Trauma, broken dreams as Africans endure wave of Islamist attacks

Islam’s war on Africa

It was supposed to be a regular shopping trip to a Kenyan mall until Faith Wambua found herself playing dead for bullet-spraying militants, in an ordeal that capped a year of Islamist violence across the continent affecting countless ordinary Africans.

“We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Wambua said, still struggling to come to terms with Nairobi’s Westgate siege, three months after the traumatic events that left at least 67 dead and scores more wounded.

Footage of Wambua keeping still on the hard marble floor while trying to comfort her two children came to symbolise the desperation and terror felt by the many shoppers trapped inside the mall.

“I was only protecting my children. I was telling them to stay still, stay quiet. At one point I could smell the gunpowder. A woman was two metres away from us, and she was shot dead,” Wambua said.

From a gas field in Algeria to a school dormitory in Nigeria, citizens across northern and central Africa were caught up in a wave of horrific attacks this year as the global jihadist movement opened up new fronts, threatening to shatter hopes of an African boom.

Eventually rescued by police, Wambua and her children — nine-year-old daughter Sy and 21-month-old son Ty — escaped physically intact but deeply traumatised.

“We have mall-phobia. I try to make errands as quick as possible. We’ve had counselling as a family, and my daughter is still trying to pick up the pieces,” she said.

Responsibility for the four-day siege at the upmarket Nairobi mall was claimed by Somalia’s Shebab, an Al-Qaeda-linked group determined to demonstrate its capacity to fight back and strike outside the country’s borders despite losing ground to African Union troops.

Shebab has vowed that “rivers of blood” will again flow in Nairobi because of Kenya’s two-year-old military intervention in Somalia.

From the Horn to the Sahara

2013 began with an attack against the remote Tiguentourine gas field in southeastern Algeria, carried out by a group calling itself “Signatories in Blood” — a combat unit led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has recently been ousted from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Some workers were forced to wear explosives and others were summarily executed during a four-day siege which left at least 38 hostages dead.

Conflict in northern Mali also claimed numerous victims. Although Al-Qaeda-linked groups have seen their bases decimated following a French military intervention, small units have continued to operate and conduct hit and run attacks in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

“I will never forgive them, they ruined my life,” said Issa Cisse, a 21-year-old former driver in Mali, whose hand was hacked off by Islamist fighters in the Gao region after he was accused of stealing guns and money.

“They took my life… here in Africa, a man who cannot do anything is not a man. I live in shame and can’t work anymore.”

In Nigeria’s north, the armed fundamentalist Boko Haram movement has been on the offensive — in contrast to places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, where jihadists appear to be more on the defensive.

Churches, mosques and schools were repeatedly targeted in attacks blamed on Boko Haram Islamists. In one incident in late September, 40 students were killed as they slept in a college dormitory.

“Boko Haram violence has caused so much bad feeling and suspicion between Muslims and Christians, but now it is becoming clear that they are an enemy for both religions because nobody is spared,” said Kamal Busari, 42, who lost a close friend in a bomb attack in the northern capital Kano earlier this year.

“They have done so much damage to Nigeria’s economy because no foreigner will want to come and invest in the country, especially in the north.”

Busari’s concern echoed wider fears that the upsurge in violence could turn investors away from Africa, where economic growth has exceeded five percent per year for the last 10 years.

More violence ahead

Analysts say Islamist groups who belong to the Al-Qaeda franchise have firmly implanted themselves across Africa over the past year, and the trend is likely to continue in 2014.

For J. Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, the continent’s dysfunctional states and porous borders have created an ideal operations base for new groups.

“The lack of a comprehensive and integrated approach to dealing with these various groups means that relative successes in one theatre simply means that the jihadists move on to another,” he said.

“And it is probable that new areas of conflict will open up in the coming year,” he predicted, pointing to the Central African Republic — where France has intervened in a bid to help end sectarian violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias — as a potential new operations base.

Although it is unlikely that any one Islamist group in the region is capable of seizing power and overthrowing an African regime, the damage they are able to inflict in scaring off investors and slowing development is considerable.

“Counter-insurgency campaigns are, at the very least, expensive affairs which divert resources from the investments in infrastructure, education, and health which Africa’s emerging economies need,” said Pham, adding that Islamists were “casting a shadow on that horizon of hope”.