The new frontiers of Islamist extremism: understanding the threat that al-Qaeda affiliates pose to African security

The "black flag of jihad" as used by...

The “black flag of jihad” as used by various Islamic terrorist organizations (since the late 1990s) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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23 September 2014

This paper examines three violent Islamist groups in AfricaAl-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – and the way they’ve evolved, especially in the linkages between them and al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics.


Over the past decade various groups that had been operating with a predominantly nationalistic agenda have increasingly become aligned with al-Qaeda in name, ideology, methodologies of attack and tactics. A new jihadism is spreading across Africa.

This paper examines three groups—Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. All of these groups are separate from the al-Qaeda core. They haven’t taken up the al-Qaeda model because they’ve been told to, but they’re emulating it. They’re all looking to become dispersed, decentralised movements that frame local grievances in the language of the global jihad.

For the international community, the danger lies not so much in the immediate threat to Western targets from African Islamists, but in the potential future creation of a failed state that would provide a base for training and radicalising large numbers of Islamists.

The proven capacity of AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab to train and share fighting and bombmaking skills with new recruits, and then deliver those recruits into intensive front-line fighting roles in areas such as Syria and Iraq, will be the groups’ most immediate international impact.

There are no clear solutions for African states combating the Islamist groups but any solution will necessarily be complex. Unfortunately, if the situation’s allowed to continue, there is danger that we’ll see a rise in instability in the regions where the groups operate, and in their growth and ambition.

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