In years gone by, Africa was a captivating travel destination. Prospective tourists once dreamed about Mt. Kilimanjaro, colorful ethnic performances, and, of course, safaris. But these days African journeys are notably less enticing. The continent is beset by crippling poverty, widespread political corruption, ever-increasing terrorism – and, of course, the present pandemic. At the same time, millions of Africans suffer under the continuous threat of violence.
“…more than 340 million Christians — one in eight — face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors. It says there was a 60 percent increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith.”
The Guardian’s account went on to say that more than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were of African Christians. Here’s a look at how that happened and, when relevant, how the U.S. is responding.
African Christians Are Attacked Throughout the Continent
In Mozambique, stunning recent reports in November 2020 revealed that ISIS had attacked innumerable civilians, abducting women and children and torching homes. Al Jazeera described some 50 innocent people — many of them Catholics — being “herded” to their death on a soccer field. There, they were systematically decapitated and dismembered. Due to a hapless and futile government response, ISIS has continued its ferocious assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021.
On March 15, the New York Times said of the American involvement in Mozambique: “Modest in size and scope: a dozen Army Green Berets are to train Mozambican marines for the next two months. But [this] signals the entry of the United States military into a counterinsurgency effort that has been aided so far mainly by South African mercenaries, who have faced accusations of human rights abuses.”
In Somalia – the notorious site of Black Hawk Down – Christians must vigilantly hide their faith. One family was recently jailed for having converted to Christianity from Islam and accused of evangelizing. This is a capital crime under strictly enforced Shari’a law. Similar court cases continue.
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In Burkina Faso, savage carnage has erupted, with more than a million Christians displaced. “The terrorism activities have hit us so quickly,” one pastor explained. “These groups moved in and took control… Many areas of Burkina’s northern and eastern regions have now become ‘no-go’ areas.”
According to Major Andrew Caulk, public affairs director for Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), the U.S. mission in Burkina Faso is small, comprising fewer than 100 people. “Our presence there is much smaller than some might think, but provides critical linkages with partners,” he said.
Burkina Faso is among several vulnerable West African countries that are targeted by Islamist terrorists. This especially endangers their Christian populations. The G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — face continuous threats and attacks.
And then there’s Nigeria, where brutal violence is rapidly destroying the fabric of the nation. The largest country in Africa and the most economically significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. An extensive Family Research Council report updated in February 2021 documents shocking statistics of mass murders, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis. Hardly a day passes without accounts of mass kidnappings of Nigerian schoolchildren, without Christian clergy and aid workers gunned down, villages torched, and churchgoers massacred.
An Islamist Caliphate in Africa?
Some well-informed observers believe that we’re only seeing the beginning of an ever-worsening Africa-wide scenario. The Wall Street Journal explains that Islamic State is transforming itself into a different kind of enemy by “embracing an array of militant groups as if they were local franchises. After its dreams of imposing draconian Islamist law in a self-declared state in Syria were crushed, Islamic State successfully injected itself into localized conflicts in Nigeria, Libya, and across the Sahel.”
At the same time, Olivier Guitta, Managing Director of GlobalStrat, ominously predicts the dawning of a new Caliphate. He writes,
“Islamic State’s historically strong franchises have included the spinoff of Boko Haram in Nigeria that is part of Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). More recently the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has made huge progress almost supplanting al-Qaeda as the top dog in the region… The future looks unfortunately bright for [the] Islamic State in a continent with lots of fragile, corrupt quasi-failed states that could allow the birth of a Caliphate in mini territories in Mozambique, the Sahel and possibly Nigeria.”
Iran Is Spreading its Influence in Africa
To make matters worse, Sunni Muslim radicals like ISIS are not alone in their African ambitions. There is another force at work in Africa quietly seeking to fulfill its own vision of Islamist conquest: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian campaign to “export the Revolution” – even into Africa – has long been carried out through Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its many proxies – most famously through Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In 2018, Middle East Institute reported that “Iran told Hezbollah that it needed to recruit and train Nigerians to establish a stronghold there so that it could serve as an operational base for the rest of Africa, mainly to thwart Israeli and western ambitions in the region.” Iran was said to be providing Hezbollah-style military training to hundreds of Nigerians in camps throughout Northern Nigeria.
