Jihadi History: Al-Qaeda’s failed mobilization efforts in Central African Republic

In early 2014, when observers and researchers were sounding the alarm about a potential genocide in the Central African Republic (CAR), al-Qaeda attempted to throw itself into the ring by trying to mobilize anyone to take up jihad under its name within CAR. 

Primarily relying on its various African branches, particularly Shabaab in East Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia in North Africa, al-Qaeda attempted to appeal to the collective Muslim anger and consciousness over the mass killings of Muslims across many areas of CAR in early 2014. 

In doing so, it hoped to provoke Muslims inside CAR to take up arms under al-Qaeda’s banner and/or incite angered Muslims around the world to venture to CAR to partake in the jihad al-Qaeda was attempting to foster. Neither desire materialized despite al-Qaeda’s best wishes in undertaking a coordinated media campaign. 

As such, this misfire at a call to arms offers an interesting look into when jihadis fail at trying to galvanize support or to mobilize anyone to their cause. Instead, such failures only serve to provide a short-term propaganda win as efforts on the ground either fail to materialize or were never believed realistic from the beginning by al-Qaeda’s leadership. 

Background on the Massacres

Though this article inherently revolves around the mass killings in CAR, the specific and exact nature of such events are largely outside of its scope. However, a brief and arguably oversimplified version of events is provided to account for the necessary context of al-Qaeda’s messaging campaign. 

The Central African Republic has largely been in a state of instability and conflict since gaining independence from France in 1960. Following a coup in the capital Bangui that brought former President François Bozizé to power, Bozizé launched a military offensive against various rebel groups in the country’s north before signing a tenuous peace agreement a few years later. 

By late 2012, a coalition of armed groups, many of which were largely Muslim (though not necessarily Islamist in nature), again took up arms against the central government over reported lapses in the earlier peace deal. This coalition, dubbed Seleka, proceeded to quickly advance through the country, capturing Bangui, and overthrowing Bozizé and taking power in March 2013. To note, not all of Seleka’s members were native Central Africans, with many experts reporting the presence of Chadians and Sudanese within its ranks. 

As a response to the Seleka’s march, other militias, which were primarily Christian in composition, formed to combat the Seleka. By mid-to-late 2013, these militias, known as the Anti-Balaka, were carrying out revenge killings against Seleka members and Muslim communities. Around the same time, the Seleka coalition was officially dissolved, though the constituent militias remained very much active and were then referred to as Ex-Seleka.

Starting in early 2014, hundreds of people were then subsequently killed by both Ex-Seleka and Anti-Balaka fighters, as they perpetrated a cycle of violence against each other’s primary constituents, Muslim and Christian communities, respectively. With documented massacres mounting, the United Nations, among others, began sounding the alarm about the growing risk of genocide.

In turn, the United Nations authorized a short-lived African Union (AU) mission to CAR, which was supported by France’s own military intervention. In early 2014, the AU mission was supplanted by the UN’s own mission, MINUSCA, which was again further supported by the French troops. Ex-Seleka members, and indeed many of Bangui’s Muslims, were later forced from the capital. 

To note, while there was a stated religious aspect to the conflict, experts have noted it overlapped with other grievances and was not necessarily motivated by religious extremism in and of itself. This is important as the relative lack of religious extremism to the conflict most definitely hurt jihadist attempts at expansion. It is nevertheless within this time that al-Qaeda officially entered the fray by launching a coordinated media campaign around the mass killings of Muslims. 

Al-Qaeda’s Mobilization Efforts

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began the coordinated campaign with a three-page statement released in February 2014. AQIM, relying on reports from Western non-governmental organizations, states: 

“What’s happening today to our Muslim brothers in the Central African Republic is ethnic and sectarian cleansing by all measures; it’s the worst ethnic cleansing practiced against Muslims in the country’s history, as reported by Amnesty International.” 

