Taliban Triumph in Afghanistan and India’s Counter-Terrorism Policy against Islamist Extremism in Africa
Samir Bhattacharya, Senior Research Associate, VIF

On 15th August, 2021, in a dramatic turn of events, Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, was taken over by the Taliban insurgent groups. While the collapse of Afghanistan government and its national army was somewhat predictable once the US announced withdrawal its support and the troops from the country, what renders the event most significant is the dramatic pace at which the collapse took place. The blitzkrieg led by Taliban enabled them to reach Kabul in less than 10 days and take control of the government. While the possible reasons behind this dramatic collapse and the role ofthe abrupt US withdrawal in catalysing the event will be long discussed the manner in which the event unfolded has caught everyone off guard. Among others, several African nations have raised concerns that this Taliban triumph can encourage various Islamist extremist groups present in Africa. And given India’s interests in the safety and security of the continent, there is actually a lot at stake for India.

Islamist Terrorism in Africa: An Overview

Islamist extremist groups of Sub-Saharan Africa are characterised by their different levels of association with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)1. One particular feature of these Jihadist groups is that despite their roots tracing back to different Middle-East countries in some way or other, they are mostly home-grown2. All of them leveraged mosques and other religious institutions to establish their bases at local level and used the ethnic card to increase their adherents by recruiting non-Muslims. All the groups exploited the similar social grievances and channelled the gaps in welfare to their advantage to turn it into violent factions.

Currently, the Sahel region of West Africa is the most vulnerable from the threat of radical Islamism3. In countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, Islamists are continuously attacking security forces and civilians. As of June 2021, more than 921,000 people have been displaced in Burkina Faso alone. Similarly, in Mali, nearly 240,000 people are internally displaced while in Niger, 489,000 people were forced to flee, including Nigerian and Malian refugees. In Nigeria, 7.7 million people needed emergency assistance in 20204. And half of that figure is women5.

Boko Haram was the first major terrorist group to emerge from Africa. In 2002, when Mohammed Yusuf, a locally renowned preacher and proselytizer formed Boko Haram in the Maiduguri region of Nigeria, it started as a religious movement6. It was only in 2009, seven years after its formation, that Boko Haram launched its first series of violent attacks in northern Nigeria. When the attack and counterattack by Nigerian security forces resulted in death of hundreds of its members, including its founder, it was assumed that the group had been defeated. However, contrary to the expectation of Nigerian Government, instead of the weakening of the Boko Haram movement, the death of Yusuf became a watershed moment for the group’s identity formation. The adherents of Boko Haram ideology united by the rallying cry for retribution and the very next year they returned with a fresh mode of operation which was more lethal and more sophisticated.

Since, Boko Haram has transcended into a transnational organisation7. Currently, it is operating in the whole Sahel and Lake Chad Basin region through its three distinct factions: the Ansaru faction since 2012 and then Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) since 2016 and the original faction Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna lil-Dawawal-Jihad (JAS) which is also active. Though ideologically the same, these three groups differ in their manner of operational execution.

Mali is another Sahelian nation, deeply perturbed by Islamist terrorism, The northern regions of Mali, located in border areas with Algeria, Niger and Mauritania have always been suffering from pervasive poverty, continuous low intensity conflicts and an extremely vast and poorly policed territory. In this backdrop new security threats have emerged where terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISWAP, the breakaway faction of Boko Haram have strongly penetrated the region and have been undertaking criminal activities such as drug trafficking, extortion and violent attacks to both civilians and security forces. This has rendered Mali another frontier in the global struggle against transnational terrorism.

In Mali, since 2013 French government through its counterterrorism military operation “Operation Barkhane” has been providing the protection against Islamist militants. In addition, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is also supporting Mali government in their fight against Islamist terrorism8. As, French President Macron announced his plan to end operation Barkhane by 2022, it is raising grave security concerns similar to Afghanistan, not only for Mali, but also for the whole Sahel region. Though, Takuba Task Force, a European military task force comprising of eight European countries and led by France will continue to operate, it will shift from Mali to Niger9. This will put excessive pressure on MINUSMA to maintain order in the country and a repeat of what happened in Afghanistan after US withdrawal cannot be overruled. This can spell doom for the entire region, dragging it into chaos.

Somalia the easternmost country of Africa, on the horn of Africa, is also deeply infested by the Islamist group Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. Similar to Taliban, Al-Shabaab is also fighting the UN-backed government of Somalia since last 18 years and reportedly drawing lots of inspiration from recent Taliban victory. In order to tackle the challenges of Al-Shabaab and other armed militias, international forces have been deployed for Mogadishu, the Somalian capital and other important areas of Somalia since December 2006. In March 2007, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), authorized by the UN Security Council also started operating from Mogadishu. In 2011, African Union (AU) and Somali forces tasted victory when they successfully pushed Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu. However, the group continues to operate from peripheries of the capital with bombing and hit-and-run attacks in different parts of Somalia as well as in other East African neighbouring countries.

Currently, as per the “Transition Plan 2018”10, power transfer is going on where AMISOM consisting of 19,400 soldiers from five AU countries namely Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are transferring the security responsibilities to the Somali armed forces. However, Somali government’s overdependence on international troops raises fear of an Afghanistan type development in Somalia, once the power transfer is completed. It is true that Al-Shabaab does not possess the equivalent military power of the Taliban. Besides, Somali forces are stronger compared to Afghan forces. In July 2021, Somali military operations, singlehandedly, eliminated 250 Al-Shabaab militants demonstrating their ability in countering terrorism. However, withdrawal of US forces in early 2021, on ex US President Donald Trump’s order and a significant reduction in US airstrikes in 2021 has benefited Al-Shabaab and after the withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces, the group is highly likely to mimic the Taliban’s trajectory11.

In southern Africa, Islamist militants have been active in Mozambique since 2017, extracting a huge price in lives and livelihood. In March 2021, they seized the northern province Cabo Delgado and forced French oil giant Total Energies to pull out from Mozambique, abandoning their USD 20 billion liquified natural gas project, the largest private investment in Africa12. Since 2017, the group has claimed 2500 civilian lives, and the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) increasing from around 70,000 roughly a year ago, to close to 700,000 today, and expected to reach one million13.

Finally, the newest branch of Islamic State, Islamic State’s affiliate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC), is carving out a foothold as radical Islamist militants in Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country of central Africa. The Islamic State of DRC, also known as Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) first began formally claiming attacks in April 2019. However, in this very short span of time, ISIS-DRC, the self-proclaimed Congolese “soldiers of the caliphate” has claimed dozens of actions and killed over 849 civilians in 202014. On March 10, 2021, the U.S. State Department designated it as a terrorist organization and the group’s leader, Musa Baluku, a specially designated global terrorist15.

Motivations, Operations and Strategies

The ebbs and flows of these Islamist groups, their transnational expansion and their eventual local assimilation provide important historical and strategic context. Countering strategies attempting to tackle jihadist extremism needs to be guided by this understanding. Low literacy rates and education gaps due to inadequate education infrastructure, particularly in the rural and remote areas, have almost always worked as a crucial ingredient to pull the locals towards violent extremism. In a few cases, existing basic infrastructure were deliberately destroyed so that fundamental religious dogmas can be established as primary source of education. And, mosques were used not only for radicalisation of youth, but also as a symbol of credibility and legitimacy.

In the book written for the Islamic State, Yusuf’s sons claimed that al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack was the major inspiration behind their father’s decision to establish Boko Haram16. This Taliban victory can become another watershed moment towards the creation of another new faction or revival of a long dormant group. This could also engender a subtle competition among these jihadist groups to outdo each other. Since Taliban has recorded this success, other groups may also try to prove their mettle.

