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Dispelling the myth of Islamic Militancy in Africa and combating it – Dr. Glen Segell

January 1, 2020


Dispelling the myth of Islamic Militancy in Africa and combating it

Dr Glen Segell

University of Haifa

Volume 8 (2020), Number 1 (January 2020)


A massive car bomb exploded in a busy area of Mogadishu on Saturday 28 December 2019, leaving at least 79 people dead and many more wounded, many of them university students. Ostensibly it was carried by Al Shabab as the 20th vehicle-borne explosives attack of 2019 and the year is ending with more deaths from such attacks than 2018. There has been an Africa Union (AU) peacekeeping force, in Somalia since 2007.

The prospect of the continental spread of Islamic militancy and the escalation of tensions throughout Africa is evident in the deployment of military forces be they national by the United States and European countries or through NATO and the EU or by the AU. Yet, a closer examination shows that Islamic militancy is not going to be eradicated by military force. This should be obvious to military planners if they were to examine the Vietnam War, for example.

Nevertheless, the United States and prominent military powers within the European Union such as France and the United Kingdom are actively engaged militarily with what they see as the rise of Islamic militancy in parts of the Sahel and Horn of Africa.[1] They see that these pose growing threats to regional and maybe international stability. They quote the seizure of substantial parts of Mali by Islamic militants,[2] the violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria,[3] and years of religious-inspired violence in Somalia for example by Al Shabaab.[4]

This paper examines this and concludes that it is a myth that Islamic militancy in Africa poses any threat other than to its own specific locality. Reminiscent of military strategy and tactics in Vietnam military force will not be able to combat specific locality Islamic militancy. The paper concludes that armed force isn’t a long-term option even if it does have success against specific targets in singular battles.

Combating Islamic militancy in Africa requires addressing its recruitment and in inviting the militant movements to participate in conflict resolution. This is examined under the headings: 1) Armed force isn’t an option and 2) Reducing Islamic militancy in Africa

Armed force isn’t an option

The military deployment of foreign powers into Africa seems reminiscent of Vietnam. The enemy is not an army, and so an armed force cannot ensure a victory. The characteristics of most Islamic militants in Africa are the lack of military power in terms of equipment. They don’t have aircraft, tanks, artillery or ships. They don’t have the logistics to project any organized force over distances. They may not even seek to govern at the state level.

Any viability of a coherent al Qaeda-like front remains questionable. Rather, Islamic militants in Africa tend to be homegrown phenomena, focused on local concerns. Islamic militant organizations in Africa generally only command the support of small minorities. And this is within Muslim communities.

Combating such Islamic militancy is therefore to look at how it is recruited. It appears that the appeal of the Islamic militants in parts of the Sahel and Horn of Africa stems from their ability to tap into and persuade marginalized communities, particularly youth. Military interventions, such as those of Western forces, can reinforce the militants’ narrative. This may strengthen their recruitment and credibility.

Reducing Islamic militancy in Africa

The manner to reduce and even eradicate Islamic militancy in Africa is to address their recruitment. And it is to address the grievances of marginalized communities, particularly youth. It is to find where Islamic militancy in Africa intersects with that of broader Islamic movements in local situations. Further evident in Africa, Islam is characterized by doctrinal heterogeneity and fragmentation, which permits another way to engage the attempts of Islamic militants to gain support and in recruiting.

A starting point would be to find those communities that have adopted Salafi militancy.[5] Both Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria have their roots in Salafi movements. They continue to gather support both violent and nonviolent, as a response to prevailing poverty, unemployment, and socioeconomic deprivation. Turning the tide would be by local engagement. This is because Salafism is at the outset a religious movement. It doesn’t usually promote violence. It is normally devoted to the struggle for religious purity, personal piety, and Islamic morality.

Turning the tide of Islamic militancy in Africa would be to draw on detailed local knowledge and experience with a specific given context. It would require analysis that captures more than the immediate security dimensions but integrates historical, political, economic, and socio-cultural perspectives. The goal would be to gain nuanced and differentiated knowledge of how the militants intersect with issues pertinent to each given locality. It would be to proactively engage local community leaders and religious authorities.

There is an urgency, and this is recognized by state leadership. Attempting to create an awareness of the futility of militancy, and referring to the massive car bomb that exploded in a busy area of Mogadishu on Saturday 28 December 2019, Somalia’s President Mohamed Farmaajo said those who plot and carry out these attacks have “never brought a single development to our country, no roads, no hospitals, no educational institutions.”[6]


In sum is not to say that pure military force against Islamic militancy in Africa wouldn’t be effective in the short run. When they are armed and engaged in acts of violence and terror, then they are combatants that can be fought and neutralized.

However, history has shown worldwide that military action, needs to be accompanied by long-term political, economic and social engagement if it is to secure lasting peace and stability. Any conflict resolution process needs confidence-building measures and processes bringing together individuals, governments and religious groups among different ethnicity. The first stage is tackling militant’s’ recruitment.

Dispelling the myth of Islamic militancy in Africa and combating it requires inviting the militant movements to participate and to rehabilitate them. This is possible for they are often internally diverse with elements already following a trajectory of moderation. With such participation there could be genuine state-building efforts to hold local regimes accountable to the people, and to ameliorate economic, ethnic, social, and religious grievances.

No doubt, there will be required a demonstration of massive force to deter any militant action and make any recruit or potential recruit believe that their best option for the future is not militancy. Such a demonstration requires signaling and communication to indicate why the foreign force is there. Protracted deployment of foreign forces in Africa without any such messaging will only result in forces being deployed for forces sake and with no effective and sustainable conflict amelioration.


[1] Rok Ajulu. 2018. Globalization and Emerging Trends in African States’ Foreign Policy-Making. London: Routledge.

[2] Michael Shurkin, Stephanie Pezard, and S. Rebecca Zimmerman 2017. Mali’s Next Battle: Improving Counterterrorism Capabilities. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

[3] Alexander Thurston. 2019. Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[4] Dan Joseph, and Harun Maruf. 2018. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

[5] Frederic Wehrey, and Anouar Boukhars. 2019. Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Mogadishu attack: car bomb in Somali capital kills at least 79. 2019. N-World News. December 28. Available at:


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