The statement then chastises other Arabs, particularly Arab Muslim states, for silence on the issue and then blames the killings on France. While CAR was a former French colony, it is important to note that AQIM’s statement also came just a year after France’s own intervention against AQIM in Mali. This timeframe helps provide further context for why AQIM joined in the calls for jihad in CAR. For instance, AQIM notes that: 

“And is its norm, from between the destruction of tragedy there came the poisoned cooking smell, and the dirty French role in fuelling that conflict and helping the Christians of the regions, where France has unarmed Muslims in an open and studied way, amid its historic fears of Islamic expansion, and in return helped the Christians and on the other side they supplied weapons to Christians for the conflict to leave its common ethnic form, and balance from a struggle here and there to a Franco-Crusader hateful campaign on Muslims and Islam.”

In response to the so-called French-supported Christian massacres of Muslims, AQIM then calls on Muslims both inside and outside of CAR to take up arms against the Anti-Balaka (and thus France). According to the al-Qaeda branch, it is only through jihad can the Muslims of CAR be free of such killings.

And it is upon the Muslims of the world to support Central Africans in this jihad and help liberate the country from the French-backed Christian militias according to AQIM – thus acting as an implicit call for jihadis to travel to CAR to help in these efforts. 

This statement was then followed by a similar edict from Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia (AST), which was itself an affiliate of AQIM. AST states that CAR is the victim of a French-backed conspiracy in which the Christian Anti-Balaka groups “are wreaking havoc upon the Earth and committing massacres against the Muslims.” Like AQIM, AST also criticizes Arab silence on the issue and blames said silence on “puppet Arab governments” being subjected to the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” against Islam. 

AST’s critique of France goes further than AQIM’s, arguing that its intervention in CAR was anything but about preventing further bloodshed. Instead, AST argues that France, like in Mali, was only to weaken Muslim influence and populations and loot various minerals and resources by being the “protector forces” of the Anti-Balaka. 

Like AQIM, AST also argues that the only true way to protect Muslims from further violence in CAR is through jihad. Speaking directly to Muslims in CAR, AST states that “we can only reward you in your affliction and remind you that we do not recognize the imaginary colonial borders and racial barriers that France introduced. You are our brothers and you have nothing but our loyalty, love, and support.” 

More explicitly, AST states that “Your blood will not be in vain…God willing, at the hands of the mujahideen.” AST then reminds the Muslims of CAR that “those who fight in the name of God so fight the friends of Satan [i.e France] and Satan is weak.” These statements again act as implicit calls for jihad within CAR. 

AST then calls on Muslims, specifically in Africa, to assist the Muslims of CAR by directing violence against France. According to the group, even if one can’t make hijrah [immigrate for the sake of jihad], presumably either to CAR or Mali, one could target the French inside France. 

On the other side of the continent, Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch for East Africa, was also active in helping to mobilize for CAR. For instance, in an undated video but likely from February or March 2014 (on file with author), Shabaab documents and laments the various massacres of Muslims and destruction of mosques in CAR before undertaking an attack on Somali forces in Somalia’s south in rhetorical and ideological support for Central African Muslims. 

The video then transitions to a group of Shabaab members partaking in an Arabic-language nasheed [a cappella Islamic songs or chants] meant to boost the morale of the Muslims in CAR (as seen in the screenshot below) as it stresses the importance of hope and imminence of Muslims prevailing over the enemies of Islam. 

Shabaab members seen performing a nasheed for Central African Muslims in a video released in early 2014.

A more detailed video on CAR was subsequently released by Shabaab in May 2014. In that video, Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, the founder and first emir of the group, speaks more definitively on the massacres in the country. For instance, Abu Zubayr states: 

“The plots of the European Crusaders against the African continent – the continent of Islam – and the humiliation of its population and plundering of its resources have persisted throughout history…So what we are witnessing in the Central African Republic is part of a new Crusader plot to blockade Islam in the continent and redraw its map.”

Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, like AQIM, goes further and puts the blame squarely on France. For instance, he notes: 

“The genocide that is being perpetrated against the Muslims in the Central African Republic, with oversight from the French forces, is nothing but a repeat of what Muslims went through in Bosnia. This crime will be added to a long list of crimes committed by France against Islam.”

