Radicalism and Terrorism in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa


The resurgence of radicalization within the Islamic religion in the 21st Century has manifested aptly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, especially beginning from the late 2000s. Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mali, through Al Shabab and Boko Haram, undergird the terrorist activities that symbolize this radicalization. Al Qaeda and ISIS represent this movement in Iraq and Syria. Radical Islamists have leveraged on weak governance mechanisms, frail state institutions, wide spread poverty, and other deplorable social conditions to seek to institutionalize Islam in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The declining quality of leadership, governance, and the resurging forces of globalization have spurred the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in these regions with loud implications for national security and state building especially in multi-ethnic and religious societies.


From Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group operating in the northeastern Nigeria, Cameroun, Niger and Chad to Al Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia, Al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have come under severe form of Islamic radicalization. Terrorist attacks on state institutions and civilian populations and full blown war in Iraq and Syria launched by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have caused instability and insecurity in these regions for several years. From a modest obscure beginning, these militant groups have been entrenched as critical component of the disturbance to the security architecture of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

The roots of these radical movements are embedded in extreme religious beliefs, triggered by deplorable socio-economic conditions, weak and fragile state institutions, and ineffective governance. In Nigeria, the ineptitude of political leadership allowed the fermentation of the sect into a formidable militant group with external connections and internal entrenchment strong enough to challenge the Nigerian state successfully since 2009 (ICG, 2010; Bauchi, 2009). Resilient issues of poverty, economic deprivation, youth unemployment and economic resource misallocation have been fertile grounds for breeding radicalism in Africa and the Middle East (Padon, 2010).

This paper argues that weak state institutions and deplorable economic conditions in these regions and the seemingly non-preparedness of political leadership to overturn the governance indices, and buoyed by the forces of globalization, radical Islam may be here for a longer time. The implications are that national security and global peace and security may get worse, as the migrant crisis in Europe persist. The paper is divided into interrelated parts. With an opening introduction linked to conceptual exploration on Islamic radicalization, the third and fourth sections unveil the radical movements in sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East respectively. The fifth section examines the implications of radical movements on regional and global security. Foreign policy options and national strategies are tied in the conclusion.

What is Islamic Radicalization?

Socio-political combustions taking place in the Middle East or the Muslim world and Africa are a rather telling confirmation of Huntington’s (1968) prediction of the clash of civilizations in the 21st Century. The historical struggles between West and East have continued to affirm rather starkly that both worlds cannot be joined (Kipling, 1975). This contest is about values: Conservative or liberal. Cultural arguments in this sense treat Muslims as a homogenous group when they are indeed varied. For instance, categories like Sunni and Shia or the Salafis and Wahabbis are clear indications of the fragmentation among Muslim groups.

There has been a wave of radical movements, which have often turned militant in these regions since the 19th century. Radicalization itself is a process involving an individual or group indoctrinated to a set of beliefs that support acts of terrorism that can be manifested in one’s behavior and attitudes (Rahimullah, Larmar & Abdalla, 2013, p. 20). Radicalism is however not synonymous with terrorism. Typically, radicalism should precede terrorism but, terrorists may even circumvent the radicalisation process. According to Rais (2009, p. 2), the absence of constitutional means, human freedom, unequal distribution of wealth, a biased social structure and a fragile law and order conditions are likely to produce radical movements in any society developed or developing. But radical movements may not necessarily become terrorist groups. Radicalism therefore outrightly rejects existing means of political participation as well as social, economic, and political institutions as inadequate to resolve societal grievances. Thus, radicalism accounts or is motivated by the appeal of fundamental structural changes in all spheres of societal life. These may be political and economic relations. In these directions, radicalism makes popular new ideologies, challenges the legitimacy of and relevance of prevailing ideologies and beliefs. It then advocates for drastic changes as an immediate constructive and progressive way of reordering society.

