by and large a political interpretation of Islam. Therefore it is fair to say that Islamism is about political order and not faith.

Indeed, Western Analysts are now beginning to view this as a new frontier on the so-called ‘war on terror’. What couldn’t be ignored was the appearance of several African fighters in the ranks of combatants in Iraq and the success of Islamist forces firstly, gaining overall control of Somalia and secondly, engaging in a proxy war against the US and her allies. Affected African states no longer have a monopoly on power, and arguably are struggling to control the threat of terror groups from operating with relative impunity, with very few prosecutions or at least the legal framework to do the same. This of course means that state structures are weak and lack meaningful leadership to challenge this new threat.

A case in point being Nigeria, who has yet to dismantle North

Illegal migrants caught at the coast of Souq al Jum'aa region in Tripoli, Libya, March 2015. Total of 97 migrants from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria and Liberia [Image credit: Mail & Guaridan, from Mustafa Bag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]
“Illegal” migrants caught at the coast of Souq al Jum’aa region in Tripoli, Libya, March 2015. Total of 97 migrants from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria and Liberia [Image credit: Mail & Guaridan, from Mustafa Bag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]
Eastern Nigeria, based Boko Haram, who have been responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians and kidnappings since its inception fourteen years ago. Boko Haram and a dozen or so other terrorist groups have pledged their allegiance to Isil (Daesh) who have taken over swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. With little or no control of terrorist groups and their ability to coordinate and attack civilians, means like the  2013 shopping mall attack in Kenya that African based Islamist terror can strike in any part of Africa at any given moment.  Bangui, the Central African Republic city has probably seen the most brutal effect of sectarian conflict playing out on the streets of this once harmonious region, where Muslims and Christians lived side by side. A report released by the International Rescue Committee said that more than 6,000 people have been killed since the conflict began and more than 2.7 million people are in need of emergency assistance (WNG2015). The locals blame the hatred for one another on Islamist terror groups operating in the region.

With conflicts between Muslims and Christians playing out in a number of African countries, it is no wonder that much of Europe is now faced with a migrant crisis on its borders.


World News Group (2015) Daily Dispatches. Central African Republic still rife with conflict a year after ceasefire [Online] Asheville. Available from: [Accessed August 10 2015]


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