Within the nations of sub-Saharan Africa exists an epidemic of failed or failing states and widespread international terrorism. Until recent years, these issues remained relegated to Northern Africa, the sub-Sahara and the Horn of Africa. However, with the escalation of terrorist activity in many African nations, like recent bombings in Kenya and Somalia, and the emergence of groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, coupled with the increasing interest of international terror groups in the region, it has become apparent that the once regionally restricted terrorism and crime issue has become an international movement. Ultimately this is due to the relationship between failed states and terrorism. Specifically, that those nations affected by state failure produce and attract more terrorist activity. (Piazza, 2008: 470). This poses an immediate threat to the region, as well as a risk internationally. This essay will examine the relationship between state failure and the spread of transnational terrorism. A discussion over the definition of the term ‘failed state’ will be made firstly, in order to establish a base for this argument. With this, this essay will examine why many sub-Saharan states have failed. The relationship between failed states and transnational terrorism has been touted by many scholars and policymakers to be a significant risk to international security. (Wyler, 2008: 1). An assessment of this declaration is also important in the foundation of this argument. As sub-Saharan Africa is, as academic Dr Tiffany Howard stated in 2014, “…a region of chronically failed states…it has thus, given rise to terrorists”. (Howard, 2014: 5.) Various scholars like Howard appoint state failure as a condition for the establishment of terrorist groups. This specifically began within the Maghreb region and the Arab dominated northern states of the sub-Sahara, like Somalia and Sudan. However, recently it has spread throughout the other nations of the sub-Sahara developing a once regional issue, into an international one. (Howard, 2010: 961.) Hence, as a region with a multitude of failed or failing states, sub-Saharan Africa operates as the ideal case study in analysing the relationship between failed states and international terrorism.


The definition of a failed state is difficult to ascertain as various governments and organisations will often use their own interpretation of state failure, leading to ambiguity when it comes to a proper definition. (Nay, 2013: 326.) The common features of a failed state include: widespread crime and corruption, mass refugee movement, the intervention of non-state actors, a severe economic decline, war and a lack of sufficient public services. (Dorff 1999, cited in Dempsey, 2006: 2-3.) This occurs due to a weak or ineffective central government that has little to no control over its territory and population. Indian academic Sonali Huria regards failed states as, “…states whose governments are unable to provide basic public goods”…(Huria, 2008: 1-2.) United States think-tank ‘Fund for Peace’ publishes the ‘Fragile States Index’ annually. The FSI assesses all states over twelve social, political and economic indicators with each indicator being out of 10. The twelve indicators are:

  1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
  2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons
  3. Vengeance Seeking Group Grievance
  4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight
  5. Uneven Economic Development
  6. Poverty, Sharp or Severe Economic Decline
  7. Legitimacy of the State
  8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
  9. Violation of Human Rights and Rule of Law
  10. Security Apparatus
  11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
  12. Intervention of External Actors. (FSI, 2015.)

The FSI acts as a sufficient guide for many researchers as it is easy to interpret and provides a more pragmatic characterisation of the stability of states. In the 2015 rankings, there were 10 African states out of 16 altogether that ranked between the scores 100 and 120, constituting a ‘High Alert’ or ‘Very High Alert’. (FSI, 2015.) In the 40 most unstable nation states in the world, 28 are African states. (FSI, 2015.) This indicates that African nations, especially those in the sub-Sahara are unstable in general. As mentioned by academic Thomas Dempsey, “…the problem [state failure] has been especially prevalent in economically depressed and politically unstable areas of sub-Saharan Africa”. (Dempsey, 2006: 3.) Many states in sub-Saharan Africa fit Dorff, Huria and the FSI’s characterisation of a failed or failing state. Although the overall definition of state failure is ambiguous in general, the characteristics of failed or failing states in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly consistent. Hence, this region is helpful when assessing the relationship between failed states and transnational terrorism.

