Africa and Afghanistan the Current Hotspots, But Jihadists Also Eye China and Russia
Sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan are jihadism’s current focal points. They are likely to remain hotspots of political violence for the foreseeable future. The two regions beckon jihadists with more than the operational benefits of ungoverned spaces, weak governments, porous borders, vulnerable bulges of youth who have no hope for a better future, and/or militants in search of an effective organisational framework. They also place groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda on the fringes of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The three regions on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks – and in Central Asia’s case, China and Russia’s near abroad – are populated by often non-performing autocracies and young populations with little to lose. As a result, the geopolitics of sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan have turned jihadists into players in the struggle between China, Russia and Western nations to shape a new world order.
For many African recruits, jihadism promises a fulfilment of their temporal rather than spiritual aspirations. More often than not, the recruits are young men in search of a way out of poverty. They want a job – a livelihood that would allow them to get married and build a family. More often than not, they are not seeking to fulfil a religious command.
Jihadist recruiters, including from the Islamic State (IS), cater to these aspirations, even if they have no intention of living up to their promises. The recruits’ lack of religious education works in the militants’ favour. Recruits are in no position to challenge their militant interpretation of Islam. A recent 128-page United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) survey of 500 former African militants showed that 57 per cent knew little or nothing about Islamic religious texts. Challenging notions that Muslim religious education creates a breeding ground for militancy, the study showed that it reduced the likelihood of radicalisation by 32 per cent.
While making significant inroads in parts of Africa, IS recruitment in Afghanistan has proven to be a different beast. Over the past decade, it benefitted from outflanking Al-Qaeda (AQ) as the primary transnational jihadist group in the region, independent of and opposed to Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers. In contrast to Africa, the IS had a more ready-made pipeline of battle-hardened militants and auxiliaries with its co-optation of groups like Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The co-optation brought in militants with superior knowledge of the local and regional landscape. Some were scions of influential political and warlord families, who provided logistical support by helping the IS gain access to official documentation and plan attacks. In addition, Afghanistan’s Salafi communities’ relations with the Taliban are strained, and former Afghan security force personnel at risk of persecution by the Taliban after their takeover in the wake of the US withdrawal in August 2021, turned out to provide an equally rich recruitment pool.
The distinct profiles of militants in Africa and Afghanistan suggest different trajectories with divergent geopolitical impacts, at least for now. As a result, in Africa, counter terrorism efforts emphasising political, social and economic reform on par with security and law enforcement in a bid to reduce militants’ recruitment pool and deprive them of a conducive environment, is in the short- and middle-term a more feasible approach than in Afghanistan, where they rely on ideology and religious fervour to a greater degree.
Varied Opportunities and Challenges for External Powers
Even so, cross-border jihadist operations in Afghanistan and Africa pose different challenges and create diverging opportunities for external powers like China, Russia, the United States (US) and Europe. For Russia, Africa generates a significant opportunity to expand its global reach and influence. Russia capitalised on the tightrope that the US and Europe walk as they balance the need for reform with inevitable support for autocratic partners in the fight against militancy.
The management of that balance by France, long the major external power in the fight against political violence in the African continent alongside the US, has ultimately disadvantaged it and opened doors for Russia. Countries like Mali and Burkina Faso are cases in point. Mali highlighted the importance of strengthening good governance. In 2020, a weak government produced a military coup that ruptured relations with France and paved the way for the replacement of French troops by the Wagner Group, Russia’s shadowy mercenary force.
France’s departure from Mali, completed in August 2022, signalled an end to its decade-long fight against Islamic insurgents in the Sahel. Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron has increasingly focused on reversing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, halving the number of French forces in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania to 2,200 and limiting their mission. Mali had six months earlier withdrawn from the G5 Sahel multinational military force, composed of troops from Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, in a further blow to Western counter terrorism efforts.
The drawdown of French troops spotlighted the inability of the US-sponsored Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), founded in 2005, to effectively assist West and North Africa in the fight against militancy. The partnership was designed to adopt a holistic approach to address the region’s political, development, socioeconomic and governance challenges. In practice, it was a mismanaged policy tool focused almost exclusively on security assistance and strengthening local military and security institutions. As a result, it spent US$1 billion over a decade and a half with little to show for itself.
Pertinently, despite more than a decade of US- and French-led counter terrorism efforts, militancy is spreading, most recently to the West African coastal states of Benin and Togo. As a result, many governments in West Africa, desperate to end the violence, welcome Russia and the Wagner Group, hoping they may succeed where France and the US and corrupt regional governments have failed.
In Mali and elsewhere in the region, Russian psychological warfare helped pave the way for the Wagner Group. So did Russia’s willingness, in contrast to France and the US, despite the high cost to civilian life of their actions, to conduct and allow local governments to wage counterinsurgency and counter terrorism operations unconstrained by human rights concerns.
Yet the combination of brutality with no political, social or economic component of any significance and the lack of differentiation between transnational militant groups in Africa, such as AQ affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) and various regional self-autonomy movements, promise to produce short-term results at best, rather than structural solutions.
The failure to distinguish between different types of militants precludes the design of tailor-made approaches that address specific grievances and reduce the risk of driving non-jihadist tribal and ethnic movements into the arms of religious militants. Moreover, by essentially paying Russia and the Wagner Group for their services in concessions for natural resources, commercial contracts and/or access to critical infrastructure such as airbases and ports, African governments have enabled Russia to embed itself in their economies and social fabric.
In Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation of 20 million, protesters waving Russian flags attacked the French embassy and a cultural institute in the capital Ouagadougou, after a military takeover in September 2022, the second in a year. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was among the first to congratulate the new junta, praising it for doing what “was necessary”.
Russia was a factor in the coup, even if Moscow may not have instigated it, and despite assurances by Burkina Faso’s new president, Captain Ibrahim Traore, that his country would not follow in Mali’s footsteps. West African sources close to President Traore said he had toppled the leader of Burkina Faso’s first coup, Lt Col Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, because the latter was dragging his feet on turning to Russia after France refused to sell him military equipment, including helicopters.
The North Africa Conundrum
The US, France and Russia’s focus on counter terrorism in West Africa should also not ignore the north of the continent. Officials, strategists and analysts believe that North Africa’s experience dating to Algeria’s bloody war in the 1990s against Islamist militants and militancy in Libya and Tunisia in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts, as well as Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Islamists in 2013, has, at least for now, firewalled the region against militancy.
The opposite could be true. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown regional economies into chaos. Many perform worse today than on the eve of the 2011 uprisings. Socioeconomic disparities, corruption and unemployment have increased. Significant segments of the population are angry, frustrated and hopeless.
A report in 2021 by the US Institute for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that “frustration with the inability of regional governments to address these problems boiled over in 2011, leading to popular revolutions that toppled three of the five regimes in power in North Africa”. Reforms have been slow, however, despite these highly visible and destabilising popular uprisings. Consequently, the social and economic factors that have made the region so fertile for terrorist recruitment and incitement remain unaddressed, the report concluded.
China in Jihadist Crosshairs
If Europe may be the external power most affected by increasing instability and political violence on its periphery, China could become the major power most targeted in Afghanistan and Central Asia. China has moved more firmly into the IS’ crosshairs in the past year. At the same time, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), long a transnational jihadist group aligned with AQ, has increasingly shifted from pursuing global jihad to wanting to liberate the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
The party’s deputy emir, Abdusalam al-Turkistani, signalled the shift in a seven-page statement on social media platform Telegram. Speaking in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, rather than Uyghur or Arabic, Al-Turkistani asserted that “we are not from China, our homeland is East Turkistan… We are your Muslim brothers from East Turkistan of Central Asia”. He added: “We are not terrorists; we are fighters for the freedom of the oppressed Uyghurs in East Turkistan.”
Al-Turkistani’s assertion that his group, formerly known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was not a terrorist organisation, was undergirded by a decision in 2020 by the US State Department to take the movement off its terrorism list. China got a taste of what the IS and TIP shifts could entail when three men stormed a Chinese-owned hotel in the centre of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in December 2022. The attackers were killed, and five of the approximately 30 Chinese nationals in the hotel were wounded.
It was the first attack on a Chinese target since the Taliban came to power in August 2021. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) claimed responsibility. A day earlier, Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu had expressed “dissatisfaction” about security and had urged the Taliban to improve its protection of the People’s Republic’s diplomatic mission.
The attack followed a series of anti-Chinese statements and publications by the IS, in which the group denounced Chinese “imperialism”. The renewed focus broke the IS’ five-year silence about China. It also raised the spectre of the group attacking Chinese targets in Pakistan, as it did in 2017 when it kidnapped and executed two Chinese nationals in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, a key node in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Similarly, the TIP vowed revenge for China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in a statement released a week before the attack on the hotel. Western governments, Uyghurs and human rights activists have accused China of imprisoning more than one million Turkic Muslims to reshape their religious and ethnic identity in the mould of the country’s rulers.
The brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the effort to “Sinicise” Islam in China is one major reason why the People’s Republic is in jihadist crosshairs. Another is China’s largely unnoticed but growing commercial interests in Afghanistan. China is one of only a handful of countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul and trade with Afghanistan, even if it, like the rest of the world, refuses to recognise the Taliban regime.
Nevertheless, China advised its citizens in Afghanistan, Kabul’s largest expat community, to leave the country “as soon as possible” in the wake of the hotel attack. Meanwhile, China’s first infrastructural project in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a 142-acre, US$216-million industrial park that sprawls across the north-eastern edge of Kabul. China picked the project up after the US abandoned it with the US forces’ withdrawal and President Ashraf Ghani’s fall in August 2021. China has since removed tariffs on 98 per cent of Afghan goods and revived an air transport service to import US$800 million a year’s worth of pine nuts.
The Great Game
Africa and Afghanistan may be jihadists’ current centres of gravity, but militants’ ambitions go far beyond. IS attacks on Afghan mosques near the border with Central Asia and a purported cross-border missile attack on Uzbekistan have dashed Central Asian hopes that the Taliban would be able to control the frontier region and shield former Soviet republics from the jihadists.
Like China, Russia’s involvement in the African fight against extremism will, sooner rather than later, make Russia a jihadist target. An IS suicide bombing in September 2022 near the Russian embassy in Kabul, in which two Russian embassy staff were among six people killed, may have been a shot across Moscow’s bow.
Offering alternatives across Africa to potential recruits is likely to prove easier in Africa as well as regions such as Central Asia, provided the US, Europe and local governments have the political will to implement necessary reforms.
That will be far more difficult in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is internationally isolated, desperate to hold on to power, and unwilling to meet the minimal conditions of the international community that wants to see more inclusive policies.
The 2022 attacks on the hotel and the Russian embassy in Kabul suggest that Russia and China are increasingly in jihadist crosshairs in ways that could see militants expand their theatre of operations and, in the case of Afghanistan, target others, like the United Arab Emirates, which do business with the Taliban.
About the Author
James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].
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