Is the Middle East ‘exporting’ violent extremism to Africa?

A new report by the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies paints a disturbing picture of the expanding Middle East engagements in Africa.

The middle-eastern countries whose activities were under the spotlight in the continent include United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Their interests, it emerged, vary significantly, all employing different approaches to advance them.

The contest, according to the report, is between Turkey, Qatar, and Iran on one hand, and Saudi Arabia, UAE, and their allies (Egypt, Jordan, and others) on the other hand of the ideological and geopolitical spectrum.

“The ‘new scramble for Africa’ by the Middle East is largely informed by internal struggles in the region, such as the Yemeni civil war, the 2017 Gulf Crisis, and the politically–motivated religious and ideological tensions in the Middle East.” The report states

A product of a study of relations between the two sides over the last 10 years, the report notes that their engagements in Africa tend to increase in the run-up to and in the aftermath of crises, and have in most instances caused instability and conflicts.

During this period, the report says there has been a marked increase in violent extremist activities on the continent. Extremism which, it says, preys on fragile states and contributes to the chaos.

For instance, in 2010, the survey shows that Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Somalia-based Al Shabaab were the most significant Africa-based violent extremist groups in Africa. Yet by 2019, there were at least 10 active violent extremist groups in the continent.

“The number of main terrorist theatres in the continent increased between 2010 and 2019 from two (Somalia and Nigeria) to seven (Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and to a considerable degree, Egypt and Kenya.” The report states

Indeed, the survey confirmed that there has been a notable increase in the number of violent extremist groups in the continent. Somalia which previously had Al Shabaab, now has other extremist groups include Al Shabab, Islamic State in Somalia, and Jabha East Africa.

In and around 2010, Nigeria was synonymous with Boko Haram. At the moment Boko Haram, Islamic State’s West Africa Province, and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria run amok. Shockingly, Burkina Faso which had no terrorist grouping in 2010 now has Ansaroul al-Islam and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara operating within its boundaries.

“The increase in violent extremist activity in Africa seems to correspond with the decrease in similar activity in the Middle East following the ‘defeat’ of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS),” the report states

“It also seems to be associated with the continent’s increasing states’ fragility as a result of factors such as armed conflicts, environmental degradation, and political instability.” Added the report,

Experts from the Institute spoke of the tendency of violent extremist groups on the continent to seek affiliation or collaborate with Al-Qaida, ISIS, or with each other to advance their goals, remain relevant, gain credibility, and/or gain or maintain their influence in a country or region.

“Most violent extremist groups in Africa are affiliated with al Qaida or ISIS (which are based in the greater Middle East), giving the impression that the region is ‘exporting’ violent extremism to Africa even though the ideology of jihadism emerged in both the Middle East and (North) Africa in the 1930s,” they said in the report

There is an additional worry that tensions in the Middle East have ‘spilt over’ to Africa, creating additional fault lines in already volatile and fragile countries.

For these reasons, intellectuals are concerned that Africa is emerging as the next significant theatre of terrorist and extremist activity.

“This has created a complex web of violent extremist actors in the Sahel-Maghreb-West African region that has, overall, a destabilizing effect. With at least 12 jihadist groups active in North Africa, this is the region most affected by violent extremist activity in Africa.” The Nairobi-based non-profit applied research and policy think-do tank says.

Due to the asymmetrical power relationship between African countries and their Middle Eastern counterparts, the institute says the threat of Middle Eastern countries imposing their political, economic and security vision on Africa, either through ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ power, is significant.

To turn around this state of affairs, the Institute says the Middle Eastern countries must address the issue of ideological manipulation of political and sectarian differences that have a destabilizing effect on the continent.

Most importantly, it wants these countries to stop the trafficking of weapons to conflict-prone areas.

“Such weapons hurt both local and the Middle East interest in the long term owing to perpetual conflicts they cause in both regions.” The report states

Over and above this, the group urges the said countries to be careful not to transfer tensions and conflicts in their region to the African continent.


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