New Fronts Emerge in Africa's "Arc of Terrorism"

By Michelle DeFreese

At the UN Security Council meeting in May 2013, the President of Togo, Faure Essozimna Gnassingé, warned of an arc of terrorism spreading across the continent from Mauritania to Nigeria extending into the Horn of Africa. Since 2013, the so-called arc has continued to spread, engulfing Burkina Faso and other states formerly on the periphery of this band of insurgent activity in its wake. A series of attacks on both sides of the African continent have effectively redrawn the boundaries of the struggle taking place between global extremism and counter-terrorism efforts led by regional and international forces.

The attack on a luxury hotel in Burkina Faso on January 15, 2016 was an unexpected extension of extremism sweeping the region. Despite attacks taking place at a hotel in Mali in November 2015 and on Grand-Bassam beach in Côte d'Ivoire in March 2016, Burkina Faso was described as being largely "off the radar of Islamist extremist groups." In light of recent events, the country has now had to contemplate addressing new threats as security experts reassess the risk of extremist activity in the country. The attack, widely reported as "unprecedented" within the country, was described as an "incremental step in the deterioration of the security situation in the greater Sahel region" by The Washington Post. This recent spate of attacks in West Africa has been attributed to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), signaling what reports are now referring to as a "revival" of al Qaeda in Africa.

In the east, multiple actors have claimed responsibility for attacks that have only increased in intensity. East Africa has traditionally faced security threats from al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization. More recently, a new jihadist group, Jahba East Africa, announced itself as a new actor in the region, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In addition, Uamsho is an increasingly threatening Islamist separatist group active in Zanzibar. This confluence of actors has become an additional source of growing unease for the region's security forces. As reported by The New York Times, existing schisms between the actors have increased the likelihood of fighting between groups, further complicating the security situation.

These various groups have raised significant security concerns, especially in countries that have historically been buffered from extremist attacks. The southern limits of al Shabaab's activity was previously concentrated in Kenya, with isolated incidents in Tanzania. More recently, however, increased terrorist activities have taken place throughout Tanzania, attributed to al Qaeda and its offshoots. Largely unreported in international media, several incidents have been documented with increasing frequency in 2016 in multiple regions. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), 17 conflict events occurred in January 2015 alone, including pre-emptive raids on suspected militants, attacks on police stations, and locations frequented by tourists in Morogoro, Shinyanga, and Arusha. Notably, one attack occurred in Songea, an area near the border crossing with Mozambique and adjacent to neighboring Malawi. These new events located well within the interior of the country and close to its southern border mark a new expansion to the area threatened by terrorist attacks in the region.

The jihadist narrative has increasingly attracted disaffected youths from East African coast communities. Ambassador David Shinn, former U.S. Department of State Director of East African Affairs and previously U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, stated the following: "While the foreign fighter component of al-Shabaab in Somalia is relatively small, the largest number of foreign fighters in recent years has come from the Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania." The recent incidents within the country's interior and the pull of Kenyan and Tanzanian fighters to jihadist networks outside of al Shabaab's traditional sphere of influence are both worrying trends.

The continued spread of the arc of terrorism has amplified the need to incorporate approaches that address the spread of extremist activities to so-called periphery states. As violent non-state actors engage in increasingly effective propaganda and continue to expand their areas of influence and operation, periphery states must be included in counter-terrorism measures and regional security strategies. Nation states on the boundaries of extremist activities will need more robust strategies to prevent such actors from taking root in areas traditionally outside of their areas of operations.

Michelle DeFreese is a consultant with the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD) based in Tanzania. She completed her Master's degree in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.