Africa surpasses Middle East as the epicenter of terrorism, according to 2024 global index

By CDI Staff |
2024 Global Terrorism Index map of terrorism attacks
2024 Global Terrorism Index map of terrorism attacks | Institute for Economics & Peace

Sub-Saharan Africa has, for the first time, surpassed the Middle East as the center of terrorism activities, further putting at risk Christians and missionaries in parts of West Africa. The Global Terrorism Index 2024 report indicates that terrorism-related violence has significantly increased in Africa specifically in the Sahel region which spreads across a dozen countries from East, Central and West Africa.

The report published by the think tank Institute for Economics and Peace identifies the central Sahel region in Africa as the new epicenter of terrorism. It noted that this region “…now accounts for over half of all deaths from terrorism.”  

This is the first time in the index’s 13-year history that a country outside of Iraq and Afghanistan has been ranked top in the Global Terrorism Index, an indicator of the expansion of terror groups in Africa. Five of the top 10 countries on the list are in Africa: Burkina Faso, Mali, Somalia, Nigeria and Niger.

In 2023, Burkina Faso ranked highest on the overall terrorism index. That year it saw the highest number of casualties linked to terrorism, with deaths increasing by 68 percent despite attacks decreasing by 17 percent. Almost 2,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso in 2023 from 258 incidents, “accounting for nearly a quarter of all terrorist deaths globally.”

While the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates have continued to expand their activities in Africa, other terror groups have also consolidated their positions in the Sahel region. In 2023, nearly all deaths linked to terrorism were linked to jihadist groups. According to the report, the Sahel region hosts some of the most violent terrorist groups in the world. 

Boko Haram which rebranded itself to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) operates in the Far North of Cameroon and North-Eastern States of Nigeria and Southeast Niger. The Jama’at Nustratal-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have been cementing their positions in the tri-border area between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Commenting on the 2024 GTI report, regional security analysts, Idriss Mounir Lallali and Richard Apau, warned that the JNIM group is expanding its geographical reach into Northern Benin and the Savenes region of Togo.

“These groups have a worldview orientation with affiliations to either Al-Qaeda or ISIS Central in Iraq and Syria. This affiliation facilitates provisions logistical and financial support and encourages the participation of Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” Lallali and Apau said.    

“59 percent of the deaths were attributed to either unknown groups or to unspecified jihadist groups. The remaining 41 percent were attributed to either JNIM or IS. The increase in terrorist activity in Burkina Faso is part of a larger increase across the Sahel region, with similar surges seen in Niger and Mali over the past few years.” 

The growth of terrorism-related activities in the Sahel has been accelerated by the instability in the region, specifically in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger which have had coups in the recent past. Indeed, the border between the three countries accounted for almost half of all attacks in 2023.

“Over 90 percent of terrorist attacks and 98 percent of terrorism deaths in 2023 occurred in conflict zones, underscoring the strong link between conflict and terrorism,” the report noted.

Attacks on the minority Christians in the region are particularly pronounced. In February, suspected jihadists killed 15 faithfuls during church service in north-eastern Burkina Faso near the three-border area. 

Illia Djadi, Africa’s Senior Analyst for Freedom of Religion and Beliefs with Open Doors International, said that the findings of the report align with the World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. 

“There is a clear correlation between terrorism activities and religious persecution. Central Sahel is the most affected by these terrorism activities especially Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger…. Although the region is predominantly Muslim, the peaceful coexistence between the different religions is now being threatened by religious extremists and intolerance,” noted Djadi.   

The jihadists have not spared the security forces, an indication of their growing intentions to take advantage of the instability in the region. Dozens of soldiers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have been killed by suspected jihadists in separate attacks with the worst single incident happening in Northern Burkina Faso where 54 members of security forces were killed while repelling an attack in September 2023. 

But despite the persistent persecution and attacks, pockets of hope from Eritrea to Burkina Faso, show that Christianity in the Sahel continues to spread. Justin Kientenga, the Bishop of Ouahigouya in Burkina Faso, speaking at a conference, narrated instances where Christians have either been forbidden from attending church services or attacked during services forcing thousands to flee from their homes. At the same time, Bishop Kientenga says Muslims in these communities have been commanded by the jihadists not to take their children to school and men are instructed not to shave their beard. 

“None of them (Christians) have caved to the terrorists’ demands to embrace Islam. Many of them accept the possibility of death. They refuse to remove their crosses and they refuse to convert. They always find other ways to live their faith and pray,” said Kientenga.

Interfaith collaboration against terrorism 

Speaking to Christian Daily International in January 2024, Rev. Dr. James Movel Wuye of the Assemblies of God, Northern Nigeria, said interfaith collaboration can help reduce the spread of violent extremism in the region.

“I believe very strongly that where religious leaders can walk together, they can drastically reduce violent extremism where possible and if they are supported, they can do quite a lot to ensure they disarm one another by expressing genuine love for one another,” said Rev. Wuye, who also serves as a co-director of the Interfaith Mediation Centre of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Kaduna, Nigeria.

The interfaith initiatives led by religious leaders have not gone unnoticed. TIME Magazine, for instance, listed three religious leaders from the Central African Republic in its 2014 100 Most Influential People. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui, Omar Kobine Layama, president of the Central African Islamic Community and Guérékoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic, have been acclaimed for “actually do[ing] what their faith tells them to do” through the Interfaith Peace Platform. The platform spreads peaceful messages in villages across CAR and advises political leaders and international partners towards peaceful co-existence of communities in the country.

The African Evangelical Association (AEA) issued a statement in September 2023 calling for respect for human lives and negotiation to restore order especially in the Sahel region. “We pray and appeal for an Africa where guns are silent, where conflicts are solved through dialogue, where fellow Africans act as each other's brother's keeper and where African natural resources are harnessed and used for the good and prosperity of her citizens.”