Sub-Saharan Africa has become "the main epicentre of global jihadist activity", in particular the central Sahel - Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger - and the Lake Chad Basin - Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad - but with a significant increase in activity in the eastern region as well.
Jihadist groups, mainly the various Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates around the world, claimed more than 9,600 lives in the nearly 2,200 actions they carried out in 2021, according to the latest Jihadist Terrorism Yearbook published by the International Observatory for the Study of Terrorism (IOTS).
Specifically, there were 2,193 attacks and 9,603 fatalities in a total of 36 countries, although West African countries accounted for 47% of the attacks and 44% of the victims, with Burkina Faso as the worst-hit country, ahead of Mali, where the threat originated in this region.
The figure is slightly lower than in 2020, when there were 9,748 attacks and 2,350 deaths, but it is striking that although the number of attacks seems to be declining, the same is not true for the number of victims. In 2017, OIET counted 13,634 attacks and 1,459 deaths.
Afghanistan was once again the country hardest hit by jihadist terrorism, with 599 attacks, and was also the scene of one of the most significant events of the past year: the return to power of the Taliban twenty years after they were overthrown following 9/11.
On this issue, both the director of OIET, Carlos Igualada, and the director of the Department of Homeland Security (DSN), Miguel Ángel Ballesteros, are convinced that Afghanistan will not return to being the refuge it once was for terrorists from all over the world, particularly al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to be in the country.
"The Taliban have surely learned their lesson," the DSN chief said, while Igualada also ruled out that they would "make the mistake" of allowing al-Qaeda to carry out attacks from within the country.
Since August there has been a decrease in the number of attacks in Afghanistan, mainly attributable to the fact that the Taliban are now in power and therefore do not have to harass the security forces or carry out attacks against civilians to put pressure on the authorities.
However, Islamic State Khorasan also operates in the country, the group behind the deadliest terrorist attack of 2021, the 26 August attack on Kabul airport in the midst of the evacuation by Western countries of their Afghan nationals and collaborators. This attack left more than 170 people dead.
Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa has become "the main epicentre of global jihadist activity", in particular the central Sahel - Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger - and the Lake Chad Basin - Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad - but with a significant increase in activity in the eastern region as well.
The second country with the most attacks in 2021 was Burkina Faso (319), followed by Mali (281) and Nigeria (173). After Iraq, outside the continent, sixth in the ranking are Cameroon (129) and Niger (115). The Democratic Republic of Congo ranks ninth with 61 attacks, followed by Somalia (59) and Mozambique (47).
Both Al-Qaeda's affiliate (the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and Daesh (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, ISGS) operate in the Sahel, particularly active in the tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Here, the number of victims has soared. Burkina Faso has surpassed the 1,199 mark for the first time, while Mali is close behind with 987. Niger's death toll has risen from 380 in 2020 to 910 in 2021.
In recent months, there have been some attacks in countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Benin and Togo, which highlight the expansive aspirations of these groups towards the Gulf of Guinea and are forcing these countries to allocate budgets and adopt counter-terrorism measures. It is also spreading to Senegal, where a cell was dismantled this year.
The study also points out that 'one of the questions to be resolved is whether the worsening and deterioration in political and security terms in the Western Sahel could end up destabilising the Maghreb, something that would undoubtedly increase the degree of threat that jihadist terrorism poses to Europe'.
In the Maghreb, terrorist activity in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has declined sharply in recent years after having been 'major hotspots of jihadist activity' and major attacks in the past.
On the other hand, the OIET recognises that the expansion of activity by the Islamic State in Central Africa (ISCA), which is present separately in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique, and which in the last year has carried out attacks in Uganda and Sudan, is "worrying".
In Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State once forged its 'caliphate', the group has intensified its activity in the last year, with one-off attacks, but also some well-orchestrated and planned actions. In Iraq, there were 134 attacks, up from 95 the previous year, while in Syria there were 94, the same number.
In Western Europe, in 2021 there was a considerable reduction in the number of jihadist-inspired attacks, in line with the data for 2018 and 2019, compared to the upturn in 2020, when there were 17 such actions. Thus, the report counts five attacks with ten fatalities.
OIET has found that the attacks recorded - two in France, one in Germany, one in Norway and one in the United Kingdom - are the work of terrorists acting on their own after having initiated a radicalisation process, generally online.
The fact that these attacks are generally "low-budget, poorly planned and involve a single terrorist" results in fewer casualties, but also makes it "more difficult for counter-terrorism officials to anticipate and prevent them from occurring", the yearbook notes.
The report notes that 80 per cent of the most virulent attacks have been carried out by different Islamic State franchises, particularly those in Afghanistan and the Sahel. In the case of al-Qaeda, its affiliate JNIM is behind one of the deadliest attacks of the past year. This franchise - actually a coalition of four groups - is the most active along with AlShabaab in Somalia.