Radicalism is not by any means necessarily religious. It could occur in any ideological or secular setting. Certain actors are instrumental to the emergence of the phenomenon such as elite corruption. In the face of deprivation and absolute want, the elite exhibition of opulence believed to originate from abuse, waste and diversion of public resources for private ends of the elite could instigate radical response from a segment of the populace. Therefore, frustrations among the deprived in the context of the framework of the society could fundamentally trigger radicalism. Rahman (2009, p. 4) summarized the factors that are instrumental to radicalization as:

Deregulation and globalization etc. are also factors that cause radicalization in a society. Other factors include lack of justice, vengeful attitudes in a society, unjust policies of the government /state, unjust use of power, and a sense of deprivation and its psychological impact. Class discrimination in a society also contributes to the phenomenon of radicalization.

These factors collectively could create a group with extremist views on Islamic values and traditions and practices who would seek to cause fundamental or radical changes. This religious form of Islamic radicalism stems from limited interpretation of the Quran by a group or individual in order to achieve radical objectives (Pavan & Murshed, 2009). The radicals’ mindset is to cause dramatic change in the society because of their dissatisfaction with an existing order. Islamic radicalization is therefore a process of precipitating sudden changes in the society as a response to the low socio-economic and cultural level of the masses of Muslims with a view to maintaining dogmatic rigidity in values, practices and traditions in contrast with modernity.

Islamic radicalization finds elaborate expression in the promotion of extreme acts of violence in effecting radical change. This is the remarkable differentiation from Islamic fundamentalist who seeks a return to Islamic fundamentals in the face of corruption without the use of violence. The process of radicalization leverages large Muslim populations, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and marginalization.

Risk factors to radicalism among Muslims are complex and varied. One of these is linked to the existence of the Salafi/Wahabi movement. The jihadist version of the Salafi movement opposes western oppressive and military presence in the Islamic world as well as pro-western governments in sub-Saharan Africa. This group advocates for armed resistance. Although Members of the Wahabi movement try to differ from the Salafi, they tend to accept this extreme intolerance of infidels (Rahimullah, Larmar and Abdalla, 2013; Schwartz, 2007). A second factor is the influence of radical Muslim figures such as Syeb Gutb, a prominent Egyptian scholar believed to be a pioneer in laying the foundation of modern radical Islam. The teachings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al Awlahi belong to this category. The third factor of the justification for terrorism is rooted in the violent uprising against authoritarian, corrupt and repressive governments of newly independent countries in the 20th century in the Middle East and North Africa (Hassan, 2008). Closely related to the influence of radical figures is the factor of perceived scholarly authority which many Muslims may be deceived into accepting as genuine interpretation of the Quran (Ralumullah, et al, 2013). Globalization and modernization have also exerted tremendous influence on radicalization of Muslims. Radical Islamic ideologies have spread more rapidly across the world reaching Muslims with relative ease through technology and the internet. Radical mindsets have latched on to this quickly with considerable effect on radicalization (Veldhius and Staun, 2009). Modernization has radicalized many Muslims who perceive it as an imposition of Western culture and values on the Muslim world (Lewis, 2003; Huntington, 1996; Roy, 2014).

The cultural argument as a basis for radicalism presents culture as static and religion as monolithic (Murshed and Pavan & 20009). Huntington (2006) expresses the clash of civilization in a superior – inferior contest between the West and Islam. In this sense, Islamic radicalization seeks to challenge the inferiority of their power by upholding their perceived superior culture being dominated by Western culture which is touted as superior. Lewis (2003) notes that Muslims loath their cultural domination through history even as a more superior culture and hence the hatred of the West and determination to use violence to introduce radical changes. Islam as a religion has many faces across history and is expressed in contemporary times in a multiplicity of identities at individual Muslim level and their collectivity. Thus, individual Muslim identity does not exist and culture is dynamic, changing with material conditions as they alter. Using culture and religion as risk factors to radicalization must be nuanced to be relevant.

Radicalized groups recruit members or mujahedeen from various sources and backgrounds. A large group of radical elements are recruited from among the youth. This age category is imbued with idealism and a utopian belief to change the world. This potency has been exploited by radical groups in recruiting new members. Incensed by propagandist rhetoric in local mosque or schools, video or audio tapes or internet and even at home, some young people accustomed to challenging established values of their parents, teachers and community seize the moment to be radicalized.

Many jihadists are religious nationalists who were forced out of their countries by harsh security systems. In foreign countries, they identity radical Islamic networks and their activities and then engage Muslim regimes in their home countries.

