Residents of the embattled and impoverished enclaves of East Africa were rocked this week by one of the most lethal acts of terror in recent years. Streets were levelled and over 300 were killed in twin blasts in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Political turmoil and civil unrest has marred the lives of East Africans for decades. Yet, as Somalia attempts to recover from this most recent blast, the most lethal in the nation’s history, the continuing – and in cases mounting, efforts of Islamist groups and terrorist cells in the region are brought back to the forefront.
Suspected to have been targeting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the initial blast emanated from a truck packed with hundreds of kilograms of military-grade and improvised explosives. The centrally located district was surrounded by universities and an airport. Scenes of sheer devastation were all that was left in the wake of the blast as rescue crews and local medical services attempted to deal with the extraordinary rate of casualties, with up to 500 individuals severely injured or killed in the blast.
The group believed to be responsible, al’Shaabab, had vowed to escalate efforts in their nearly decade long insurgency in the region. The terrorist organisation, who are linked to al-Qaeda cells in North Africa and the Middle East, claimed to be acting in response to recent efforts by the Trump Administration and Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to undermine and destabilise the group.
While the scenes of devastation that have emerged from Mogadishu are severe in scale and loss of life, they are hardly the first to emerge from the ongoing and seemingly endless guerrilla wars launched by al-Shabaab. They are also hardly the only organisation engaging in such acts of terror. Groups such as Boko Haram, who swore allegiance to the Islamic State a few years ago during the height of its grip on power in Iraq and Syria, have posed a near unsurmountable opponent to local governments and international allies. Namely the United States, who have continued to expand their military presence in the region, at any given moment undergoing over 100 military operations on the African continent.
The History of Islam in Africa
To understand the grip of terror held by Islamist terrorist groups in North and East Africa, it is important to understand the history of Islam in Africa. While the boundaries of the Muslim world within popular discourse are often restrained to the Middle East, spreading into North African regions of Egypt and Libya, Islam has, in fact, a long and complex history within Africa. At times, it has spread across nearly the entire continent and held various degrees of political power over the years.
Islam first spread to Africa during the 8th Century, after the death of the Prophet Mohammod and amidst the reign of the Rashidun Caliphate; the first four caliphs (Islamic heads of state – political, religious, and military leaders), to succeed the political and religious governance of the Prophet Mohammod. Under these early caliphs and their military leaders, large territories were captured across North Africa, namely Egypt. These early conquests would later capture most of North Africa, and territories across the eastern coast, spreading through regions of modern day Chad and the Sudan.
Modern Islamic history within Africa has cast Islamic military and political powers not as conquerors but as quite the opposite. Due to the ebb and flow of power within Africa, Islamic movements were often anti-authoritarian, seeking to remove totalitarian leaders or ruling elites. Such was the case during the Fulani Jihads, where Islamic communities of East Africa sought to overthrow the Denianke Dynasty of modern day Sengal. These Islamic Jihads and the Islamic State which was formed from their successes, later waged war against French colonial efforts in the region during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In fact, Islam in Africa throughout the 19th and 20th centuries embodied a sense of anti-colonialism during the height of European governance in the region. Such conflicts included the Fall of Khartoum, in which Mahidists, an Islamic group within Sudan at the time, fought control of the Sudanese city away from the British and British-aligned Egypt. They briefly established an Islamic state within the region after serious successes against Ottoman occupation of the region.
The War on Terror in Africa
With the rise of secular and somewhat democratic rule within regions of Africa, modern Islamist groups have sprung up as an opponent to Western influence in that process. Groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria developed out of fierce anti-Western sentiment, advocating that all Muslims should not take part in any form of Western political, social, or cultural life, and should adhere to a strict form of Islam.
Other groups such as al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) share similarly strict interpretations of Islam. Al-Shabaab fashion their ideologies closely after the Wahhabist schools of Islamic thought emanating from Saudi Arabia. Origins of the Islamic States’ ideologies, blurred as they became so as to become known to many as a death cult, originated in the same strict interpretation of Islam and the jurisdiction of Sharia law.
While they are not militarily linked, these organisations share common views of intense anti-Western sentiments and strict interpretations of Islam and Islamic law. They have wrecked havoc on the embattled nations of Central and Eastern Africa, and caused a tremendous loss of life throughout their campaign of terror. Boko Haram have been involved in attacks through Nigeria which have caused thousands to be killed and thousands more to be displaced. In 2015, the group were responsible for a massacre in impoverished state which claimed the lives of upwards of 2000 people.
While this latest attack by al-Shabaab is one of their most brutal, they have also, in the past, claimed many more lives. An attack in Kenya in which militants stormed a high-end mall in Nairobi left 67 people dead and hundreds injured gathered a high degree of international press. The group has also waged battles with government forces throughout the region with casualties in the hundreds.
What’s the Solution?
This year American efforts in Africa claimed the first American casualty since 1993 when the loss of nearly 18 troops in Mogadishu prompted a swift withdrawal of personal under then-President Bill Clinton. With the growth of terrorist organisations operating within the region in recent years, American influence is once again ramping up.
In information obtained by Vice News, between 2006 and 2016 the number of U.S Military Commandos deployed to Africa rose from just 1% to more than 17%. The Trump Administration has further committed to fighting Islamic terror in the region amidst the threats still posed by similar groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda on the other side of the gulf. A recent flight ban imposed by the President on the Central African nation of Chad further demonstrates the growing attention given to the rise of terror in the region.
But these conflicts tend to be difficult. Guerrilla warfare has proven to be, as it has also in the Middle East, a struggle even for American military technology. In both instances, American forces have relied heavily on training and supporting foreign forces. Yet, as is the case in Afghanistan where similar patterns of military training and support as opposed to more active combat have been demonstrated, it is unclear as to whether they will succeed or if East Africa will continue to experience horrors such of those in Mogadishu.
Featured image by AMISOM Public Information (Flickr) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons