The existence of militant religious groups is not a new phenomenon in Africa but their increasing presence and violence has become a growing concern. As a result of religious fundamentalism, tribal and ethnic tension, continued regional and political instability, and the extremist ideologies of groups to establish new states and reform old ones, Africa offers fertile ground for extremism. This year alone, scores of people lost their lives in attacks orchestrated by terrorist groups in various regions of the continent. The main groups are Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), based in Algeria.
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful", is an Islamic jihadist organisation based in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Founded in 2001, the group is fighting to reform West Africa into an Islamic region ruled by sharia law. It operates in a cell-like structure and is popular for its use of motorbikes. Their current leader is Abubakar Shekau, who has been deemed a global security threat by the United States.
Earlier this year, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan considered offering an amnesty deal to the rebels, whose insurgency has left more than 3 00 people dead since 2009. Shekau reportedly rejected the deal, claiming they had not committed any wrong. In various incidents this year, Boko Haram have orchestrated beheadings, bombings, and attacks on schools and checkpoints.
Earlier in December, the most recent attack, the group attacked a military base in north Nigeria that left scores of civilians dead and forced the government to impose a curfew in certain areas.
Al-Shabab, which means "the youth", is an al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant organisation, which was established in 2012 and is based in Somalia. The group describes itself as intent on waging war against "enemies of Islam".
Al-Shabab is notorious for carrying out beheadings, recruiting boys to fight and forcing girls into marriage, attacks on foreign convoys and suicide bombings. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in September in which 72 people were killed, saying it was in retaliation for Kenyan military deployment in Somalia.
A United Nations report in 2011 put al-Shabab's strength at about 5 000 fighters, but military intelligence suggests the real figure is almost three times that number, and probably growing.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the African wing of al-Qaeda that aims to overthrow the Algerian government and impose Islamic rule in the country. AQIM evolved out of a movement launched in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists who sought to overthrow the government. It formally aligned with al-Qaeda in 2006. AQIM established itself in the Sahel region in recent years, leading to instability and increased attacks in the area.
Last year's military coup in Bamako, Mali, paved the way for AQIM and other Islamist groups to gain a foothold in north Mali. AQIM was instrumental in the rebellion and has since fought to impose strict sharia law in surrounding cities.
AQIM's tactics include guerrilla-style ambushes, kidnapping of Western tourists and suicide attacks. It focuses on kidnapping for ransom and is reported to have raised more than $50-million from this alone.
Last month, the group claimed responsibility for the killing of two French journalists in retaliation for "crimes perpetrated by France and its UN, Malian and African allies".
At the third Africa-Arab Summit held in Kuwait in November, heads of state called for more co-operation between Arab and African countries to fight terrorism. The Kuwait Declaration strongly condemned terrorism and urged states to "enhance co-operation and co-ordination … to combat terrorism in all its forms", and to criminalise the payment of ransoms to terrorists.