Written by Matthew Pelton (MIR 2014-15)

The September 11, 2001 attacks by the radical Al-Qaeda Islamist group shocked the world.  Earlier attacks occurred at U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, but few expected the global jihadists to take new tactics to American soil.  Since fame grew for Al-Qaeda in the radical world, branches of their ideology have blossomed elsewhere (e.g., Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).  In the past decade, Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden,” has waged war against Western education and ideology in Nigeria killing thousands of people.  Similarly, Al-Shabaab has carried out attacks in Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti since 2006 due to military intervention in Somali affairs through the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and their endorsement of Western ideology.

Recently, on April 2, 2015, a group of gunmen stormed Garissa University in Northern Kenya taking the lives of 147 people.  The largest attack on Kenyan soil by Al-Shabaab reminded Kenyans of the strong tensions that exist between their nation and the radical jihadist group based in southern Somalia.  A reminder may not be what Kenya needs, since the country has battled minor gunmen and explosive attacks from the group since its military first invaded Somalia in 2011.  “Al-Shabaab,” from the larger Harakat Al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, means ‘youth,’ and in order to conceive solutions to mitigate the growth of these radical groups and future terrorist attacks, one must understand how radical Islam first appeared in the region and why it has a growing influence over youth.

Originally united against Soviet invasion during the 1980’s, the Sunni Al-Qaeda group found refuge in Sudan under Islamist leaders Omar al Bashir and Hassan al Turabi throughout the 1990’s.  After the fall of Mohammed Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, Al-Qaeda transitioned its focus to war-torn Somalia where it could challenge Western intervention in an Arab and Muslim country in the Horn of Africa.  Ninety-four percent (94%) of the Somali population is Muslim and majority Sunni, so Al-Qaeda’s ability to build a radical youth militia in an impoverished and failed state did not present a significant challenge.  An offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabaab’s radical ideology stems from Wahhabism, a puritanical approach to Islam.  As in the Middle East and other Arab regions, much of the Africa was arbitrarily carved into the Western model of nation-states at the Berlin Conference of 1884.  The negative consequences of colonialism persist today with disconnected ethnic tribes, lack of nationalist ideals, and an economic dependence on foreign governments, which has fueled socio-economic inequality.

Similar to challenges faced in the Arab world, 200 million African youth aged between 15 and 24 will double by 2045, and the McKinsey Global Institute identified that growing youth unemployment presents a challenge for both sustainable job creation and educational institutions training the future workforce. A 2012 United Nations Development Program report identified youth unemployment to be 67% in Somalia, and youth unemployment in rural Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active, was roughly 53% in 2012.  With youth unemployment across sub-Saharan Africa poised to grow with its population, alternatives must be developed to provide sufficient security and empowerment to the marginalized youth (e.g., access to food, shelter, income, and education).  Such basic needs are currently being met by the radical Islamist groups.

New education models that promote entrepreneurial thinking and self-efficacy may dissuade youth participation in radical Islamist groups.  Similarly, companies and entrepreneurs must be committed to inclusive and sustainable development that creates sufficient job opportunities, as companies like Somaliland Beverage Industries have done in Hargeisa.  While military operations have taken key territories and some militant leaders, more effective military solutions must be devised (i.e., minimizing unintended civilian deaths and using counterintelligence to foresee attacks).  Even with Islamic scholars denouncing Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram acts through fatwas, it seems greater influence could be employed by key Islamic leaders.  In sum, private sector development and access to empowering education may be long term solutions to minimize radical Islam in Africa, but more effective military solutions, religious leadership, and government planning must be employed in the interim.


Wairimu June 15, 2015 - 9:54 am

The interesting part of this article for me is the last paragraph. Two points are made first, the important role of entrepreneurial thinking and inclusive development as a long term solution secondly the importance of more effective military solutions as a short term solution. Here is where I differ slightly-I think we cannot remove either of these two points from each other; it is not entirely a matter of short term long term. State failure is a cocktail of problems, when the complex dependencies of society fall apart-the nation falls flat. The interdependent web of institutions and apparatuses are the tools that are used to repair the state by building each system in conjunction with the other. Therefore, spotlight on a single component of what makes a state, for example on security or economy, will not work for overall development. Policy makers rebuilding a nation must develop a consistent strategy that fixes not only security and economic, but also social and political issues all in a coordinated manner.

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