Abu Zubayr then joins in on the calls for jihad, saying that “we say to the Muslims of the Central African Republic: seek refuge in the weapon and fight against your enemies to defend your religion, your honor, and your wealth.”

The al-Qaeda commander also joined calls encouraging Muslims from outside of CAR to support this fledgling jihad “with any means possible.” He then reminds Muslims that “it is an obligation for us, as decreed by God, to prepare for jihad.” 

Another video (on file with author), produced by Al-Battar Media, a media wing of North African members of the Islamic State, was also released in early 2014 prior to the official split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The video is undoubtedly part of the wider jihadi narrative ecosystem around CAR at the time, but it is unclear, and perhaps unlikely, that it was part of al-Qaeda’s official coordinated campaign.

That said, Al-Battar’s video does primarily rely on a speech from Hani al-Siba’i, one of the more prominent pro-al-Qaeda ideologues, decrying the massacres of Muslims in CAR, further indicating it was produced before the official split. Its timing and contents nevertheless warrant this brief mention here. 

Increased Anxieties

Despite the clearly harmonized campaign, as each publication was released around the same time indicating a degree of behind-the-scenes coordination, al-Qaeda’s efforts to galvanize support and mobilize people to armed jihad was a noticeable failure. No known jihadist presence inside CAR, either through a local Central African group or from a foreign group moving into CAR, was ever reported. 

This was not without ample fears of the contrary, however. For instance, as the al-Qaeda groups were issuing their communiques, regional observers sounded the alarm that the mass killings could provide opportunity for such groups to find an opening within CAR. These fears were also echoed by former government officials within CAR itself. 

The most likely culprit at the time was the so-called ‘Boko Haram’, which at that time was on the rampage in northeastern Nigeria and had its own litany of ties to al-Qaeda. For instance, a UN official stated in late 2013 that “we have some indications that there is some kind of a presence here” of Boko Haram in CAR.

A few months later, Boko Haram allegedly released its own statement on CAR, which echoed many of the same things stated by al-Qaeda’s various branches, though the veracity of the statement is disputed. 

The fear of Boko Haram’s presence inside CAR was further highlighted when a Central African armed group, Revolution and Justice, claimed to have captured two supposed Boko Haram members near the borders with Chad – though this reported capture of suspected jihadists was seemingly never confirmed.

Moreover these fears were later compounded over the Seleka’s own cross-border activity in Cameroon, where Boko Haram was also active, leading to fears of cooperation which Ex-Seleka officials later denied. Photos of Ex-Seleka fighters wearing clothing bearing the name “Boko Haram” and the foreign elements of parts of Ex-Seleka did little to help assuage these accusations, though. 

Even with the high levels of anxiety over a supposed jihadist presence, particularly from Boko Haram, inside CAR, this never came to fruition. No jihadist group ever claimed an attack or operation inside CAR nor publicly admitted any presence there.

For what it’s worth, the UN’s Panel of Experts on CAR did not find, or rather did not report, on any suspected links between the Ex-Seleka militias and jihadists in either of its reports from 2014. 

That said, this is all to not necessarily disbar the idea of jihadis being covertly active inside CAR during this time, either for logistical, recruitment, other support activities, or as a transit route to other destinations.

The very clandestine nature of such activities, however, makes this hard to verify and without confirmation on the ground from this time from reputable sources on any of these shadow efforts it is thus difficult to say one way or the other on if more clandestine efforts did in fact occur. 

It is entirely possible there were more behind-the-scenes efforts made to facilitate connections between jihadist groups, particularly Boko Haram, and militias from the Seleka coalition. But without any hard evidence, this is hard to confirm and thus not speculated on further within this article.

Instead, what can be seen, at least from an open-source perspective, is that jihadis, particularly al-Qaeda and its African networks, did try to mobilize in CAR but no one within the Ex-Seleka militias actually took the bait. 

