Sub-Saharan Africa has been facing multiple and multifaceted security challenges since the early 2000s. If the post-bipolar period was especially marked in the region by a resurgence of civil wars during the 1990s, the last two decades have seen the emergence of asymmetric and hybrid threats such as piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and off the Red Sea, the Ebola epidemic in West and Central Africa, the proliferation of transnational criminal networks, or the growth of terrorism and violent extremism. These security challenges highlight the preeminent role that non-state actors now play, increasingly challenging the monopoly of legitimate violence, a priori the exclusive attribute of the modern African state. It should be remembered that the modern African states are the product of a particular history. Indeed, the colonial experience in Africa led to the emergence of artificial political entities, after the endogenous political systems of the pre-colonial era had been destroyed.

The challenge of this legitimacy by armed groups of all kinds, including terrorist movements, suggests in any case a transformation of the African security landscape in an international context of increased globalisation where technological advances are conducive to the circulation of ideas, but also the proliferation of transnational terrorist networks. One can easily pinpoint the resurgence of modern terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, with the simultaneous attacks which devastated the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. Since then, it is in West Africa that terrorism has greatly increased these recent years, particularly in the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin. If Boko Haram has become the archetype of terrorism in the region following the spectacular kidnapping of high school girls in Chibok in April 2014, it is the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (Jamāʿat nu rat al-islām wal- muslimīn, JNIM) who recently monopolised worldwide media attention on October 8, 2020 in Mali, by releasing Sophie Pétronin, the last French hostage detained in the world. How does terrorism manifest itself in Africa south of the Sahara today? What are the root causes and vectors? Are there specific characteristics of terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel?

The origins of terrorism in post-bipolar sub-Saharan Africa

It is not easy to grasp the phenomenon of terrorism in the context of sub-Saharan Africa where asymmetric and hybrid security threats coexist and overlap. Indeed, an armed group qualified as terrorist can be considered by the local populations as a torchbearer working for more social justice. According to Pascal Boniface, terrorism can generally be defined as a form of asymmetric conflictuality that groups resort to in order to bypass the military power of their adversaries. Its purpose is often to compel a government or an international organisation through threats or terror to do or refrain from an act. In sub-Saharan Africa, the spread of this religious-based mode of violence follows the rise of Islam in the region during the 1970s and the globalisation of Muslim fundamentalism. The doctrinal anchoring of radical Islam in sub-Saharan Africa can be analysed as a result of the encounter between postcolonial struggles and the expansion of Islamic revolutions. The extreme discourse against a background of anti-Westernism carried by Muslim religious leaders such as Abdullah Yusuf Hazzam, founder of Al-Qaida in 1987, will find an echo in the distant lands of Maiduguri and Borno in Nigeria, of Hargeisa and Mogadishu in Somalia, from Mopti and Tombouctou in Mali, or from Tillabéry and Arlit in Niger. In addition, religious fundamentalism experienced a real boom in the region during Osama bin Laden’s stay in Sudan from 1992 to 1995.

Thanks to globalisation, networks of Islamist groups will gradually be set up with a sort of celestial Muslim identity as a cornerstone of their organisations. This transnational social identity will be very conducive to the dissemination of a discourse in favor of Jihad in sub-Saharan Africa, with as a corollary the proliferation of terrorist movements. Thus, several organisations will be born in the region, i.e. Boko Haram in 2002 in the North-East of Nigeria, Al Shebab in 2006 in Somalia, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007, Ansar Dine in 2011 in Mali, the Movement for the unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2013, then the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in 2017. All these fundamentalist groups fight in principle against socio-economic injustices and institutional dysfunctions such as corruption or neopatrimonial practices which would be supported by the Western powers. Terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa is therefore part of a double discursive posture of combating social inequalities and crusading against globalisation, an avatar of the West.

What are the factors that favour the progression of terrorism in the region, and how can we distinguish root causes from vectors? Are there areas of congruence between transnational organised crime and terrorism?

Poverty, inequality and terrorism in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa

To gain a detailed understanding of terrorism in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, it is necessary to distinguish its root causes from its vectors, after determining the factors conducive to its progression. Likewise, it is important to characterise as such local conflicts and criminal acts that constitute security threats that may interlock or overlap with terrorist acts.