In the wake of September 11 attack on the United States, many radicals were incensed by the sense of injustice, fear and anger against the US and in the spirit of the war against Islam created by Bin Laden, Diaspora communities became a major source for recruitment as home grown radicals. Muslims in Europe and Canada have been recruited to join radical movements to prosecute global jihad. Diaspora Muslim feels a sense of humiliation from deprivation and discrimination in Europe (Lewis, 2003; Murshed and Pavan, 2009).

Friendship and kinship networks have been used as veritable sources of recruitment. These have been used as a “means of introducing radical ideas, maintaining commitment through comradeship in jihadism, or providing trusted contacts for operational purposes” (Gendron, 2006, p. 12).

Converts to Islam are also a major source of recruitment as foot soldiers for Al Qaeda and other splinter networks. Familiarity with Europe makes converts promising radicals with devotion and commitment to the course. Women have also become a veritable source of recruitment for suicide attacks. From Chechnya to Nigeria and Palestine, women have been successfully recruited and deployed in committing suicide attacks.

The emergence of radicalized and formidable extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East against the backdrop of these generalized factors require closer examination of specific experiences reflecting the peculiarity and nuanced background of each group. This is necessary to establish the way in which Islamic radicalization functions in these climes and the potential implication for global stability and security.

Radical Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa

In 1979, the Shia Muslims overthrew the secular and autocratic Shah of Iran. This Iranian revolution was the beginning of contemporary Islamic radicalism (Rubin, 1998). Muslims were united by the development of an opportunity for the restoration of a pure Islamic state with surrounding corrupt Arab governments basking in Western support. The revolution had immense effect on Muslim consciousness and sense of identity (Gendron, 2006). Closely following the Shia revolution was the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan also in 1979. Several thousands of Muslims moved to Afghanistan to flush out the communist infidels. Afghanistan became a fervent opportunity for training of jihadists. Aspiring jihadists received training and skills in a secured environment for their local struggles. It was in Afghanistan that global jihadism was conceived and nurtured throwing up Osama bin Laden’s Salafi – Wahabist movement.

Afghanistan was although a major arena where radical Islamic ideas took roots with practical military skills obtained; other arenas like Algeria, Egypt, Kashmir and Chechnya also emerged. Somalia and Mali also joined the fray and have become safe havens for training of radical elements. The Al Qaeda led attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 was the birth of global Jihad and the US response through intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan were veritable ground for a united global Ummah to confront their common enemy. Local groups joined the struggle in these and more local theatres to attempt to defeat the enemy from the West and their supporting Arab governments. They collaborate with other groups outside the Middle East to attempt to establish pure Islam in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. With the collapse of Somalia in the early 1990s, a fertile ground was open for the fermentation of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa.

Radical Islam in Somalia, Kenya and Nigeria

Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa (HOA) borders Kenya in East Africa. The HOA is a strategic region, a major artery and route of global marine transport (Ali, 2008, p.1). Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa is also strategic as the hub of the regional economy.  This region is home to diverse cultures, nationalities and religions constituting a dynamic community in Africa. The HOA was a cross road of interaction among Asians, Arabs and Africa through trade. Due to the region’s complex cultural and religious dynamism, it is replete with conflicts, territorial disputes, and civil wars. Somalia as a country for instance has not known peace since the death of Siad Barrre. The country has been dismembered along clannish lines with internal armed struggle for territorial claims. The collapse of central authority has not been regained effectively since the early 1990s.

The prevalence of chaos and instability has provided a fertile ground for Islamic radicalization. This phase is rooted in the violent colonial history and Cold War era, giving vent to the contemporary violence in the region. Ali (2008) has argued that what has appeared as an instilled culture of violence in the region is a product of the ever-changing dynamics in the politics of the region especially in the contestation for political power. Islamic radicalization is thus seen as an immediate root to power and has been so entrenched through established networks of radical groups.