A Failed Effort

Rather it appears that al-Qaeda possibly misunderstood the context of the fighting in Central Africa and mistook the vicious massacres between Christian and Muslim combatants as a wholly religiously-motivated conflict.

Alternatively, it is possible al-Qaeda did understand this nuance but hoped to make the conflict more religiously-motivated by conducting the media campaign and providing Seleka with a religious justification to expand the conflict.

A third possibility is that al-Qaeda instead understood that there were little-to-no realistic chances of ever engaging inside CAR, but just took the opportunity to try to prove itself better than the governments of the Islamic World by at least offering to help Muslims in need when many Muslim states stayed silent. 

In any scenario, it also hoped to capitalize on anger against the French – importantly coming against the backdrop of the French intervention against al-Qaeda’s forces in Mali – by inflating its role in the massacres against Muslims in CAR. The communiques and videos at least offered al-Qaeda an easy propaganda win rather than anything more substantive on the ground. 

As stated above, experts on CAR noted that while Christian and Muslim militias were fighting and killing each other, the religious aspect was more of a feature than a driver of the violence with other grievances compounding the killings.

Other experts have noted the lack of any historical connection to radical Islam, or even Islamism, inside CAR, further hampering any draw to al-Qaeda’s efforts. This is perhaps further evident by the Seleka’s lack of imposing Shari’a on the areas it controlled, which would have been a prime feature of an armed Islamist group or movement. This is especially true after one such Ex-Seleka group declared an autonomous state in CAR’s north, the so-called Republic of Logone, or Dar al-Kuti, though it does not seem to have been governed by any extremist interpretation of Islam.

The lack of any armed group operating within the normal confines, or even structure, of a typical jihadist group also likely proved difficult for any tangible affiliation with al-Qaeda to develop. The more political drivers of the conflict therefore outshined any stated religious ones, thus dampening any potential avenue for al-Qaeda to exploit. 

This is also to say nothing about the desires and goals of the Ex-Seleka groups themselves, who also may not have even wished to openly associate with such groups, let alone rebrand themselves into a full-fledged jihadist insurgency, further causing al-Qaeda’s messaging to fall on deaf ears.

It is also possible that with the sheer number of armed groups within the Seleka coalition and later the Ex-Seleka elements, this already provided an outlet for violence for those individuals who would normally be drawn to an organization like al-Qaeda, which typically provides such a violent release in similar conflicts. 

For its part, al-Qaeda itself seems to have recognized its failure. Following the issuing of the communiques in early 2014, the group, as well as its respective branches and affiliates, have been largely silent on CAR. Except for a few mentions in passing, for instance in a 2016 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine or in a 2017 video from Ayman al-Zawahiri himself, al-Qaeda seems to have abandoned the idea of a Central African jihad as quickly as it took it up. 


As the world witnessed intense rounds of killings between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic in early 2014, fears of genocide began to spread. As the killings had a nominal religious aspect to them, further anxiety grew within the international presence about an opening for jihadist groups, already operating in nearby countries, to move into CAR.

These fears were seemingly realized when jihadist groups, particularly al-Qaeda’s African branches, began commenting on CAR and calling for an armed jihad and for fellow jihadists to travel to CAR to help the largely Muslim Ex-Seleka militias. 

Despite worries, these fears never materialized. Little to no evidence has emerged to suggest a meaningful relationship or connection between the Ex-Seleka militias and jihadist groups, while no jihadist group ever publicly claimed a presence inside CAR, let alone an armed attack inside the country.

And without hard evidence from the time, even more clandestine jihadist support activity (rather than anything operational) in the country is hard to confirm and discuss though this possibility does remain open. 

Al-Qaeda’s failure at trying to galvanize support or mobilize any like-minded individuals or groups inside to take up armed jihad under its banner nevertheless presents an interesting look into when jihadis fail at this call-to-arms.

When not actually understanding nuanced dynamics on the ground in such conflicts, particularly within CAR, these attempted mobilization efforts only serve to provide a relative propaganda win over al-Qaeda’s state enemies rather than anything more substantive on the ground.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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