from Africa Program

The Terrorist Threat in Africa

April 1, 2004

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

Testimony before the House Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on Africa
Hearing on “Fighting Terrorism in Africa”


More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Sub-Saharan Africa

Middle East and North Africa

Princeton N. Lyman
Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow and Director of Africa Policy Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

April 1, 2004

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, I am pleased to be asked to testify concerning the terrorist situation in Africa.

It will not be possible for the United States to have an effective worldwide campaign against terrorism unless the threat is addressed in Africa. But it is important to distinguish among the threats. There are some immediate threats from existing terrorist networks. This is particularly true in the Horn and east Africa. Some arise from failed or failing states that allow financial exploitation by terrorist groups or exploitation of internal conflicts to recruit members to terrorist networks. This has been the case in central and West Africa. Another threat is in the sparsely populated regions such as the Sahel where terrorist groups, like the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) from Algeria, can find sanctuary and even set up training sites. Finally, and perhaps most challenging of all, there is the threats that arise from deepening economic and political crises in key states like Nigeria. The brew of religious tension, economic deprivation, declining law and order and political instability could open that country of 130 million people to some of the most serious forms of terrorist activity. In fact in all parts of sub-Saharan Africa, our response to the terrorist threat must be a broadly based one, bringing political, economic, and sensitive public diplomacy assets to bear.

Existing networks

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Sub-Saharan Africa

Middle East and North Africa

Terrorist networks have already been established in the Horn and along the eastern coast of Africa. The bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attacks on an Israel-owned hotel and airliner in Kenya in 2001 attest to the immediacy of the situation there. While the African governments in the area have responded with determination to stem the growth of these networks, their abilities are limited. For one thing, coastal control of shipments is almost non-existent, allowing arms to be smuggled from Somalia or elsewhere into Kenya, Tanzania and other places. This is despite efforts by the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force, headquartered in Djibouti and by allied naval forces to police the area. Most arms shipments come by small dhows that escape such surveillance. Intelligence capabilities are similarly limited and cross-country cooperation is complicated by political rivalries. For example, efforts led by Kenya to bring about a solution to the failed sate of Somalia founder in part by differing interests of Ethiopia and other countries in the region as well as by continuing differences among the Somali parties. That leaves Somalia a place where at the least terrorists can transit fairly easily into and out of East Africa and perhaps conduct other business. Continuing differences between Eritrea and Sudan, Uganda and Sudan as well as Eritrea and Ethiopia limit efforts to control border regions and eliminate such horrific groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army that plagues northern Uganda.

The U.S. has responded fairly aggressively in this part of Africa. Not only the Combined Joint Task Force, but a $100 million pledge of counter-terrorism assistance from President Bush has provided a strong impetus to counter-terrorism activities. The head of the CJTF recently reported arrests of members of terrorist organizations in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, and Djibouti. The U.S. will have to provide much more support, however, to maintain this momentum. The $100 million was less new money than programs cobbled together from existing funds. Future funding has not been identified on the same scale. There has to be a sustained focus on east Africa in our anti-terrorism budgets.

The U.S. has also been playing an active role in bringing about an end to the decades long civil war in Sudan. Sudan once was home to Osama Bin Laden and hosted other terrorist groups and individuals. Now the government is interested in improving its relations with the U.S. Only a peace settlement with the south, and an end to the government’s punitive military action against the people of Darfur in the west, will open that door. Once achieved it will close off what was once a principal entrée for terrorist networking in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Experience in this region however also demonstrates the need for greater political sensitivity. The U.S. strongly backed anti-terrorism legislation being proposed by the government of Kenya. But democracy advocates and civil society groups in Kenya, fresh from having rid the country of one-party, one-man rule, resisted, seeing in the legislation the seeds of new political oppression. In addition, Kenyan Muslims argued that the legislation was anti-Muslim, aggravating the alienation in that community that opened the door to terrorist infiltration in the first place. The Kenyan Government finally agreed to redraft the legislation. Here as elsewhere, the U.S. has to be sensitive to fledging democracies in Africa, and not fall into the trap of promoting actions and leadership that would undermine the democratic trend. Kenya also has suffered from the loss of tourism, its principal source of foreign exchange, as a result of U.S. travel advisories related to the terrorist threat. There may be no easy answer to this problem, but we must be wary of creating a political backlash in as strong an ally in the war on terrorism as Kenya.

Failed and failing states

Failed or failing states in central and west Africa have already provided opportunity for al Qaeda and criminal networks possibly affiliated with it to profit from the marketing of diamonds and other precious gems. Wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone and Liberia opened this door and local warlords like Charles Taylor readily collaborated.

