By Patrick Johnson
Al-Qaeda is far from defeated, even 12 years after 9/11. The reality is that worldwide, numerous factors conspire to breed a new generation of Islamic extremism. Nowhere are these factors more prevalent now than in Africa. Recent events in the continent—al-Shabaab bombing a mall in Kenya, the Boko Haram killing 160 people in Nigeria and terrorists taking a town hostage in Mali—may seem disconnected from one another, but are in fact intrinsically linked. As such, the world may soon come to see al-Qaeda and Africa as synonymous, just as al-Qaeda and the Middle East have been. The question then becomes this: how dangerous are these groups, and does the United States have a reason to intervene?
Al-Qaeda affiliations are notoriously difficult to understand due to the strategically decentralized nature of terrorist organizations. However the three groups, Al-Shabaab (Somalia), Boko Haram (Nigeria) and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (Algeria), all have similar backgrounds and share identical ties to al-Qaeda. Just as a civil war bred the type of failed state that allowed for the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, so too have the civic failures of African states bred incentives among citizens to seek a more authoritarian (albeit violent) rule of law.
Somalia, a failed state of 20 years and essentially a war zone, is one example. Here, the terrorist group al-Shabaab has attracted over 7,000 members and has grown bold enough to carry out trans-regional attacks such as the one in Kenya. The similarities to Afghanistan are striking; weak government, regional support (in this case, the support of Eritrea) and outside support from affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula (namely the strongest branch of al-Qaeda, AQAP) can all be seen within the nation.
Nigeria is another example: Africa’s most populous state is still bitterly divided both religiously and geographically, even 43 years after the end of its civil war. The Boko Haram has grown strong in the northeastern part of the country, and although battered last month by government forces, it continues to threaten the Sahel.
Algeria’s AQIM also falls along similar lines. The group began as an armed faction against a secular state in Algeria, but has since moved trans-nationally into Mali. In 2006 the group publicly aligned itself with al-Qaeda and vowed to overthrow all “non-believer” governments in North Africa. Like al-Shabaab and the Boko Haram, the group has recently gained international notoriety; it made its mark with an armed takeover of a town in northern Mali, which prompted a French-led international force to intervene. The French were overwhelmingly successful but the event highlighted AQIM’s military capabilities and bold objectives.
With three hotbeds of jihadist activity, Africa is in a very fragile situation. Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya are all strong regional powers endowed with sophisticated militaries capable of containing these groups, but only for the time being. Should these groups grow or receive outside help, they will be impossible to handle. Unfortunately, their growth is almost guaranteed as events worldwide conspire to breed jihadist activity: with only one year until the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kabul is still not strong enough to stand alone against the Taliban and al-Qaeda; Syria is attracting jihadist fighters like bees to honey; and the “souring of the Arab Spring” (that is, the intense backlash in Egypt against Morsi’s “moderate” Islamic government) has rekindled the flame of Islamic fighters who may now plausibly claim that the West will never accept an Islamic government. Meanwhile Gaddafi’s missing weapons are being disseminated worldwide, providing a means to those with a motive for violence. It seems that America has lost the fight against al-Qaeda.
All of this is to say that the United States’ optimistic claim of victory against al-Qaeda worldwide was horribly wrong. There will be a resurgence of terror in al-Qaeda’s traditional strongholds (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) following the United States’ withdrawal. However, now America will have to add Africa to its list of concerns. The good news is that despite numerous similarities between al-Qaeda in the Middle East and al-Qaeda in Africa, the United States has a few advantages in Africa. First, the regional powers of Africa (Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa) are much more stable and capable than Pakistan or Afghanistan. The United States will have to work with these governments and help enable them to fight terrorist activities, but it will have much more to work with than it did in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although Somalia may be far from salvageable, Kenya and Nigeria will certainly be able to defend themselves. Furthermore, there is an international presence in Africa already: the French and British are likely to help (indeed, France already has against AQIM) their former colonies.
The problem, of course, is timing. Essentially, the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan due to fatigue. It will be many years—perhaps never, given how little concern the American public has shown for the continent in the past—before American voters allow boots on the ground in Africa. Any U.S. support against the African hotbeds of Islamic extremism will thus have to be minimal and inconspicuous.
In sum, the world will likely see a resurgence of Islamic extremism, namely through al-Qaeda affiliated groups, in the years to come. This growth will be particularly noticeable in Africa, where already, three separate extremist groups have found fertile ground for spreading their erratic ideology. It is, as of now, too soon to tell whether these groups pose a threat to the United States or not. If history is anything to judge by, Americans will not care too much for this part of the globe, but with any luck, Africa will be able to resist the advances of al-Qaeda.
Photo by United Nations Photo