Although it has been identified that many sub-Saharan nations are in a state of failure or a progression towards this form, it is important to discuss why these states came towards this classification. Many academics like Jeffrey Herbst note that colonialism and the introduction of the European style of a nation-state post-colonialism contributed significantly to state failure in Africa. He wrote, “In precolonial Africa, a wide variety of political organizations…rose and fell… After independence, Africa’s heterogeneous political heritage was brushed aside in the rush by nationalists to seize the reins of power … defined politically and geographically by their European colonizers”. (Herbst, 1996: 120.) In pre-colonial Africa, sovereignty was more focused on people rather than territory, as the land was plentiful and the population sparse. (Goody, 1971: 30). Hence, political power came from the control of population rather than land. Organisations came and went as circumstances changed, and power was earned and maintained through popular support or legitimacy. (Herbst, 1996. 129.)

Once European colonisers introduced the theory of the nation-state, territories were demarcated and the requirement of political legitimacy and popular support in order to maintain power was made redundant. (Herbst, 1996. 129.) Within the colonial state, emphasis was made to establish a system of in-direct rule, whereby favoured traditional rulers maintained power with guidance from a colonial power. Those favoured rulers consequently became immensely powerful. (Brooks, 2005: 1171). An example of this is in Sudan where the British favoured to in-directly rule the Arab-speaking north and its strong trading network, whilst largely disregarding those in the south. (Woodward, 1996: 36.) This has had severe long-term consequences in Sudan, as 1989 the Arab dominant National Congress Party headed by Omar al-Bashir has effectively ruled as a one party state, brutally supressing political opponents and the non-Arab population, especially during the War in Darfur. (UHRC, 2010.) Conditioned by the colonial system of a nation-state, African independence movements were often headed by the Western-educated elite of their nation. In establishing their new nation-state, they absorbed the political culture of the previous administration. This culture identified the state as the sole benefactor of financial resources, and as a tool of political domination over its people as it did not require popular support or legitimacy to operate. In power, these groups would establish a metropolitan political dominance by removing all political rivals. Like the colonial powers previously, the new African leaders sought to consolidate support from the urban population as they could physically challenge leaders. (Young, 1994: 278.) They would particularly and deliberately extract the financial gains from rural areas in order to further their own wealth, furthering inequality between the urban and rural populations. This is evident in Tanzania as academic Tatah Mentan noted in 2014, “…the state came to tax up to 84% of the farmers’ revenues”. (Mentan, 2014: 190). This oppression would severely destabilise rural areas in particular, causing widespread poverty in many sub-Saharan nations. In many of these disenfranchised rural areas, rebellions and anti-government groups formed, creating further instability. This results in some government loosing legitimacy in certain areas. For example as Herbst noted in 1996, that in the “…country as dysfunctional of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo)… “…the writ of President Mobutu does not extend much beyond Kinshasa [the capital]. (Herbst, 1996: 131.) Since then, Mobutu was ousted as President during the Congolese Civil Wars, a series of conflicts that devastated the nation and resulted in the deaths of approximately 5.4 million people. (Coghlan; et al. 2006: 26.) Essentially, the overarching cause of state failure in sub-Saharan nations was the imposition and then adoption of the nation-state system. This changed the political dynamic in Africa from a system that favoured control over population, to one that preferred territorial acquisition. This fundamentally led to many independent African governments abusing their newly acquired power, often through violent oppression. In addition, private accumulation of the resources belonging to the ostracised rural populations was also common in these nations. These actions are attributable is assessing why sub-Saharan states failed or are failing.


