East Africa’s Terrorism Hotspots: Roots and Solutions

East Africa’s Terrorism Hotspots: Roots and Solutions
Uganda has had a string of terror attacks lately. The most recent bombings took place in Kampala’s central business district and were claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group. Tensions have been increasing across the border too, in Kenya. The government has instructed security agencies to be more vigilant. Moina Spooner, of The Conversation Africa, asked terrorism researcher Dr Anneli Botha to provide insights into what drives terrorism in the region and how it should be addressed.
Where are Eastern Africa’s terrorism hotspots?
Eastern Africa has two primary terrorism hotspots.
The first is Somalia. It has experienced continuous instability since 1991, due to clan-based warlords and the lack of a functioning central government. The creation of ungoverned spaces provided Al-Qaeda with a foothold in the region. Ethiopian intervention in 2006 added fuel to the fire after the establishment of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) earlier in the 2000s. In 2005, Al-Shabaab was established as an offshoot of the ICU to become the most relevant actor in Somalia. Since then it has executed attacks beyond its area of operations in Uganda, Djibouti and Kenya.
Al-Shabaab has been recruiting from marginalised communities in Kenya. It has also attracted fighters from Uganda, Tanzania, Djibouti, the US and Europe.
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Secondly, similar to Somalia, the eastern part of the DRC has been a hotspot since its own civil war from 1997 to 2003. An ungoverned part of the country provided a “safe” area where over 100 rebel organisations could base their operations. Groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces and Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda, under pressure from Ugandan security forces, established themselves in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) along with others in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The origins of the Allied Democratic Forces can be traced back to Christian-Muslim and ethnic divisions even before independence in 1962. The perception of government interference in Muslim affairs played a role in establishing the idea of fighting for an Islamic state (not Islamic State as we know it today). The change in leadership following the arrest of Jamil Mukulu introduced a new chapter under Seka Musa Baluku. Since 2019, the organisation has executed attacks under the umbrella of Islamic State in the Central African Province (IS-CAP), which is also linked to the instability in northern Mozambique.
In the DRC, the local communities within the organisation’s area of operations have had to bear the brunt of attacks.
What have been the main root causes of terror attacks in the region?
The root causes of terror attacks are domestic, with origins in each country’s history. There is no single “profile” or reason. It is always a combination of factors – political, social, and economic – that cannot be separated from regional and international events.
The main question is why anyone would want to join any violent extremist organisation, risking death or capture.
Some join voluntarily. Identity politics, due to existing ethnic and religious divisions and subsequent marginalisation and frustration, can drive people to join violent extremist organisations. Others will join for financial reasons.
The final “push” relates to the way security forces respond to the terrorist threat. In my research since 2011 and as part of research projects with the United Nations Development Programme and Finn Church Aid, involving interviews with former members of violent extremist organisations, I’ve heard repeatedly how revenge, anger and hatred of governments and their security forces drove people into joining.
Some are tricked into joining, not knowing what they’ve signed up for. Others are forced, especially where not joining could be interpreted as spying for the government, as witnessed in Somalia.

Read more: Why we did it: the Kenyan women and girls who joined Al-Shabaab

In Somalia there is also a nationalistic-religious component that facilitated recruitment into Al-Shabaab. This followed the intervention of Ethiopia (supported by the United States), then Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti (African Union Mission troop contributing countries). These are regarded as “Christian nations” invading a Muslim country. It played into a broader narrative starting with the US and western intervention in Afghanistan, but especially Iraq following 9/11.
How have governments sought to deal with terror attacks and their root causes?
Predominantly from a short-term security perspective, by “eliminating” the “problem” of suspected terrorists. This has included disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
The way governments respond depends on the level of government control over territory. Where government has no or limited control, the military takes the lead in counterinsurgency (as seen in Somalia and eastern DRC). Where government control increases, the police take the lead. Respecting human rights while countering violent extremism and terrorism has proved to be particularly difficult under military command. One reason is that the military’s focus is not on collecting evidence to build a criminal case.
Governments worldwide seldom look into their role in communal marginalisation and frustration. But it’s a crucial root cause. People feel excluded if development in their part of the country is neglected because they don’t support certain politicians.
Have governments been successful? If not, why?
No, unfortunately not completely, due to two primary challenges.
First, limited capacity and training and a history of very limited relations between the state, its security forces and the public across the continent. Security sector reforms and community policing initiatives require trust, dedication and time.
Second, governments on the continent have tended to invest more in the military (securing their regime) and not in the police and the broader criminal justice framework (including the judiciary and prisons).
Third, addressing the root causes is not the responsibility of security agencies only. It requires an all of government approach starting with good governance and providing basic public goods equally.
What else should they do?
International organisations – for example the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, through its Regional Office for Eastern Africa and Interpol – and the international community have made considerable strides in building capacity and providing equipment to law enforcement agencies across the region. This happens under the guidance of the Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation.
Also NGOs and a growing civil society, through research and working with vulnerable communities, provide important guidance and support.
Government and security agencies must be willing to receive support and act in a responsible manner to prevent and counter violent extremism. In eastern Africa, this investment has started to show results. This is clear if one compares the DusitD2 attacks in Nairobi in 2019, when law enforcement took the lead, with the 2013 Westgate attack, when the military took the lead.
Not all countries have received assistance across the region. Nor can the threat of violent extremism be addressed by individual countries. Violent extremism and organised crime always present transnational challenges. Coordinated efforts, cooperation and capacity building are needed to address an increasing threat that is already having a ripple effect into southern Africa.


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