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Volume 15, Issue 3B (June 2024)

Security Challenges of African VEOs

A Bird's-Eye View

by Christopher Anzalone, PhD



Political violence, including both the number of attacks and the fatalities caused by them, carried out by African militant Islamist violent extremist organizations (VEOs) continues to pose significant security challenges in West Africa and the Sahel, East Africa (particularly in Somalia and northeastern Kenya), and parts of central and southeastern Africa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique). In 2023, African militant Islamist VEOs carried out 6,559 attacks that resulted in a 20-percent rise in fatalities totaling 23,322 deaths, nearly double from 2021.1 Violent events in Somalia and the Sahel accounted for 83 percent of these reported fatalities in 2023, as resurgent al-Qaeda- and Islamic State (IS)-linked VEOs take advantage of regional political unrest to launch offensives against local and national security forces as well as international forces and contractors.2 The causes of this uptick in militant Islamist violence across multiple regions in Africa are multifaceted and complex, with the VEOs proving adept at taking advantage of political unrest, military setbacks, local grievances, and domestic and transnational networks and messaging appeals to sympathetic target audiences. This article provides an overview of key hotspots of African militant Islamist activity.


The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea Region

After a promising start in the summer and autumn of 2022, the Somali federal government’s (SFG) offensive against the al-Qaeda regional affiliate al-Shabaab, dubbed Operation Black Lion and bolstered by allied clan militia known as “Ma’awisley,” has faced significant setbacks since 2023, including stalled operational momentum and disputes between the SFG, the Somali National Army (SNA), and clan militias. The current SFG presidential administration of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has also been distracted by domestic and regional political disputes, including a continuing constitutional dispute with Puntland, one of Somalia’s federal member states, and an ongoing dispute with its powerful neighbor Ethiopia over the latter’s signing of an agreement with the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland, whose claim to be a separate country is not internationally recognized and is rejected by Somalia, for maritime port access for commercial and military purposes.3

Al-Shabaab, which is by far the largest and most powerful and lethal VEO in the Horn of Africa, has taken full advantage of the widespread domestic unpopularity of the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal, which came just after renewed military conflict began in and around the town of Las Anod between Somaliland troops and the SSC-Khatumo Administration, which rejects Somaliland’s self-declaration of independence.4 Al-Shabaab organized a series of mass public rallies throughout parts of southern and southwestern Somalia that it controls in a bid to harness public anger at Ethiopia to its own recruitment advantage.5 The militant group’s spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, who is also a senior founding member and leader, tapped into nationalist sentiment by labeling the agreement as a violation of Somalia’s sovereignty, a charge he repeated following the SFG’s signing of a new defense pact with Türkiye in February 2024.6

On the battlefield, al-Shabaab, unlike IS in Iraq and Syria, has a history of preferring to make strategic withdrawals when facing major offensives and return to towns, villages, and other newly liberated regions when the SNA and clan militia move on to other areas. This continues to prevent the SFG from solidifying its control and implementing new governance structures and systems to combat al-Shabaab’s appeal to local civilians’ desire for stability and a semblance of order. The SNA also continues to rely heavily on its U.S.-trained Danab and Turkish-trained Gorgor special forces units, risking blunting these units from performing at their highest level of capability in what they are uniquely trained to do. Despite security improvements in Mogadishu, al-Shabaab retains the capacity and capability of carrying out complex attacks in the heart of the federal capital as well as attacks on SNA and allied clan militia forces.7 In central Somalia, al-Shabaab has succeeded in reversing many of the territorial gains made during what the SFG has called the “first phase” of Operation Black Lion during its first year.8

The main utility of Islamic State–Somalia Province (ISSP) has taken a more central role in financial coordination for other IS affiliates both inside and outside Africa through the al-Karrar Office, which facilitates financial transfers from IS’s General Directorate of Provinces and IS regional affiliate branches.9 There are also unconfirmed reports that the current caliph (leader) of IS, Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, may have relocated from Syria or Iraq to Puntland.10 Even if this is not the case, ISSP’s role as a financial facilitator for the wider IS organizational network demonstrates that the group’s relatively small numbers have not impeded its growing importance to the militant organization’s transnational network. ISSP continues to make concerted efforts to make recruitment inroads into neighboring countries, chief among them Ethiopia. Major al-Shabaab cross-border incursions into Ethiopia in the summer of 2022 reportedly were launched in part to provide cover for the group’s recruiters and other militants to reach the Ethiopian regional state of Oromia.

