In the last five years, terrorist activity has shifted away from the Middle East and southward into sub-Saharan Africa. The increasing impact of terrorism has been particularly striking in some sub-Saharan African countries that had little, or no terrorist activity at the start of the decade including Burkina Faso, Mali and Mozambique.
The expansion of ISIL and Al-Qa’ida affiliates have contributed to the concentration of radical Islamist extremism across the region. At the same time, other extremist groups and militias appear to be gaining influence in the Sahel region by exploiting existing ethnic tensions.
Both Burkina Faso and Mali have seen a steady increase in terrorist violence attributed to Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, an affiliate of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Previously, the two groups had not engaged in violent clashes, leading experts to believe the groups were cooperating in the region. However, from March 2019 onwards, clashes between the two jihadist groups have been recorded along the Burkina Faso-Mali border, as they compete for influence, recruits and resources.
Burkina Faso had its deadliest year on record in 2019, with 593 deaths and 122 incidents. This marks a rapid escalation in terrorist violence since 2013 when only one terrorism death was recorded. In Mali, terrorism deaths increased from 30 in 2009 to 592 in 2019. Terrorist activity has been concentrated along the border between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Further south in the region, Mozambique has also recorded a significant escalation in terrorist violence. Terrorist deaths in Mozambique have increased from one in 2012 to 319 in 2019. This substantial increase is linked to an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the province of Cabo Delgado in the country’s north. The region recorded a 67 per cent increase in terrorist attacks in the last year alone, with preliminary data for 2020 suggesting a substantial escalation in violence.
Much of this violence in Mozambique over the last four years can be attributed to the emergence of Ansar al-Sunna, an Islamist militant group, and the Central Africa Province of the Islamic State accounting for 32 and 16 per cent of deaths, respectively. While the two groups do not appear to be co-ordinating, collectively their actions have had a destabilising impact on the region, leaving more than 400,000 people displaced. Humanitarian assistance to some areas in the province has been limited due to violence insecurity and the rainy seasons, with communities cut off from basic services for months.
Ansar al-Sunna emerged as a religious organisation in 2015, but later became increasingly violent. The group has predominantly attacked villages in Cabo Delgado and taken control of mosques where it preaches a radical interpretation of Islam. The group first gained prominence in 2017 when it launched coordinated machete and firearm attacks on police stations and banks in Mocimboa da Praia, a port town in northern Mozambique. At least 16 people were killed, and five were injured. The majority of Ansar al-Sunna’s members are reportedly from the Mocimboa da Praia, Palma and Macomia districts in Mozambique. However, the group has also attracted foreign nationals from Tanzania and Somalia.
The Central Africa Province of the Islamic State (ISCAP) emerged in Mozambique in May 2019, carrying out its first successful attack against a cargo truck transporting civilian and military passengers in Quiterajo, Cabo Delgado. At least 16 people, including three soldiers, were killed while 10 others were injured in the attack.
The upward trend of terrorism in Mozambique is expected to continue. Recent reports have indicated an escalation in the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, with as many attacks carried out in the first six months as in the whole of 2019. In August 2020, ISCAP declared the town of Mocimboa da Praia its capital, denoting a shift in tactics from raiding territory, to actually occupying territory. The port town of Mocimboa de Praia is of strategic importance, home to gas developments worth approximately $60 billion.
Counter-terrorism officials believe that ISCAP’s assault on the northern district of Cabo Delgado was mostly organised over the internet, with some input from operatives in Tanzania but largely without the physical presence of recruiters sent from ISIL core in Iraq and Syria.