Over the last four years most Islamic terrorist violence has shifted to Africa. Currently the worldwide top-ten nations suffering terrorism-related deaths are; Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. Some nations suffer more from non-Islamic violence. These include India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo, which all have Islamic terrorism but that accounts for a minority of terrorism-related deaths. Nigeria would as well except that many of its non-Islamic terrorist deaths are from Moslems attacking fellow Moslems for purely economic reasons. Despite that, in 2018 worldwide terrorism deaths declined 15 percent to 15,952. In 2019 there were 13,826 deaths and the decline continued into 2020. This decline is, so far, a five-year trend. Even Syria has experienced fewer deaths in the last few years. Egypt saw an even more dramatic 90 percent decline in 2018 and that decline has continued but the headline news does not cover trends like that. The old news adage, “if it bleeds it leads” is as true as ever and in Nigeria there are bloody headlines daily because of Islamic terrorist or tribal violence.
Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of the terrorism-related deaths. That list has recently changed with Syria and Pakistan replaced by Somalia and Mali (including neighboring Sahel states). The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that is currently the most radical practitioner of Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism continues to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorism-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorism-related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.
Nigeria is where most Islamic terrorist deaths occur. The main reason for this is that about half of all Nigerians are Christian but most of them live in the south, where the oil and most of the developed economy is. Christians are better educated and more successful economically, which strikes many Moslem Nigerians as not right. After all, Christians are infidels and enemies of Islam. Boko Haram is more direct and believes that all Christians must convert to Islam. Those who resist must be killed or enslaved. Most Nigerian Moslems disagree with these Boko Haram attitudes towards Christians, Boko Haram considers Moslems who disagree with them over Christian misdeeds to be enemies of Islam and subject to death unless they change their attitude.
While Islamic terrorism remains a major issue in Nigeria, such is not the case in the rest of the world. Islamic terrorism no longer dominates the world news now that ISIL has been largely suppressed. Global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000. This activity is most visible in the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. That puts Nigeria in the top ten because its casualties from Boko Haram violence alone would not do it. In the last year or so most terror-related deaths in Nigeria have come from tribal warfare, which has been a problem long before Islam showed up in sub-Saharan Africa about a thousand years ago. That was about the same time Islam underwent a religion-based shift in which science and technology went from being a useful area of study to a forbidden topic for devout Moslems. That was a side effect of a civil war that destroyed the caliphate (Islamic empire) because of nationalism and disputes over who the new caliphs (head of the caliphate) should be. The attitude created Boko Haram, which translates as “Infidel education is forbidden.” Most Moslems would prefer a more positive towards tech but such attitudes will get you killed during the periodic outbreaks of Islamic terrorism that have occurred over the last millennium. Within the Islamic world efforts are being made to change this. That is difficult because there was central authority to decide what is “true Islam” and what is not. This is a big deal among Moslems because Islam was founded as a religion that also served as a form of government. No other major religion has that as part of their basic beliefs as described in the Koran (the Moslem bible). This ongoing civil war is currently represented by the conflict between Iran, which follows the Shia school of Islam and is currently ruled by a religious dictatorship. Shia represent about ten per cent of all Moslems while the mainline Sunni represent about 80 percent. The Sunnis have no recognized leader and are divided into numerous subsects. Saudi Arabis is considered the most influential Sunni state by virtue of being Arab and ruled by the Saud clan which took control of the two most important Islamic shrines (at Mecca and Medina) in the 1920 when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was taken apart by the victorious World War I Allies, mainly Britain and France. Most of the Arab world had not been independent for centuries after the Turks seized control of the eastern Roman Empire, a process that was completed in the 15th century and managed to survive until the 20th century (1918).
The Turks solved the caliph/caliphate problem by recognizing the Ottoman ruler (the sultan) as the caliph and eliminating any Moslems who challenged that claim. The 20th century also brought with it global dependence on oil and most of that was found to be in Moslem majority areas. Suddenly Islamic radicals had access to more cash than ever before. Islamic radicals had no objections to accepting infidel cash for their oil, and they eventually used all that wealth to attack the infidel states, as well as seeking to gain control of Moslem majority areas. That is why there was such an unprecedented outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th century. Groups like Boko Haram still despised infidel education but were eager to purchase all the gadgets and weapons that the Western scientific and industrial revolution made possible. The Moslem contribution to all that new tech was miniscule and still is despite many Moslem majority states making an effort to become more competitive in tech.
