Three, maybe four, misconceptions about terror in Africa
Myth one: Africa is chock full of terror groups. Answer: Not really. “Prior to 2001, there were no designated ‘foreign terrorist organizations’ in Sub-Saharan Africa,” writes Jessica R. Piombo in Strategic Insights. “There have been a number of organizations that area governments label as ‘terrorists,’ yet the United States has been hesitant to recognize the groups as such, for the understandable reason that in many cases, area governments are labeling opposition groups terrorists in order to gain support to combat their opponents.”
Myth two: Terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa is made up of radical Islamic groups. Answer: It depends on how you define “made up.” Of the four sub-Saharan African members of the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list provided by the Dept. of State, two groups are perceived to be Islamist: Al Ittihad Al Islamiyya, AIAI, of Somalia and the Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat working in the Sahara Desert. They have recently re-branded themselves and now go by the term: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. (More on this group later.) The other two include the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda and former military personnel in Rwanda. Note: Al-Qaeda also operates in Africa, but is not from Africa. Also, a whole host of listed groups are active in Egypt and Algeria and a few operate in Libya, but whose countries are not part of sub-Saharan Africa. (Which makes this somewhat of a trick question.)
Myth three: Terrorists mostly operate in failed or failing states with unstable governments with little ability to exert control outside the capital city. Answer: False. Organizations targeting Westerners and their interests often work in states with a modicum of law and order, like Kenya or South Africa (places with Westerners and Western interests). “Terrorist groups tend to use the ‘failed’ states like Somalia more as staging grounds and transit points, rather than places where the groups build long-term organizational and financial networks,” Piombo writes.
Not really a myth, but an interesting point: In Africa, terrorist activity and terror networks generally follow specific geographic boundaries, boundaries corresponding with the historical borders of Islam. In the south and central part of the continent, terror groups are basically unheard of because there are few Muslims and Islamic groups. This is a historical fact. However, in other regions where Islam has long been established, a great number of Islamic groups proliferate, whether they are terrorist or humanitarian. With an increased number of groups to choose from, the odds will increase that a few of them will posses terrorist leanings. “In East and West Africa, Islam as a political ideology has capitalized on ethno-national struggles to create a potent force,” Piombo writes.
For example, in West Africa:
Radical groups have also been able to capitalize on local struggles for power and influence, as with the recruitment of militants from the Tuareg group in Mauritania and Mali. Nigeria has seen major increases in sectarian strife and militarized Islam in recent years, further contributing to rising concern in the Western and Sahelian regions. Attacks against Western oil companies in the Niger Delta, however, come not from Islamist organizations, but from ethnic-nationalist movements seeking a more equitable share of oil revenues, to compensate for the environmental degradation wreaked by oil exploitation.
Sept. 11: Dateline Africa
Africa’s Sept. 11 took place on August 7, 1998 with the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, killing a handful of Americans and hundreds of locals. Local al Qaeda groups carried out the attacks after having trained in Somalia and Sudan, where Osama bin Laden lived until 1991 before debarking to Afghanistan. The attacks were part of Al Qaeda’s ratcheting up of violence against United States interests in foreign countries. The embassy bombings preceded the attack of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen by two years.
While the Cole did not exact immediate retaliation (it was an election year), the bombings in Africa did. Almost two weeks after the bombings (and three days after he appeared before a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky case), President Bill Clinton sent 75 cruise missiles into Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden had been hiding out in plain site and also bombed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factor in Khartoum, Sudan, which intelligence stated was helping Osama bin laden make chemical weapons. That piece of intelligence later turned out to be questionable.
Since the U.S. embassy bombings, Africa and African terrorists have been involved in other terrorist plots:
- In April 2002, Nizar Nawar, a 24-year-old Tunisian, blew himself up with a truckload of natural gas in front of the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, killing 14 Germans, six Tunisians and a Frenchman.
- In 2002, suicide bombers killed 11 people at an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa and simultaneously a group attempted to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
- The March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid were allegedly carried out by people associated with a Moroccan Islamist group.
- Going forward, the BBC says that Somalia, a country without a functioning government for more than a decade and a half (and a sizeable population of unemployed young men with a penchant for guns), will continue to be a haven to terrorists hatching new plots.
The U.S. response
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. military set up the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in the country of Djibouti. The idea behind the new command center was three fold: Monitor and confront terrorists in the area (Djibouti strategically borders Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and looks across the Red Sea from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.); provide military-to-military training for countries in the region; offer development assistance to the local population by building schools, hospitals and wells. Members of the group also provide medical and veterinary visits.
Placing the U.S. military’s most forward base in East Africa made strategic sense: Terrorists had already chosen targets in East Africa; the increasing number of nearby failed states or governments mired with legitimacy issues; the sheer size of the lawless areas where terror groups could easily set up training camps.
But the U.S. military’s approach would not solely focus on search and destroy. “You catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar,” as my mother used to say. Even though she’s never been to Ethiopia, her premise appears to work there. To succeed on the ground, terrorists need at least tacit approval from locals. Of course, this support could be bought or it could come in the form of performing a few nice deeds. If the terror groups could do it, why can’t the U.S. government. So in the heady days of the Global War on Terror and “power for power’s sake,” the U.S. military started engaging in a little soft power, building alliances with the locals through development projects and humanitarian efforts. At least one organization argues that by showing locals the softer side of the U.S. military goes a long way in building peoples’ distrust of terror groups, reducing the appeal of extremism and curbing anti-Americanism.