Political scientist Francis Fukuyama regarded that, “Since the Cold War, weak and failing states have arguably become the single most important problem for international order”. (Fukuyama, 2004: 92.)  This view gained particular momentum among governments and scholars following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was quick to scrutinise the role of failed states by stating, “…chaos is a potential neighbour anywhere from Africa to Afghanistan. For terrorists are strongest where states are weakest”. (Straw, 2002: 98.) Hence, following the September 11 attacks in 2001, failed states were labelled as highly dangerous to global security. U.S President George W. Bush declared in his National Security Strategy in 2002, “America is threatened less by conquering states than we are by falling ones”. (Bush 2002, cited in Stewart, 2011: 4.) This statement by Bush was one of the catalysts for the United States invasion into Afghanistan as a part of the War on Terror. As academic Patrick Stewart noted, “…when al-Qaeda attacked the United States from Afghanistan, one of the poorest and most wretched countries in the world…” the general consensus shifted regarding failed states as a humanitarian issue, to a global security issue. (Stewart, 2011: 4). However, Robert H. Dorff noted that, “we really knew quite a bit more than many assume prior to 9/11 about the linkages between state failure and transnational threats”. (Dorff, 2005: 20-21.) Prior to 2001, it had been recognised that the emergence of failing or failed states had become an international issue, especially in Africa. The breakdown of governments and society within some states had led to genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and anarchy in Somalia, both of which garnered international attention. Within these failing states in Africa, transnational threats like terrorism, organised crime and increased weapons proliferation emerged during the 1990s. Non-state actor groups within these failed states developed relationships with Islamic terrorist groups during the 1990s, particularly in the northern states of the sub-Sahara . As South African scholars Anneli Botha and Hussien Solomon noted in 2005, “Islamic “advisors” from Iran and Lebanon have been providing weapons and explosives to various African groups since at least 1990, and have ingratiated themselves in the inner circles of a number of African regimes”. (Botha & Solomon, 2005: 1-2.) In addition, terrorist attacks began to occur during the mid-1990s. Most attacks came from domestic civil unrest and as spillovers from regional conflicts. “Between 1995 and 2001, Africa recorded 5932 casualties out of 194 acts of … making Africa the second continent, after Asia, with the most casualties…despite being having only 8% of all international attacks”. (Botha & Solomon, 2005: 3-6.) Post-2001 it would seem obvious that the relationship between failed states and terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa would warrant more concern than it did. Ultimately, the issue was largely dismissed as being an African problem, and was not keenly considered in American policy debates. (Dorff, 2005: 22-23.) Although this threat became much more apparent following the attacks, it is important to consider that the threats posed by the relationship between failed states and terrorism existed prior to 2001. This is especially true for the failed states of sub-Saharan Africa and its link with transnational terrorism, as knowledge of its origins will help in analysing the relationship today.


Terrorism in the sub-Saharan nations of Africa is a prominent and significant issue. It has faced the emergence of local terrorist organisations that have regional goals. It has also experienced the attention of international terrorist organisations within the region. In some regards these two points are linked, with some regional terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which was formed in 2007 and is an offshoot of the international terrorist organisation al-Qaeda. Regardless of whether these groups emerge locally or are implanted by other organisations, state failure and transnational terrorism are fundamentally linked. In 2004 the Congressional Service Report to Congress stated that “the international terror threat against the [United States] and local interests is likely to continue to grow in several parts of Africa because of porous borders, lax security, political instability, and a lack of state resources and capacities”. (CRS Report to Congress 2004, cited in Lyman & Morrison, 2004: 75-76). This relationship according to academic Tiffany Howard was until recently …primarily relegated to North Africa and the Horn of Africa”. (Howard, 2010: 961.)  However, due to the rise of insurgency and political violence in Africa following the Cold War and this being further amplified following September 11, terrorist activity has also spread throughout the sub-Sahara.


