“The Muslim community in affected countries should be particularly concerned because these terror groups are exploiting Islamic tenets or doctrines, Akinola Olojo, a senior researcher in transnational threats and international crime at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, told IQNA in an interview.
Following is the full text of the interview.
Q: In recent months we have witnessed widespread activities by Daesh (ISIS or iSIL) in Africa and especially in the western parts of the continent. What is the reason behind the rise in these activities?
A: To a great extent, the spread of violence by Daesh affiliates and other terror groups in Africa is due to the weak understanding of governments of the workings of these groups, as well as ill-informed state responses. Government responses to violent extremism in East and West Africa are heavily anchored on the use of force or what we may refer to as military campaigns.
The armed approach has its utility and should not be discarded. However, in more than a decade of countering terror groups in Africa, evidence clearly shows that the problem facing affected countries is complex and requires a multi-pronged strategy.
The G5 Sahel comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger has been militarily active in the Sahel but yet to achieve desirable results for communities. In fact, in spite of the death of former Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, groups linked to Daesh in Africa have remained resilient and caused more attacks.
We must bear in mind that these groups are transnational in terms of their ideological and logistical connections. In addition, it is vital to note that the complexity of these challenges is the consequence of decades of weak governance policies in affected countries, as well as poor implementation in cases where policies exist.
Decades of ineffective state institutions, longstanding neglect of communities living on the margins of society, failure to constructively engage local community actors and particularly the rising youth population, have collectively contributed to a situation where terror groups exploit leadership gaps along with the power of ideology that conveys a religious appeal to vulnerable populations.
Q: Some believe that these terrorist groups have just come to Africa following the defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. What do you think?
A: Before al-Baghdadi’s death, Africa was already of high strategic importance and became a platform for the expansion of Daesh and rebuilding after its demise in Iraq and Syria.
The continent’s significance was further demonstrated in the number of foreign terrorist fighters who travelled to Iraq and Syria – an estimated 10 000 from North Africa alone. One must also recall that Africa has been a battleground for the rivalry between al-Qaeda and Daesh as each competes for spheres of influence.
However, apart from this linkage with Daesh, some of these terror groups or factions already existed in African states. For instance, Boko Haram has been active in northern Nigeria for more than a decade. Other groups like al-Shabaab have also been active in Somalia and East Africa for several years as well.
Q: In your opinion, which countries and regions of Africa are most at risk of terrorist groups with Daesh ideology?
A: It is an important question but also one that is tricky because even if a country has the so-called risk factors for violent extremism or more specifically Daesh infiltration, it does not mean that such a country will eventually fall victim.
There are a number of countries that face challenges such as socio-economic deprivation, radicalization that leads to terrorism or even political marginalization. However, the people living in these countries do not necessarily join terror groups. Therefore, there is no direct linkage between these risk factors or what can be referred to as ‘push and pull factor’ and joining Daesh or terror groups.
Nonetheless, in the present-day period, there are groups like the Daesh West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria that currently face the risk of an intensification of the Daesh ideology which already exists. Countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso also face this risk because of the presence of the Daesh in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Q: In the past we have seen other groups such as Lord's Resistance Army and Boko Haram in Africa. What is the reason people are attracted to these groups?
A: People join these different terror groups for various reasons which must also be understood based on the local context where the groups operate. Some individuals are attracted by the ideological narrative of these groups and a need to have a sense of identity. Others join as a result of socioeconomic or political grievances.
Some also join for reasons linked to vengeance, for instance due to the killing of a family member or friend by security agencies. Each individual’s pathway towards joining any of these groups is unique and must be understood in a particular way.
Q: How do you think African governments can counter Daesh and similar terrorist groups?
A: In addition to cooperation with the Global Coalition Against Daesh to neutralize the threat posed by the group’s affiliates in Africa, governments in the continent need to strengthen regional cooperation particularly on issues of intelligence.
Second, criminal justice frameworks that address terror cases and ensure human rights must be improved because gaps in this area contributes to pushing some individuals to join terror groups.
Third, socio-economic deprivation and governance challenges affecting communities must be addressed with a sense of urgency.
Fourth, it is necessary to deepen engagement of the private sector in for instance the provision of technological solutions and more effective border control management.
Fifth, the ideology driving Daesh affiliates and other terror groups should be addressed with counter-narratives inspired by local community actors such as Islamic clerics who are familiar with the doctrines exploited by these groups.
Sixth, law enforcement agencies need the technological tools to detect, intercept and disrupt planned terror operations in a timely manner, and in compliance with international law.
Finally, there must be deeper engagement between governments and community stakeholders including civil society organizations (CSOs), women’s groups, youth groups, traditional institutions and of course victims of terror attacks.
Q: How can people, and especially Muslims, counter these groups?
A: Communities in the affected countries have a vital role to play in countering violent extremism because governments alone cannot address this problem.
The Muslim community in affected countries should be particularly concerned because these terror groups are exploiting Islamic tenets or doctrines. The Muslim community has also been affected by terrorist violence and many mosques have been attacked in some countries and Muslims killed as well.
There is a need for a more cohesive and articulated voice by the Islamic community in condemning the actions of these terror groups. In addition, Islamic clerics and scholars should play an important role because they are familiar with the essential doctrinal elements required to deconstruct the ideological narratives pushed by the terror groups.
A good example was seen in 2005 when Oxford Islamic Scholar Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti published a book (and fatwa) aimed at deconstructing the ideological motives of the masterminds of the July 2005 bombings in London. Countering ideology is vital in terms of the long-term battle of winning hearts and minds.
The influence of clerics is also very important in the context of communal mobilization and resilience. A 2018 article by the Institute for Security Studies draws attention to this role by Islamic clerics and it is titled ‘Islamic clerics can shift Boko Haram’s ideological narrative’.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi