The escalation of violent conflict in Nigeria and Somalia in recent years, and the early successes of Islamist factions in overtaking territory in Northern Mali following the coup in early 2012, have drawn attention to the role of Islamist groups in violence across the African continent. The capacity and perceived threat of these groups has been further highlighted by speculation of linkages and coordination between distinct groups across Africa and beyond (BBC News, 26 June 2012). This paper seeks to explore this phenomenon through data recorded and published through the Armed Conflict Location & Event Dataset (ACLED) from 1997 to July 2012. From this analysis, we present three key findings: the first is that violent Islamist activity on the African continent has increased sharply in recent years, both in absolute terms, and as a proportion of overall political conflict events. Secondly, this increase in violence has coincided with an expansion of the countries in which operatives are active. While a considerable share of the increase in violent Islamist activity can be attributed to an intensification of violence in a small number of key countries (Somalia and Nigeria, notably), there has been a concomitant increase in Islamist activity in new spaces, with a discernible spread south- and east-ward on the continent. Thirdly, commonalities and discrepancies within and across violent Islamist groups reveal differential objectives, strategies and modalities of violence on the continent.
This paper proceeds with a definition of violent Islamist groups, a review of the geography of Islamist militancy on the African continent, and an analysis of commonalities and discrepancies across distinct militant Islamist groups.