As Howard mentioned, terrorism in Africa was initially located specifically within North Africa and the Horn of Africa. The states of Northwest Africa are known as the Maghreb. This region shares political, cultural, historical and religious ties with the Middle East, in addition with the nations of Egypt, Sudan and those in the Horn of Africa. Subsequently, the Maghreb and the Horn have been well integrated into the sphere of international Islamic terrorism out of the Middle East. (Howard, 2010: 961.) For example in August 1998, two United States embassies were bombed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. The attacks were linked to the terrorist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of al-Qaeda based in Egypt. (Dagne, 2002: 5-6). The link between state failure and terrorism is most prevalent within Somalia, with Somalia being an example of a completely ‘collapsed’ state. (Ahmed & Green, 1999: 113-115). Between 1991 and 2006, Somalia can be considered as a real-world example of a stateless society. In 1991 a coalition of clam-based militant groups overthrew President Siad Barre’s government. Following that, various armed forces fought for influence in the subsequent power vacuum. This resulted in the collapse of the rule of law and a legitimate central government. (Menkhaus, 2007: 73) The absence of central authority within Somalia created a supportive environment for terrorist activity to develop. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia remained a dangerous, anarchic state, posing a direct security threat to the neighbouring states of Ethiopia and Kenya. Between 1998 and 2004, al-Qaeda attacks in Kenya stemmed from Somalia where they have used it as a base of operations. (Menkhaus, 2013: 9). Due to the lack of law and order within the state, Islamic fundamentalism also began to arise during the 1990s and 2000s, with various Islamic courts emerging in this period. As Dagne stated, “These courts functioned as a government and often enforced decisions by using their own Islamic militia”. (Dagne, 2002: 9). The key group that dictated these courts was the Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. They functioned as the militia for these courts, imposing strict Sharia law under their jurisdiction. In 2006, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya merged with other groups to become Islamic Courts Union. During this year, the ICU managed to conquer the capital Mogadishu and the majority of southern Somalia. Although not specifically regarded as a terrorist organisation, the ICU had been linked to terrorist organisations in the Middle East, specifically al-Qaeda. (Marley, 2011: 65). Dominic Lisanti noted that, “…in 2006 it [Somalia] had 11 incidents and in 2007 that number increased to 159”. (Lisanti, 2010: 10). These Islamic Courts were able to function and thrive in Somalia due to the lack of the rule of law and functional central government. Somalia’s fragmented and lawless society left it vulnerable to Islamic radicalisation according to Howard, accumulating in the establishment of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab in 2006. (Howard, 2014: 157.) This is a terrorist group that has been battling the Transitional Federal Government and then the Federal Government of Somalia. Al-Shabaab formed following the defeat of the ICU by U.S backed Ethiopian forces in 2006; it also is a product of the state failure of Somalia. Similarly to the Islamic Courts, Al-Shabaab expresses the movement of attempting to recentralise and reconstruct Somali politics under political Islam. (Marchal, 2009: 381.) The ICU and al-Shabaab were both groups that sought to establish their own law and order and government in a state that had failed. With Somalia’s complete collapse as a state came also the attraction of al-Qaeda in particular, as they were able to harbour militants in a society where they could not be tracked. (Ibrahim, 2010: 285-287). In examining the link between state failure and international terrorism, Somalia is a prime example.



