Special Reports

Africa's Fragile States: Empowering Extremists, Exporting Terrorism


Twelve of the twenty states deemed by the Failed States Index (FSI) to be at greatest risk of collapse in 2010 are in Africa. These fragile and failed states account for much of the continent’s ongoing conflict, instability, and humanitarian catastrophes. State failure raises the risk of personal insecurity, lawlessness, and armed conflict. Such persistent and randomized insecurity undermines all aspects of ordinary life, forcing people to stay in their homes and close their businesses for fear of violence. Under such circumstances, residents become willing to support or accept virtually any groups that are able to restore order—be they warlords, local gangs, or organized criminal syndicates.

Among the violent actors that fill the power vacuums of Africa’s fragile and failed states are Is-

lamist extremists. By providing security and basic services, they hope to gain greater public acceptance of their ideological agendas. A state’s failure to assert a monopoly on legitimate force accordingly opens the door for extremists to build their bases of political power. Of the twelve “high-risk” states in Africa, eight have populations that are one-third or more Muslim, a feature that more than doubles a state’s risk of instability3 and provides fertile ground for Islamist extremists.

Many of these countries have seen the increasing influence of Islamists in recent years. Islamists share the belief that politics, as well as personal life, should be based on Islam. They envision an ideal Islamic state in which shariah, Islamic law, forms the basis for political authority. Most Muslims in Africa are not Islamists. And most Islamists are not violent. But their rising influence coincides with recent threats posed by violent African extremists. In July 2010, Somalia’s Islamist militia al Shabaab detonated three simultaneous explosions that targeted two venues in Kampala, Uganda, showing the final World Cup match, killing nearly 80 Ugandans and foreigners. Islamic militancy has also been growing across the Sahel, fueling concerns that this will spawn more terrorism in Africa. African Islamists, furthermore, have been implicated in terror plots on the continent and abroad. Perhaps the most high-profile case con- cerned Omar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, a Nigerian who attended Islamist schools in Yemen and alleg- edly attempted to set off a bomb on a U.S.-bound airliner on December 25, 2009.

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