As a matter of fact, Taliban’s mobilisation of the Pashtun in Pakistan and Afghanistan mirrors the practice of other groups across sub-Saharan Africa. Boko Haram exploited ethnic and tribal affiliations of Kanuri-speaking communities in the north-eastern Nigeria, an ethnicity that makes up approximately just eight percent of Nigeria’s Muslim population17. Similarly, Al-Shabaab used this approach to mobilise fighters not just in Africa but also from the Somali diaspora in the US and Europe.18And the same can be seen with Mozambique’s Ansar al-Sunna who garnered majority of its support among the Kimwani, a minority ethnic group that has been growing increasingly marginalised19. Mozambique is a Christian-majority country, with around 18% of Muslim citizens, primarily residing in the north, including in Cabo Delgado province, and this is where most of the violence has been originating. 20

In April 2021, in the backdrop of a several military casualties and expansion of Boko Haram to Niger and Nasarawa States, Nigerian President Buhari had requested the US to consider relocating US Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Stuttgart, Germany, to Africa. However, United States downright refusal to consider relocation of the Command in Nigeria or any other parts of Africa, along with the recent events in Afghanistan has raised the suspicion among Africans that the United States is only out to protect its nationalistic interests and if such intervention does not align with its national and diplomatic interest, US would not put any stake in securing lives and properties of an African country.

Modi Government and Africa

Despite these low points, India can’t afford to underinvest in Africa. Today India is third largest trading partner, accounting for 6.4 percent of total African trade, worth USD 62.6 billion in 2017-18. The continent with a consumer base of 1.52 billion consumers by 2025 is likely to offer market opportunity to the range of USD 5.6 trillion. In addition, by 2020, India had extended 181 lines of credit to 41 African countries totalling $11 billion21.

Under the current government of PM Narendra Modi, India has bolstered its Africa policy by intensifying its engagement with Africa in various areas encompassing political, defence, commercial, economy, scientific and technical cooperation. This was evident during the third India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015, which was attended by 41 African heads of state22. This was followed by 34 outgoing visits by the troika of President, Vice President and Prime Minister, including the three-country tour of Indian Prime Minister in July 2018 to the continent.

As India actively seeks to promote itself as a leading power, Africa holds the key both as a conduit and an outlet for its global ambitions. Despite the Covid related disruptions, Modi government is likely to continue its Africa strategy which was elucidated by the Prime Minister himself, during his address to Ugandan parliament in July 2018 where he outlined ten guiding principles of Indian engagement. Ensuring security from terrorism has been highlighted as one of the key priorities as Modi stated23-

“We will strengthen our cooperation and mutual capabilities in combating terrorism and extremism; keeping our cyberspace safe and secure; and, supporting the UN in advancing and keeping peace."

India’s Counter-terrorism Strategy for Africa

Currently, India’s defence cooperation with Africa ranges from participating in peacekeeping forces to training their soldiers in Indian defence schools, conducting defence exercises to providing security as and when required. The presence of Indian soldiers can be found in almost all the African peacekeeping missions with the largest contingent of Indian peacekeepers present in DRC. Indian support to peacekeeping mission also includes financial assistance to the AMISOM (AU Mission in Somalia) and African-led International Support Mission to Mali.

Last year, February 2020, in the course of Defexpo, the first India- Africa Defence Ministers conclave took place in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. During the conclave, several African countries agreed to deepen their ties with India concerning fight against terrorism as well as to preserve maritime security24 and adopted a joint declaration that will facilitate sharing information, intelligence and surveillance. Furthermore, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh promised to provide a range of military hardware to African countries to help them in their counter-terrorism activities25. The dialogue was represented by 38 countries, out of which there were 12 Defence Ministers from African nations.

This year, in March 2021, India has started initiating actions at bilateral level to counter the threats of terrorism. On 4th and 5th March, India and Nigeria held its First Strategic and Counter-Terrorism Dialogue at the National Security Advisor (NSA) level when Nigerian NSA Major General (retd.) Babagana Monguno met his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval in New Delhi. Within the framework of the close and strategic partnership between two countries, the national security advisors held discussions on the strategies to counter threats from terrorism, extremism, radicalization including through the cyberspace at the local level26.