As mentioned before, the political violence and insurgency within sub-Saharan nations increased following the conclusion of the cold war. It was also exemplified further after September 11 and the West’s War on Terror. With this, is the increasing threat of terrorism emerging and flourishing within the region. Howard noted that “…while internationally sponsored terrorist organizations have been present in sub-Saharan Africa for the past forty years, the region has seemingly been immune to terrorist attacks, but that is changing”. (Howard, 2010: 962). The degradation of many nations into state failure has resulted in a potential increase of extremist violence. Within these failed or failing states is a long history of political violence and insurgency, which quickly involves terrorist activity according to Howard. She wrote, “Insurgent movements in sub-Saharan Africa have waged a campaign of terror against citizens within their own country, which could rival the attacks of any international terrorist operation”. (Howard, 2010: 964). Two examples of these insurgency movements that have conducted acts of terrorism include the Janjaweed in Sudan and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. Insurgency movements and political violence within failed states also have the tendency to spill over into other nations. In 1996 American political scientist Myrion Weiner noted his theory of “Bad Neighbors, Bad Neighborhoods,” of which is applicable to the spread of political violence across borders. (Weiner, 1996: 41-42). This in turn results in the development of a domestic terrorist risk to an international threat. This spreading of conflict into neighbouring states is heavily prevalent in the recent history of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is set to remain for the immediate future. An example of this is the Second Congo Civil War. Despite a peace agreement in 2003, the war has lived on through various conflicts around the country, keeping the Congo as one of the poorest nations in the world. As the DRC borders a number of failed states, Uganda, Angola and Rwanda, it threatens to remain a failed state. In addition, various insurgent and terrorist groups have crossed borders and operate freely within the immediate region. (Howard, 2014: 158.) The Ugandan terrorists group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are examples of terrorist organisations that gained an international influence as the result of a regional conflict. As demonstrated by the conflict in the DRC, terrorist organisations have utilised war as a means to spread their ideology and fight internationally. Hence, the spread of insurgent movements and violent political conflict throughout sub-Saharan Africa has consequently resulted in the spread of terrorism across borders.


The relationship between state failure and terrorism can also be portrayed through the actions of individuals within those failing states. In post-colonial Africa, hopes for liberal democratic societies were quickly eliminated following years of civil war, violent dictatorships, and ethnic conflicts. This has consequently resulted in the citizens of sub-Saharan Africa becoming severely disgruntled with their governments’ and thus susceptible to radical ideologies promoted by terrorist groups. Essentially, “failed states threaten the individual’s survival, which ultimately drives them to obtain tangible political and economic resources through other means”. (Howard, 2010: 962.)  When this is coupled with the escalation and spread of political violence and insurgencies across borders, thus creating and maintaining failed states; the result is more disgruntled and threatened individuals turning to extremist ideologies. Thus, the more failing or failed states, the greater breeding grounds for terrorism. (Abrahamsen, 2004: 677.) An example of a terrorist group that formed from discontented citizens within a failing state is Boko Haram out of Nigeria. Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf established a religious sect and school in 2002 that attracted poor Muslim communities in the north of Nigeria. Yusuf and many others in the Islamic north of Nigeria vehemently opposed Western education, and he denounced the corruption of the government and social inequality experienced by Nigerian Muslims. (Adesoji, 2010: 97-98). He gathered support from unemployed youths, and exploited public outrage with corruption in the government and police force by linking it to excess Western influence within the nation. (Walker, 2012: 1-5.) Today, Boko Haram operates in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon in an attempt to establish an Islamic state and provide a recruiting and training ground for those sympathetic to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Boko Haram is a significant example of how disgruntled citizens of a failed state can develop into Islamic terrorist groups in order to combat its failing society.


The spread of international terrorism within sub-Saharan Africa is directly correlated with the continual failure of states within the region. This essay has discussed this relationship by firstly analysing the definition of state failure, and how various African states failed since decolonisation. Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, various policymakers and scholars stated that failing and failed states are a global threat due to their link in producing and harbouring terrorist organisations. In a state of complete failure like Somalia, international terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda, harboured their operations within the lawless society. Whilst other groups arose in order to re-establish a central government and enact their own form of law and order.  Terrorism has spread throughout the sub-Sahara as a result of the increase in insurgent violence that spills over into neighbouring nations. Terrorist groups like the LRA and ADF in Uganda exploited the chaos of the Second Congo Civil War in order to further their transnational goals. In a failed state, individuals are threatened and many turn toward extremist ideologies in order to survive. The case study of Boko Haram in Nigeria reflects the disgruntled citizen looking towards Islamic extremism in order to combat the society that had failed them. As a region with a plethora of failed and failing states, sub-Sahara Africa has emerged as one of the most susceptible regions to international terrorism, and this serves as a significant threat to international security.









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