Despite statements from SFG officials that they are ready to take the lead in providing for their own national security, there are well-founded concerns that the scheduled end of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia mandate on 31 December 2024 will create a security vacuum that al-Shabaab will seek to exploit. This is something that the group continues to make increasingly clear, most recently in an hour-long propaganda film released on 18 June to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha that highlighted its military training facilities and a purported “special forces” unit.11 The close proximity of Somalia to the Bab al-Mandab strait and the Red Sea and al-Shabaab’s historical engagement with criminal networks engaged in weapons smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen also raises the possibility of the group obtaining more advanced military and reconnaissance technologies as well as conventional weaponry.12


Central and Southeastern Africa

A decline in 2023 in violence perpetrated by Islamic State–Central Africa Province (ISCAP) and Islamic State–Mozambique (ISM) shows signs of being reversed in 2024 as both organizations ramp up attacks. This includes a major raid in May 2024 by ISM on the city of Macomia in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, the location of the country’s 180 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves as well as graphite and ruby deposits.13 Using child soldiers, ISM continues to carry out attacks targeting Mozambican Christians, though it also views Muslims who do not support it to be “apostates” who can be killed, forcing nearly one million locals to flee their homes.14 During their raid on Macomia, ISM insurgents looted humanitarian organizations’ buildings, stealing vehicles, food, and medical supplies.

In 2020 and 2021, ISM seized control of the coastal towns of Macimboa da Praia and Palma, both in Cabo Delgado, threatening billions of dollars in liquified natural gas projects and resulting in continuing effects on the Mozambican national and international economic and energy sectors. The scheduled withdrawal by 15 July 2024 of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) mission in Mozambique, which numbers approximately 2,000 soldiers from eight countries, raises the prospect of a further resurgence of ISM, though the group will continue to face off against a non-SADC Rwandan peace operations mission, which will be enlarged to 3,000 soldiers with the deployment of an additional 2,000.15 ISM insurgents have reportedly been using boats recently to carry out attacks on coastal islands off Cabo Delgado and to transport looted supplies from captured coastal areas, raising the possibility of a continued increase in the group’s use of maritime operations.16 In the Horn of Africa, al-Shabaab has also occasionally carried out maritime operations, though with mixed results and in a limited capacity.17


The Sahel and West Africa

In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM) coalition continues to use local politicking to recruit members and set agreements with local communities, usually benefitting the militants but also providing civilians who enter into agreements with them a semblance of law and order.18 Both JNIM and its main VEO rival, Islamic State–Sahel Province, take advantage of the porous borderlands between Sahelian states.19 Both organizations are also taking advantage of major shifts in regional and international politics and security, including the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and growing anti-French sentiment across the Sahel, the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Niger, and coups in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.20

In Nigeria and parts of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, Islamic State–West Africa Province and multiple factions of Boko Haram continue to battle government forces in all four countries as well as government-aligned vigilante groups and militias.21 Militant Islamist VEOs have no monopoly on nonstate actor violence, as bandit groups continue to grow in strength in parts of Nigeria, posing a major challenge to the country’s security forces.22


Conclusion: Multifaceted and Enduring Challenges

Militant Islamist VEOs continue to pose a significant threat to regional security across Africa as well as potentially to international security as African affiliates take a more central role, such as the growing importance of the ISSP-based al-Karrar financial network.23 The most successful insurgent organizations, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and JNIM in the Sahel, work to embed themselves deeply into local communities and social, political, and economic structures in order to portray themselves as both maintainers of “law and order” and providers of social largesse. The most successful groups are also adept at taking advantage of the missteps of their enemies and competitors, which include government security and international forces. Indeed, state violence has a profound impact on shaping VEOs’ strategic decision making regarding norm changes in their tempo of violence as well as their perpetration of different types of violence, including gender-based violence.24 In countries such as Mali, state violence includes anticivilian violence that is carried out jointly by government security forces and Russian private military contractors, whose participation Sahelian VEOs are taking full propaganda advantage of in a bid to boost local support and recruitment.25 While retaining the capabilities needed to counter security threats posed by militant nonstate actors, it is important to consider the successes, shortcomings, and failures of previous counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, both by the United States as well as its partners and allies, in order to shape more effective and holistic political, economic, social, and security approaches to countering VEOs.26



  1. “Deaths Linked to Militant Islamist Violence in Africa Continue to Spiral,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 29 January 2024.

  2. “Deaths Linked to Militant Islamist Violence in Africa Continue to Spiral.”

  3. Damian Zane, “Ethiopia-Somaliland Deal Makes Waves in Horn of Africa,” BBC News, 19 January 2024; and Giulia Paravicini, “Somalia Refuses to Accept Ethiopian Naval Base in Breakaway Region,” Reuters, 12 April 2024.

  4. SSC stands for the disputed regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn, which the administration claims to represent and which both Puntland and Somaliland have fought over in the past.

  5. Christopher Anzalone, X (formerly Twitter) thread discussing al-Shabaab’s strategic messaging and propaganda campaign about the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal since January 2024.

  6. Harun Maruf, “Somalia Approves Defense Agreement with Turkey,” Voice of America, 21 February 2024.

  7. Abdi Sheikh, “Three Soldiers Die in Hotel Attack in Somali Capital: Police,” Reuters, 15 March 2024; and Christopher Anzalone, “Somalia’s State of Flux: Opportunities and Challenges in the War against Al-Shabaab,” Caravan (Hoover Institution), 6 June 2023.

  8. Carla Babb, “Al-Shabab Reverses Somali Force Gains, Now Working with Houthis in Somalia,” Voice of America, 18 June 2024.