The radicalization process in the horn of Africa is driven by poor governance. Individuals and groups driven into despair turn to accept a purist version of Islam by revolting against the state that suffocates the citizens with all forms of injustices, corruption and violations of human rights (Ali, 2008). Individuals are radicalized in two major ways. First, teenagers are taught radical interpretation of the Quran by strict Wahabist teachers trained in the Middle East. These teenagers are thus ingrained in this violent ideology. Second, leveraging an environment in which people face oppression, wounded and wasted by war lords, contemporary Al Qaeda inspired jihadist trained in the Middle East returned to Somalia. Indeed, from Ethiopia, Kenya Djibouti and Sudan, poor governance by pretentious’ democracies have pushed citizens towards those extremists preaching purist Islam to introduce radical changes and rights and establish justice.

The Al-Shabaab, meaning ‘the Youth’ was created through these two-pronged processes. By introducing populist measures such as removal of road blocks, providing security and punishing those that were exploiting local communities, the group was seen as meeting the needs of ordinary Somalis, a feat enough to win their support. The group is estimated at over 1,000 armed members with a reserve pool of over 3000 youth and sympathizers (Ali, 2008). With the rapid expansion of Muslims in an impoverished society as Somalia, deplorable socio-economic conditions have tended to accelerate the radicalization of Somali society. When good governance does not seem to have a chance of impacting the HoA, Islamic radicalization is set to be firmly entrenched and on the rise and may remain so for some time into the future. The radicalization process has been given a boost by the global jihad. Satellite television has been an opportunity of influence for regional extremists through images of the war in Iraq and Syria. The internet is now a major source of radicalization through the creation and maintenance of sites by extremist groups. Electronic financial remittances have fueled the growth of radicalization, while interest of foreign powers in the HoA has sustained the image of dependency and oppression represented by Christianity. These images are prominent in the horn of Africa especially in Ogaden, Oromia and Zanzibar.

In Kenya forces of radicalization are a complex mix of structural and institutional factors, grievances, foreign and military policy, and the global jihad (Patterson, 2015). These forces can hardly make sense for the radicalization narrative without reference to a proper historical perspective to the social and cultural heterogeneity of Kenya and its geographical proximity to Somalia.

Kenya’s Muslim population is approximately 4.3 million. This is about 10 percent of the Kenyan population of 38.6 million according to the 2009 census (ICG, 2012). Majority of Kenyan Muslims live in the coastal areas of the Coast and East provinces as well as Nairobi especially the Eastleigh neighborhood. Kenyan Muslims are a huge mix largely of Swahili or Somali, Arabs and Asians. Contemporary Islamic radicalization in Kenya takes firm inspiration from Al-Shabaab’s dramatic rise to prominence in Southern Somalia in 2009. It has since raised concern about the trend and tempo of radicalization in Kenya and more importantly, as a threat to the security and stability of the HoA. In Kenya, a highly radicalized and active Salafi Jihadi group working closely with Al – Shabaab has emerged. The Kenya-based Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) is a formidable part of this network. This home grown militant group attacks Kenya’s internal security with active support from Al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab started as a militia group in the Union of Islamic courts and rose to violently challenging the Ethiopian occupation of Southern Somalia from 2006 to 2009 (ICG, 2012). Following the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in 2009, the group quickly filled the vacuum and occupied most of southern and central Somalia. Having established itself in Somalia, the group responded to the dynamics of regional politics and exported its radicalism to Kenya which blew open in 2011 following Kenya’s defense forces intervention in Somalia.

Contemporary radicalization in Kenya is rooted in historical conjectures that threw up the phenomenon in its current dangerous form from the early 1990s to the 2000s. Kenyan Muslims seethed with accumulated grievances most of which are historical. For example, British colonial rule marginalized Muslims and treated them neither as Swahili nor non-natives. This policy left them on the fringes of Kenyan economy, politics and society. Daniel Arab Moi’s post-independence led government through the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), as a one-party state sustained the political marginalization of Muslims during colonial rule. Thus, due to lack of representation in politics, lack of economic, educational and other opportunities caused by systemic discrimination, coupled with state repression by way of human rights abuses and anti-terrorism legislation and tactics, some Muslims instigated a violent response against the Kenyan state and society.  Coast and the northeast provinces and Eastleigh area in Nairobi neighborhoods harbor the highest number of the unemployed, majority of which are Muslims. Muslims in Lamu County and the coastal areas feel alienated and frustrated by the system that suffocates them and are ready to embrace extremist views.

