MARRAKESH, Morocco — It's a truism of broadcast media that "If it bleeds, it leads." The field of counterterrorism functions much the same way, which is why in recent months the Islamic State terrorist group have become the overwhelming focus of Western law enforcement and intelligence. Yet an equally significant security challenge is incubating in Africa, where local conditions have sown the seeds for the next stage of global terror.
That was the main theme of this year's Marrakech Security Forum, which brought together military officials, counterterrorism professionals and government representatives from Europe, Africa and the United States in Morocco on February 13 and 14. The high-profile event focused on the explosive population growth, stagnant economies, pervasive corruption, ineffective governments and rampant criminality plaguing the continent: factors which have helped make Africa a "laboratory" for radical groups.
The scope of the problem is far broader than commonly understood in the West.
Take Libya. Three-and-a-half years after the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi, the country is riven by strife between warring radical militias. The northeastern city of Derna is now completely controlled by the Islamic State, while broad swathes of the country are controlled by no one at all. This has helped make Libya's south a virtual "Club Med" for smugglers, who have used the opportunity to expand their activities there and throughout North Africa's lawless Sahel region.
This isn't just a local problem. The lack of effective border controls has turned the country into a major hub for illegal migration into Europe — one which has strained European economies and taxed EU border controls.
Not all of Africa's migrants are headed to Europe, however. The continent is also a major source of foreign fighters now active in the Syrian civil war. The Institute for the Study of Conflict and Radicalisation, a British think tank that monitors global jihadist trends, recently estimated that a quarter or more of the 20,000-plus extremists now fighting on the Syrian battlefield come from the region. That's not just a near-term problem for the Middle East; it promises to be a major long-term African security headache once Syria's jihadists start returning home a few years hence.
But Boko Haram is an even more significant — and immediate — threat. Last year, experts estimate that the Nigerian Islamist group was responsible for more deaths than the Islamic State (a grisly tally of 10,500, according to statistics compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations). In 2014, like ISIL, the group declared its own "caliphate" in western Africa. And, like Iraq's jihadists, it is gaining ground. In recent days, Boko Haram — which already has a beachhead in Niger and has been attacking Cameroon for nearly a year — launched an offensive in Chad as well.
Other problems abound. The West African drug trade has become a booming $1.25 billion-a-year industry — one in which extremist groups have become deeply involved. The recent jihadist takeover in Mali has generated a mass exodus from the country, with nearly 40,000 refugees being absorbed to date by Niger alone. Unresolved disputes (such as the one between Morocco and Algeria over the sovereignty of the Western Sahara) continue to fester, preventing regional governments from consolidating control over key trouble spots. And on the margins of the vulnerable communities throughout the continent, assorted radicals — including the Islamic State — have begun to recruit and mobilize in earnest.
We are still paying far too little attention to these developments. Preoccupied with the fight against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and its counterparts in Europe have paid scant attention to other manifestations of radical Islamism. As a result, Western counterterrorism policy remains overwhelmingly reactive, focused on today's main threat. And because it is, the United States and its allies run the risk of missing the makings of the next great one.