What Makes Terrorism Tick in Africa? Evidence from Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram

Published date01 June 2017
Date01 June 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg, Auckland
Park, South Africa.
Corresponding author:
Darlington Mutanda, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of
Johannesburg, P.O. Box 524, Auckland Park, South Africa.
E-mail: mutandadarlington@yahoo.com
What Makes
Terrorism Tick
in Africa? Evidence
from Al-Shabaab
and Boko Haram
Darlington Mutanda1
This article, with reference to some of the biggest terrorist groups on
the African continent, focuses on the challenges that nations face in
combating the spread and effects of terrorism. While numerous studies
have been undertaken to explain the causes, dynamics, and effects of
terrorist groups, this work particularly dwells on how these groups
sustain their operations. Additionally, the article implements document
analysis in order to examine the challenges of addressing Al-Shabaab
and Boko Haram in Africa. Fascinatingly, what emerges is that terrorist
groups are highly organized. The article also argues that military strategy
forms the backbone of terrorist survival. By avoiding direct combat,
the groups are capable of prolonged episodes of fighting. While several
campaigns have been waged to deal with terror, the scope under which
these have been planned and executed explains why terrorism has
survived for so long. The fact that conventional armies are not willing
to commit as many foot soldiers as possible implies that terrorists will
always be difficult to overcome. The article thus largely uses ‘military
lens’ to analyze why terrorism has managed to upset conventional
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
21(1) 20–40
2017 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0973598417706590
Mutanda 21
armies. Policy makers will find the article useful as the war on terror
rages on, especially in stepping up counterterrorism measures.
Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, civilians, terrorism, strategy, Africa
Terrorism cannot be easily defined because it is context specific. Over
100 definitions attempt to explain what terrorism is. It is important to
note that Kurd, Lebanese, Palestinian, Somali, and Kashmir communi-
ties view their fighters as freedom fighters, not terrorists. The political
nature of terrorism and the challenges of defining it are further exempli-
fied in the case of Hezbollah. With the exception of Lebanon and Iran,
the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) declared the
Lebanese movement leading to the foundation of Hezbollah a ‘terrorist’
group’. The United States (US), Canada, and Australia also listed
Hezbollah as a ‘terrorist’ group. More importantly, the European Union (EU)
even blacklisted its military wing (Al Jazeera 2016a). In contrast, the
Lebanese desire the Hezbollah group to survive. This is because to them
the enemy is clear, their history is intertwined, and the purpose is well
defined (Ghaddar 2016). Hezbollah views its conflict with Israel and the
Jewish people as religiously motivated.
Nonetheless, there is a consensus that terrorism is the threat or the
act of politically motivated violence directed primarily against civilians.
Irrespective of legitimacy, perpetrator, location, and time of attack,
terrorism is a means to an end (Gunaratna 2009: 140). Duyvesteyn
(2007: 118) views terrorism as a violent act aimed at political change.
As espoused by eminent Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war
is a continuation of policy by other means. The implication is that while
people join terrorist groups for various reasons, terrorism itself has
greater political goals. Terrorist groups develop secular and religious
ideologies or belief systems to politicize, radicalize, and mobilize their
actual and potential followers (Gunaratna 2009: 140). This is explicit in
the activities of groups such as Al-Shabaab, the Islamic State, Boko
Haram, and Al-Qaeda, to mention but a few. Furthermore, terrorists
disregard the law of armed conflict. They utilize the scheme of targeting
civilians as a means of causing and spreading terror. As employed
by non-state actors, terrorism is a revolutionary strategy that seeks to

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