Even with the strategic importance of East Africa, the State Dept. found that it could no longer ignore West Africa, a region generally less prosperous and strategically important than its eastern neighbors, but also witnessing a greater amount of chaos due to war and civil unrest. This military’s new softer method seemed to be working in Djibouti, so the Pentagon decided to duplicate its idea on the other side of the continent.
In 2002, the Office of Counterterrorism announced the Pan Sahel Initiative, involving four West African countries (Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania) where the United States military provided training and equipment for quick reaction forces to help better police the region’s immense borders (namely, the Sahara desert) where terror groups may take root among the innumerable long-standing smuggling rings.
On April 1, 2004 Karl Wycoff, Associate Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism updated the House subcommittee on Africa regarding the realities of terror in Africa:
In parts of West Africa, we have seen dramatic rises in the level of anti-American and extremist Islamic rhetoric, most notably in northern Nigeria. We are working to support effective and inclusive governance in these countries to dilute the appeal of extremists…The U.S. is cooperating with other countries to address the enormous security, development, and other needs of Liberia and to support efforts in neighboring countries to ensure that this region does not become a haven for terrorist and criminal activity.
As a military program, the Pan Sahel Initiative was to be something different for the Pentagon. They were going to keep the soft power stuff, but unlike the large base in Djibouti, they were going to do away with the a huge infrastructure to provide training and development assistance. Craig Smith in the New York Times:
Having learned from missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American officers are pursuing this battle with a new approach. Instead of planning on a heavy American military presence, they are dispatching Special Operations forces to countries like Mali and Mauritania in West Africa to train soldiers and outfit them with pickup trucks, radios and global-positioning equipment.
'We want to be preventative, so that we don't have to put boots on the ground here in North Africa as we did in Afghanistan,'' said the European Command's chief of counter-terrorism, Lt. Col. Powl Smith, adding that by assisting local governments to do the fighting themselves, ''we don't become a lightning rod for popular anger that radicals can capitalize on.''
The idea seemed so simple it had to work. Again, Craig Smith:
United States military officials say part of the problem is that Islamists in the region are in touch with one another while the governments of the countries they are in, are not. Mali and Mauritania, for example, do not have the means to talk to each other from their garrisons, which in some cases are only a couple hundred miles apart. ''If they see something, they don't have an easy way to pass it on to their counterparts,'' the official said.
The trainings seemed to be working. Armies in Niger and Chad were happy to practice shooting with real bullets. The Malians liked the trucks. Before long, however, a few Americans were demanding the Pentagon step up participation even more in Africa. Here is Ed Royce, R-Calif., former chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations:
Africa's growing strategic importance is clear. Within a decade, 25 percent of US oil imports will come from Africa, mainly from Nigeria, Algeria, and Angola. Several African countries are potential terrorist havens or targets, as demonstrated by the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Radical Islam is spreading in Africa, in part due to the efforts of Sudan, a state sponsor of terrorism. Somalia is also under the sway of Islamist extremists.
The US military has intervened in Africa more than 20 times in the past 15 years, including in Liberia in 2003, when it helped end a brutal factional war. Today the US is providing airlift and other aid to African peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur region. The need for such operations will continue.
Meanwhile, China is rapidly laying down stakes in Africa. China's commerce is mushrooming throughout Africa, and it is seeking to secure Africa's natural resources and markets. China is second only to the US as an importer of African oil. African governments generally favor China for its dogmatic opposition to external "interference" in their affairs. Closer US-Africa military cooperation, spurred by an Africa Command, would help offset this bias. Why concede Africa to Beijing, which undermines democracy, human rights, and transparency?
The arguments for more U.S. involvement in the continent didn’t subside. Not only was China moving into Africa, but so was Iran: “As Iran faces growing isolation in Europe and the West, Africa offers a ready market not only for the export of ideology and religion, but of weapons and other Iranian goods. Among its primary clients are Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe and South Africa.”
There’s other issues, of course. Let’s return to Karl Wycoff at the Capitol: “Throughout the continent, the prevalence of poverty, famine, and disorder offers terrorists an opportunity to insert themselves into a region, to develop support systems, and to troll for new members for their groups.”
By 2006, the Department of State said the picture of terrorism in Africa looked something like this:
- “A small number of al-Qaida (AQ) operatives in East Africa, particularly Somalia, continued to pose the most serious threat to American and allied interests in the region. Although elements were severely disrupted at year's end, AQ continued to operate in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.”
- “There were few significant international terrorist incidents in Africa, but civil conflict and ethnic violence continued in a number of countries. AQ-affiliated terrorist groups were present and operated in Northwest Africa.”
- “The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) merged with al-Qaida in September and changed its name to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM/GSPC continued to operate in the Sahel region, crossing difficult-to-patrol borders between Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, and Chad to recruit extremists within the region for training and terrorist operations in the Trans-Sahara and, possibly, for operations outside the region. Its new alliance with al-Qaida potentially has given it access to more resources and training.”
- “Hizballah continued to engage in fundraising activities in Africa, particularly in West Africa, but did not engage in any terrorist attacks within the region.”
But by this time, the $6.25 million Pan Sahel Initiative had outlasted its significance and its “Band-Aid approach” was finally shelved. In 2005, the government rolled out the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a $500 million, five-year plan incorporating work done in the Sahel (in Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger, as well as Nigeria and Senegal) and the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).
The difference with the Pan Sahel Initiative and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership isn’t just a budget on steroids and incorporating a few new countries: The Pentagon says it’s a whole a new way to fight terror.