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Middle East and Africa analysts say there is a growing wave of militant Islamic activity in sub-Saharan Africa that is being funded by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
Hussein Solomon, University of the Free State professor and analyst for the Israel-based think tank Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa, said the expansion of jihad into sub-Saharan Africa is bad news for Christians and other groups who don’t embrace the radicalism.
“We’re going to see more pastors and priests get killed and more churches being burned,” he said. “Because of this, there will be more attacks on churches. There will be more attacks on interfaith groups as well. The radicals are creating hard dichotomies between black and white, between ‘us’ and ‘them.'”
Central African countries are particularly vulnerable, he said, because religious identities reinforce ethnic identities.
Solomon said it’s not just Nigeria, pointing to increased activity in countries such as Tanzania. Mozambique will likely be the next target, he said.
IntelligenceCommunity.com and Consultancy Africa Intelligence analyst Maha Hamdan said the Saudis are deeply involved in the growing jihad. They are using their vast oil wealth to pay for non-governmental groups to go head-to-head with Christian non-governmental groups.
“Islamic development work among non-Muslims is performed as a form of Dawah (the Islamic act of inviting conversion) to gain more converts to Islam. These NGOs have focused their work, first of all, on development and relief issues in Sub-Saharan Africa in the name of jihad and the cause of converting more people to Islam,” Hamdan said.
Solomon said the Saudis are paying the tab for the radicalization.
The Saudis’ Wahhabist-Salafist ideology can be seen in Nigeria’s Boko Haram group.
“The founder of Boko Haram set up a group of schools that were being funded by Saudi charities. This network of schools continues to exist, and Boko Haram recruits directly from those schools,” Solomon explained.
He pointed out that Ansar Dine in Mali is aligned with the group Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. It’s leader, Iyad ag-Ghaly, was a Malian consular official in Saudi Arabia.
Solomon said al-Shabaab is also the product of Saudi funding and education.
But Western governments have hesitated to address the source of the money.
“No one has wanted to deal with these issues because of the widespread belief that they need Saudi Arabia to counter Iran or whatever the strategy of the day may be,” Solomon said. “The problem is that ordinary people on the ground are going to be suffering.”
Hamdan agrees the Saudis are using their wealth to spread militant Islam.
“The ever-growing conversion to Islam in Africa is due to the intensive activity of Islamic NGOs, such as the Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia, World Islamic Call, based in Libya, and other organizations, within the continent,” Hamden said.
“The increase in the number of Islamic NGOs can be largely attributed to financial sponsorship from oil-rich Muslim states in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa.”
Saudi Wahhabists use “community development projects” to make inroads, she said.
“In Africa, Islamic community development projects go hand-in-hand with Dawah and Islamization projects. The main reason for the Islamic NGOs growing involvement in development matters in Africa is their better ability to reach the rural poor population, than government agencies do.
“These same rural poor are also the main target for Dawah and Islamization projects. The primary missionary feature of the Dawah in Africa has been the training of Muslim teachers, leaders, imams and legal experts, alongside building of mosques and of schools attached to them,” Hamden said.
“Future imams and youth leaders have become increasingly involved with the Islamic NGOs after an initial training in Africa. Then, they have been sent by these NGOs for further education abroad in Islamic institutions, universities, and advanced seminaries.
“It is not surprising to find the version of Islam that has been emphasized by these NGOs is Salafist or Wahhabist or other radical versions as propagated in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia, as well as some Salafi elements in other Gulf States, managed through the finance of relief projects, to turn a marginal Islamic trend of Salafism of the Wahhabi school into a worldwide network,” Hamdan said.
Horowitz Freedom Center fellow, author and Middle East specialist Raymond Ibrahim confirmed Solomon’s concerns and said Christians are the targets of the growing jihadist movement.
“Absolutely. It’s especially true in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Central African Republic and increasingly Tanzania,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said the key to anticipating where militant Islam will have a major impact is to look at the population.
“It’s basically wherever there is a significant Islamic population. However, even in nations where Muslims are the minority, such as Uganda, attacks are certainly not uncommon,” Ibrahim said.
Human rights activist and Shillman-Ginsberg fellow for the Middle East Forum Mark Durie said some Christians have been willing to resist.
“Sometimes Christians have responded to such attacks only with fasting, praying and repentance. Some of these communities no longer exist as Christian,” Durie said.
Ibrahim said there is a familiar pattern of how Islamic movements operate.
“If the Muslims are the majority, for example in Somalia, the Christians and other minorities are being hunted out of existence. Where the populations are split, it’s all-out jihad; Nigeria is a perfect example,” Ibrahim said.
Government officials in these countries need to act to counter the growing threat, Durie urged.
“Christians (and non-Christians) in positions of authority, as in the government, should show strong leadership in resisting insurgent movements using force, but again, avoiding reprisals against non-militants. The strategy of security forces should be to take out key Islamic religious leaders: the sheikhs who inspire, guide and regulate the militants and the flow of religious ideology need to be cut off.
“Special forces should pursue the sheiks through the jungles and deserts if need be, as the highest strategic goal in getting the conflict under control,” Durie said.
Corruption of African governments is widespread, and Solomon noted it’s a major reason military solutions are frequently not enough to fight the spread of jihad.
“The people who want to stop this need to look at the ideology being followed,” he said.
They also need to reform the states in these countries and fight corruption in the governments,” he said. Because of the corruption, millions of dollars go missing every day.
“The French fought al-Qaida in Mali with the military. The U.S. is giving aid to Nigeria, and there are others. The problem is the corruption in those countries that may end up giving the governments there a greater ability to oppress their own people,” Solomon said.
Durie added that Christians should get involved in the process and become pro-active.
“Christians should reach out and form strong relationships with non-militant Muslims in their neighborhoods. They should also resist the temptation to respond to attacks with collective punishment, e.g. if Fulani militants attack your village, that is no reason to launch a reprisal on non-militant Fulanis,” Durie said.
Durie said sometimes violence works against the Muslims’cause.
“Another factor which is significant is that as militancy increases, so also does disenchantment with Islam. More moderate Muslims suffer under radical Islamic rule. Christians, while being willing to fight for their security, should also be ready to witness to Christ,” Durie said.
Durie is optimistic. He said that some of the sub-Saharan regions are seeing a turnaround because of Islamic violence.
“Some of the areas of sub-Saharan Africa you refer to are also notable for significant numbers of Muslims becoming Christians, and in some countries where disenchantment with Islam has ripened, after many years of radical leadership, e.g. Iran, conversions are taking place in vast numbers. So this is potentially a significant factor in bringing lasting change,” Durie said.