Courtesy Reuters

The Terrorist Threat in Africa

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SLAYING THE HYDRA

On August 7, 1998, two massive bombs exploded outside of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, killing 224 people -- including 12 Americans -- and injuring 5,000. Responsibility was quickly traced to al Qaeda. Four years later, al Qaeda operatives struck again, killing 15 people in an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa, Kenya, and simultaneously firing missiles at an Israeli passenger jet taking off from Mombasa's airport. An alarmed United States responded to these attacks with conviction. In addition to proposing significant increases in development assistance and a major initiative on HIV/AIDS, the Bush administration has designated the greater Horn of Africa a front-line region in its global war against terrorism and has worked to dismantle al Qaeda infrastructure there.

At the same time, however, the United States has failed to recognize the existence of other, less visible, terrorist threats elsewhere on the African continent. Countering the rise of grass-roots extremism has been a central part of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, but the same has not generally been true for Africa. In Nigeria, for example, a potent mix of communal tensions, radical Islamism, and anti-Americanism has produced a fertile breeding ground for militancy and threatens to tear the country apart. South Africa has seen the emergence of a violent Islamist group. And in West and Central Africa, criminal networks launder cash from illicit trade in diamonds, joining forces with corrupt local leaders to form lawless bazaars that are increasingly exploited by al Qaeda to shelter its assets. As the war on terrorism intensifies in Kenya and elsewhere, radicals might migrate to more accessible, war-ravaged venues across the continent.

The Bush administration must deal with these threats by adopting a more holistic approach to fighting terrorism in Africa. Rather than concentrate solely on shutting down existing al Qaeda cells, it must also deal with the continent's fundamental problems -- economic distress, ethnic and religious fissures, fragile governance, weak democracy, and rampant human rights abuses -- that create an environment in which terrorists thrive. The United States must also eliminate the obstacles to developing a coherent Africa policy that exist in Washington. Counterterrorism programs for the region are consistently underfinanced, responsibilities are divided along archaic bureaucratic lines, there is no U.S. diplomatic presence in several strategic locations, and long-term imperatives are consistently allowed to be eclipsed by short-term humanitarian demands. The war on terrorism might make officials realize what they should have known earlier: that Africa cannot be kept at the back of the queue forever if U.S. security interests are to be advanced.

ROOTING THEM OUT

The recent Mombasa attacks are proof that there is still al Qaeda infrastructure in East Africa, built on linkages with a disaffected Arab-origin minority. The lingering presence of terrorism in the region also attests to the radicalizing effects of deep-rooted problems there. The greater Horn of Africa -- an area that includes Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya -- is home to interlocking conflicts, weak and failing states, pervasive corruption, and extreme poverty. It is chronically susceptible to drought -- 15 million of Ethiopia's 66 million citizens, for example, are at risk of famine. And it is plagued by HIV/AIDS.

After September 11, 2001, the Horn gained attention as a possible new haven for al Qaeda operatives driven from Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Somalia did not, as feared, become the replacement operational base for Afghanistan, but it did serve as the base for the 2002 attacks in Mombasa. Al Qaeda has a long-standing, indigenous infrastructure in coastal Kenya and the environs of Nairobi and the proven ability to transit in and out of Kenya via Somalia. It is suspected of having similar ease of access to Zanzibar, coastal Tanzania, and the Comoros Islands.

Sudan was Osama bin Laden's base from 1991 to 1996 and has had to bear that heavy legacy in its dealings with the United States ever since. The United States fired cruise missiles into the al-Shifa aspirin factory in late August 1998, in a controversial retaliation for the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings. The attack focused Khartoum's attention on its acute exposure and the possibility of further U.S. action. An intensive counterterrorism dialogue between the two governments commenced in the spring of 2000 and accelerated dramatically after September 11, when the United States threatened additional measures -- while also promising to improve relations if Sudan cooperated fully and quickly.

In 2002, to combat terrorism in the Horn, the United States created the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which involves 1,800 U.S. soldiers and is backed by U.S. Central Command. Based in Djibouti, CJTF-HOA's mission is to deter, preempt, and disable terrorist threats emanating principally from Somalia, Kenya, and Yemen, assisted by a multinational naval interdiction force. In June 2003, President Bush announced a $100 million package of counterterrorism measures to be spent in the Horn over 15 months. Half of these funds will support coastal and border security programs administered by the U.S. Department of Defense, $10 million will be spent on the Kenyan Anti-terror Police Unit, and $14 million will support Muslim education.

