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Sub-Saharan Africa is the ‘new epicenter’ of Islamic extremism, U.N. says

Shoes of kidnapped students left in a classroom in Nigeria
Shoes of students kidnapped by the Boko Haram extremist group are strewn on the floor of a schoolroom in Kankara, Nigeria.
(Sunday Alamba / Associated Press)
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The new global epicenter of violent Islamic extremism is sub-Saharan Africa, where people are increasingly becoming radicalized because of economic factors rather than religious ones, says a new report by the United Nations’ international development agency.

The agency registered an increase of 92% in new recruits to extremist groups who said they joined to have better livelihoods, compared with the motivations of those interviewed for a previous U.N. report released in 2017.

Many Africans’ lives have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation and climate change, said the report released Tuesday by the United Nations Development Program.

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There has been a 57% decrease in the number of people joining extremist groups for religious reasons, the report said.

Nearly 2,200 people in eight African countries were interviewed for the report: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. More than 1,000 interviewees were former members of violent extremist groups, both voluntary and forced recruits, the report said.

At least 4,155 attacks across Africa were documented since 2017. In these attacks, 18,417 deaths were recorded, with Somalia accounting for the largest number of fatalities, the report said.

The extremist group Shabab has claimed responsibility for an unfolding armed attack on a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Casualties were unknown.

The Somali government is currently carrying out what has been described as the most significant offensive against the Shabab extremist group in more than a decade.

Those interviewed were drawn from various extremist groups across the continent, including Boko Haram in Nigeria; Shabab, which pledges allegiance to Al Qaeda; and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, or JNIM, in West Africa, which is allied with the Islamic State.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has become the new global epicenter of violent extremism, with 48% of global terrorism deaths in 2021,” UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said at news briefing ahead of the report’s launch.

The surge in extremism in Africa “not only adversely impacts lives, security, and peace, but also threatens to reverse hard-won development gains for generations to come,” he said.

Violence linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic State is spreading from inland West Africa to coastal states, and Benin is the hardest hit.

Military campaigns to stamp out extremism are not proving to be successful, Steiner said.

“Security-driven counterterrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective, yet investments in preventive approaches to violent extremism are woefully inadequate,” he said. “The social contract between states and citizens must be reinvigorated to tackle root causes of violent extremism.”

About 71% of those who joined extremist groups were influenced by human rights abuses by state security forces, such as the killings or arrests of family members, said the report.

Security forces in some sub-Saharan countries have been accused of brutality and extrajudicial killings, and weak judicial systems give victims little hope for justice, it said.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, have grown in influence by using money to entice impoverished communities, said Hassan Chibok, a community leader in Nigeria’s Borno state, where the conflict is concentrated.

Those who left the extremist groups cited unmet expectations, particularly the lack of sustained financial benefits, and an absence of trust in extremist leaders as their main reasons for quitting.

“Research shows that those who decide to disengage from violent extremism are less likely to rejoin and recruit others,” the report said.

“This is why it’s so important to invest in incentives that enable disengagement,” said Nirina Kiplagat, a UNDP specialist in preventing violent extremism in Africa. “Local communities play a pivotal role in supporting sustainable pathways out of violent extremism, along with national governments’ amnesty programs.”

The UNDP report recommends better basic services including child welfare, education and quality livelihoods to deter people from voluntarily joining extremist groups. It also urged the creation of more exit opportunities and investment in rehabilitation and community-based reintegration services.

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