  9. Lloyd J. Austin III, “Statement by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Somalia Operation,” U.S. Department of Defense, 26 January 2023; and “Treasury Designates Senior ISIS–Somalia Financier,” Department of the Treasury, 27 July 2023.

  10. Carla Babb, Harun Maruf, and Jeff Seldin, “Islamic State in Somalia Poses Growing Threat, U.S. Officials Say,” Voice of America, 18 June 2024.

  11. “Somalia Asks Peacekeepers to Slow Withdrawal, Fears Islamist Resurgence,” Reuters, 20 June 2024; Mohamed Olad Hassan, “Somalia Seeks Delay of AU Peacekeepers’ Drawdown,” Voice of America, 22 September 2023; and Hassan-Kafi Mohamed, “Multinational Force to Take over Somalia Security Mission from African Union,” National, 19 February 2024. Al-Shabaab has previously highlighted other “special” units tasked with specific duties, including base attacks and external operations.

  12. Katie Bo Lillis, Kylie Atwood, and Natasha Bertrand, “U.S. Intelligence Assesses Houthis in Yemen in Talks to Provide Weapons to al-Shabaab in Somalia, Officials Says,” CNN, 11 June 2024.

  13. Ian Wafula, “ ‘I Would Be Beheaded’: Islamist Insurgency Flares in Mozambique,” BBC News, 17 June 2024; “Mozambique – Country Commercial Guide,” International Trade Administration, 13 March 2024; Jael Holzman, “African Conflict Zone May Supply Key U.S. Battery Material,” E&E News by Politico, 11 May 2022; Tom Gould, “Will Mozambique Benefit from the Graphite Gold Rush?,” Zitamar News, 22 September 2023; and Nazanin Lankarani, “When It Comes to Rubies, Is Mozambique the New Star?,” New York Times, 2 July 2023.

  14. “Mozambique: Child Soldiers Used in Raid on Northern Town,” Human Rights Watch, 15 May 2024; and United Nations for Project Services (UNOPS), Instagram post (@unops_official), 19 June 2024.

  15. Wafula, “ ‘I Would Be Beheaded’.”

  16. Tom Gould, “Insurgents Loot Quissanga Town to Supply Macomia Base,” Zitamar News, 13 March 2024; Tyler Lycan, Christopher Faulkner, and Austin C. Doctor, “Making Waves: Militant Maritime Operations along Africa’s Eastern Coast,” War on the Rocks, 4 November 2020; and Norman Cigar, The Jihadist Maritime Strategy: Waging a Guerilla War at Sea, MES Monographs no. 8 (Quantico, VA: Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University, 2017).

  17. A March 2016 maritime landing of hundreds of fighters by al-Shabaab in Puntland to combat the Islamic State –Somalia Province was a resounding failure due to poor insurgent planning and interdiction by Puntland and Galmudug regional state security forces. Al-Shabaab has been more successful in carrying out limited maritime operations on and around the Bajuni Islands off the southern coast of the Somali regional state Jubaland.

  18. David Baché, “Mali: une partie des otages enlevés la semaine dernière près de Bandiagara a été libérée” , Radio France Internationale, 24 April 2024.

  19. On these porous borders, see Alexander Thurston, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), chap. 5.

  20. “Joint Statement from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of National Defense of the Republic of Niger,” U.S. Department of Defense, 19 May 2024; and “Joint Statement from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of National Defense of the Republic of Niger,” U.S. Africa Command, 7 June 2024.

  21. Delina Goxho, “Self-Defense Militia Groups in Niger: Risking a Time Bomb,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 10 October 2023; Kars de Bruijne, “Self-Defence Groups, Politics and the Sahelian State,” Clingendael Institute, 14 December 2022; and “Double-Edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-Insurgencies,” International Crisis Group, 7 September 2017.

  22. James Barnett, Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, and Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, “Northwestern Nigeria: A Jihadization of Banditry or a ‘Banditization’ of Jihad?,” CTC Sentinel 15, no. 1 (January 2022).

  23. Graham Allison and Michael J. Morell, “The Terrorism Warning Lights Are Blinking Again: Echoes of the Run-Up to 9/11,” Foreign Affairs, 10 June 2024; “Fact Sheet: Countering ISIS Financing,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, 27 February 2024; and 2024 National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment (Washington, DC: Department of the Treasury, 2024).

  24. Aisha Ahmad, “ ‘We Have Captured Your Women’: Explaining Jihadist Norm Change,” International Security 44, no. 1 (Summer 2019): 80–116.

  25. “Do You Fear Them? For Allah Is More Worthy that You Should Fear Him if You Are Believers,” statement by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen, 21 August 2023.

  26. Alex Thurston, “Americans Go Home: Both Niger and Chad Yank the Welcome Mat,” Responsible Statecraft, 26 April 2024; Nathaniel Powell, “Why France Failed in Mali,” War on the Rocks, 21 February 2022; and Nathaniel Powell, “Why Washington Failed in Niger,” War on the Rocks, 3 June 2024.


Christopher Anzalone, PhD, is a research assistant professor of Middle East Studies at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare at Marine Corps University and an adjunct professor of history and government at George Mason University.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of either Marine Corps University or any other governmental agency.

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