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African Islamist groups link up, intensifying threat to Christians

Country/Region: Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Somalia, Mali, Kenya, Libya, Middle East and North Africa

Three of Africa’s most violent Islamist groups, which have perpetrated deadly attacks on Christians and other targets, are linking up, signalling a mounting security threat on the continent. 

Boko_Haram_militants_4X3.jpg
Boko Haram militants are waging war against Christians in Nigeria

This was the assessment of General Carter F. Ham, commander of the US military’s Africa Command, speaking at an African Center for Strategic Studies seminar on 25 June.

He said that there are indications that Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are pooling money and explosives and training fighters together.

General Ham said:

Each of those three organizations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat. What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts.

Boko Haram has been fighting to establish an Islamic state in Northern Nigeria since 2009, killing over 1,000 people in attacks that have specifically targeted the security forces and Christians. The group has stepped up its campaign against Christians in particular this year, issuing increasingly sinister threats and bombing churches on an almost weekly basis.

Following systematic suicide bombings at three churches in Kaduna state on 17 June, Boko Haram released a statement that said:

From now on, they [Christians] either follow the right religion or there will be no peace for them.

The US State Department last month designated as terrorists three senior Boko Haram figures, drawing criticism for failing to designate the whole group as a terrorist entity.

Al-Shabaab controls most of southern Somalia, where they impose an extremely strict version of sharia. Their ultimate goal is to turn the entire country into an Islamic state. Al-Shabaab militants have killed numerous converts from Islam to Christianity in Somalia, vowing a few years ago that they would kill all Christians in the capital, Mogadishu.

The group is also suspected of being behind a number of recent attacks on churches and Christian gatherings in neighbouring Kenya.

AQIM is an al-Qaeda affiliated criminal outfit based in North Africa. It has been behind numerous bomb attacks on official buildings in Algeria, kidnaps westerners for ransom and aids the African drugs trade.

The position of Islamists in the region has been strengthened not only by the growing cooperation between the groups, but also by a rebel takeover in northern Mali and a breakdown of security in Libya.   

Al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, seized control of northern Mali along with separatist rebels in April, driving Christians out. The Islamists and separatists clashed over the imposition of sharia, the latter wanting a secular regime. On 28 June, the Islamists declared that they had secured full control of the territory from the separatists. They are enforcing a very harsh version of sharia and have drawn international condemnation for destroying historical mausoleums in Timbuktu that they regard as idolatrous. 

General Ham said that AQIM is now operating “essentially unconstrained” throughout large parts of northern Mali following the rebel takeover.

The breakdown of security in Libya as a result of the Arab Spring has increased the availability and movement of militants and weapons in the region; Colonel Gaddafi had kept extremists on a tight leash. 

This all bodes extremely ill for the region’s long-suffering Christians, whose presence Islamist militants want to eradicate by any means necessary.

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