East African governments have been largely receptive to engagement with the United States. Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda even identified themselves as U.S. coalition partners during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But the battle for public opinion is far from won. The travel alerts for Kenya and Tanzania issued by Washington and London in 2003 are a case in point. The advisories were widely unpopular -- disrupting international air traffic and undermining the recovery of the region's tourist trade -- and have intensified debates in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam over the wisdom of partnering with Washington. Strong U.S. support for antiterrorist measures under consideration by the Kenyan Parliament has also provoked anger, particularly from civil libertarians (still reeling from the repressive rule of Daniel arap Moi) and from Muslim clerics (who claim that the proposed controls are fundamentally anti-Islam).

If it is to gain local support in Kenya and elsewhere, the United States must adopt a less heavy-handed approach. To achieve this, Washington needs a stronger diplomatic and intelligence presence on the ground. At present, the United States lacks a diplomatic resident in several key locations, including Mombasa, Hargeysa (in northern Somalia), and Zanzibar, and it has weak links to other Muslim areas in East Africa. For example, Washington has yet to overcome its post-1993 phobia about engagement with Somalia, a country that sustains al Qaeda infrastructure inside Kenya. More broadly, it remains to be seen whether the Bush administration can provide sufficient political and financial leadership to back up its multiple and ambitious operations in the region, given worsening budgetary pressures and competing demands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

DRAINING THE SWAMP

The U.S. government may have recognized the need to go after al Qaeda infrastructure in East Africa, but the potential for the growth of Islamic extremism and other sources of terrorism elsewhere on the continent has not registered sufficiently on its radar screen. By far the most troubling case is Nigeria. With nearly 133 million people, nearly 67 million of whom are Muslim, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and possesses its second-largest Muslim population (after Egypt). It is also a crucial economic partner of the United States, providing seven percent of its oil. Yet Washington has done little to check rising instability there in recent years. The country's GDP has fallen by two-thirds in the past 20 years, creating a level of poverty unprecedented in its history. Partly as a result, Nigeria has come under intense pressure from two disaffected minorities: radical Islam in the north and a collection of tribal groups in the southeast. Simmering communal conflict was responsible for 10,000 deaths between 1999 and 2003.

Nigeria's Islamic challenge comes from a combination of religious, political, and economic factors. Northern Nigeria, populated by the Hausa-Fulani, is primarily Muslim and has connections to both influential Muslim brotherhoods in western Africa and centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East. After Nigeria became independent in 1960, northerners dominated the political and military establishment. Throughout this period, however, Nigeria retained a delicate balance between Muslims and the largely Christian population of the south. That balance is being sorely tested today as a more fundamentalist brand of Islam asserts itself in key areas of the country.

This resurgence is partly the outcome of an internal debate -- begun in the 1960s and fueled by religious scholars funded by Saudi Arabia -- over the purity of Nigerian Islam. But an equally important factor is the changed political and economic fortunes of the north. In 1999, after nine years of particularly rapacious rule by the Muslim military leader Sani Abacha, Nigeria regained democratic institutions. The winner of the ensuing elections was General Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner and born-again Christian. Obasanjo proceeded to purge the military of politically oriented officers -- the majority of whom were northern Muslims. He also instituted a program to investigate past corruption and bring perpetrators to justice. Politically, militarily, and economically, northerners felt their influence decline.

Soon, a northern governor decided to challenge Obasanjo by introducing Islamic criminal law (shari'a) in his state. No one anticipated the tremendous popularity of this move. Shari'a offered a sense of hope to people faced with rising crime and increasing instability. Within a few months it had been adopted in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states. The shari'a movement remains a potent force in Nigerian politics and society, unsettling relations between Muslims and Christians and increasing tension between the north and south of the country.

Northern Nigerians often consider Washington to be colluding in their political and economic decline. Many people, for example, saw the U.S.-run program to improve the military's capacity for peacekeeping (instituted after Obasanjo's election victory) as an attempt to assist the president in purging northern leadership. U.S. policies in the Middle East have also stirred anti-American feelings: tens of thousands of Nigerians flocked to rallies against the Iraq war.

To date, there is no evidence that terrorist cells have penetrated northern Nigeria, nor that terrorist and criminal syndicates have linked up. But the situation is increasingly dangerous. The Bush administration singled out Nigeria as a country with significant impact and deserving of "focused attention" in its 2002 National Security Strategy. But the United States is poorly positioned to address the anti-American attitudes that create a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. The U.S. embassy lacks a single American speaker of Hausa, the main language of northern Nigeria; has no consulate or other permanent representation in the north; and, until recently, possessed only a poorly staffed and unimaginative public diplomacy program.

