Africa’s Muslim belt is getting bloodier. Boko Haram — the regional affiliate of Islamic State and one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups — has accelerated its campaign of almost daily suicide bombings.
Just last month, the group massacred 86 people, many of them children, in the Nigerian village of Dalori and 32 others in the Cameroonian village of Bodo.
To the west, al-Qaeda’s regional franchise has been waging war on the government of Mali and expanded its reach last month to the previously peaceful country of Burkina Faso, slaying at least 30 people — many of them Westerners — in an assault on a luxury hotel.
In the east, another al-Qaeda affiliate, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, overran an African Union military base three weeks ago and slaughtered more than 100 Kenyan troops.
Sub-Saharan Africa was long seen as relatively immune to the call of Islamist militancy because of its unorthodox religious practices — rooted in Sufism, a more mystical mode of Islam that focuses on individual spirituality — and its traditional cultures, which are far removed from strict Middle Eastern ways.
Today the area has become the fastest-growing front of global jihad — and perhaps its deadliest.
Driving this change is a crucial transformation of the way that Islam is being practiced by the 250-million Muslims living south of the Sahara — a population that is projected to grow by 60% over the next three decades.
“The Islam that is spreading through society in Africa today is the new active Islam, not the dormant, Sufi, private-life only [version]. It’s going into policy, into economy, into culture, into education. It’s going into public life,” said Hassan al-Turabi, the leading ideologue of political Islam in Africa, who hosted Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders as Sudan’s de facto ruler in the 1990s.
Facing this challenge, the U.S. and other Western countries have increasingly chosen to prop up chronically weak African states that cannot handle the onslaught on their own.
In 2013, France launched an outright military intervention to prevent a jihadist takeover of Mali, a former French colony, and Paris still maintains about 3,500 troops in Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Since then, the U.S. has established a drone base in Niger and is setting up another in Cameroon, in addition to sending special-operations forces to several countries in the region.
The UK also has dispatched military personnel to help fight Boko Haram.
Africa is now crisscrossed by war zones stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
Thus far, the rivalry between IS and al-Qaeda — Sunni terrorist groups that differ in their tactics and policies but have similar aims — has kept these insurgencies separate, but that may not last.
Meanwhile, the operations of these African militant groups have become increasingly sophisticated, often thanks to expertise and advice shared by their patrons and allies in the Middle East.
Widespread internet access and increasingly easy travel have made these connections far simpler than just a decade ago.
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