DAKAR, Senegal » A bloody mall siege in Kenya, mass hostage-taking in Algeria, brazen attacks on government facilities in Niger, routine killings of civilians in Nigeria, an aggressive military push toward the capital in Mali: Have Islamist militants found their chosen soft spots on the African continent?
As devastating as these recent attacks have been, they may actually have more to do with the challenges confronting extremist groups than with any newfound jihadi strength in Africa, analysts contend. In each instance, these eruptions have occurred as radical Islamist movements were on the defensive, under threat by international, domestic or sometimes even local forces.
Such bold assaults can therefore be read as flares in the night, some analysts say the militants’ attempt to show that they are still out there and still capable of spilling blood. At the moment when they seem most menacing, the jihadists may in fact be on the run.
"Movements that are retreating can also pull off big-time media splashes," said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a specialist at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
Some analysts counter that the radical groups could simply be shifting tactics, positioning themselves for a new, stronger phase in the Islamist struggle – although they note that propaganda, rather than tactical gain, appears uppermost in the extremists’ thinking in these crises.
But others argue that weakness not just radical ideologies, loose borders and access to weapons could be another important factor behind these terror attacks scattered across a vast continent.
The deadly siege of a Nairobi shopping mall came after al-Shabab, the radical Somali group that has claimed responsibility for the assault, was expelled from towns and territory it once controlled inside Somalia by Kenyan and African Union forces.
"A weakened Shabab is a greater threat outside Somalia than a stronger Shabab," wrote Ken Menkhaus, a specialist on the group at Davidson College. "The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness," he said, referring to the Nairobi mall where the attack took place this weekend. "It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabab to reverse its prospects."
That same logic was evident in the attack on the sprawling gas plant in the Algerian desert in January, in which 39 foreign hostages were killed. France had begun its assault on the assortment of Islamist groups controlling northern Mali the week before and was well into the process of evicting them from the region’s cities.
Even an Islamist military advance toward the Malian capital a week before that, which spurred the French incursion, came at a moment when the militants’ hold on northern Mali appeared threatened. Their harsh rule in the north was already provoking anger among the conquered Malians, who sometimes took to the street to express it.
Similarly, the militant attacks in Niger in May came after the French campaign had dislodged them from their camps in Mali, and the jihadist fighters were scattered far and wide in the desert.
And in Nigeria, years of aggressive offensives by the army appear to have pushed Boko Haram, the radical group waging war against the Nigerian state, out of its bastion of Maiduguri. The group continues to fight back from the rural area surrounding the city, sometimes massacring civilians. The army uses similar tactics, killing large numbers of civilians and Boko Haram members alike.
Some degree of cross-pollination between these groups may exist. For example, a Boko Haram member may turn up in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM English was heard among the overlords who occupied Timbuktu last year. Algerians officials say some militants in the attack at the gas plant attack in Algeria also participated in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. AQIM may train some Boko Haram members, as some experts have asserted.
But there is little to suggest grand cross-continental strategizing for specific operations, numerous analysts contend.
"There is a kind of tactical complicity, which is different from a strategic coordination," said Marc-Antoine Pirouse de Montclos, a terrorism expert at the University of Paris’ French Institute of Geopolitics. "This is about individuals. There is a sort of migration of combatants."
Analysts say al-Shabab’s attack on the Westgate mall is in line with early applications of modern terrorist doctrine, as perfected by Algerian rebels seeking to oust the French in the 1950s: Create an event so dramatic that it puts you back on the map.
"It’s the only way to get recruits and seem relevant," said Mathieu Guidhre, a terrorism specialist at the University of Toulouse. "It’s an action of propaganda and recruitment, to show that jihadism is the best way."