Middle Eastern and Asian Moslem majority states were more effective at developing governments able to keep their Islamic terrorists under control. Africa lagged in that area, in part because sub-Saharan Africa was the last region to be exposed to the scientific and industrial revolution as well as nationalism. Moreover, there were many African countries where Moslems were a minority and largely ruled by corrupt and incompetent governments. That provided more opportunities for Islamic terror groups to establish themselves. By the early 21st century Africa, for all its economic, government and infrastructure problems, because the easiest place for Islamic terror groups to survive and even thrive. Nevertheless, each African country suffering from Islamic terrorism found that the problem had a local flavor.
In northeast Africa (Somalia) the main source of Islamic terrorism deaths is al Shabaab, a local group affiliated with al Qaeda. The ISIL presence is miniscule and barely surviving in northern Somalia. Al Shabaab tries to expand into neighboring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda but has little success.
In central Africa, landlocked Mali is the center of growing Islamic terrorist activity that has spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso which is, like Mali, landlocked and has 17 million people (about 20 percent more than Mali). Burkina Faso also lacks the troublesome Tuareg/Arab minority in the north. Because Burkina Faso is south of Mali it also lacks the semi-desert north in Mali. That is where the Tuareg/Arab minority live. Burkina Faso also has more religious diversity with a quarter of the population being Christian and 60 percent Moslem. Moreover, the Moslem population consists of several different “schools” of Islam, some of them quite hostile to Sunni Islamic terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda and ISIL. In contrast, Niger and Mauritania are almost all Moslem and have always been the home for some Islamic conservatives who were not satisfied unless their neighbors also adopted Islamic conservatism.
ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria and western Iraq. In Nigeria Boko Haram is divided into factions and one of them, ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) is one of two Central Africa ISIL affiliates. It is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than most Africa based Islamic terror groups. ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help Nigeria or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). There are smaller ISIL factions in northern Somalia, southern Libya and eastern Algeria. These groups were once larger but have suffered heavy losses from local and/or international counter-terrorism efforts.
In Mali, the violence shifted since 2012 from northern to Central Mali where 74 percent of the 1,500 2019 deaths took place. The rest were in the northeast where ISIL is most active. The situation in Central Mali is worse than it appears because in the adjacent Sahel province of Burkina Faso there were 918 deaths in 2019. The two provinces can blame it on Islamic terror groups using the two provinces for their drug/people smuggling operation (north to the Mediterranean coast) which is so lucrative that it has expanded, at least in central and northern Mali, to include extortion and all manner of criminal activity. At the center of all this violence and cash producing activity are Fulani tribesmen who are numerous (20 million in all) throughout a belt of territory stretching from Central Mali, through northern Mali then through southern Niger into northern Nigeria.
French troops in Mali killed the leader of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) during a miod-2020 operation. This was a big deal because the Maghreb is the Arab word for North Africa and that is where AQIM came from. Most of the Islamic terrorist violence in North Africa took place during the 1990s and by 2000 Islamic terror groups were in decline. That decline continues to the present and led to many surviving al Qaeda men heading south where they tried to rebuild their strength by recruiting locals. This ran into problems because the largely Arab population of North Africa had never got on well with the non-Arab people living south of the Sahara Desert. AQIM did introduce the concept of Islamic terrorism down there and that led to local Islamic terrorist groups forming and operating independently of AQIM. As a result, the largest Islamic terror group in Mali is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part, this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL, which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM, Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences.
FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg and Arab, and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. Drug trade income keeps a lot of these factions in business and Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mi. Those groups that do not go broke and wither to nothing.
Islamic terror group members evolved and the more radical JNIM members joined more radical groups like ISIL, which is universally hated by other Islamic terrorists and Moslems in general. In early 2020, Malian ISIL members released a video on the Internet in which the group pledged allegiance to Abu Hamza al Qurayshi, the new ISIL leader. By 2018 there were two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), which showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP, which is actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.
There has been increasing friction between ISGS and JNIM (and other al Qaeda affiliates). This is not unusual because, worldwide, ISIL demands all other Islamic terror groups acknowledge the supremacy of ISIL. This rarely happens anymore. In areas where both ISIL and al Qaeda operate, there is usually an informal truce or, as is now the case in Mali, open warfare. ISIL groups are usually outnumbered but often survive because they are more ruthless and vicious. In northern Mali, ISGS also accuses JNIM of collaborating with the security forces against the ISIL group. That is not unusual worldwide but it is unclear if it is actually happening in Mali. What is happening is that ISGS continues to recruit new members from al Qaeda factions. This is how ISIL was created back in 2013 and the practice continues.
While Islamic terrorists are the source of much violence and death in Mali and neighboring countries, the main source of violent death is still tribal feuds. In Mali, the primary one is between the Fulani and Dogon and so far in 2020 that feuding has killed more people than all the Islamic terrorist violence in Mali.