The most active and deadliest conflict actors can be categorized into two camps. Somalia continues to be home to the three most active conflict actors in Africa: Al Shabaab, the military forces of Somalia, and unidentified armed groups (UAGs) in Somalia. The spatial location of the conflict activity involving these groups can be seen in Figure 1.

The three deadliest conflict actors in Africa (in terms of civilian targeting) are active in Nigeria and Ethiopia: the Fulani ethnic militia and Boko Haram of Nigeria, and the Military Forces of Ethiopia. The spatial locations of this civilian targeting, as well as the severity of the attacks, can be seen in Figure 2

Unidentified armed groups (UAGs) constitute a large share of violent actors in the ACLED dataset; nearly 20% of organized armed conflict carried out by violent actors last year in Africa involve UAGs.  There are many reasons why a group may be ‘unidentified’:

  • As a strategy
  • Complexity within the conflict, and
  • Insufficiently detailed reporting[1].

ACLED deals with the second and third reasons by triangulating and searching in multiple sources for further details of agents involved in violence. However, because UAG activity occurs in the same locations and time periods as reported information, this suggests that strategy is the main reason behind the anonymity of actors. Therefore, ACLED contends that being unidentified is a common and widespread strategy for state and non-state affiliated groups.

The strategy is to take advantage of anonymous violence: UAGs can carry out violence on behalf of conflict actors – especially those who may benefit from violence, but want to avoid responsibility for those actions. Government forces, for example, may benefit from violence against civilians in order to bolster the state regime and suppress any competition; however, state regimes may want to avoid publicly taking part in these activities, especially as a result of international norms. Under these circumstances, they might utilize UAGs to do this bidding for them. These groups have many similarities to political militias, especially in that they can often act as ‘mercenaries’ and do the violent bidding of elites.[2] These political elites (governors, political party leaders, etc.) are similar to governments in that they do not want to take open responsibility for their violent actions by name.

Conflict involving UAGs has been increasing in the recent decade; these groups are responsible for an increasingly large proportion of organized armed conflict in Africa (see Figure 3). While most events involving ‘unidentified’ groups occur in in Somalia (see Figure 4), the proportion of events involving these groups has been growing in other countries during the past year, namely in Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria and Libya (see Figure 5).

The fact that UAGs can be used by named conflict actors to carry out violence on their behalf can be seen in where these events occur and what types of events are being carried out by them. For example, Figure 6 is a map of the locations of conflict activity involving government forces, Al Shabaab, and UAGs in Somalia last year. Remote violence and civilian targeting tend to occur in the same locations as battles, suggesting that the same/aligned actors may be involved. Figure 7 displays the conflict activity of government forces, Al Shabaab, and UAGs in recent years. As expected, government forces and Al Shabaab are most active in battles – i.e. civil war conflict activity – while UAGs and Al Shabaab feature more prominently in the use of remote violence and civilian targeting tactics.

Similarly, Figure 8 is a map of the locations of conflict activity involving government forces, rebel organizations (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North [SPLM-N], Justice and Equality Movement [JEM], and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army-Minnawi, Nur, and Wahid Factions [SLM/A]), pro-government militias and paramilitary groups (including the Janjaweed and Rapid Support Forces [RSF]), and UAGs in Sudan last year. Civilian targeting tends to occur in many of the same locations as battles, again suggesting that the same/aligned actors may be involved. Figure 9 displays the conflict activity of these four conflict agents (government forces, rebel organizations, pro-government militias, and UAGs) in recent years. Again, as expected, while government forces and rebel organizations are involved in more battles, pro-government militias and UAGs are more active in civilian targeting, used to carry out these attacks, including sexual violence.


[1] Even in cases where we have local source reporting, a high number unidentified armed groups in the data suggest that the strategic use of unknown perpetrators is more prevalent than incomplete reporting.

[2] As a result, ACLED codes UAGs with the same interaction code as political militias (interaction code 3) for categorization and clarity.

Trend 5: Violent Conflict Actors in Africa in 2016