The seizure of more than half of Mali’s land area by Islamic militants, the growing violence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and years of religious-inspired violence in Somalia have heightened attention on Islamic militancy in Africa. In the process, violent clashes between insurgent groups and governments in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa have increased, the armed capacity of militant organizations has expanded, terrorist attacks against civilians including suicide bombings have escalated, militants’ strict moral codes—enforced through stoning and amputation—have been imposed, sacred historical sites have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Militants’ ability to seize and control vast territory for extended periods of time has prolonged and obstructed the process of state-building in Somalia, while in Mali it has severed the northern from the southern half of the country and exacerbated a political impasse in Bamako. Protracted instability in parts of the Sahara-Sahel, furthermore, has the potential to ripple throughout the region. The prospect of the emergence of Islamic militancy and the escalation of tensions elsewhere on the continent is likewise a cause for concern.
While the risks of escalation are significant, the gains of these Islamic militant groups are not attributable to their military strength. Rather, their expanded influence is just as much a symptom of fragile and complex political contexts. More generally, Islamic militancy in Africa today represents the intersection of broader trends in contemporary Islam and local circumstances. Responding to the challenge is all the more difficult in that very little is known about these often secretive Islamic groups, some of which have only recently emerged.