The Soufan Group/Atlantic Council “African IntelBrief” (Washington DC, June 27, 2012) –Rebounding more quickly than most from the global economic downturn, Africa is expected to grow faster this year than any other region or country apart from China and India. Higher prices for the continent’s primary commodities are responsible for part of this growth, but other factors were also involved, including wise choices made by African leaders regarding economic reform and the rule of law, as well as the effects of long-term trends in demographics and urbanization. These signs of hope, however, are threatened by the spread of violent extremism by Islamist groups along the continent-wide Sahel belt and the increasing links between the various extremist groups —and between the militants and other illicit networks.
As of late June 2012, one of the unfortunate consequences of set-piece media reports of the very real “bad news” out of Africa—civil conflicts, authoritarian regimes, and natural disasters—is that most of the continent’s “good news” tends to get eclipsed. Yet, what The Economist infamously labeled as the “hopeless continent” a little over ten years ago is today home to six of the world’s fastest growing economies over the past decade. As a whole, Africa is expected to grow faster this year than any other region or country apart from China and India, and remains on track to see a total gross domestic product of US $2.6 trillion by the end of the decade.
These positive indicators are the result of wise choices made by African leaders and peoples regarding economic reform and the rule of law, as well as significant forces that have been at work bolstering Africa’s economic prospects. Demand from abroad—especially from emerging markets—for the continent’s primary commodities is boosting prices and, in turn, motivating new investment in their exploration and extraction. At the same time, demographics mean Africa is not only one of the most populous regions on the planet, but also one of the youngest; this suggests that the size of the African workforce is growing more rapidly than its counter-parts elsewhere. Moreover, Africa’s population is not only rising, but rapidly urbanizing, thus adding further impetus to positive economic growth due to the benefits of agglomeration and economies of scale. In addition, Africa has benefited from recent technological innovations, which many have embraced with alacrity, using them to “leapfrog” traditional stages of development.
And yet these signs of hope are threatened by the spread of violent extremism by Islamist groups along the continent-wide Sahel belt and the increasing links between the various extremist groups—and between the militants and other illicit networks.
Al-Qaeda Spreads across the Sahara
Al-Qaeda’s franchise in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been an unintended beneficiary of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Buoyed by the flow of arms and fighters out of Libya, the group initiated skirmishes with government forces in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger during the last months of 2011. More ominously, AQIM also increased its linkages with other rebel forces in the Sahel, including the Polisario Front, which, in the name of the self-declared “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic,” contests Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. In late October, three aid workers—an Italian and two Spaniards—were seized by AQIM militants (aided by Sahrawi sympathizers) inside a camp administered by the Polisario separatists near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The connection was not surprising given that the large numbers of idle young Polisario fighters with no prospects present the terrorist group with a ready pool of potential recruits, both for its military operations as well as the drug smuggling and other criminal activities it is increasingly involved in.
However, it has been in Mali where AQIM has scored its biggest gains. As reported in our May 29 IntelBrief, since the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its Ansar Dine allies—led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a convert to Salafism with close ties to AQIM—took advantage of a coup in the capital of Bamako to seize control of the northern part of Mali, the al-Qaeda franchise, its offshoot Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya (“Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” usually known by its French acronym MUJAO), and other militant Islamist groups have been able to operate openly across the Texas-sized area. Not only have these extremists used force to impose their harsh creed on the local populace, but, as regional leaders like Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou have recently warned the public, they are attracting new followers to the Sahel jihadists from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the sixth in the series of “IntelBriefs” on African security issues being produced by the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in partnership with The Soufan Group, an international strategic consultancy, Ansari Center director J. Peter Pham examines the spread of violent extremism by Islamist groups operating along the continent-wide Sahel belt as well as the increasing cooperation between the various groups—including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab—and between the militants and other illicit networks.