Root Causes

The concepts of horizontal inequalities and structural violence provide interesting analytical frameworks to identify the root causes of terrorism in the region. The notion of structural violence refers to the negative impact produced by social structures in a context of deep disparities and lack of basic human needs. Horizontal inequalities (HI) are defined as the degree of disproportionally between the size of groups and their respective share of certain resources or assets such as political power, wealth and education” (Stewart and al.). They are termed Horizontal to distinguish them from inequalities among individuals, which are Vertical Inequalities. There are four types of Horizontal Inequalities (HI):

  • Economic Horizontal Inequalities (Income, access to land, job opportunities)
  • Social Horizontal Inequalities (human capital, access to health or housing)
  • Political Horizontal Inequalities (Top level political positions)
  • Cultural Horizontal Inequalities (exclusion of specific cultural traditions by the state)


In multiethnic societies, as is the case in all states of sub-Saharan Africa, horizontal inequalities, coupled with structural violence produced by extreme poverty, are the root causes of terrorism. In Nigeria for example, if the official discourse developed by Boko Haram is of a religious type and resonates as a rejection of Western culture, the success of this terrorist group can be explained in particular by the horizontal inequalities that the populations of the North-West of the country have long suffered, abandoned to their sad fate of growing pauperisation. Likewise, in the geographic areas where terrorist groups are rampant in Mali, the populations often live in poverty and their cultural specificities are not recognised by the state. The Tuaregs of Niger, for example, have always denounced their exclusion from the civitas.

Enabling Factors

In sub-Saharan Africa, horizontal inequalities and extreme poverty fuel terrorist surges even more when they occur in a context of state weakness. Indeed, the inability of the state to assume its sovereign functions provides an environment favorable to the spread of terrorism. This is particularly the case in the Lake Chad basin with Boko Haram operating in the area straddling Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad. In addition, the existence of neopatrimonial practices, corruption and bad governance amplifies the impact of horizontal inequalities and extreme poverty on the spread of terrorism. Another contributing factor is the polarisation by certain elites of identity differences for political purposes. In their propaganda, terrorist groups clearly associate religious motivations with their commitment to filling socio-economic gaps and restoring fairer and better governed African states. From this point of view, they are therefore not only violent identity actors and can also offer a politico-ideological label. The Jamāʿat nu rat al-islām wal-muslimīn (JNIM) now carries a project of a political nature in the Sahel. Another important aspect to underline and which can be analysed both as an enabling factor and a vector, is that these terrorist movements progress in the region by following the “corridors of vulnerabilities”.


Finally, the main vector of terrorism in the region is the ease with which ideas circulate, particularly along take the axes of vulnerability. Taking advantage of the porosity of borders and the extent of the geographical space, groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS), JNIM and Boko Haram and achieve exponential progress in the Sahelian zone and around of the Lake Chad basin. In addition, in a context of democratisation of new technologies in favor of increased globalisation, these terrorist movements can more easily circulate their ideologies and aggressively disseminate their propaganda. Ironically, they never miss an opportunity to tackle the phenomenon of globalisation itself, which they present as the avatar of the West.


The study of terrorism in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa presents a double challenge: one of avoiding the pitfall of an exclusively state-centered approach analysing the dynamics at work from the angle of the decay or even bankruptcy of African states, and one of a postmodern perspective where non-state actors would henceforth be the main units of analysis for understanding the security dynamics at work. The activities of terrorist movements should also not be superimposed on or reduced to those of transnational criminal groups, although it is common for some of them to pragmatically have it both ways. Likewise, local community-type conflicts do not always have a dimension of violent extremism. Quite often, they deal with resource sharing issues.

Also, it is not uncommon for certain terrorist groups to compensate for the absence of the State in the areas where they are established by organising access to healthcare for local populations, and at the same time levying something similar to a tax.

The complexity of terrorism in the region clearly questions the relevance of the Westphalian state model on the African field and commits us to pay more attention to the communities of intertwined destiny that live there and shape this Africa south of the Sahara.

This article was first published in the 2020 Global Terrorism Index.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.


Dr Delidji Eric Degila

Expert contributor

Vision of Humanity

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