Africa File: Political turmoil challenges Mali, Ethiopia, and Tunisia

Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins “At a Glance.” Country-specific updates follow.

Africa File: Political turmoil challenges Mali, Ethiopia, and Tunisia as Libya war heats up

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

(criticalthreats)–Political crises in Mali, Ethiopia, and Tunisia risk destabilizing these countries and creating new opportunities for the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi movement in three African regions. In Mali, the government has cracked down on a mass protest movement calling for the president’s resignation. This crackdown is a dangerous antidemocratic turn and will likely become a recruitment tool for Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel, which draw support from populations that suffer persecution by state security forces. In Ethiopia, protests and a subsequent crackdown demonstrate the fragility of the country’s recent political transition and raise the specter of larger instability in the East African economic powerhouse. In Tunisia, the prime minister resigned following corruption accusations in the wake of economic protests.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Turkey are edging toward war in Libya. Diplomatic efforts have stalled over irreconcilable demands as Libyan factions and their foreign backers prepare to fight for a strategic city in central Libya. Foreign involvement has made Libya’s war longer and more violent, increasing harm to civilians, worsening the economic and governance crisis, and prolonging the conditions that allow Salafi-jihadi militants to operate in the country.

Source: Author.

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North Africa
West Africa
East Africa

At a Glance: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated July 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the reduction of global counterterrorism efforts, which had already been rapidly receding as the US shifted its strategic focus to competition with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of US forces in Iraq and Syria is uncertain following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and its leader’s death, though the group already shows signs of recovery. The US Department of Defense is also considering a significant drawdown of US forces engaged in counterterrorism missions in Africa, though support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel has been extended for now.

This drawdown is happening as the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement was already positioned to take advantage of the expected

general reduction in counterterrorism pressure before the pandemic hit. Now, a likely

wave of instability and governmental legitimacy crises will create more opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, where it seeks a negotiated settlement with a Malian government under increasingly intense pressure to address a burgeoning security crisis and the presence of foreign forces. Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are also stalemated in Somalia and Nigeria and persisting amid the war in Libya. Conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems with these forces, with contributing nations reevaluating their commitments to foreign intervention during the pandemic.

The Salafi-jihadi movement has several main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and now northern Mozambique. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other places is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse (all now likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic). Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

East Africa

The al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia is largely stalemated, but conditions—including political instability and the planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces—are evolving in al Shabaab’s favor. Severe unrest in neighboring Ethiopia could also create opportunities for al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia, which plotted attacks targeting Ethiopia in 2019.


Al Shabaab is conducting an assassination campaign targeting prominent Somali government and military officials, underscoring the Somali government’s inability to secure the capital Mogadishu. An al Shabaab militant detonated a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) targeting Somalia’s Army Chief of Staff Odowa Yusuf Rage as he departed the Ministry of Defense in Mogadishu on July 13. Rage is known for personally leading attacks against al Shabaab before his 2019 appointment as chief of staff.

Al Shabaab conducted another IED *attack targeting Somalia’s deputy security minister in Mogadishu on July 18, according to Somali government officials. Al Shabaab previously *conducted a mortar attack targeting the recently refurbished Mogadishu Stadium hours after Somali President Mohamed Farmajo presided over its opening ceremony on July 1. The attack may have intentionally coincided with the 60th anniversary of Somalia’s independence.

Al Shabaab’s uptick in assassinations has also targeted officials outside the capital, as Caleb Weiss demonstrates.

The Somali army has pushed al Shabaab out of multiple villages near the major port city of Kismayo in southwestern Somalia’s Lower Jubba region, disrupting al Shabaab’s ability to attack the city. A military spokesman *announced on June 24 and 28 that Somali special forces *captured eight villages from al Shabaab near Kismayo. Kismayo’s port served as al Shabaab’s main source of income before African Union and Somali troops drove the insurgency from the city in 2012. Al Shabaab maintains a strong presence within the rural areas of the Lower and Middle Jubba regions. Pushing al Shabaab from these villages deprives it of areas to plan and stage attacks on larger Somali cities.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will continue to conduct assassination attempts targeting high-value Somali military and political leaders in Mogadishu. The assassination of senior officials could disrupt ongoing negotiations between the Somali Federal Government and federal member states concerning upcoming elections. (Updated July 21, 2020)

Somaliland, which claims independence from Somalia, formally recognized Taiwan’s independence on July 1. China’s foreign ministry accused Taiwan of “undermining Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The US National Security Council congratulated Taiwan for establishing ties with Somaliland. Both China and the US maintain military bases in the neighboring country of Djibouti and compete for partnerships in the Horn of Africa.


The assassination of a popular Ethiopian singer led to renewed political turmoil along ethnic lines in Ethiopia. Thousands protested and rioted across the Oromia region, accusing the government of involvement in the killing. Ethiopian security forces *killed at least 150 protestors during a crackdown against the protests. A fraught political transition and Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed’s ambitious reform program have inflamed deep ethnic fissures in Ethiopian society, including within his own Oromo community. Protests, riots, and violent government crackdowns could destabilize the state and spread to ethnic Somali communities in southern Ethiopia, opening opportunities for al Shabaab to exploit local grievances and expand into the East African powerhouse.


The Islamic State threatened South Africa preemptively in response to potential military intervention in Mozambique. The Islamic State warned[2] on July 3 that it would open a “fighting front within [South Africa’s] borders” should South Africa become more involved in Mozambique. South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party released a statement on July 6 urging the South African government to decisively deal with Islamic State–linked militants in northern Mozambique by deploying South African National Defence Force and African Union forces. The Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private military company, is active in northern Mozambique.

Forecast: The Mozambican Islamic State branch will attempt to take control of a Cabo Delgado population center and declare it a part of the Islamic State’s caliphate this year. (As of June 23, 2020)