Why Terrorists are after Africa’s ChristiansFrom Boko Haram in Sub-Saharan Africa to al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, Islamist terrorists across the continent have heightened attacks on Christians. This seems to be a part of an emerging strategy of al-Qaeda and associated local groups, which must be taken and dealt with seriously.
On April 29, Boko Haram members gunned down at least 16 Christians and wounded more than 22 others as they targeted an area inside the Bayero University campus in northern Nigeria where churches hold Sunday services. The same day, its gunmen shot at worshippers inside a chapel of the Church of Christ in Nigeria in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, killing the pastor who was preparing for Communion and four congregants.
Also on April 29, a man believed to be from Somalia’s al-Shabaab group set off a grenade during a church service in Nairobi, Kenya, killing a worshipper and injuring 15 others.
These attacks came on the heels of the vandalism of the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church Bible School in Khartoum on April 21. About 500 alleged members of Ansaar al-Suna, a Salafi faction which adheres to a textual interpretation of Islam, attacked the church compound in the West Gerief district of the Sudanese capital, burning Bibles and destroying and looting property.
Just before the attack in Sudan was reported, an estimated 300 Christians had to flee the city of Timbuktu in Mali after Ansar Dine, an Islamist extremist group loyal to al-Qaeda, announced in the second week of April that it was imposing Sharia law in the city. This followed the previous month’s military coup in northern parts of the country aided by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Islamist militia which aims to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state and whose links with al-Qaeda predate the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
It is believed that Osama bin Laden was in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, when he was allegedly expelled by the Sudanese government under U.S. pressure. Al-Qaeda has had links with local groups in African nations for decades. Apart from al-Shabaab and AQIM, al-Qaeda has had direct links with the Libyan Islamic Movement (formerly known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) in Libya, and Somali insurgents allegedly sheltered by Eritrea.
But now, the number of such organizations is growing as al-Qaeda is desperately looking for new territories to establish its new bases in the wake of the NATO-led mission in its traditional heartland, such as Afghanistan.
The global terror group wants to create areas in African nations where it can establish its control, as well as ungoverned areas or failed states where it can operate more or less freely. To achieve this, the terror group is seeking to strengthen local Islamist groups and give them a transnational vision and a religious motivation to carry on with their existing struggles as well as broaden the scope of their operations by including Western and Christian targets.
It is believed that al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab and AQIM provided technical sophistication and weaponry to BokoHaram, which had been targeting police stations and local people with machetes until 2010. But now, Christians are one of its primary targets and the methods includes bombing. Boko Haram killed at least 510 people and destroyed over 350 churches in 10 northern states of Nigeria last year.
In February 2012, al-Shabaab for the first time officially pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair sent an audio message to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, saying: “On behalf of the soldiers and the commanders in al-Shabaab, we pledge allegiance to you. So lead us to the path of jihad and martyrdom that was drawn by our imam, the martyr Osama,” as reported by CNN.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa, representing the global terror network locally, have established links with several other smaller local groups.
As London-based security analyst Valentina Soria, author of Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa, believes, “The aim is now for the central leadership [of al-Qaeda] to try to forge strategic relationships with like-minded groups in Africa ... like al-Shabab, and obviously strengthen the already existing relationship with AQIM,” as quoted by the British newspaper Daily Mail. She adds that al-Qaeda is also working with other terror organizations to secure stable footholds in “volatile” countries.
While it was anticipated that the Arab Spring would give a blow to terrorist groups by showing that autocratic, non-Islamic regimes could be overthrown by largely peaceful protests as opposed to armed struggles, the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa also offered some opportunities to the terror network.
The actors in the uprisings in various countries were diverse in their motives. Especially the ones who helped initiate revolutions were largely secular-minded. But extremist factions were naturally emboldened by the fall of regimes in some countries like Egypt. And then, there was, and is, widespread disillusionment among people as the transition to democracy has been chaotic. Al-Qaeda is seeking to exploit all that.
In the countries in transition from dictatorship to democracy, al-Qaeda is calling for the establishment of pure Islamic governance, saying the overthrowing of the regimes is just half work done.
Two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda released a message by its former leader, saying: “We watch with you this great historic event and we share with you joy and happiness and delight and felicity … We are happy for what makes you happy, and we are sad for what makes you sad. So congratulations to you for your victories.” Laden’s message was identical to that of his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said: “Your jihadi brethren are confronting alongside you the same enemy, America and its Western allies, those who set up … Husni Mubarak, Zein al-Abidin b. Ali, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Abdallah b. Hussein [sic] and their ilk to rule over you.”
Al-Qaeda finds a fertile ground in Africa, which has numerous insurgencies, volatile geopolitics, weak and corrupt governments and easy availability of arms and presence of large Muslim and Christian populations. Local militant groups also find al-Qaeda attractive in hope of recruiting more youth with a more “challenging” transnational agenda and access to sophisticated weaponry and training.
The al-Qaeda strategy apparently includes incitement to sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians as it seeks to create civil wars and unrest, such as in Nigeria.
Such attempts are likely to accelerate in the near future if the international community fails to prevent radical Muslim movements from spreading across the continent. While military aid by the West to African allies to fight radical forces might be part of the solution, but that’s not all. It would also involve ensuring good governance, strengthening of democratic institutions and organizations, and removing the underlying conditions which are conducive for terrorism.