This was followed by the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Nairobi where he co-chaired the Third Session of Kenya-India Joint Commission Meetingin June 2021. The focus of the meeting was on India-Kenya partnership for maritime security, Indo-Pacific, fight against terrorism and Big Four Agenda of the African nation. During the meeting both countries agreed on the importance of enhancing and sharing the capabilities and awareness related to counter-terrorism for greater security, safety and prosperity of the Indian Ocean Region27.

Finally, in July 2021, BRICS Counter Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), under the Chairmanship of India, finalised the BRICS Counter Terrorism Action Plan containing specific measures related to preventing and combating terrorism, radicalisation, financing of terrorism, misuse of internet by terrorists, curbing travel of terrorists, border control, protection of soft targets, information sharing, capacity building, international and regional cooperation etc28. The plan is likely to be adopted soon and will give a strong impetus to both India and South Africa to fight terrorism both in Africa as well as in South Asia.

Way Forward

In October 2000, the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, in his address to US Congress stated that as long as terrorism sustains in any part of the world, no nation is safe from it and countries must collaborate for combatting terrorism29. Maritime security and counter-terrorism occupies an important part of incumbent PM Modi’s overall foreign policy. This was evident when on May 26, 2014, during his first swearing ceremony; Mauritius was the only country to be invited outside of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This was followed by his visit to Seychelles and Mauritius. During this visit, he enunciated his Indian Ocean policy, “SAGAR”, security and growth for all in the region, which has a clear objective of strengthening collective efforts with African coastal countries in order to counter piracy, terrorism and other violent crimes. As a matter of fact, the majority of African countries are still underprepared to counter the challenges of these radical Islamist groups and would require support from India as well as the international communities. However, as the recent expulsion of American forces from Afghanistan reflects the political realism, founded on national interest, India must reflect on various dimensions of its engagement with the African continent.

With its miniscule number of staffs in different foreign missions in Africa, their lack of proper funding and inadequate military presence, it is palpable that in immediate future India cannot become benign security provider and assert its position in the continent. Rather, it needs to convince its allies to stay active and vigilant in Africa. In reality, India still largely depends on United Nations as well as United States of America for safety and security in African continent at a micro level. Now, the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has fomented fears among Persons of Indian Origins (PIOs), businesses and other stakeholders as they risk the retaliation from these Jihadists if and when they come to power.

Based on its historic commitment for the continent, India also has a moral obligation to protect the women and children in these countries, which is often superseded by the discourse of protecting its national interests. Failure to provide the protection could leave a terrible impression of Indian Government among PIOs as well as its local allies. This will eventually hamper India’s future partnerships with these countries and jeopardise its national interests and soft power in Africa. In order to protect the gains that have been achieved so far, India must remain highly vigilant and redesign its counter terrorism policy drawing from the recent developments. The opportunity cost of inaction is too high, as witnessed in Afghanistan.

