Special Reports






The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the alleged role played by al-Qaeda, highlights the conflict between the West and Islamism that has been brewing in Africa. The risk of fundamentalism in Africa spreading from the Atlantic coast to the Horn of Africa, is materializing fast and the US military fears that Boko Haram; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and the Somali Shabab, could coordinate their efforts. Last April’s takeover of northern Mali by an AQIM offshoot – Ansar al-Din - and the announcement of a separate state of Northern Mali has only intensified such fears. The entire region, Gao and Timbuktu included, fell very quickly to radical armed groups. The world would learn of the obscurantism peddled by the Islamists, as Ansar al-Din (the Partisans of Faith) imitated the Afghan Taliban’s destruction of the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, by destroying monuments celebrating ‘Alfarouk’, the angel protecting Timbuktu, according to tradition. Obscured by other events in North Africa, in September, AQIM and the’ Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa’ (MUJAO) announced the execution of the Algerian vice consul, who was taken hostage in Gao on April 5th. Now, the government of Mali, along with those of its partner States in the Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS,) are considering a military option to tackle the Ansar al-Din and AQIM situations.

Further south, in Nigeria, the Islamist Boko Haram has stepped up its attacks in recent months against Christians. Boko Haram is suspected to have close ties to AQIM by those who have observed an increasing sophistication of its attacks, using car and suicide bombs against important targets. Meanwhile, on the Indian Ocean, the war in Somalia has rendered the entire Horn of Africa into a fertile land, for the absorption of radical Islamist ideologies. The local Shabab militias and the ‘Islamic Courts’ before them, have close ties with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden, which has been one of the more internationally engaged of al-Qaida’s offshoots in recent years, launching failed air attacks, targeting the United States. Having spread in the Middle East and North Africa, in a phenomenon that has been ever more intense in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Awakening’, Islamists have been expanding increasingly in Sub-Saharan or Black Africa. Already in 1998, as highlighted by the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the continent got a taste of radical Islamic movements, wanting to impose their version of Islam and their particularly radical interpretation of the religion. Today, such movements as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar Dine in Mali, Al Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb MUJAO (Movement for the uniqueness and jihad in West Africa – also in Mali) have been imposing their version of Islam from east to west Africa.

The Islamic conquest of Africa began in the seventh century AD, when the Umayyad dynasties spread the faith from the Middle East throughout the Mediterranean lands that once formed the Byzantine Empire, ultimately reaching Morocco. Islam would eventually spread to Asia as well; however, for centuries Islam seemed unable to penetrate the lands south of the Sahara; this was especially the case in the Horn of Africa, where the Ethiopian Coptic and the small Christian kingdoms in what is now southern Sudan managed to resist the spread of the Muslim faith. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, at the height of the European colonial effort, Muslims made significant gains in East Africa, challenging the Protestant and Catholic missionaries –to the likes of a climb over the Horn of Africa. In the nineteenth century a new impetus to Islamists spread in the region, opposed by Protestant pastors, who were active participants in the European colonial effort, and Catholic missionaries such as Daniele Comboni, Africa’s first Catholic bishop, or Charles de Lavigerie, the founder of the Pères Blancs (the White Fathers), that moved south through Africa from the Sudan. The end of Europe’s African colonial experience in the 1950’s weakened the Christian presence and various migratory waves have gradually seen a revived Islamization process. Indeed, from West to East Africa there seems to be a project of spreading Islam throughout Africa and through their sovereign funds and investments in agricultural land, the Islamization ‘project’ has even found its financial resources.