U.S. relations with the Nigerian military are also fragile. On the one hand, Washington looks to Nigeria to carry much of the peacekeeping burden in West Africa -- most recently in Liberia -- and has provided aid for this purpose. But on the other hand, the U.S. Congress has prohibited further training of the Nigerian military because of human rights concerns, thus compromising the U.S. ability to reach out to a new generation of Nigerian military officers from both north and south.

The growing armed uprising in Nigeria's delta region, the source of the country's oil and home to the largest concentration of U.S. investment on the continent, compounds the danger to American interests. Conflict arises there from grievances over the sharing of oil wealth, environmental damage, and corruption. Much onshore oil activity has been shut down and considerable amounts of oil have been stolen to buy arms. Nigeria has increasingly relied on its armed forces to restore order, but the army's record of indiscriminate violence often only feeds the discontent. Washington should be more actively engaged in helping the Nigerian government and the oil companies to address the deep resentments that feed this situation. Yet -- like in the north -- there is no permanent U.S. embassy presence in the delta region.

The United States has also done little to help Nigeria out of its severe economic depression, which is indirectly responsible for much of the tension in the country. Currently, President Obasanjo is working with the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to bring transparency to the oil sector and make strategically important economic reforms. Washington should actively support these reforms and be prepared to take the lead in debt rescheduling and other forms of economic support.

South Africa, meanwhile, is another country that faces the threat of rising Islamist extremism. In the 1990s, a small radical Islamic group, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), emerged. PAGAD started out as a vigilante organization seeking to combat the growing drug trade in poor townships near Cape Town, but it was subsequently hijacked by radical elements. After PAGAD became openly critical of U.S. policies in the Middle East and Israel, some people suspected the influence of Saudi-financed imams, who accompanied new mosques built in the Cape Muslim area. The group staged several demonstrations against the American and Israeli embassies and even threatened the life of the American consul general in Cape Town. PAGAD is also suspected of carrying out a series of bar and nightclub bombings that took place in the late 1990s.

Admittedly, there is little evidence of other terrorist sympathies among South Africa's Muslim population, which numbers less than a million. Moreover, South Africa's intelligence apparatus is sophisticated and sensitive to terrorist threats, having successfully cracked down on PAGAD and extradited any terrorist suspects found hiding in the country. But the terrorist threat in South Africa still requires close monitoring. And existing cooperation between the FBI and the Scorpions -- South Africa's aggressive police arm -- must be strengthened and extended if terrorism is to be stamped out.

LAWLESS BAZAARS

In the past decade, new discoveries of oil off the coast of West Africa have more than doubled estimates of the region's reserves to more than 60 billion barrels. By 2015, West Africa may provide a quarter of U.S. oil and is likely to acquire an increasingly high strategic profile. The region is home to almost 130 million Muslims, yet it exhibits little grass-roots support for terrorism. And Middle Eastern issues do not color relationships with the United States to the same extent as they do in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa. Senegal, Mali, and Niger -- all predominantly Muslim -- have become functioning democracies with close relationships with Washington. The United States has engaged these countries (along with Chad) in the Pan Sahel Initiative, a program to bolster security and intelligence along the Sahara's southern border. Two West African Muslim countries, Senegal and Mauritania, even enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel.

Outside of Nigeria, therefore, the terrorist threat in West and Central Africa comes less from religion and politics than from lack of sovereign control and general debility. The Bush administration acknowledged this link in its 2002 National Security Strategy, which argued that "poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders." Both Central and West Africa are exceptionally anarchic zones. Interrelated wars have occurred in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guinea. Nine African countries were drawn into the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during the late 1990s. This highly unstable situation has given rise to a dangerous chaos in which criminal syndicates partner with rogue leaders (Charles Taylor in Liberia, Blaise Campaore in Burkina Faso, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, for example) and al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda has used the region less to foment terrorism than to protect and expand its finances, a challenge for the organization since the U.S. campaign against it went into high gear after September 11. As documented by Global Witness, The Washington Post, and the UN, al Qaeda started marketing gems through its East Africa networks and has subsequently taken advantage of the civil war and chaos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to extend its activities into that mineral rich-country. With attention focused on the Middle East, the horrific war in the Congo -- which took nearly 3 million lives -- went almost unnoticed in U.S. media and political circles. But figuring out how to take advantage of the conflict was clearly on al Qaeda's agenda.

