Terrorist threats in Africa have diversified and become more severe in recent years. Here is a risk forecast of six hotspots to watch in the months ahead.
Terrorism in East Africa is likely to disproportionately affect Somalia and Kenya in the coming months, though neighboring countries contributing to the African Union Mission in Somalia and Ethiopia also face an elevated threat. Advances against al-Shabab in Somalia have slowed considerably over the past year as African Union forces became increasingly overstretched. A temporary increase in troop numbers will provide some relief in the short term, but is unlikely to limit al-Shabab’s ability to stage further attacks.
Al-Shabab’s primary focus under its leader Ahmed Godane is likely to remain on Somalia. However, as demonstrated by last year’s attack on the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi, the group is willing to launch operations elsewhere in the region if they are deemed to serve the goal of overthrowing the Somali government, chiefly by undercutting neighboring countries commitment to the sustained provision of military assistance. Al-Shabab has a strong support network in Kenya, and small-scale attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and along the Somali border are likely to continue. There is little to suggest this threat will be mitigated in the near future.
Africa’s Sahel region remains at risk for high-profile terrorist attacks in the near future. The drawdown of French troops in northern Mali is likely to prompt a resurgence in militant attacks and kidnappings in both Mali and the wider Sahel-Sahara region. These could potentially stretch into new areas, most notably in Chad. The fragmentation of the local al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), does not signal a weakening of the group’s capabilities. The organization’s lack of cohesion probably has less to do with the arrest or killing of commanders and more to do with the growing ambitions of local Islamist extremists tied to the organization’s southern wing in the Sahel to disentangle themselves from the group’s Algerian leadership in the northeast of that country. French counterterrorism operations in Mali will not eliminate the risk of attacks, particularly in desert areas.
Sustained military operations in northern Nigeria have restricted the ability of Islamist extremist groups Boko Haram and Ansaru to operate with the same levels of impunity that they once enjoyed. Attacks have become increasingly concentrated in historic hotspots, notably in remote parts of Nigeria’s Borno and Yobe states and around the city of Kano. However, the build-up to the 2015 election cycle is likely to prompt a spike in violence as militant groups receive increased funding and look to influence domestic politics with their activity. The incentives to carry out high-profile attacks will grow, raising the risk of isolated attacks in the capital Abuja. However, security forces will likely prevent sustained violence outside the main militant strongholds in the northeast.
Militant attacks targeting the government, police and military are likely to occur with greater frequency and across a broader geographic area, including further high-profile operations in the capital Cairo. The now-banned Muslim Brotherhood has condemned violence and urged peaceful protests and civil disobedience, yet the country’s polarized political situation increases the likelihood that disaffected supporters of the party will turn to militancy. Jihadist groups have been waging an insurgency against police and the armed forces in the North Sinai since 2011. That insurgency provides a standing militant infrastructure for attacks elsewhere. Most targets will probably be political or governmental, but civilians, Christian sites and commercial assets face an elevated risk in the months ahead.
The political crisis following the assassination of a secular politician last July precipitated a marked uptick in militant attacks. Since then, militants have increased their use of suicide bombs and sought to target tourist areas frequented by Westerners. This is likely a reflection, in part, of growing polarization between Islamists and secularists in the political arena. In the months ahead, terrorism in Tunisia will likely be linked closely to political developments; should Islamist groups feel marginalized by the political process, the tempo of attacks will increase. Elements of the al-Qaida network will seek to influence events in Tunisia as well as the other democratizing nations of North Africa – Libya and Egypt; providing guidance, funding and operational assistance to nascent jihadist factions.
Most militant attacks in Libya have taken place in the northeast and focused on domestic targets, though others, most notably the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, have also been directed against diplomatic and humanitarian assets. Since the middle of last year, civilian and Western commercial interests have come under increasing attack. A broad range of groups are capable of carrying out such attacks, and militancy in Libya is not solely the province of Islamists such as the State Department-blacklisted Ansar al-Sharia collectives. In addition, a host of domestic actors: tribes, minority groups and members of security forces all have the potential to carry out attacks in an attempt to influence Libya’s ongoing political transition.