The President's Take

Violence in Somalia, Déby’s Death and Islamist Militancy in Africa

In his Interim President’s Take on this month’s CrisisWatch, Richard Atwood looks at what Somalia’s political crisis and Chadian President’s Idriss Déby’s death mean for Africa’s struggles against Islamist militancy.

For decades, the centre of gravity of jihadist militancy swung between South Asia and the Middle East. 

In the early 1990s, Arab volunteers who had been fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan returned home to battle governments they declared un-Islamic. Later that decade, as those rebellions petered out, many fighters retreated to Afghanistan, then under Taliban control. After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-backed ouster of the Taliban, foreign militants who weren’t killed or captured mostly hid in the Pakistani tribal areas or scattered. Then came the 2003 U.S. Iraq war, which breathed new life into global jihadism. Thousands of militants travelled to fight U.S. soldiers in the heart of the Arab world. That rebellion was also beaten back, in part by a U.S.-sponsored tribal revolt tapping local anger at jihadists’ brutality. The descent of the 2011 Arab uprisings into chaos created new opportunity for militants, paving the way for the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, its expansion elsewhere and the growth of local al-Qaeda branches.

Since the ISIS caliphate’s collapse in Iraq and Syria, however, it’s sub-Saharan Africa that has suffered some of the fiercest battles against jihadists. 

Weak states across [sub-Saharan Africa] struggle to contain often dogged and nimble militant factions operating over vast hinterlands where central authorities hold little sway.

Weak states across the continent struggle to contain often dogged and nimble militant factions operating over vast hinterlands where central authorities hold little sway. Parts of the Sahel have seen spiralling bloodshed, in large part due to fighting involving jihadists whose reach has extended from northern Mali to the country’s centre, into Niger and across rural Burkina Faso. Boko Haram’s jihadist insurgents have lost the swathes of north-eastern Nigeria they controlled some years ago and the movement has fractured. But its splinter groups still menace areas around Lake Chad. In East Africa, Al-Shabaab’s decade-and-a-half-long rebellion remains potent. Militants control large parts of Somalia’s rural south, operate shadow courts and tax or extort people far beyond those areas, and mount attacks in neighbouring countries. Add to this picture a new front: in northern Mozambique, local insurgents, whom ISIS claims fight under its banner, have escalated attacks on security forces and civilians, forcing nearly a million people to flee their homes.  

Two things happened this past month that could play an outsized role in shaping jihadists’ fortunes in Africa. 

The first, as this month’s CrisisWatch entry documents, is the nosedive Somali politics have taken. 

That owes a great deal to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. When Farmajo came to power in 2017, many welcomed him as a reformer able to tackle the graft and bridge the divides that had long plagued Somali politics. Those expectations lie in tatters. Farmajo’s tenure has been marked by bitter disputes, increasingly along clan lines, pitting his government against rivals in the capital Mogadishu and leaders of some of Somalia’s regions. It’s not all Farmajo’s fault: Gulf Arab powers, in particular, have widened the rifts by picking sides. But the president’s divisive rule bears much of the blame. 

The standoff boiled over these past few weeks. After months of stuttering talks over voting procedures, Somalia’s Parliament extended Farmajo’s term in office. His rivals, infuriated by the decision, brought loyal security forces into parts of Mogadishu. Farmajo deployed his own loyalists to take back those areas. Fighting on the capital’s streets was, to many residents, alarmingly reminiscent of the 1990s civil war when rival clans battled street-to-street. Farmajo has since dropped the term extension and violence has ebbed. But the path to credible elections, which are necessary to turn the page, is still fraught.  

How’s this relevant to Islamist militancy? Put simply, the crisis plays straight into Al-Shabaab’s hands. 

Factions in Somalia’s security forces, including those trained by foreign governments to combat Al-Shabaab, are now facing off against each other. Not just that – units flooding into Mogadishu in support of political leaders have vacated their positions on front lines, leaving room for Al-Shabaab to move in. The infighting shows once again – also to militants themselves – how hard it will be to build a coherent Somali army from units loyal to squabbling factions, especially with clan divisions now rubbed raw. It also shows that for a Somali political elite set on retaining or winning power, fighting Al-Shabaab is at best a second-tier priority. 

