Evolving Terror: The Development of Jihadist Operations Targeting Western Interests in Africa

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jacob Zenn, Sarah Sheafer, and Sandro Bejdic, “Evolving Terror: The Development of Jihadist Operations Targeting Western Interests in Africa,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 2018


Introduction and Executive Summary

After the Arab Spring, North African countries experienced growing instability, and jihadist groups capitalized on both social unrest and local conflicts.1 As these groups strengthened, jihadists expanded their operations into the Sahel, and were able to propagate their transnational ideology to new audiences. The threat that jihadist groups in Africa pose to Western interests has grown over the past decade, as groups operating in North Africa, the Sahel, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa have honed their capabilities. This is reflected in the increased frequency and complexity of attacks against Western interests. Between January 2007 and December 2011, jihadists conducted 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.

While the 490 total attacks against Western interests in Africa recorded in this study have varied in target type and tactics, jihadist operations have generally become more sophisticated. In some cases, jihadist organizations developed new tactics for penetrating well-guarded facilities. For example, the Somali militant group al-Shabaab has increased its use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), often supplementing such attacks with armed assaults. This adaptation allowed Shabaab to gain entrance to facilities like airports and UN humanitarian compounds, frequently penetrating past guarded gates.

African jihadist groups have also developed innovative ways to thwart the aviation industry’s security measures on the continent. For example, a Shabaab suicide bomber detonated a laptop bomb on Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February 2016. A month later, Shabaab operatives concealed another bomb in a laptop that exploded at Somalia’s Beledweyne airport, and authorities defused two other bombs in the same incident, including one hidden in a printer. Not only do these events suggest an escalating threat to African aviation, but they also highlight how African jihadist groups learn and innovate. The ability to learn is critical to any violent non-state actor (VNSA), but particularly so for militant groups, which are pursued by state actors and sometimes also by other VNSAs. These groups need to be able to mount successful attacks against foes who constantly refine their defenses. The learning processes of African jihadist groups are evident in this study’s data set, as these groups have engaged in unambiguous adaptations over the course of the past decade. They will continue to engage in organizational learning in an effort to make themselves more effective – and, consequently, more dangerous. But there is also a significant risk that outside jihadist groups are assisting African jihadists’ innovations, and watching carefully to bring these tactics to new theaters after seeing how they fare in a “testing ground.” We return to the topic of jihadist learning processes in this study’s conclusion.

To understand evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), targeting, and jihadist innovation, this report uses empirical and historical analysis to map trends in operations against Western interests over the past decade. The report focuses on five target types: (1) establishments popular among foreigners, such as restaurants and hotels; (2) energy and mineral resources infrastructure and facilities; (3) non-African tourists, expatriates, and NGO workers; (4) national and international government facilities, such as embassies and UN humanitarian compounds; Evolving Terror Page 7 and (5) the aviation industry. This report is based on an extensive list of successful, thwarted, and failed attacks against each target type, and utilizes both quantitative and qualitative analysis to identify trends and draw conclusions about the evolution of targeting preferences and TTPs since 2007.

Summary of Key Findings

• Establishments Popular Among Foreigners. Over the past decade, African jihadist groups attacked establishments popular among foreigners more often than the other four target types. Their TTPs became more complex as they combined multiple tactics and weapon types.

• Energy and Mineral Resources Infrastructure and Facilities. Jihadists primarily attacked poorly defended infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, as opposed to well-guarded energy facilities. While there were fewer attacks on the latter, those that occurred involved more resources on the part of jihadist groups and resulted in a larger number of casualties.

• Non-African Tourists, Expatriates, and NGO Workers. While kidnapping foreigners is not a new tactic in places like Somalia, jihadist groups in the Sahel have recently expanded these operations into atypical areas, such as northern Burkina Faso and Cameroon.

• National and International Government Facilities. Between 2012 and 2017, jihadist operations against embassies, consulates, and UN humanitarian compounds became more complex, as groups like Shabaab developed ways to penetrate well-guarded facilities by combining VBIEDs with armed assaults. These complex attacks were some of the deadliest. But they have remained comparatively rare, as these groups have primarily employed simple bombings.

• Aviation. In recent years, African jihadist groups have demonstrated a greater interest in conducting sophisticated attacks against aviation targets. Techniques have included measures designed to evade airport security by concealing explosives in electronic devices, and the attackers have relied on complicit airport employees in several cases.

Access the full report and footnotes here.