Kenya, like the other countries in the HoA, is characterized by a weak governance system. Critical state institutions are weak such as the criminal justice system. Impunity is common place. Border security is weak and public service delivery is also generally very poor. Widespread corruption has systematically vitiated state institutions which are unable to deliver public services including security at the border and other utilities to citizens. Worst hit is the Muslim population segment of the Kenyan society (Patterson, 2015). Taking advantage of the weak social system, the Madrassas Muslim system of education indoctrinates teenagers in extreme views who become highly radicalized. Radicalized youth therefore leverage Kenya’s functional economy and infrastructure to travel, communicate and access resources and radical networks for radical activities. Kenyan economy has the best infrastructure in the HoA which permits radical networks to use internet access to mobilize and organize activities.

Kenyan’s military and foreign policies anger its Muslim population. For instance, the country’s close ties with the U.S. and Israel is unacceptable to her Muslim population. U.S. Involvement in Somalia for example is viewed as targeting the Muslim population (Badurdeen, 2012). When Kenya’s military forces aligned with France, Somalia, and Ethiopia to attack Al-Shabaab affiliated to Al Qaeda in 2011 in southern and central Somalia, the militant group responded with series of attacks in Kenya (ICG, 2014). From the September 2013 terrorist attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi to Garrisa University and Lamu County, Al-Shabaab has been let loose on Kenyan society. The geographical proximity of Kenya and Somalia serve radical interest tremendously. It is clear that Islamic radicalization in Kenya is on the rise and may not abate soon. Anti-terrorist tactics violate human rights and create the impression that Kenyan Muslims are the target. Institutional and structural weaknesses with historical grievances need urgent attention in reverse gear to alter the conditions favorable to radicalization of Muslims. Enhancing political representation and the expansion of the economic space by creating opportunities hold the promise to reverse the trend.

Al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria

The dysfunctional nature of the Iraqi government led by Nuri Al Maliki and institutionalized marginalization of Sunni population and the outbreak of war in Syria are two principal factors that seem to have led to the re-emergence of a brutal radicalized Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Syria (ISIS) (Hashim, 2014). It was originally affiliated to Al Qaeda. ISIS is a Salafist- jihadist force and evolved from a group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Jordan (AMZ).   AMZ’s original intention was to fight the Jordanian government, but failed and then moved to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahidin’s against the soviets. Upon the withdrawal of the Soviets, his return to Jordan failed to revive his war against the Jordanian Monarchy. Again, he turned back to Afghanistan to establish an Islamic militant training Camp. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 attracted AMZ to move to the country. The eventual fall of Saddam Hussein wrought an insurgency involving five different groups including AMZ’s Jamaat-al-Tauhid Wal-Jihad (JTJ). Its aim was to resist the coalition forces and the Iraqi military and the Shia militias and then establish an Islamic State. AMZ’s horrible tactics using suicide bombers targeted varied groups. Its ferocious tactics targeted Shia militias, government facilities and created a humanitarian catastrophe.

In 2005, AMZ’s organization joined al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and shared the latter’s ideology to eliminate-polytheism. Its brutal tactics however disillusioned and alienated Sunni populations who abhorred their despicable level of killings and destruction. AMZ was eventually killed in 2006 by the U.S. military and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayub al-Masri) was promoted to replace him. It was shortly after this incident that AQI announced the establishment of Islamic State of Iraq under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Hassan, 2014). This development was not part of the movement’s original goal. Given the huge involvement in the sustenance of the efforts in the realization of the objective it did not have adequate resources; and poor organizational structure led to its defeat in 2008. Unfortunately, the euphoria of the celebration of ISI’s defeat was for a moment. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, leaving the enormous responsibility of national security to the Iraqi reformed military proved too tasking and ISI rebounded, exploiting the weaknesses created by the U.S. withdrawal. By October 2009, ISI had effectively undermined public infrastructure through a regime of terror attacks.

The re-emergence of ISI was successfully challenged by the U.S. when its leaders were pursued and killed. On April 28, Abu Ayub-Masri and Abu Umar Abdullal al Rashid al Baghdadi were killed in a Joint-US-Iraq raid in Tikrit (Hashim, 2014). Other members of ISI leadership were also pursued and eliminated through sustained raids. A new leadership under Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al Samarrai (aka Dr. Ibrahim Abu Dua) emerged. Abu Dua collaborated with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to facilitate the re-emergence of ISI.

