Sub-Saharan Africa's Extremist Hotspots

At a Glance

Sub-Saharan Africa's Extremist Hotspots

Emily Mellgard

24 May 2016

Data from the first four months of the Global Extremism Monitor reveals that extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa are as destructive as their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa.

While much of the international coverage of religious extremism and terrorism focuses on conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the violence in sub-Saharan Africa is on a par with that region. The latest edition of our Global Extremism Monitor for April will be published at the end of May. Ahead of its release, we compared attacks by the major extremist groups in those regions between January and the end of April 2016. We found that:

  • ISIS in Iraq and Syria instigated at least 148 attacks, killing at least 2,092 people. At least 870 were civilians.
  • ISIS in Libya instigated 54 attacks, killing at least 393 people. At least 90 were civilians.
  • Al-Shabaab in Somalia instigated 161 attacks, killing at least 749 people. At least 162 were civilians.
  • Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin instigated 74 attacks, killing at least 821 people. At least 601 were civilians.

Taking into account incidents within each group's main area of operation, al-Shabaab was more active than ISIS, according to our data. The group is less deadly than ISIS, killing less people per attack. It focuses much of its violence against the security services rather than civilians. A 10 May Senate hearing on terrorism and instability in sub-Saharan Africa identified three parts of the region as 'extremist instability hotspots': Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Sahara. Indeed, these are the areas where we have recorded the most extremist activity and state counter-extremist activity in the region.


The instability in Mali over the past three years has proven fertile ground for jihadi groups, which are increasingly conducting regional attacks. Their focus is split between guerrilla-style attacks against the security services and high-profile assaults against soft, normally civilian – and often foreign – targets. The hotel attacks in Burkina Faso in January and in Mali last year, and the attack on the beach resort in Côte d'Ivoire in March, are good examples of this tactic. This grabs international headlines and raises the profile of the group. It is also relatively easy to plan and carry out with a small cell of militants. None of the attacks mentioned above involved more than 10 militants.

Further, these attacks create a reputation, as well as focusing attention on new groups and the expansion of operations of more established ones – such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), which has been moving south. Such attacks are likely to continue.

Lake Chad Basin

In Nigeria, attention has focused on state efforts to counter Boko Haram this year, which have put a dent in the group's territory and resources. However, Boko Haram maintains operational capacity to attack soft targets.

In military operations against the group there have been spectacular claims of hostage rescues, but few reports of arrests or the killing of militants. In April for example, 171 extremists were reportedly killed across Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon in 25 attacks. During those attacks, at least 2,199 hostages were reportedly rescued. From what we have recorded, it appears the militaries combatting Boko Haram are focusing more on pushing militants from their territories than capturing or eliminating them.


AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez mentioned the thin spread of security forces in the east African nation in his Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing in March. Throughout 2016 this has been demonstrated through the trading of territory between militaries and al-Shabaab. There were at least 15 instances of territorial exchange in April. The vast majority occurred within 24 hours of an area being captured, with al-Shabaab retreating in the face of state troops and returning later in the day when the military had moved on.

Meanwhile, ISIS appears to have gained a foothold in Somalia, which may lead to dynamics in East Africa growing even more volatile. Its presence remains small, isolated, and largely un-operational. Still, at the end of March Somali troops in the northeastern region of Puntland claimed they were attacked by supporters of Sheikh Mumin, a Puntland native who lived in London until 2010. We recorded at least 10 clashes between militants and Puntland police in March, supporting reports of this escalation. ISIS also claimed its first attack in the country: an IED blast on a military vehicle near the capital Mogadishu in April. The Somali military was quick to dispute ISIS' claim. ISIS has long prioritised coopting al-Shabaab into its growing international network, or establishing a rival in the area to usurp the group. From these latest developments it appears ISIS is making headway.


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