African Countries at Risk of “infiltration of Islamist ideologies, jihadism”: Study Report

A pictorial representation of jihadist groups operations in Africa/ Credit: Africa Center for Strategic Studies

Countries in Africa are at risk of the penetration of Islamist extremists and their ideologies in what the Religious Freedom in the World Report (RFR) 2021 has described as “risk from transnational jihadism.”

In a backgrounder accompanying the report published Tuesday, April 20 by the Catholic pastoral charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, experts caution that “Sub-Saharan Africa is ripe for the infiltration of Islamist ideologies.”

Making reference to the world’s second largest continent, Africa, Mark von Riedemann of ACN says, “On account of generations of poverty, corruption, pre-existing intercommunal violence between herders and farmers over land rights (exacerbated by the consequences of climate change) and weak state structures, this area has become a breeding ground for marginalized and frustrated young men.”

The myriad challenges bedeviling the people of God in African countries have offered “a recruitment opportunity for extremists who prey on them with promises of wealth, power, and the ousting of corrupt authorities,” von Riedemann further notes in the backgrounder titled, “Africa: A Continent at Risk from Transnational Jihadism.”

According to the leadership of the Pontifical Foundation, which strives to support the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in need, through information, prayer and action, the situation in African countries is exacerbated “more closely to the core of the human person by a profound manipulation of religion.”


“Battle-hardened Islamist extremists have moved South from the plains of Iraq and Syria to link up with local criminal groups in the Sub-Saharan countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Mozambique,” ACN officials say in the report released in Rome and other 22 cities globally.

They add, “The violence is horrific. Boys are forced into the ranks as child soldiers, rape is used as a weapon of war, and there are mass beheadings of men – Muslims and Christians alike – who dare refuse to join the jihadists.”

The report, which ranked 26 African countries among 62 countries in the world with the “most intense” violations of religious freedom further quotes a research report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which reveals an increase in fatalities arising from the actions of militants.

The research report “reveals that the number of people killed by armed groups in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, and Mali from January to mid-April 2020 more than doubled compared to the same period in 2019; and in Burkina Faso, as of February 2020, 765,000 people had been displaced by terrorist groups, up from 65,000 in the 12 previous months.”

According to the leadership of the Germany-based Catholic entity, the insurgents are usually “profit-driven mercenaries or local fighters pursuing local interests” and who are incited by preachers adhering to an ideology of Salafi Jihadism.

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The jihadists “target state authorities, the military and the police, as well as civilians – including village leaders, teachers (who are threatened because of the secular curriculum), Muslim and Christian leaders, and the faithful,” the officials of the pastoral charity, which strives for a world in which Christianity can thrive everywhere, say.

“The financial resources of these armed terrorist groups are derived principally from looting, extortion, human and drug trafficking, and kidnapping,” they add in the backgrounder accompanying the 15th edition of the RFR.

According to ACN’s leadership, although Muslims and Christians are equally victims to extremist violence, “with the growing Islamist radicalization, Christians tend increasingly to become a specific target for the terrorists, eliminating the characteristic social and religious pluralism and harmony of the region.”

In the report covering the period of August 2018 – November 2020, ACN officials make reference to findings from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, which established that “the threat from militant Islamist groups in Africa is not monolithic but comprises a constantly shifting mix of roughly two dozen groups actively operating – and increasingly cooperating – in 14 countries.”

Among the listed “most active” Islamist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa include the Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is a coalition of Islamist affiliates such as the Front de Libération du Macina (FLM) and Al-Qaeda (AQIM).


Others include Boko Haram; Ansaroul Islam; the Katiba Salaheddine; the Jihad al-Islamiyya; Al-Shabaab in Somalia; and the transnational Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), West Africa (ISWA), Central Africa (ISCA) and Somalia (ISS).

“New to this sinister club is Mozambique. The jihadist group Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) aligned with the Islamic State, has launched an insurgency in the majority Muslim province of Cabo Delgado and taken control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, which possesses key infrastructure for the processing of the enormous natural gas reserves discovered off Mozambique’s northern coast,” ACN officials say in the April 20 report.

They add, “From Mozambique, jihadists proclaim that they have established Islamic State provinces of the Caliphate” in Comoros, Northern Madagascar, and across the Indian Ocean to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.”

According to the leadership of ACN, the presence of renowned international jihadist groups in Africa is fueled by internal struggles in the specific countries, which the militants exploit to expand their operations.

“It is widely agreed upon amongst scholars of transnational jihadism that its two leading organizations, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, rarely start new conflicts,” ACN officials quote the leadership of the Danish Institute for International Studies as saying.

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They continue referencing al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, “Instead, they tap into local grievances, establish linkages with marginalized groups in the society, and in the long run, transform what may initially have been an ethnically, or politically motivated conflict, into a religiously framed, armed struggle.”

On how the situation is likely to develop in African countries amid the rising transnational jihadism, ACN leadership quotes Prof. Olivier Hanne, a French Islamologist who told the pastoral charity in a February 2020 interview, “I fear that over the next five years the territorial expansion of the armed terrorist groups will continue. Drug trafficking will become more organized and increase.”

“After having extended their grip on the Muslim Sahara, the next target will be the places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another … in the next five years these African states will need the support of the West if they are to avoid catastrophe,” Prof. Hanne, the author of “Jihad in the Sahel” has been quoted as saying in the April 20 RFR.