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AFRICA: Terror Havens

Author: Esther Pan
December 30, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Which states in Africa are terrorist havens?

Experts say many nations on the continent bear watching as current or potential havens for international terrorists. A failed state like Somalia has long been a breeding ground for extremists, and Sudan's previous links to al Qaeda are well-documented. But experts warn that any African nation with the combustible mix of a weak central government, widespread poverty, and an increasingly politicized Muslim population is at risk.

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Why is there increasing concern about terrorism in Africa?

Many experts say that Africa, with several war-ravaged areas and vast swathes of ungoverned territory, offers ideal conditions for extremists seeking to establish a foothold. "There are many areas where the government is not in control," says Jonathon Schanzer, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming book, "Al Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups, Ungoverned Territories and the Next Generation of Terror." "If you can't seal your borders and there are areas that no one's watching, it leaves the opportunity for exploitation," he says. Daniel Byman, assistant professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says there are large Muslim or Arab populations in several African countries that may be sympathetic to al Qaeda and other terror groups. In those countries, "it's logical that you would find some significant presence" of terrorists, he says.

Is Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in Africa?

Yes, experts say. "As a result of the madrassas and Wahhabi funding, some Muslim populations are increasingly identifying more with their religion than their nationality," says Joseph Siegle, Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Many of the religious schools known as madrassas that Siegle refers to teach the strict Wahhabi form of Islam promoted and underwritten by Saudi Arabia. The resulting growth in young Muslim leaders who seek to guide their countries along "pure" religious paths worries some experts, who say the United States is not doing enough to combat this new threat. "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," warn Africa specialists Princeton N. Lyman and J. Stephen Morrison in an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs titled "The Terrorist Threat in Africa."

Does al Qaeda have a presence in Africa?

Yes, concentrated in East and North Africa. U.S. officials have described the Horn of Africa--a region that includes Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Tanzania, and other nations--as a front line of the war on terror. A U.S. anti-terror force of 1,800 troops is currently based in Djibouti.

How does al Qaeda operate in Africa?

Terror experts say it is a highly effective recruiter of local radical groups. It typically supplies them with arms, money, and support, and then uses them to carry out attacks that serve both groups' agendas. For example, Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) is a "classic case of an affiliate group," Schanzer says. He says local insurgencies that start out as government opponents are susceptible to Qaeda recruitment and funding if they have Islamist leanings. "They work as subcontractors for al Qaeda," he says.

Are other terrorist groups active in Africa?

"It depends how you define terrorism," Byman says. "There are many local insurgency groups that use politically motivated violence against civilians." The local groups, experts say, contrast with terror groups that have regional or international reach and ambitions. For example, Hezbollah--the Lebanese organization of Shiite militants--has a strong fund-raising presence among the Lebanese Shiite Diaspora in West Africa but is not a significant threat elsewhere in Africa, experts say.

What is the United States doing to counter the terror threat from Africa?

The Bush administration has focused on dismantling Qaeda cells and infrastructure in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa region, according to Lyman and Morrison. The U.S. strategy is to "work with local governments to find and arrest these people," Byman says. "That's how we fight terrorism around the world." In countries where local governments are not strong enough to accomplish this goal themselves, the United States is working to help build their capacity, experts say. On June 26, 2003, President Bush announced a U.S. commitment of $100 million over 15 months to help Horn of Africa countries improve counterterror efforts. The money will go toward improving air and seaport security, increasing coastal and border patrols, building computer databases to track terrorists, increasing intelligence-sharing, and cutting off terrorist financing. The primary beneficiaries of the program are Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, and Tanzania.

What is the long-term strategy?

In addition to the steps outlined above, experts say the United States must do more to address the underlying causes of terrorism in Africa: economic distress, ethnic and religious divisions, fragile governance, weak democracy, and rampant human rights abuses, according to Lyman and Morrision. In addition, wrote Siegle in a recent International Herald Tribune op-ed, the United States should:

  • improve access to education and increase opportunities so young people won't be drawn to fundamentalist ideologies;
  • increase access to information, because radical ideologies thrive on skewed world views developed in isolation;
  • regulate the funding and teachings of madrassas; and
  • foster reconciliation, tolerance, and non-violent conflict resolution between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Which states pose the greatest threats?

Experts on terror havens categorize at-risk African nations in three groups, from highest to lowest threat. The following countries are highest-risk:

Sudan. A longtime supporter of international terrorism and a former base for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden , Sudan has been on the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993. The ideology of the current regime, led by General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, "matches up [with bin Laden's], and they're very cunning," Schanzer says. "Talk about state sponsors of terror: these guys are up to their eyeballs in it." Still, international pressure has had some effect on the government: bin Laden was expelled in 1996. In August 1998, the Clinton administration ordered cruise missile strikes against a factory in Khartoum in retaliation for the bombings at U.S. embassies in East Africa. Since then, al-Bashir's government has sought to improve relations with the United States. Sudan has provided "concrete cooperation" against international terrorism since 9/11, according to the State Department. But given the country's record of supporting regional terror groups, including Hamas , Hezbollah , the Lord's Resistance Army, and the Islamic Jihad in Egypt , Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Palestine, many experts say Sudan's recent cooperation is political maneuvering. "I don't think they've changed at all in terms of ideology," Siegle says. "They're just trying to put on a warm face to the United States so as to avoid scrutiny in the war on terrorism."

