Background Guide: Islamic awakening



Although Islam has a long history in the region, for most of the second half of the 20th century Northern Africa was ruled by secular, nationalist or socialist governments with authoritarian streaks. Islamism, as a mainstream political movement, is relatively new. 

Islamism is a broad set of ideologies united by the principle that Islam should guide political and social life. Islamist movements have ranged from peaceful democratic political organizations to militant jihadism.

Many hoped the Arab Spring would help turn the tide against extremism in Africa, by taking away a potential recruiting class of disillusioned citizens who might have otherwise turned to terrorism.

What began as a populist, non-ideological, non-organized, leaderless and spontaneous Arab revolt against long enduring oppressive regimes has turned into an Islamist awakening whose political impact has yet to be fully measured or understood.

The U.S. is left with a dilemma—how to encourage the fledgling democracies while quashing the dangerous radicals they harbor.

North Africa

All countries in North Africa experienced unrest during the Arab Spring, but in only three were governments overthrown.

In Tunisia, civilian protests led to the overthrow of President Ben Ali’s government and the election of an Islamist-led government. 

At one time, Tunisia suggested the greatest hope but has increasingly descended into chaos and confusion as Salafist extremism disrupts what was hoped to be a relatively peaceful emergence out of authoritarianism into democracy.

In Egypt, civilian protests led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak’s government and the election of an Islamist-led government in 2012 led by President Mohamed Morsi. One year after Morsi’s election, he and many of his supporters were removed and arrested in a military coup.

In Libya, a UN-approved military intervention assisted rebels fighting a civil war that would eventually lead to the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government. Islamist parties were not able to gain control of the government in the elections, but have clearly exerted influence in the country. 

East Africa 

East Africa has harbored the mark of extremism since Osama bin Laden arrived there in 1992. Forced out of Saudi Arabia for a series of small-scale attacks, bin Laden found a new base for al Qaeda in Sudan.

There, he was able to grow his network of training camps and step up his terrorist plots. The next year, U.S. authorities say he financed Pakistani terrorist Ramzi Yousef in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the World Trade Center.

In 1996, Sudan deported bin Laden under pressure from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.  He fled to Afghanistan but kept his ties to Africa. Just two years later, al Qaeda orchestrated simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks left 224 dead, injuring more than four thousand. 

West Africa

The West African nation of Mali was once considered a model for how Western assistance can benefit a struggling nation.

But now, corruption, poor governance, lawlessness and intense poverty have created a disillusioned underclass. With nowhere else to go, the poor seek aid from groups like al Qaeda. The end result is a new band of extremists in the region, dubbed “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb.” 

The ethnic Tuareg have been embroiled in a 50-year struggle for independence from Mali. With fresh support from al Qaeda and a steady supply of weapons from Libya, the militants are wreaking havoc on the West African nation.

In Nigeria too, extremism has reared its head. There, an escalating series of attacks launched by a group known as Boko Haram has prompted a strong response from the Nigerian government.

Governance Issues

Even without the challenges of regime change and widespread protests, Northern, Western and Eastern Africa is wracked with serious governance issues. 

Weapons stockpiled by Gaddafi flow out of Libya. These weapons fuel conflicts in nearby conflict regions like the Western Sahara and Syria. 

AQIM continues its activities in the Sahel, and jihadist fighters commute between battlegrounds in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, to North African countries like Tunisia. This all suggests that AQIM will become a greater threat in the future as it spreads further.

Complicating the relationship between Islamism and terrorism is the overlapping use of violent rhetoric by both those involved in undisputable acts of brutal killing and Salafist groups who participate openly in the political process. 

Policy Options 

Washington knows how costly another ground war against extremists would be. So in Africa, policy makers have instead tried to be pro-active. In 2005, they launched the “Trans-Sahara-Counter-Terrorism Partnership.” The $1 billion program was meant to prevent the spread of extremism by training local militaries, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting democracy, and ending poverty. But inter-agency squabbling and other problems have plagued the program since its inception. 

Crucial achieving security in the region is the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict that is undermining efforts to develop an anti-terrorist strategy that relies on shared intelligence and coordinate military action. The U.S. has not yet effectively pressured Algeria and Morocco into resolving this regional dispute. 

And in Mali, the military training and extra cash have proven impotent. Local leaders have shown more interest in their political agendas than in the war on terror. Now, France has committed to a full-scale military intervention in its former colony, although it remains committed to withdrawing troops from Mali by the end of 2013. Out of options, Washington has found itself, once again, providing military support. 

The Pentagon has sought to play a greater role in African security by creating a dedicated command known as AFRICOM.  Based in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM has yet to find a host country on the continent, and many Africans fear the command over-militarizes U.S. relations with African countries. 

With the emergent emphasis on civil society and democratic participation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the U.S. ought to consider extending its soft power. Engaging civil society through cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges such as the Fulbright Program may be key to such an initiative. 


Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law

Adrienne Fricke, Human Rights Consultant, Physicians for Human Rights

Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, Coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC)

Ambassador Edward Marks, Non-Resident Fellow, Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation

Dr. Andrew Le Sage, Senior Research Fellow for Africa at Institute for National Strategic Studies

Emira Woods, Institute for Policy Studies U.S. Policy on Africa Specialist, Africa Action

Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, Director of Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC)

François Burgat, Director of Research at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research)

John P. Entelis, Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Political Science Department, Fordham University

Liat Shetret, Senior Africa Analyst at Center for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (New York) 

Matthew Schwartz, East Africa Analyst at Center for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (New York)  

Rochelle Davis, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Richard Downie, Deputy Director and Fellow, Africa Program Center for Strategic and International Studies

Shadi Hamid, Fellow, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy

Quick Facts

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has jumped 41 percent from 2011 to 2012 and is on track to becoming a veritable terror diaspora in 2013. 

Publicly named places where U.S. troops are now: Somalia, Yemen, Niger, Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Libya, Djibouti.

Prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2002, the State Department started the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a counterterrorism program that involved working with local militaries in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. In 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. 

China purchases two-thirds of the oil produced in Sudan and South Sudan. 

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda and former Osama Bin Laden lieutenant, is an Egyptian citizen and the leader of one of the main early forms of modern militant Islamism in Africa, Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya by an interventionist coalition including the U.S., France, and Britain also empowered a host of new militant Islamist groups such as the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which have since carried out multiple attacks on Western interests, and the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters assaulted U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Since 2007, the State Department has anted up about $650 million in logistics support, equipment, and training for the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops. The Pentagon has added an extra $100 million since 2011.

19,000 farmers have abandoned their crops fleeing Boko Haram and military violence in recent months in Nigeria.