Africa in Danger as Terrorism Replaces Guerrilla Warfare


JUBA, South Sudan – The years following the independence of Africa witnessed heavy guerrilla warfare in the continent. Civil wars whose aim was secession, such as the Biafra war in Nigeria, and movements whose aim was achieving equality within the country, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/movement SPLA/SPLM revolt in Sudan are few examples. The Cold War era also witnessed the increase of guerrilla warfare in Africa. But in recent years, terrorism has been introduced to Africa and is increasingly making its way toward becoming the number one form of warfare in the continent. For instance, two terrorist groups, Al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are the first known well organized terrorist groups in the continent. The African Union also recently classified the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been waging war against the Ugandan government, as a terrorist group.

What is Terrorism?

There is no single agreed upon definition of terrorism. Different security organs in the same country may even define terrorism in different terms depending on the nature of their work. For example, the United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” The FBI defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism to be “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

In 1992, the United Nations defined terrorism as “An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets.”

In 1974, the British Government defined terrorism as the “use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public, or any section of the public, in fear.”

The above definitions are used by institutions when drafting counter-terrorism policies and strategies, but practically, terrorism is defined in three terms; perpetuator, victim and a message. These three terms differentiate terrorism from regular crime as criminal acts do not usually include a message, but only the perpetuator and a random victim.

Common types of Terrorist Attacks

The common types of attacks used by terrorists include bombing, kidnappings and hostage-taking, armed attacks and assassinations, arsons and firebombing and hijacking and skyjacking.


A common type of attack used by terrorists is bombing. It is usually carried out using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which are cheap. With modern technology, IEDs are becoming smaller and harder to detect.

Kidnappings and Hostage-Takings

Terrorists use kidnapping and hostage-taking to establish a strong bargaining position and to elicit publicity. Kidnapping is one of the most difficult acts for a terrorist group to accomplish, but, if a kidnapping is successful, it can gain terrorists money, release of jailed comrades, and publicity for an extended period. Hostage-taking involves the seizure of a facility or location and the taking of hostages. Unlike a kidnapping, hostage-taking provokes a confrontation with authorities. It forces authorities to either make dramatic decisions or to comply with the terrorists’ demands. It is overt and designed to attract and hold media attention.

Armed Attacks and Assassinations

Armed attacks include raids and ambushes. Assassinations are the killing of a selected victim, usually by bombings or small arms. Drive-by shooting is a common technique employed by unsophisticated or loosely organized terrorist groups. Historically, terrorists have assassinated specific individuals for psychological effect.

Arsons and Firebombing

Incendiary devices are cheap and easy to hide. Arson and firebombing are easily conducted by terrorist groups that may not be as well-organized, equipped, or trained as a major terrorist organization. An arson or firebombing against a utility, hotel, government building, or industrial center portrays an image that the ruling government is incapable of maintaining order.

Hijackings and Skyjackings

Hijacking is the seizure by force of a surface vehicle, its passengers, and/or its cargo. Skyjacking is the taking of an aircraft, which creates a mobile, hostage barricade situation. It provides terrorists with hostages from many nations and draws heavy media attention. Skyjacking also provides mobility for the terrorists to relocate the aircraft to a country that supports their cause and provides them with a human shield, making retaliation difficult.


Terrorism and the World

On September 11th 2001, 19 hijackers hijacked four United States commercial planes and used them as weapons to attack the United States. Their targets were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the White House (The United States Presidential residence) and the Pentagon (the United States Military General Headquarters). Among the four hijacked planes, three were able to execute their missions while the forth one was brought down before reaching its target. Two planes that were assigned to the World Trade Center hit the Twin Towers reducing them to the Stone Age. The third plane hit the pentagon, but only inflicted minor damage to the giant military facility. The forth plane intended for the White House was wrestled down by Patriotic American passengers aboard before reaching its target. The September 11th attack resulted in the death of more than 3,000 civilians; the second largest body count resulting from foreign attack on US soil since the Japanese attack on Perl Harbor during World War II. After investigation, US security agencies concluded that the September 11th attack was carried out by the terrorist group known as Al Qaeda.

In 2000, Al Qaeda attacked a US Navy destroyer, USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 Americans and wounding 39.

On October 23, 1983, a terrorist attack on American and French Barrack in Beirut, Lebanon killed 299 Americans and French servicemen, with a total of 220 American marines dead.

In 2004, Al Qaeda in collaboration with local Spanish Terrorist group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) carried out a series of bombings in Spain, resulting in the death of 198 people and wounding about 2000. The attacks targeted three Spanish busy railway stations during the morning rush hour. The perpetuators later revealed that the attack was a punishment to the Spanish government for standing with the United States and its allies during the invasion of Iraq.

In 2008, a Pakistani Militant group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India killing at least 164 people and injuring more than 300 people. The attacks involved bombings, shooting, a hostage crisis and siege.

Terrorism in Africa

While terrorism has been very common in many parts of the world for years, it has never been widely used in Africa. Foreign intelligent agents, such as the British M16, the US Central Intelligent Agent (CIA), the Russian KGB, the Chinese’s Secret Intelligent Services (CSIS) and the Israelis Mossad used terrorism (mostly assassinations) in the years following the decolonization of Africa, and during the Cold War to illuminate each other as they battled each other for influence in the independent Africa. Before this, terrorism was foreign to the continent.

The first time Terrorism hit Africa hard was in 1998 when Al Qaeda bombed two American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dar Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa. The attacks on the US Embassies resulted in the death of more than 200 people with more than 5,000 injured.

In 2010, a Somali based terrorist group, Al Shabaab carried out an attack on Uganda killing 74 people. This was Al Shabaab’s retaliation on Uganda for sending troops to Somalia under the African Union to fight against the organization.

In 2011, Al Shabaab carried out series of reprisal terrorist attacks in Kenya when Kenyan military stepped up its operations against Al Shabaab at the Kenya-Somalia border.

The biggest and the most consistent terrorists attack in Africa so far is taking place in Nigeria where a series of attacks targeting churches, police stations, mosques and other public places killed hundreds of people and injured many more. The Christmas bombing at St. Theresa Catholic Church which killed at least 39 people is one of the recent examples of terrorism activities in Nigeria. These terrorist attacks are blamed on a Nigerian terrorist group known as Boko Haram.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Looking at the current terrorist activities in Africa, by African terrorist organizations, one can conclude that a serious security threat (terrorism) is descending on Africa, and any African security personnel should be concerned. Terrorism has proven to be the most effective form of irregular warfare over time. Unlike guerrilla warfare that the continent has experienced since the 1960s, where rebels usually operate in the remote areas of a given country inflicting relatively fewer casualties, terrorists can attack anywhere killing scores of people (usually innocent civilians).  

The fact that terrorism is increasingly being used in Africa (e.g., Al Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa) suggests that it may eventually become the number one form of warfare replacing guerrilla warfare in the continent. That is to say that both war and the battle field are changing in the continent. Rebels are turning into terrorists and this means that concerned African security forces should start thinking in terms of fighting terrorism instead of guerrilla warfare.

African security agents and organizations (both national and regional) need to cooperate across the continent to crack down on all the known terrorist groups in Africa. Crucial to defeating terrorism in the continent is the formation of well trained and well equipped counter-terrorism units that are capable of tracking and destroying terrorist organizations. It is also vital for the continent to step up its role on the war against international terrorism by collaborating with other international security organs combating terrorism. Such collaboration would include information sharing and joint military operations against known terrorist groups wherever they are around the world.

*Thon Agany Ayiei holds an MA in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and works in Juba. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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