In Somalia, Foreign Policy related in July 2020 that Iran “has a proxy network… and uses facilitators to provide support to violent extremist organizations to counter the influence of the United States and Persian Gulf states, including using Somalia to funnel weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen and to transit weapons to other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic.”
In Ethiopia, as the New York Times reported in February 2021, the country’s intelligence agency uncovered a cell of 15 people who were “casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. [It also uncovered] a cache of weapons and explosives… It claimed to have foiled a major attack with the potential to sow havoc in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
American and Israeli officials say the operation was the handiwork of Iran.
Yet, no country provides a clearer picture of Iran’s present aggressive activities than Morocco. Adjacent to Morocco lies Western Sahara and its separatist movement, the Polisario Front. The United States recently recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco thanks to its signing of the Abraham Accords. It is widely claimed that Polisario’s soldiers are being directly trained for combat by Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently stated that in 2018 “Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, publicly accused Iran of dispatching senior Hezbollah operatives and supplying weapons and training to the Polisario Front.”
When reflecting on Iran’s activities, it is noteworthy that Iran is listed as the ninth-worst persecutor of Christians in the world, according to Open Doors 2021 World Watch List.
Stories about the Iranian connection in Africa are widely circulated and believed. A Nigerian friend and close observer recently told me,
“The Iranian influence in the Sahel region is massive, although difficult to pin down because of the different radical Islamist splinter groups in the region – each of them pledging its allegiance to one leader or the other. What is clear, however, is that these radical Muslim sects are well-organized, well-funded and well-equipped. Their terrorist attacks are carefully planned and effectively executed. This cannot be done without a state’s influence and backing. These are not scattered, trigger-happy Muslims. Their spread and strategic movements are well-coordinated. Iran’s signature, even if through proxy characters, is all over the place.”
What Happens in Africa Will Not Stay in Africa
The stakes are exceptionally high for all of Africa and the continuing upheaval is bound to increase. Thanks to both Sunni and Shiite radicals, African Christians will face massacres. Furthermore, nations like Nigeria may well implode because of internal chaos and external negligence on the part of war-weary Western countries. This will send millions of refugees pouring into Europe and beyond. Clearly, what happens in Africa will not stay in Africa.
I asked LTG (Ret.) William G. (Jerry) Boykin, a founding member and former commander of Delta Force, about the vulnerabilities America is likely to experience faced with an increasingly radicalized African continent. He told me the following,
“The military success that America and our allies have had against radical Islamic groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has had an unintended secondary effect that has increased the threat to Christians on the African continent. While ISIS and al-Qaeda have not been destroyed, they have been forced to relocate from their traditional safe havens and operational areas. Unfortunately, many of these terrorists have chosen Africa as their new home. While some have simply joined forces with existing jihadi groups – like Al-Shabaab in Somalia or Boko-Haram in Nigeria – others have remained intact entities carrying the name of their original terror group and have relocated to myriad African countries.”
“What this means for Christians in Africa is that the threat to them is increasing while at the same time U.S. interest in helping protect them is diminishing. President Joe Biden’s recent announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, reflects an American public war-weariness that makes any future American military operations on the African continent to rescue or protect Christians very unlikely. At best, the U.S. may expend some diplomatic and economic capital to help threatened Christians, but there is a question as to how effective that will be in reducing the threat from committed Islamic jihadi groups.”
“While it is not pleasant to consider, the reality is that this may be a problem with no practical solution. The U.S. has to consider what happens if Christians start pouring out of Africa because of the atrocities being perpetrated against them. That scenario will mean that a true humanitarian crisis has unfolded. Meanwhile, the death and misery among Christians will grab world attention and there will be a global outcry for the U.S. to answer the call. Maybe that seems a bit unreasonable. Nonetheless, if history is indeed prologued, then there is a clear probability that the United States will be under great pressure to react to the suffering – just as it has in the past.”
She is published in Jerusalem Post, Fox News, Religious Unplugged, World Israel News, and Providence Magazine. She has also written for National Review Online, The Huffington Post, Catholic Herald, Jewish Policy Review, and other publications. She co-edits the Hudson Institute publication Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.