, NAIROBI, Jan 2 – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Shebab fighting for the control of Somalia, or Nigeria\’s home-grown sects — radical Islam is taking hold in sub-Saharan Africa, albeit in many varied forms.
The groups in question all claim to be inspired by the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, which carried out its first major operations on African soil — the 1998 simultaneous truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which several hundred people died.
AQIM, commanded from Algeria, operates in the vast Sahel region where it has staged multiple kidnappings, and in some cases killings, of Westerners over the last three years.
Somalia\’s Shebab are trying to impose their brand of Sharia law on war-torn Somalia. In recent months they have multiplied suicide attacks aimed at toppling the UN-backed transitional government.
Nigeria, where 12 northern states reintroduced Islamic law in 2000, is in the spotlight after the son of one of the country\’s prominent bankers was charged with trying on December 25 to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit.
In July Boko Haram, a Taliban-inspired sect whose name means "Western education is a sin" and which seeks to unite Muslims under a Caliphate, carried out simultaneous attacks in four northern states.
"Some Islamist groups in sub-Saharan Africa have recently become more radicalized, particularly in terms of inflammatory rhetoric and a few recruits for armed jihad," Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), told AFP.
There are also some signs of cross-fertilisation between different groups.
According to Isselmou Ould Moustapha, a Mauritanian journalist who follows terrorism questions for the Tahalil Hebdo weekly, "in AQIM\’s training camps in the Sahara, elements from Somalia\’s Shebab and Nigerians from Boko Haram" rub shoulders with North Africans and with recruits from Niger and Mali.
Also present at the camps are fighters back from Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.
Since 2008 the north and east of Mali, near the Algeria border, has served as a refuge for armed Islamists who have kidnapped westerners. Six Europeans abducted in Mauritania since November 2009 are thought to be held there.
"Kidnappings of foreigners are on the increase. But there is another source of worry — for the past few years AQIM has been recruiting (black) African militants so that they can operate more easily in Africa," Moustapha said.
The Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had visited Yemen where government forces are battling Al-Qaeda suspects.
The LSE\’s Gerges notes "alarming signs of increasing interaction and fertilization between Somalia\’s Shebab and Yemeni local jihadist groups".
The Shebab said Friday they are ready to cross to Yemen and help jihadist groups there fight "the enemies of Allah".
"Notwithstanding this recent radicalization, a product of declining social conditions and failing institutions and ideological mobilization, Islamism in sub-Saharan Africa is much more politicized than militarized and less volatile than Islamism in the Arab world and Pakistan-Afghanistan," Gerges said.
One factor worrying intelligence services in the US and elsewhere is the popularity radical Islamist movements enjoy in diasporas.
"There is strong evidence that the majority of the suicide bombers in Somalia were from the Somali diaspora, that Al-Shebab benefits from a vivid popularity in Eastleigh," said Roland Marchal, a French expert on the Horn of Africa, referring to a Somali neighbourhood of Nairobi.
"This is not only a Somali dynamic: over the last three years, Western states have repeatedly expressed concerns on the radicalization of diasporas that create a new wave of recruitment for radical organizations either in the West or in war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, … and Somalia," he added.