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Global War on Terror and the Africa Link

Mayank Bubna is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 14, 2010

    On Christmas Day, 2009, a Nigerian youth barely out of college boarded a plane en route to Detroit. Mid-flight he quietly got up to use the bathroom. Activating a bomb in his underwear, he returned to his seat and then detonated it. The device failed to explode, and the man was quickly overpowered by fellow passengers. Almost simultaneously, a Somali man broke into the home of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist responsible for the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, and attempted to murder him with an axe. He was stopped only when shot by Danish police.

    Across the globe, a crucial but largely unseen and unheard of force in the Global War on Terrorism is emerging – young, hardened, militant, radicalized recruits from Africa – a force potent enough to compel governments to revise their handbooks on how best to contend with Islamic extremism. Theories abound regarding this new phenomenon; experts have blamed everything – Middle East manipulations, poverty, discrimination, influential imams, unemployment, youthful anger, pre-existing wars. Like all speculations, the truth is probably a mix of all these factors. Yet in the years following 9/11, Africa remains as opaque and misunderstood a space as ever.

    This is so because vast swathes of the African landmass are ungoverned spaces where the airs of modernity rarely touch traditional cultures; where natives are a throwback to the days of slavery and celestial spirits; where legacies of colonizers remain embedded within the postcolonial successors. This, however, is changing. Slowly but surely, unkempt cities in North Africa are becoming hotbeds for jihadi recruits; sleepy tourist towns along the East African coast are emerging as spots for sprightly new mosques; areas of armed violence are being used as hideouts for terrorist groups, and young blood from West Africa are becoming intolerant tooters of Islam.

    Increasingly as well, more and more African-Muslims in the Diaspora are returning to their geographical roots, and then joining these jihadi groups. Analysts tend to classify these cases as outliers – freakish, random, isolated incidents that can only be explained by individual motivations. Yet, if one were to learn anything from ongoing developments, terrorists are hardly discrete creations. For much of the developed world, the idea of a terrorist did not take hold until that fated day in September 2001 when America’s twin towers were brought down in a fantastical aviation attack. For Africa however, the global war on terrorism predates 9/11. Perhaps the beginnings of the modern-day jihad can be traced back to the mid-90’s when Osama bin Laden used the territory of Sudan to co-ordinate an attack on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Then, in 1998, al-Qaeda cells operating in East Africa blew up American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. These and other incidents against Westerners on African soil prompted analysts to remark that Africa has become the new battleground for the Global War on Terrorism.

    Ongoing developments in the Horn of Africa epitomize this struggle. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen are embroiled in a nasty clash while American operators in a base in Djibouti call the shots. The Horn is also Africa’s link to the Middle East, alongside being the target of America’s most militarized campaign against Islamic terrorism on the continent. Right after the 9/11 attacks, America posted several hundred troops in the region to patrol the Red Sea, conduct surveillance activities, and train local anti-terrorism units.

    Yet, the Horn also represents some of the most complex challenges. Ridding the Somalis of the Islamic Courts Union (and militant outfits like al-Shabaab) without alienating the people and losing out on the single-working judicial system (however brutal it might be) is a huge conundrum for much of the international community. Arming the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia with the necessary tools to run a war-ravaged country, providing support to a weakened and barely sustainable African Union contingent and preventing the spillover of conflict into regional neighbours are some of the other problems to contend with, with no easy answers. Other countries deeply affected by problems of radicalization are Kenya (a victim of past terrorism incidents), South Africa (attractive to criminal groups for its superior infrastructure and easy banking) and states in the Maghreb. Niger and Mali, two of the poorest countries in the world, are home to criminal and smuggling networks that exploit the tough terrain of the Sahara desert to their full advantage. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, hosts the second-largest Muslim population on the continent after Egypt. Its largely poor Muslim northern half barely gets along with the Christian south. Riots are rampant, and Nigeria’s moderate Islamic beliefs have consistently lent themselves to external influences.

    Responses from the international community to this spread of extremism has taken two forms – a regional effort under the auspices of the African Union (a mini-United Nations of sorts, packaged with its own version of peacekeeping) and a US-led effort under the tutelage of Africom. Unfortunately, neither of these efforts has resulted in much progress. The AU remains too weak institutionally and resource-wise to carry out any effective peacekeeping activity on the continent. In the Darfur region, an area almost the size of France, they have barely managed to post 7,000 troops. In Somalia, they have been the target of repeated attacks and can hardly protect themselves. Africom has not been well accepted either. Despite its claimed noteworthy intentions, Africans suspect that Africom is simply a cover for America to extend its military reach into the continent in order to protect its own energy interests.

    There are other problems too. The growth of terrorist outfits in Africa is complex because very often they are hard to distinguish from internal crises. Weak state institutions, clientelist practices, discrimination, poverty and ethnic strife make this place the perfect breeding ground for many such extremist groups. A majority of Africa’s wars are not wars on terrorism, but rather struggles born out of bad governance. Many leaders use the Global War on Terrorism as an excuse to fight their own personal wars. Combating terrorism without alienating the people is a mind-boggling task. The dilemma remains one of balancing a military solution with efforts to improve governance and address economic and social issues. Concentrating simply on a military solution will lead to an over-securitization of Africa, which in turn will serve to reinforce authoritarian practices. Diplomatic presence needs to be increased and more communities need to be engaged in dialogue.

    Africa’s proximity to the Middle East and its historical connections to Islam mean that it will remain an integral partner in the War on Terrorism. How capacity is built to combat this threat will require a united effort from Africans and the international community. Fortunately, African leaders have demonstrated their willingness to co-operate to solve this problem. Whether or not they have the support of their people, and for how long, are questions that beset these efforts.