The period 2010-2013 provided a constellation of factors that saw to the revival of ISI. The organization was restructured and its military and administrative capacities rebuilt; growing conflict between Iraqi leadership and the Sunni population, the declining effect of al-Qaeda and the outbreak of war in Syria created the favourable conditions for the re-emergence of ISI. Under Baghdadi, a new goal for ISI was the articulation of the overthrown of illegitimate governments particularly the Iraqi government and the creation of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. The organization was systematically transformed into Islamic caliphate in Iraq and subsequently into the Islamic State that included Syria. The organization was by then restructured into a well-disciplined, flexible and cohesive force.

The departure of the U.S. forces from Iraq left a huge security vacuum. Corruption, poor organization, and operational deficiencies were highly visible. Then entered the serious divide between the Shia and Sunni populations. This was borne out of the Iraqi leadership’s marginalization of the Sunnis in political representation and military and other security services. The feeling of marginalization drove the Sunnis to ISIS, an organization they had earlier loathed for its sheer application of brute force on civilian targets to fight the Iraqi government. The waning of al Qaeda’s influence and the war in Syria opened a new frontier of radicalized activities towards consolidation of the Islamic State. When the war in Syria began in March 2011, an opportunity for recruitment and radical network development was opened. ISIS joined the war against the Bashar Assad regime. Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, sent mostly the Syrian veterans as members of Jabhat al-Nusra to Syria who effectively took on the Assad military and established an “efficient and well-disciplined structure for the distribution of food and medicine” (Hashim, 2014, p.7). This appealed to Syrians abhorred by the atrocities of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Attempts by Baghdadi to unilaterally merge with al Nusra were rebuffed and the fractured relationship has remained. In June 2014, ISIS returned to Iraq ferociously attacking Iraqi forces and ceasing territories. Its overall success in Iraq and Syria boosted ISIS leadership which began to refer to itself as an Islamic state from 29 June, 2014.

Boko Haram and Radicalization in Nigeria

Northern Nigeria is a complex mix of religion and culture. Areas that make up extreme north include Sokoto, Kano, Borno, Yobe and Kaduna states all of which are cultural complexities and include a sharp Christian-Muslim divide. The population is dominantly Muslim in Sokoto, Kano and Maiduguri but split narrowly equally in Kaduna (ICG, 2010). These areas have experienced violence in form of religious confrontations albeit regularly since the 1980s. Since 2009, Bauchi, Borno, Kano, Yobe, Adamawa, Niger and Plateau states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja have experienced violence orchestrated by the radical Boko Haram sect.

Boko Haram, a radical Islamic sect is known by its Arabic name – Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad meaning – People committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad (ICG, 2014). Literally translated, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” (Campbell, 2014). This Islamist radical movement is shaped by a history of Nigeria’s poor governance and extreme poverty in the north of Nigeria.

By pattern and trend, contemporary Boko Haram is linked to the Maitatsine (the one who curses) radical group that emerged in Kano in the late 1970s. Mohammed Marwa, a young radical Cameroonian emerged in Kano and created a following through a radical Islamic ideology elevating himself as a liberator with an aggressive stand against western values and influence. Marwa’s followers were a huge group of unemployed youth. Confrontations with the police were a regular feature of the group relations with the police. The group violently clashed with the police in 1980 at an open rally organized by the group sparking off massive riots. Marwa died in the riots. These riots lasted for several days with a heavy death toll and destruction of property (ICG, 2010). The Maitatsine group was decimated after the riots and may have been seen by Nigerian authorities as a one-off event. It took  decades for a similar radical movement to emerge in Maiduguri in 2002 as the ‘Nigerian Taliban’.

Contemporary origins of Boko Haram can be traced to a radical youth group that worshipped at the Alhaji Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri under Mohammed Yusuf its leader. Yusuf was radicalized by Sheikh Jaffar Mahmud Adam, a prominent radical scholar and preacher. Yusuf himself, being a charismatic preacher, popularized his radical interpretation of the Quran that abhorred Western values including secular authorities (ICG, 2014).