The terrorists' illegal trade in gems has spread to other countries in the region. Al Qaeda reportedly colluded with the governments of Burkina Faso and Liberia to buy diamonds marketed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone during the crippling civil war that wracked that country and neighboring Liberia in the late 1990s. In response, the UNhas outlawed the marketing of so-called conflict diamonds and placed arms embargoes on Liberia and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, diamond-producing countries such as South Africa and Botswana -- together with key diamond manufacturers -- have established the Kimberley Process, which identifies conflict diamonds and keeps them off the market. The Clinton administration was a strong supporter of this initiative, but the Bush administration has been largely indifferent to it, having been slow to sign up to its monitoring provisions.

Even more critical than combating al Qaeda's financial maneuvering is confronting the cause of the organization's regional resurgence: the anarchy and conflict engendered by West and Central Africa's failed and failing states. To date, the United States has offered neither the leadership nor the resources needed to deal with this problem properly. U.S. local diplomatic capacities remain weak, and initiatives are episodic and vulnerable to downward budgetary pressures. Each time the United States appears to offer greater commitment to the region, it pulls back, suggesting that the administration does not see it as a critical part of its global antiterrorist strategy.

This ambivalence predates the Bush administration. In the wake of the Somalia debacle in 1993, the Clinton administration and Congress slammed the brakes on U.S. involvement in UN peacekeeping, supporting only minimal UN efforts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. In fact, the backlash from Somalia reinforced a fear of "nation building" in general, one that has been only partially eliminated in the wake of September 11.

President George W. Bush had an opportunity to send a different message in 2003. Having simmered for more than a decade, the civil war in Liberia began to boil over on the eve of his trip to Africa in July. This spelled disaster for the more than one million people crowded into Liberia's capital, Monrovia, and created a clear opening for a U.S.-led peacekeeping effort to restore order. The United States had had a special relationship with Liberia for decades and had maintained important communications facilities there. Locals were clamoring for U.S. intervention and, unlike in Somalia, all sides in the war declared that they would respect a U.S.-led force and honor a cease-fire. Washington's European allies, meanwhile, had shown that peacekeeping could shore up neighboring states (the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone in 2000, France in Côte d'Ivoire in 2003). The most compelling reason to intervene, however, was that Liberia had been the center of al Qaeda's operations in West Africa.

Initially, Bush took a strong stand, demanding that Liberian President Charles Taylor depart the country as a precondition for a U.S.-backed peacekeeping intervention. Washington considered introducing troops into an African situation for the first time in ten years. But after tantalizing African leaders with this prospect during his six-day trip, the president balked under pressure from the Pentagon and the vice president's office. More than 2,000 U.S. marines were sent offshore to provide backup for a West African force but were barred from any significant land role. They departed the area altogether within three months.

The Liberian shuffle badly damaged U.S. credibility throughout Africa and sent precisely the wrong signal to criminal and terrorist groups operating in the continent's western and central areas. The upshot of the president's message was that the U.S. role in Liberia would be limited to humanitarian purposes. And therein lies the heart of the problem: by painting U.S. interests in Liberia -- and in related civil unrest in surrounding countries -- as solely humanitarian, the administration has obscured the fact that U.S. interests in West and Central Africa are strategic as well.

POLICY SHIFT

President Bush's trip to Africa in July 2003 affirmed the continent's importance on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Yet the administration still operates without an overarching framework for Africa policy that can put its multiple initiatives -- the $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Millennium Challenge Account, the various counterterrorism measures, and the reassessment of Africa's place within U.S. European Command and in NATO -- into their appropriate strategic context.

Washington's problem is not just one of policy substance. The administration also needs to reorganize itself internally. It is essential to overcome divided responsibility for Africa among the Department of Defense's European, Central, and Pacific commands. Africa's nearly seamless borders, interrelated conflicts, and interconnected trafficking networks demand a unified U.S. command structure for military training, intelligence, and deployment. Similarly, an empowered antiterrorism task force is needed to overcome the internal division in the State Department separating those who deal with North Africa from those who deal with sub-Saharan Africa. The languishing Pan Sahel Initiative, for example, will not be truly effective until its participants engage with their northern neighbors -- Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia -- which will require better interdepartmental coordination.

Today, in the absence of such a framework and internal restructuring, the Bush administration reflexively defines conflicts and crises in Africa in narrow humanitarian terms -- as it did with Liberia in the summer of 2003. It allows budgetary concerns to trump vital support for multilateral peace operations and even antiterrorism programs. And it places crucial support for economic and social development in Africa in jeopardy.

Africa may not rank with Iraq or Afghanistan as a top priority in the war on terrorism, nor with the Middle East or Southeast Asia as a primary focus of U.S. antiterrorism programs. But if Washington continues to underplay the terrorist threat in Africa, its worldwide strategy against terrorism will falter -- and the consequences may be dire indeed.

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