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Special Reports

Islamic Militancy in Africa

The seizure of more than half of Mali’s land area by Islamic militants, the growing violence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and years of religious-inspired vio- lence in Somalia have heightened attention on Islamic militancy in Africa. In the process, violent clashes be- tween insurgent groups and governments in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa have increased, the armed ca- pacity of militant organizations has expanded, terrorist attacks against civilians including suicide bombings have escalated, militants’ strict moral codes—enforced through stoning and amputation—have been imposed, sacred historical sites have been destroyed, and hun- dreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Militants’ ability to seize and control vast territory for extended periods of time has prolonged and obstructed the process of state-building in Somalia, while in Mali it has severed the northern from the southern half of thecountry and exacerbated a political impasse in Bamako. Protracted instability in parts of the Sahara-Sahel, fur- thermore, has the potential to ripple throughout the region. The prospect of the emergence of Islamic mili- tancy and the escalation of tensions elsewhere on the continent is likewise a cause for concern.

While the risks of escalation are significant, the gains of these Islamic militant groups are not attribut- able to their military strength. Rather, their expanded influence is just as much a symptom of fragile and complex political contexts. More generally, Islamic militancy in Africa today represents the intersection of broader trends in contemporary Islam and local cir- cumstances. Responding to the challenge is all the more difficult in that very little is known about these often secretive Islamic groups, some of which have only recently emerged.


Islamic militancy is understood here as Muslim groups and movements that, based on religious prefer- ences, seek to enforce religious, social, and political norms through violence. Religious preferences are in turn defined as scriptural-based interpretations viewed by the actors as authoritative. Islamic militancy is, in other words, different from Islamic movements that seek political change through nonviolent means or to promote reforms of a religious nature—through, for example, education and da’wa (proselytizing). It should also be noted that Islamic militancy reflects a minority perspective within the spectrum of Islamic ideologies.

Islamic militancy in Somalia first surfaced in the mid-1980s with the formation of al Itihad al Islamia (“Islamic Unity”), which expanded its military opera- tions in the early 1990s. Al Itihad disappeared from the scene after 1996, yet its ideas and main actors contin- ued to play roles in the highly diverse United Islamic Courts (UIC) movement that emerged in the mid- 2000s. In 2006, the UIC managed to secure control over Mogadishu for some months before being crushed by the Ethiopian intervention in December of that year. This subsequently gave rise to al Shabaab, which represented a new generation of Islamic militants ever more determined to use violent action to achieve their goals. In addition to waging a guerilla war that enabled it to gain control over large areas of southern Somalia, al Shabaab added suicide bombing to its repertoire. Several offensives by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government troops since 2011, later joined by Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, dramatically weakened al Shabaab’s capacity.

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