Somalia. The ongoing chaos in the East African nation makes it an ideal base for terrorism, experts say. Somalia's population of 7.5 million is 99 percent Muslim. The State Department characterizes the condition as "anarchy, marked by inter-clan fighting and random banditry, with some areas of peace and stability." Experts say the country supports Qaeda activity in Kenya and was the base for terrorists who mounted the November 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. In those incidents, an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed and surface-to-air missiles narrowly missed an Israeli jet that was taking off from the Mombasa airport. Several local Islamic insurgency groups have gained influence in Somalia: al Tabliq, al Islah (which is supported by Saudi Arabia, according to the State Department), and al Ittihad al-Islami, or Islamic Unity. All these groups want to establish an Islamic state. Al Ittihad in particular, experts say, endorses violence and has claimed responsibility for terrorist acts.

Which African nations pose mid-level terror threats?

Algeria. A country of some 33 million people, it gained independence from France in 1962. An Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, won the first round of legislative elections in 1991. The Algiers government, fearful of an Islamist victory, voided the election results. In response, local Islamists started a campaign of assassinations, bombings, and massacres. The Armed Islamic Group ( GIA ) sprang up to try to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic state. The Salafist Group for Call and Combat broke off from GIA in 1996 and is considered by experts to be the most dangerous armed group in Algeria. The State Department estimates that terrorism and ongoing violence have left more than 100,000 people dead since 1991.

Egypt. A relatively stable and prosperous North African country, Egypt is home to some of the key theorists behind Islamic fundamentalism and provides many of al Qaeda's foot soldiers, some experts say. The country of 70 million people was granted independence from British colonial rule in 1922. Ninety percent of its population is Sunni Muslim.

Nigeria. Experts warn of a growing Islamist threat in the massive West African country, home to 133 million people, nearly 67 million of whom are Muslim. Twelve states in the vast country's northern region, home to the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani tribe, have implemented Islamic sharia law. While the law does not, in theory, apply to non-Muslims, implementation of sharia has caused religious violence between Muslims and Christians and drawn protests from the government, which says that adopting sharia violates the constitution. Schanzer says that "the allure of radical Islam is growing" in Nigeria, along with increased militarism. Experts warn that Qaeda cells have also appeared in northern Nigeria. "In Nigeria ... 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," write Lyman and Morrison in Foreign Affairs.

Tunisia. Experts say resentment is growing toward the authoritarian government in Tunisia, a North African country of 10 million people. Tunisia is dominated by the ruling Constitutional Democratic Assembly (RCD) party. The president, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, has been in power since 1987. Civil society is weak. An Islamist opposition party, An-Nadha, was banned as a terrorist organization in 1991, when the government accused it of plotting to overthrow the president; however, in the early 1990s, An-Nadha reappeared as a political party and has been allowed to operate openly since. Terror experts say an April 2002 attack against a historic synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, which killed 20 people, is evidence of al Qaeda's growing influence in the country.

Mauritania. Experts say the large West African country, home to 3 million people, has a strong Qaeda presence. "It's a very devout, largely Islamic state that's very poor," Siegle says. "It's a very large country that's difficult to patrol, which makes it an ideal place to maintain cells and training facilities." The nation has many ethnic, cultural, and language divides among its population, a mix of Arabs, Berbers, and Africans. Arabic is the official language and Islam the state religion. Experts say Qaeda operatives have received weapons training and ideological indoctrination in Mauritania.

Which states are on the bottom third of the terror-threat list?

Kenya. A stable country in East Africa, its serves more as a magnet for outside agitators than a breeding ground for local terrorists, experts say. Kenya has long, relatively unguarded borders with Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The country's east coast is populated by long-established Muslim communities. Experts say these communities, whose residents generally adhere to a moderate form of Islam, provide easy entry points for terrorists who can land dhows, or traditional sailing boats, along the poorly guarded Indian Ocean coastline. International terrorists have carried out several attacks on Kenyan soil, including the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and the hotel bombing and attempted destruction of an Israeli airliner in 2002. The country has a sizable Muslim community (20 percent of the population and growing) and is increasingly frequented by Israelis (the Mombasa attacks were aimed at Israeli holidaymakers), a volatile combination. The poorly guarded borders, and especially the long coastline, make it easy for terrorists to "go on in, do their dirty work, and leave," Schanzer says. Kenya's Anti-Terror Police Unit will receive $10 million of the United States' counterterrrorism aid earmarked for Africa.

Tanzania. Experts say that Tanzania is comparable to neighboring Kenya: it is a stable East African nation that attracts terrorists from outside its borders. Tanzania has centuries-old Arab communities along its coast, especially on the island of Zanzibar, an ancient Arab and Persian trading center. Experts say radical Islam is taking hold among the 45 percent of the population that is Muslim. The 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam horrified Tanzanians, they say, and helped prod Tanzania to seek increased cooperation with the United States on anti-terrorism and law enforcement issues.

Libya. Once a stronghold of support for extremists, Libya is turning a new leaf, many experts say. President Bush's December 19 announcement that Libya would renounce its weapons of mass destruction program was further evidence, experts say, of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi's willingness to re-enter the international community. Qaddafi came to power in a military coup in 1969. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Libya engaged in terror, including a 1986 Berlin nightclub bombing that prompted a retaliatory U.S. air strike. Libya was implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; United Nations sanctions were imposed in 1992. After Qaddafi surrendered two bombing suspects to an international court and agreed to pay compensation to the Lockerbie victims' families, the U.N. sanctions were lifted on September 12, 2003.

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