In early 2011, as the Arab Spring revolutions were just beginning, a New York Times article concluded that for most analysts, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.” The vast majority of terrorism experts believed the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa were the death knell not only for regional despots, but also for the jihadist movement.
In fact, the opposite occurred. The significant spike in terrorism in Africa since the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions is as undeniable now as it was unanticipated at the time.
The numbers speak for themselves. In a new study titled Evolving Terror, three colleagues and I found that between January 2007 and December 2011 — as the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions was just beginning to be felt — jihadists carried out 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.
The chaos wrought by the revolutions provided jihadist groups with unprecedented opportunities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Mali (where regime change in Libya had a spillover impact), and they capitalized. Some of the post-2011 spike in terrorist violence is unrelated to the Arab Spring. In Somalia, for example, the militant group al-Shabaab’s increasingly frequent and lethal attacks are largely independent of the revolutions in other African countries (though in the future we may learn that there was more cross-pollination between Somali and extra-regional jihadists than is apparent today).
Our findings highlight not only the political context in which these attacks took place, but also the importance of how jihadist organizations learn, which remains underemphasized in the terrorism studies field. Learning processes have not only been important strategically — allowing jihadist groups to capitalize on the changes wrought by the Arab Spring despite such vulnerabilities as negative public perceptions — but can also be discerned at the level of tactics.
In addition to the sheer number of terrorist attacks in Africa increasing, the attacks have also grown more sophisticated as jihadist groups adapted to countermeasures employed against them. For example, in 2012 Shabaab increasingly began to attack establishments popular among foreigners — which are often heavily guarded — using a combination of weapons and tactics. Previously, the group had relied mostly on single-method attacks, such as bombs or gunmen deployed in isolation of one another. Beginning in 2012, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices would often first “soften” a target, destroying barricaded entrances and striking security personnel, thus allowing armed assailants to storm it.
One emblematic attack occurred on June 25, 2016, when a Shabaab vehicle-borne explosive destroyed the gates to the Nasa Hablod Hotel near the Mogadishu airport, where foreigners stay relatively frequently. The explosion allowed several gunmen to enter the premises and shoot hotel guests while seizing hostages. Positioning snipers on the roof and exploiting the hotel’s own defenses for cover, including sandbags and blast walls, the gunmen engaged police in a shootout that lasted five hours.
For jihadist groups, the ability to innovate is a necessity rather than a luxury. As preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman has noted, terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn. Facing an array of internal and external challenges, these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences. Militant groups that fail to address their vulnerabilities in the face of offensive counterterrorism operations will eventually be degraded to the point of strategic irrelevance. Similarly, organizations that cannot overcome defensive counterterrorism measures — policies aimed at preventing attacks — will become obsolete as more adaptive competitors exploit weaknesses in states’ security architectures.
Jihadist groups can adapt simultaneously to offensive and defensive measures employed against them — shoring themselves up in the face of counterterrorism actions meant to degrade them while overcoming defensive efforts to prevent attacks. For example, as Nigerian security forces became more adept at detecting Boko Haram’s suicide bombers, the group began to employ women and children in this role more frequently. This shift allowed Boko Haram to regain the element of surprise, and to conserve able-bodied men whom it needed to fight against the state. The relative novelty of these “unexpected bombers” further sensationalized Boko Haram’s attacks, amplifying a prevailing sense of insecurity in the population.
The adaptations that we can see African jihadist groups make in attacks on aviation are particularly concerning. The bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt in 2015 is well-known, as a bomb placed near the pressure bulkhead killed all 224 passengers and crew members. The Islamic State was responsible for this attack. Less notorious but also significant are Shabaab’s evolving efforts to strike aviation targets.
Initially, Shabaab unsuccessfully sought to launch projectiles at the Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu, often missing its target. But its aviation attacks became increasingly sophisticated. On Feb. 2, 2016, a Shabaab suicide bomber blasted a hole in Daallo Airlines Flight 159’s fuselage 20 minutes after it left the Mogadishu airport. The explosion blew the bomber out of the plane, but the pilot was able to make a safe emergency landing because the aircraft had yet to reach cruising altitude. It seems the bomb’s timer was intended to go off mid-flight, but a delay at the airport resulted in an early explosion. Authorities discovered that the bomber had used a laptop packed with explosives. Despite the attack’s failure, it should be regarded as sophisticated because it succeeded in getting a bomb on board the plane, which jihadists often regard as the key metric of success.
Just a month after the Daallo Airlines attack, another laptop bomb exploded at a screening area in Beledweyne Airport, also in Somalia. During that incident, authorities discovered and defused two more bombs, one of which was hidden in a printer. These designs were reminiscent of those developed by Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who is known as one of the most innovative jihadist bomb makers. In one prominent 2010 plot, Asiri hid explosives in printer cartridges. Given AQAP’s proximity and close relationship to Shabaab, it is likely that the two share innovations.
The evolution of Shabaab’s previously crude efforts to strike aircraft clearly show a pattern of learning and adaptation over the past few years. African militant groups are well-positioned to test new tactics against aviation targets, and innovations born in Africa may be exported to other theaters. Better understanding jihadist organizational learning is essential to stopping these groups’ attacks, and to making sure that in the future we do not underestimate them at the strategic level, as most experts did after the Arab Spring.