Over the past two decades, the emergence and spread of local and transnational extremist organizations have become primary sources of insecurity in Africa. These include Al Shabaab, spreading from Somalia throughout East Africa; Boko Haram, from northern Nigeria into the greater Lake Chad region; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from Algeria to other states across the Sahel; and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), continuing to make inroads into the continent (Mets, 2019). These non-state armed groups (NSAGs) reflect the fluid and variable nature of conflict systems today and are at the heart of some of the continent’s most enduring peace and security challenges.
Africa’s porous borders, coupled with current trends such as rapid urbanization and the youth bulge, global warming, resource scarcity, Internet connectivity, and high levels of migration, have helped regionalize conflict systems, and will likely continue to do so in the future (United Nations Development Programme, 2016).
The spread of NSAGs across national borders, creating “regional hotspots,” and growing connections between local and international extremist organizations pose a unique set of security challenges for governments in Africa that call for collaborative security responses. Examples of such responses can be seen in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The former comprises a 10,500-person regional force of soldiers from Chad, Niger, Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria to combat Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the Lake Chad region. The latter was formed in 2014 in Mauritania to fight NSAGs and criminal gangs in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.
In recent years, there has been a marked spread of Islamist extremist activity along the “East Africa Corridor,” a geopolitical space that extends from Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda through Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2018).
Since 2005, Al Shabaab has led an insurgency against the Somali federal government and forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and has carried out terrorist attacks in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. In each country, the group has managed to link or merge with local Islamist actors and expand its operational footprint.
While Mozambique and South Africa have traditionally been regarded as insulated against the threat of terrorism, recent extremist activity in each has heightened security concerns. Since 2017, Mozambique has seen a nascent Islamist insurgency in its northern provinces of Cado Delgado, Niassa, and Nampula (Fabricius, 2020; Israel, 2020), while South Africa has experienced incidents of both Islamist (Swart, 2018) and far-right extremism (News24, 2020).
The failure of traditional counter-terrorism responses, often accompanied by heavy-handed security measures that trample civil rights and aggravate grievances, has encouraged a movement toward designing strategies, policies, and programs that interrupt “radicalization pathways” and address underlying socio-economic issues that give rise to violent extremism (United Nations Development Programme, 2017).
Policymakers working on these challenges need a strong evidence base in order to improve the efficacy of their initiatives. Here, public opinion research can be useful by providing insights into a given society’s vulnerabilities to violent extremism, such as low levels of social cohesion, strong feelings of fear and insecurity, and lack of trust in police and security forces (Zeiger & Aly, 2015).
Afrobarometer’s Round 7 surveys, conducted between late 2016 and late 2018, asked security-related questions in 34 African countries, including five countries along the East Africa Corridor that have experienced terrorist activity in recent years: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa. (While Somalia has been heavily impacted by terrorism, and has been a source of terrorist activity in the region, no Afrobarometer survey has taken place in the country due to security challenges.)
In these five countries, citizens show a generally mixed response to their respective governments’ handling of violent extremism. Public trust in the security sector, particularly the police, is low throughout the region, which may hamper efforts to develop sustainable approaches to addressing violent extremism and insecurity. Many citizens in the region report fearing violence from extremist groups, even where actual incidents have been infrequent, and indicate a willingness to accept government restrictions on certain civil liberties, such as rights to privacy, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion. These findings highlight the need for counter-terrorism policies whose national security objectives do not come at the expense of democratic ideals and good governance.