Sudan, which has endured an internal conflict between its Muslim and Arab majority in the north and a Christian South, culminating in the formal breakup of the country into two states (Sudan and south Sudan) in 2010, has been characterized by one of the most intense ‘islamization’ movements in Africa at the State level. Christian clerics in Sudan have suggested that the Sudanese government of Hassan al-Bashir has deliberately pursued a campaign of Islamization and Arabization of non-Arabs and non-Muslims, who do not hold political and economic power in the country. Meanwhile, ‘al-Qaida’ in its various guises, is claimed to be targeting expansion from North to South through the Black African countries that are at least 90% Muslim demographically, such as Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania towards South Africa, (even if only 9% of the population is Muslim there). The stated goal, therefore, is to create an Islamic Africa. Nevertheless, Radical Islam is new in Black Africa, even among the more longstanding Muslim communities of the continent. What might be described as ‘Black Islam’ has evolved differently than its Middle Eastern and North African counterparts.

Islam south of the Sahara has encountered a variety of religious and cultural barriers, forcing the doctrine to compromise; indeed, Islam in Black Africa has had to adapt within animist and Christian cultures. In some areas the adaptation has failed, exploding into conflict, as in Sudan. However, elsewhere in Africa the notion of syncretism has prevailed. Syncretised societies, whereby different beliefs and faiths can coexist within the same tribe or family, have been, until recent years, the norm in many African countries. This is valid both in majority Muslim countries such as Nigeria, Uganda or Angola, and majority Christian countries such as Guinea Conakry, or Mali. The general religious framework in sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, has been largely a tolerant one. This contrasts sharply with the more recent manifestations of Islam. In Nigeria, for example, the radical Boko Haram has altered inter-religious discourse entirely, to the point that far less than syncretism, even interfaith dialogue has been discouraged. Boko Haram has threatened Christians in villages of the Muslim majority North, with death if they refused to leave. One of the main reasons for the intolerance toward Christians and the spread of radical Islam in parts of Nigeria and Black Africa, is that Christianity is associated with the colonial West. The group is challenging ‘Western’ culture and influence itself. The violence is therefore aimed at changing the demographic landscape, a phenomenon that has been occurring for decades, but which a series of current circumstances have intensified in the past few years.

In the early 20th century, just one third of Africans were Muslim and most of them very tolerant ones. Now, over 50% of Africans are Muslim and the expansion of Islam in Africa is proceeding. Islamists dream of a ‘caliphate’ from North Africa to Cape Town.

Islam in Africa has grown also thanks to funding for various causes, distributed through local Muslim groups in many cases, from Gulf Arabs. Islam then ‘exploits’ frequent tribal and inter-ethnic disputes in parts to Africa, displaying wealth and much needed order in the continent’s many anarchic situations. The outside Islamic funding is then able to build schools, hospitals and especially mosques; it establishes order where there was chaos, demanding only obedience in return. In Nigeria, this blind obedience has had several violent manifestations since 1980, at the end of a decade that saw the success of political Islam in one of the greatest challenges to Western influence in Africa. These include the Kano riots in 1980, promoted by a Muslim leader named Marwa Muhamadu who claimed that Christians were infidels and legitimate targets. Now, as Islam continues to expand in Africa, there are many countries where the Shari’a has become the main, if not the exclusive, source of legislation. The Shari’a contrasts in many places with the previous and prevailing form of Islam in Africa, which had largely established itself through the tolerant Sufi Brotherhoods - related to the wandering teachers, the marabouts, who are highly criticized by the Salafists, whose views largely inform radical Islamic movements intent on enforcing ‘purity’ of faith. In Africa, Islam has followed a progress in reverse pattern, whereby the tolerant representatives of the Faith came first only to be gradually replaced by ‘Shari’a and Qur’an thumpers’.

Some members of the Nigerian Boko Haram group have trained in Pakistan – through the good graces of sympathetic politicians. Boko Haram – whose name in the Hausa language means "Western education is sin" - rejects any interpretation that deviates from the Islam of the seventh century and expects the adoption of Shari’a law across Nigeria. These days, there have even been suggestions that Nigeria could be divided into two independent states, separating the Muslim north from the Christian south, somewhat as has happened in Sudan.