There are other perils, too. Al-Shabaab tends to exploit local anger, backing marginalised clans or those seeking revenge against rivals. It has traditionally done so locally, rather than in national-level disputes. But the worse those disputes get, the more likely factions are to see benefit in tactical alliances with militants. Moreover, the longer the crisis continues, the less thought anyone gives to peace talks, which at some point will probably be necessary, given the low prospects of defeating Al-Shabaab militarily. Any negotiations already face an uphill battle, given opposition from East African regional heavyweights and scant evidence that militant leaders are themselves interested. But if Al-Shabaab’s Somali enemies are divided, hope for such talks vanishes altogether. 

The second thing that happened was the death of Chadian President Idriss Déby, reportedly killed on the front lines amid fighting against (non-jihadist) rebels in the country’s north (see the CrisisWatch entry, plus our Q&A on the topic). 

Déby portrayed his army as the linchpin of efforts against militants in the Lake Chad basin and the Sahel. Chadian forces often spearheaded operations against Boko Haram splinters (indeed, in the words of one official involved, the best way to understand the anti-Boko Haram multinational force comprising Lake Chad states is that “it gives Chadian forces permission to fight militants on Nigerian soil”). Chadian troops also do a lot of the fighting with jihadists in the Sahel, whether together with French counter-terrorism forces or as part of the G5 Sahel regional force or the UN mission in Mali. 

There have been problems aplenty with the French-led, military-first approach that Chadian forces have often been the sharp end of. Operations frequently see abuses against civilians. They’ve sometimes entailed support for local militias whose struggles with jihadists have, particularly in the Sahel, fuelled rampant inter-ethnic violence, which is arguably as big a danger to the region as jihadism itself. Ideally, Déby’s demise would herald the rethink in Paris that Crisis Group has long called for and which would see military offensives subservient to a strategy rooted more in efforts to resolve local conflicts, including potentially talking to militant leaders. 

Still, even were that to happen, force would remain necessary, at least to keep militants at bay. Other leaders in the Sahel are watching apprehensively to see if the new military council in Chad, led by Déby’s son, that has taken over after his death, pulls back Chadian forces from operations abroad to deal with unrest at home. 

That unrest is another reason to watch what happens after Déby’s passing. Some years ago, when ISIS was at its peak, Crisis Group put out a paper called “Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State”. As the title suggests, one of the report’s core points was that jihadists tend to do well in conditions of state collapse. They’re rarely able to start wars themselves but grow or move in afterward when things fall apart. 

We even cited Chad as an example of how Western leaders miss the forest for the trees. The gravest threat to the country’s stability, we said, emanated not from Islamist militancy but from Déby’s personalised rule and accumulation of power – a trend exacerbated by his tightening alliance with Western powers and the training they gave his forces to fight jihadists elsewhere. Without reform, he risked leaving chaos behind. Today, the dangers are all too apparent: the risk that protests at the military council’s rule meet harsh crackdowns by security forces; the threat posed by Chadian rebels in the country’s north or based in Libya; even potential splits in the army. Paradoxically, jihadists could stand to profit from any crisis, despite not having had an initial hand in it, much as they have done elsewhere.

In Somalia, the factional rivalries themselves arguably pose a graver danger even than Al-Shabaab.

True, we should be careful today neither to be alarmist nor make what’s happening in Chad or Somalia primarily about Islamist militancy. Many Chadians see Déby’s death as an opportunity to turn the page on decades of military rule, not something that Western leaders should view through the lens of its impact on counter-terrorism. In Somalia, the factional rivalries themselves arguably pose a graver danger even than Al-Shabaab. In some ways, making events in either place predominantly about jihadists would perpetuate exactly the overemphasis on counter-terrorism that has skewed Western policymaking so destructively over the past two decades. 

Still, Somalia’s political crisis and the perils after Déby’s death serve as a reminder that jihadists’ fortunes tend to be shaped by geopolitics and by opportunities created more by others than by militants themselves. That’s as true in Africa today as it has been throughout many decades of fighting in Afghanistan, during the 2003 Iraq war and the post-2011 chaos in the Middle East. It’s not that counter-terrorism policy doesn’t matter: done well, good intelligence gathering and policing, careful military operations plus, importantly, knowing when to negotiate, can disrupt attacks and close space for militants. But in the end, the bigger determinant of whether jihadists make further gains in Africa or a post-ISIS revival in the Middle East will probably be whether there is new disorder for them to exploit. The best counter-terrorism policy, in other words, remains one that’s rooted in efforts to avert more wars or upheaval. At the very least, it shouldn’t set the stage for them. 

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