The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) has published a useful map of militant Islamist groups active in Africa. According to its review, the number of fatalities dropped in 2017, but the number of events associated with Islamist groups increased. The decline in total fatalities owes much to the decline in fatalities caused by Boko Haram, which nevertheless remains the most deadly terrorist operation in sub-Saharan Africa, and, as the ACSS concludes, shows the groups continuing resiliency. The ACSS numbers and those of other trackers, such as the Council’s Nigeria Security Tracker, tend to be similar, though are not exactly the same. Due to the shortage or unreliability of open-source data, these tools are indicative rather than definitive and likely understate the actual number of casualties (though not by that much).
The ACSS map also illustrates an important reality. Though Islamist terrorism often dominates the headlines, there are really only three centers of it in sub-Saharan Africa: Somalia (with spill-over into Kenya), Mali (with spill-over into Burkina Faso), and the Lake Chad Basin (chiefly in Nigeria, but also in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad). The rest of sub-Saharan Africa—geographically an enormous region—is almost entirely free of it.
Though from time to time there are reports of links between the three centers of militant Islamist activity, evidence of tactical or strategic cooperation is thin. The drivers in all three cases appear to be local. These terrorist groups often try to identify with the international claims of al-Qaeda and the Islamic state, but other than borrowed rhetoric and symbols, it does not seem to amount to much.
The ACSS map also shows extensive Islamist activity in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Here, however, as in so many other areas, the Mediterranean littoral appears to be part of the Middle East, with little in common with sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are more international in their goals, and their activities in North Africa reflect and help shape what is happening in the Middle East.
A question will be whether Islamist terrorism in the Mediterranean littoral will spill over into sub-Saharan Africa, and whether the limited exposure of sub-Saharan Islamist terrorism to al-Qaeda and the Islamic state will fundamentally transform them. Thus far, that has not happened, and sub-Saharan Islamist terrorism in Mali and the Lake Chad basin has attracted no recruits from outside the Sahel. Somalia, however, is different. Al-Shabaab has attracted fighters from among the Somali communities in the United States and elsewhere.