  1. Alvi, Hayat. “Terrorism in Africa: The Rise of Islamist Extremism and Jihadism.” Insight Turkey, vol. 21, no. 1, 2019, pp. 111–132.
  2. Zulkarnain, Mohammed Mr. (2020) "Nature of home-grown terrorism threat in Ghana," Journal of Terrorism Studies: Vol. 2 : No. 2 , Article 1.
  3. United Nation Security Council-Press Release. SC/14245. Situation in West Africa, Sahel ‘Extremely Volatile’ as Terrorists Exploit Ethnic Animosities, Special Representative Warns Security Council https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14245.doc.htm#_ftn1
  4. United Nation Security Council: S/2020/585. Activities of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel Report of the Secretary-General https://undocs.org/s/2020/585
  5. ibid
  6. Loimeier, Roman (2012), ‘Boko Haram : The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria’, Africa Spectrum, Vol.47, Nos. 2–3, pp. 137–155
  7. “Global Terrorism Index 2015”, Institute for Economy & Peace, 17 November 2015,http://economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Global-Terrorism-In¬dex-2015.pdf.
  8. United Nation Security Council: S/RES/2584 (2021). Resolution 2584 (2021) Adopted by the Security Council at its 8809th meeting, on 29 June 2021. https://undocs.org/en/S/RES/2584(2021)
  9. Naureen Chowdhury Fink and Arthur Boutellis. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Counterterrorism and Peacekeeping in the Sahel. July 20, 2021.https://theglobalobservatory.org/2021/07/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-counterterrorism-and-peacekeeping-in-the-sahel/
  10. United Nation Security Council: S/2018/674. Letter dated 5 July 2018 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council https://undocs.org/S/2018/674
  11. Institute for the Study of War (ISW).Regional Actors Eye Threats and Opportunities in Taliban Takeover. August 21, 2021. https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/regional-actors-eye-threats-and-opportunities-in-taliban-takeover
  12. Francois de Beaupuy, Paul Burkhardt and Borges Nhamire, “Total suspends $20BN LNG project in Mozambique indefinitely”, Aljazeera, April 26 2021https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/4/26/total-suspends-20bn-lng-project-in-mozambique-indefinitely
  13. UN news. Mozambique: Cabo Delgado displacement could reach 1 million, UN officials warn. 22 March, 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1087952
  14. Candland, T., Finck, A., Ingran, H.J., Poole, L., Vidino, L., & Weiss, C. (2021). L’Étatislamiqueen RD Congo. George Washington Program on Extremism.
    https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/The%20Islamic %20State%20in%20Congo%20French.pdf
  15. US Department of State. State Department Terrorist Designations of ISIS Affiliates and Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. March 10, 2021. https://www.state.gov/state-department-terrorist-designations-of-isis-affiliates-and-leaders-in-the-democratic-republic-of-the-congo-and-mozambique/
  16. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. “The Islamic State West Africa Province vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: Full Text, Translation and Analysis”. August 5, 2018. http://www.aymennjawad.org/21467/the-islamic-state-west-africa-province-vs-abu
  17. Claude Mbowou, in ‘Between the ‘Kanuri’ and Others’, in Virginie Collombier and Olivier Roy (ed.), Tribes and Global Jihadism, Oxford Scholarship, 2018
  18. AuduBulamaBukarti, “The West in African Violent Extremists’ Discourse”, Hudson Institute, October 28, 2020, https://www.hudson.org/research/16467-the-west-in-afri¬can-violent-extremists-discourse
  19. Makaita Noel Mutasa and Cyprian Muchemwa, “Ansar Al-Sunna Mozambique: Is It the Boko Haram of Southern Africa?”, Journal of Applied Security Research, February 24, 2021. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19361610.2021.1882281?needAc-cess=true
  20. US Department of State. 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Mozambique. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/MOZAMBIQUE-2019-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
  22. Ministry of External Affairs. Ibid
  23. Ministry of External Affairs. Prime Minister’s address at Parliament of Uganda during his State Visit to Uganda. July 25, 2018 https://mea.gov.in/Speeches Statements.htm?dtl/30152/Prime+Ministers+address+at+Parliament+of+Uganda+during+his+State+Visit+to+Uganda
  24. Ministry of External Affairs. India. - Lucknow Declaration: 1st India Africa Defence Ministers Conclave, 2020. https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32378
  25. PIB Delhi – First India – Africa Defence conclave held in Lucknow coinciding with DefExpo-2020. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1602238
  26. Ministry of External Affairs. India – Nigeria Strategic and Counter-Terrorism Dialogue. March 5, 2021. https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33593/India__Nigeria_Strategic_and_CounterTerrorism_Dialogue
  27. Ministry of External Affairs. India - India-Kenya Joint Statement on the Visit of External Affairs Minister to Kenya (June 12-14, 2021) https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/33918/IndiaKenya_Joint_Statement_on_the_Visit_of_External_Affairs_Minister_to_Kenya_June_1214_2021
  28. Ministry of External Affairs. India. 6th Meeting of the BRICS Counter Terrorism Working Group- https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm dtl/34089/6th_Meeting_of_the_BRICS_Counter_Terrorism_Working_Group
  29. Doval, Ajit, K.C. 2007. Islamic terrorism in South Asia and India’s strategic response . Policing, 1: 65 .

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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