The major objective of Boko Haram is to establish an Islamic state based on strict adherence to Islamic principles and values that would address the ills of corruption and bad governance. Mohammed Yusuf began to attack Islamic establishment in Maiduguri as “Corrupt and irredeemable” (Walker, 2012). The Nigerian Taliban as his group was then called tactically withdrew from Maiduguri when it began to attract authorities’ notice of its radical views, to a Kanama village in Yobe State near the Nigerian border with Niger and set up a community administered on strict adherence to Islamic principles. The group was involved in a dispute over fishing rights with the local community, which attracted the attention of the police. In the ensuring confrontation, the group was brutally smashed by the military authorities, killing its leader Muhammed Ali.

Remnants of the group returned to Maiduguri and regrouped under Mohammed Yusuf who had radical networks that extended to other states such as Bauchi, Yobe and Niger States. Their activities were either unnoticed or were ignored. The welfare system of distribution of food, Shelter, and other handout attracted more people, including a huge number of the unemployed. Much like the Maitatsine events in Kano in the 1980s, the relationship between Boko Haram and the Police deteriorated into more violence on regular basis between 2003 and 2008. These violent confrontations climaxed in July 2009 when the group members rejected the rule to wear motorcycle helmets. When challenged at a checkpoint, armed clashes between the Police and the group ensued following the shooting of policemen at the check point. These riots continued for days and spread to Bauchi and Yobe. State institutions, especially the police facilities, were randomly attacked. Mohammed Yusuf and his father in-law were arrested by the army and handed over to the police. Both were extra-judicially killed. Buji Foi, former religious affairs commissioner who reported to the police by himself was similarly killed (Walker, 2013).

The factors that have caused Islamic radicalization in Nigeria are a complex conflation of adverse socio-economic conditions, weak state institutions, bad governance, human rights abuses, and external influence and improved technological infrastructure. Since 1999, states in Nigeria have received enormous financial resources from the federal government. With these resources, financial recklessness and extravagance of public officers accelerated. Using security votes, abuse of joint state and local governments’ money and patronages have been expanded, deepening the waste of public resources. The consequences are poverty increase with 70 percent of Nigerians falling into extreme poverty. The northeast, the center of Boko Haram activities, is worst hit by poverty levels of nearly 90 percent (NBS, 2012).

While public salaries and allowances have risen, unemployment has also soared. This is largely due to decaying infrastructure, chronic electricity shortages and cheap imports that have frustrated industrialization. Thousands of youths including graduates are unemployed and idle, frustrated, disillusioned, and as a result, are easy recruits for radicalization.

State institutions in Nigeria have been systematically weakened by corruption and impunity. The criminal justice system is chronically compromised. Poor funding and a system of bribe have destroyed the police and the judiciary. For instance, several times Muhammed Yusuf was arrested but not charged. Between 2003 and 2009, Boko Haram under Yusuf regrouped, networked, and created sells in other states, as well as received funding and training from Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria without detection, or simply, the Nigerian security and intelligence agencies ignored them. (Walker, 2013; ICG, 2014). In 2003, Yusuf travelled to Saudi Arabia under the cover of studies and returned with funding from Salafi groups to finance a welfare scheme including a credit scheme. Donations from local businessmen also sustained the group and the Nigerian state looked the other way. His radical sermons were publicly and freely sold throughout the northeast and the intelligence community or the Nigerian state could not act.

The incubation period of the group explains the political connection to the emergence of the radical group strong enough to overstretch national security forces. The political establishment embraced the group for electoral advantage. Seeing the wide youth following wielded by Yusuf, Modu Sheriff, a former Senator, entered an agreement with Yusuf to take advantage of the group’s electoral value. In return Sheriff was to implement Sharia and offer political appointments to members of the group. Upon gaining electoral victory, Sheriff reneged on the agreement, forcing Yusuf to begin attacking Sheriff and his government in his radical sermons (Montelos, 2014). The atmosphere for more radicalization was charged and the group went beyond the control of the state government. Buji Foi, a Yusuf disciple was offered appointment as Commissioner for Religious Affairs and was used to channel funds to the group but this was short-lived. This funding was used through Yusuf’s father-in-law, Baba Fugu, to obtain arms especially from Chad, just across the Nigerian border (ICG, 2014).

