When Nigerians learned about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the 24-year-old who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009 – they responded by launching a PR campaign. Nollywood films reenacting Flight 253 appeared on YouTube, featuring a giggling Nigerian warning compatriots not to be so stupid. A Facebook page, Nigerians Against Terrorism, was quickly founded.
But the country’s reputation for terror links has since mushroomed, thanks to the Islamist militia Boko Haram launching a bombing campaign in the north of the country. It has links to other regional fundamentalist groups and parts of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And Nigeria is not alone. The recent coup in Mali allowed Tuareg insurgents in the north to gain ground, prompting fears of terrorism spreading throughout the Sahel desert borderlands of west Africa. Guns from Libya, fundamentalists from Algeria, and multiple local grievances throughout the region – where governance and borders are mostly non-existent – are not a good mix.
Now a report by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that these militants present a potential terrorist threat to Britain too. Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa claims that, just like young Brits of Pakistani descent who have been recruited to Al Qaida, African terrorism presents the «most significant… potential for radicalization and then mobilization of a new subset of British youths».
The report adds: «T he UK could soon be facing much greater radicalisation among the Somali minority and new radicalisation in some sections of other communities from east and west African countries». In the words of Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, al-Qaida is «Africanising».
The only evidence of this happening, though, is a tenuous chain of logic. The international recruitment efforts of Somali Islamists al-Shabaab – officially endorsed by al-Qaida – are well documented. The group has an English Twitter account with more than 12,000 followers, and an American – Omar Hammami – as its spokesman. British security services believe more than 100 British residents have been training with the group in recent years. Boko Haram has also received training and tactical support from al-Shabaab, and Mamman Nur, its Chadian frontman, reportedly trained in Somalia. But that is where the chain ends, for now. Boko Haram’s reach remains firmly domestic. There is no Twitter account there, or even a media spokesperson – its most recent propaganda video was a discussion about domestic grievances in the local Hausa language.
Many young Africans can relate to those grievances. In west Africa, most nations are divided between a Christian, relatively prosperous south – owing to centuries of trade with Europe, the religious influence of missionaries, and rich natural resources – and a Muslim north where the terrain is drier and less hospitable, and to which national politicians pay scant regard.
«We Muslims feel trapped, and we understand what Boko Haram is doing,» says Hawa, a 26-year-old Muslim in Ghana. «We feel that Christians run the country and don’t give Muslims a fair opportunity. Even if you are looking for a job, if you are Muslim you won’t get it.» But whether these grievances can translate to an international audience is another matter entirely. Despite being couched in religious terms – «Boko Haram» is usually translated as «Western education is sinful» – many Africans believe the movement is about an economic and political struggle, not one based on faith.
«The situation in Nigeria is about economic hardship, the religion aspect is insignificant,» says Adam Awudu, the London-based creator of the Democracy Africa blog. «The gap between the rich and the poor in Nigeria has widened. That is the problem, and the struggle against that is too local and ill-defined to appeal to Muslims in this country.»
Yes, there are similarities to be made between Britain’s African Muslims and its Pakistani community, where radicalisation has been a problem. Both have a strong sense of cultural identity fused with their faith; both feel aggrieved by British foreign policy. The men responsible for the botched London bombings of July 2005 hailed from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, while al-Shabaab recruitment from the UK continues. But despite gloomy forecasts, the Tuareg struggle for an independent homeland, and the blowing up of churches in northern Nigeria are not issues that, for now, British Africans relate to.
Afua Hirsch is the Guardian’s west Africa correspondent based in Ghana.