Is this suggestion the prelude to civil and religious war? Shari’a law was introduced in the Nigerian State of Zamfara after the military dictatorship left power in 1999. Within three years, twelve of the thirty six states of the Nigerian federation followed suit. Since 2001 in the state of Kano, more than 10,000 people, mostly Christian, have been killed in Islamist violence. Three hundred churches and properties were destroyed. The displaced people are not counted. According to the NGO Open Doors, in the northern states where Shari’a is enforced, about five million Christians are under intense repression. Some schools have spread the idea that Islam is, in fact, "native to Nigeria," and that the spread of Christianity is a "threat", "an enemy to destroy."

Aid from Islamic powers outside Africa has also contributed to this expansion. Iran is one of the most illustrative examples of this phenomenon. The Supreme Leader, Hojat ol-Eslam Khamanei, launched a veritable strategy to secure greater influence in Black Africa in 2010. The plan was simply known as the "Africa Plan" launched by Khamanei, and is intended to expand Iranian influence in the continent by supporting governments or Islamic groups. The Iranian plan also aims to secure strategic mineral resources such as uranium and so it targets countries rich in that resource. Iran’s dealings with Niger over uranium were very significant, and managed to make some inroads with a country that until a few decades ago, France, one of the world’s foremost producers of nuclear energy, as its former colonial power, maintained virtually total control over uranium resources in Niger. Nevertheless, in 2009, Iran was actively seeking Niger’s President Tandja’s cooperation by offering to assist in the improvement of Niger’s infrastructure and agriculture – in addition to cheap oil – to secure access to raw uranium. Iran has also steadily intensified trade relations with Mauritania as well as Niger. Africa represents an important diplomatic frontier for Tehran in its effort to ‘seduce’ new allies. It does so through generous infrastructure development projects – especially in Sudan and parts of West Africa. Iran’s ‘return on investment’ is realized when African (and other allies) support Iran’s nuclear research program, stalling sanctions in international forums; no doubt, Iran can use allies in Africa to help thwart western interests.

Some suspect that Iran’s allies in Africa might even be used as bases from where to launch terror attacks. Iran was able to exploit international weaknesses to appeal to Mauritania, as aid and investment to the country suffered setbacks in 2008 and 2009, after a military coup in the country prompted international donors to terminate aid. Iran has also sent much of US$400 million in aid to developing countries targeted in 2010. This aid is not entirely altruistic; indeed, in the case of Mauritania, Iran is rumored to have encouraged and even bribed Mauritanian authority to expel the Israeli ambassador, severing relations with Tel Aviv. This promptly secured a number of cooperation deals, in mining and infrastructure.

In the sub-Saharan great plateau, from Nigeria to Sudan therefore, an apparent religious war between Islam and Christianity has been brewing. The West, namely the United States, has already been taking steps to face the new challenge. American Special Forces have been participating in surveillance programs aimed at identifying radical Islamists in Black Africa in Burkina Faso. Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post published an article last June entitled “U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa” identifying a program, code named ‘Creek Sand’’, using drones, special ‘contractors, and US Special Forces to counterstrike the Islamist expansion in Africa, identifying terrorists, training local security forces, arming them to lead operations aimed at eliminating terrorist cells belonging to Al-Qaida’s African subsidiaries. In Africa, moreover, radical Islamists have also been enabled in their quest by joining forces or sharing resources with local warlords and traffickers (drugs and more), who for many years have been sweeping the African continent. The US is convinced that Boko Haram is tied to al Qaeda." The militants of al-Shabab, the core of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb;) and Boko Haram in Nigeria, work closely synchronizing their efforts towards a common goal: the establishment of Shari’a law and the expulsion of Christians. The U.S. Defense Department, working with the Nigerian government’s security forces, have noted that Boko Haram has used the same explosive as Al Qaeda operatives in the Sahel, as Islamist groups have invaded and taken over parts of Mali and forming the 'Transitional Council of the Islamic State of Azawad. They demand “Islam as the only religion and Shari’a as the source of law."

U.S. Special Forces are conscious of and trying to address the risk that from Libya to South Africa, an apparent African jihad is ensuing.

September 2012            Alessandro Bruno - MENA contributor to Newnations