Islamic radicalization in Nigeria’s northeast by Boko Haram received tremendous boost through external links. The organization is linked to Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban. After the July 2009 insurrection, many of their members fled to Afghanistan for training (ICG, 2014). Osama Bin Laden funded the spade work for the emergence of Boko Haram through Mohammed Ali who he met in Sudan. Ali returned home from studies in 2002 and implemented the cell formation project with US $3 million budget funded by Bin Laden (ICG, 2014). The radical sect members were also trained in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Algeria. The porous borders with Chad and Nigeria facilitated this movement. Links with Ansar Dine (Supporters of the Faith), Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAD) have been well established. These groups’ leaders provided training and funding from their bases in Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria to members of the Boko-Haram sect. These groups have boosted the financial resources, military capabilities, and training facilities available to the radical sect in Nigeria (Sergie and Johnson, 2015).

The war against insurgency involves anti-terrorist legislation and armed confrontation between the sect and the Nigerian law enforcement. Anti-terrorism legislation was introduced in 2011 and amended in 2012 to provide centralised coordination through the office of National Security Adviser (NSA). This was to also eliminate inter-security agencies in fighting. This legislation provides wide discretionary powers of arrest and detention. These provisions and the armed confrontation have led to human rights abuses including extra-judicial killing of arrested sect members. Prominent members of the sect including Mohammed Yusuf, Buji Foi, Baba Fugu, Mohammed Ali, and many others have been killed this way (HRW, 2012). The Joint Military Task Force (JTF) comprising military, police and intelligence personnel secretly arrested and detained suspected members of the sect, applied excessive force and carried out extra-judicial killings of many suspects. These human right abuses alienated and targeted the Muslim community while pitting the mostly affected group against the state. The death of over 1,000 militants in military custody infuriated their members into more radical behavior.

Boko Haram took time to fester because of grievances over poor governance and inequalities in northern Nigeria. The indications about an outburst of radicalism emerged openly in 2000. Due to political inertia, strategic response from the state was delayed. After the insurrection in 2009, haphazard state response could not achieve much and the strategies and tactics used aggravated the environment that rather expanded the potential of radical behavior. It took President Goodluck Jonathan until 2012 to accept the danger posed by the sect to the survival of Nigeria and the region. With rising corruption and elite opulence, parallel deepening poverty, the environment was well made for radical activities and Boko Haram took good advantage of the situation and evolved as a formidable militant or radical Islamic group orchestrating terrorist attacks on state institutions, churches, motor parks, and other facilities.


Islamic radicalization in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa has tremendous effect on global security. This assertion is based on the fact that the instability caused by the radical activities of ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab reverberates around the world. These organizations did not emerge from the blues. The deplorable socio-economic conditions that created them are still here and it appears that not much is being done to ameliorate them. For instance, bad governance is still common place in these regions. Any semblance of democracy is yet to bear significantly on the quality of governance. Until social conditions in these regions are significantly improved upon, radicalization may be here for a long time.

It is important that the Western countries show concern about the situation in these regions much more than has been evident. The refugee or migrant crisis in Europe due to the ISIS engagement in Iraq and the Syrian war is a pointer to this urgent need to expedite actions by Western countries to address security and instability concerns created by Islamic radicalization in the Middle East. Migrants may be potential radical elements. It is possible that members of these radical sects are part of the migrants moving to Europe. Once they have settled in Europe, they may take time to build cells and radical networks that would begin terrorizing Europe and the rest of the world.

The governments in these regions must begin to establish more inclusive measures in governance. Muslims in Kenya, Nigeria, and the Sunnis in Iraq have histories of grievances against their governments. These grievances are rooted in marginalized representation in all spheres including politics, economy, and military and security services. Inclusive strategies promise to enhance a sense of belonging and collective responsibility. Moderate elements are then better placed to check radical behaviour among their groups.

Regionally, the areas in Iraq and Syria may expand under ISIS. Military actions may result in contraction of space but it is very likely that a chunk of territory will remain under their control. In that territory, recruitment, training, and indoctrination will thrive. From maintaining such a territory, access to neighbouring countries could be guaranteed for continuous export of radical elements.


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