Africa: The new battleground against Islamic extremism

We know from previous examples, such as Al-Qaeda’s rise in Afghanistan, that it is in environments of uncertainty and poverty that extremism thrives. Unfortunately, religious extremists are equally aware of this

Africa: A tragedy unfolding before our eyes
Clare George-Hilley
On 12 May 2014 20:06

The brutal and ruthless kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls has shocked the world, leading to condemnation from global leaders including former Prime Minister Tony Blair. But the incident is the latest in a much wider problem of Islamic extremism that is engulfing many African countries.

The continent has long been plagued by challenges of poverty and war, with several countries sharply divided between Christianity and Islam, some moderate and some extreme. I have spent a great deal of time in both East and West Africa and witnessed first-hand varying degrees to which these two religions co-exist. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed worrying examples of the perversion of both religions.

These terrorist attacks have cast a grim shadow over some of Africa’s most forward-looking countries and created an environment of danger that not only threatens the African people, but is putting Britain’s national security at risk. This tragic scenario contrasts heavily with the huge strides made in the continent over the last few years, perfectly summarised by Nigerian novelist and poet Lola Shoneyin when she said, “Look one way and my country is booming. Look another and there's poverty and fear.”

In Kenya last September, 67 people died and over 175 were wounded during the siege in The Nairobi shopping centre. The perpetrators were Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, a group with a frighteningly expanding network of bloodthirsty supporters. This pattern of sporadic and brutal attacks continued in the tourist port town of Mombasa with bombings at a bus stop and The Reef Hotel, killing three people.

Such attacks, like the acid attack on Jewish volunteer teachers Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup near Stone Town, Zanzibar, do huge damage to the local tourist industry, a vital line of economic support for areas already beset with poverty. A few months later on the island a Catholic Priest was shot to death and his church was burned down.

At home, after British solider Lee Rigby was hacked to death in the middle of a Woolwich street by Islamic extremists, it emerged that one of the accused was seeking training with Al-Shabaab. Perpetrator Michael Adebolajo had previously been detained by Kenya’s anti-terrorism unit and was deported from the country.

These examples to name but a few illustrate a clear pattern of Islamic extremism that is creeping its way into several countries within Africa, poisoning the minds of some of the most vulnerable people in the world and perverting a religion which has in many cases existed in peace alongside other religions for decades.

The situation is so severe that Britain must act urgently, not simply to provide support and guidance, but also dedicated and extensive education to these counties, to help route out terrorist ideologies and develop counterterrorism strategies to fight this evil.

The issue is not simply one of increasing security, as advised after the first round of bombings in Nairobi. We in Britain know all too well the security alone cannot defeat extremism. These problems are much more deep-rooted and need to be tackled through better education and community outreach programmes. By identifying potential extremists and their preachers from the outset, this will help to eradicate Islamic extremism. 

Over the coming month, the Parliament Street committee will be looking to engage with key African leaders and help to raise awareness of this growing problem through a series of debates on how to tackle these serious issues.

We know from previous examples, such as Al-Qaeda’s rise in Afghanistan, that it is in environments of uncertainty and poverty that extremism thrives. Unfortunately the terrorists are equally aware of this.

The greatest tragedy of all is that, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment, African countries are still full of hope for the future, and Britain has a moral duty to ensure that this hope is not high-jacked and poisoned by extremists.

Britain has knowledge, skill and experience in regards to how to best tackle this growing threat. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with our African friends to stamp out Islamic extremism before it gains a further foothold.

Clare George-Hilley is Director of Communities and Social Justice, Parliament Street Research Council

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