These states remain at best in a fragile peace. The U.S. response however has been constrained by what are in the end, or should be, extraneous issues. For example, the U.S. has been slow to support aggressive and adequate UN peacekeeping missions in these countries because of budgeting processes that do not allow for rapid response to new situations. So, to finance the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia, the US has urged a rapid drawdown of the UN force in Sierra Leone, a risky step when the two civil wars are related and when the peace processes in Sierra Leone remain incomplete. The US has urged a reduction in the proposed UN peacekeeping operation in Cote d’Ivoire, again largely for budgetary reasons, when it is apparent that the peace process there is on the verge of breakdown. Earlier, provision of too small and inadequately provisioned a UN force led to the UN’s inability to prevent massacres in eastern DRC and the need for an emergency European and South African military response while the UN beefed up its presence.

Congress has an important role here. Congress has consistently resisted Administration requests for a peacekeeping contingency fund. That is no longer tenable if the U.S. is to respond rapidly and responsibly to the volatile situations across Africa. Delays in providing peacekeepers, and constant efforts to cut back on their size and capability, prolong crises and weaken conflict resolution efforts. If failed or failing states are as much a threat to terrorist exploitation as has been demonstrated in Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, then we must reconcile ourselves to a larger and more consistent commitment of resources to overcome those situations.

Islam in Africa

Beyond the obvious immediate threats, the more difficult conditions for the U.S. to address lie in the economic and political instability that grips many of the West African States where the majority of African Muslim live. If terrorism will arise through the doors of religious strife and political exploitation of religion, then Africa is indeed a major area for attention. We need to remember that Africa has more Muslims than the Middle East or Southeast Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria alone, with some 66 million Muslims, has as many if not more Muslims than Egypt.

Let me emphasize first the positive potential for American policy in this region. The Islamic tradition in West Africa is a rich one, with many facets that lend themselves to close understanding and cooperation with the West. We hear debates these days whether Islam is compatible with democracy. In Senegal, Mali, and Niger, we have examples of Muslim majority states that have fashioned working democracies. Two Muslim countries in the region – Senegal and Mauritania – and Nigeria with its large Muslim population enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel. Islamic traditions in West Africa are moderate and are absent the often emotional antagonism toward U.S. policy in the Middle East that one finds elsewhere. We can learn much from close relations with these countries and their political and religious leaders.

But there is a struggle going on for the minds of the Muslim population in countries like Nigeria, one that is tied up in the economic conditions and political turmoil in that country over the past several years. Introduction of shari’a for criminal acts has taken hold in twelve of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, across the largely Muslim north. That has led to religious tension with Christians who live in those states and heightened traditional tension between Christians and Muslims in the country. Growing Christian evangelical activities have also contributed to growing tension between the two religions. In several states of Nigeria local militias have grown up, sometimes with the political support of state governors, producing extra legal enforcement of religious laws or just political power of one group over another. Within Nigerian Islam, religious debate has spilled over to national political debate, even health issues. The degree of tension and suspicion within Nigerian Islam toward the Nigerian government itself, and beyond to the international community, is demonstrated by the resistance today in Kano state to the vaccinations against polio. Some Nigerian religious figures have preached that the vaccines are a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. The dispute has stopped in its tracks the final stages of the World Health Organization’s program to eradicate polio worldwide.

This tension and debate, which I can only touch on here, has to be seen in the context of the economic and political situation within Nigeria. In the past fifteen years, per capita GNP in Nigeria declined by two-thirds. Nigerians are experiencing an almost unprecedented level of poverty. Migration and land pressures have added to the mix. Finally, after nine years of one of the most repressive military leaders in Nigeria’s history, Nigerians are experiencing a new democracy, with less repression of political activity but without strong governing or law enforcement institutions. All together these factors have led to ethnic, religious, political and other sources of violence that took 10,000 lives from 1999-2003.

In this atmosphere, the openings for terrorist infiltration cannot be overlooked. Osama Bin Laden himself listed Nigeria as a priority target. So far, there is no indication that terrorist networks have taken hold in Nigeria nor that even many radical Islamic figures have contemplated a policy of violence. But Nigerians have already been found within the ranks of the GSPC and the potential for linkages between terrorist groups and Nigeria’s already well developed criminal and drug trafficking groups is a worrisome prospect.

We must also be careful to recognize that not all terrorism or political violence is religiously based. Just as serious in Nigeria is the armed insurgency in the delta region of Nigeria, where the bulk of the oil industry – and American investment – is concentrated. Violent acts against the oil industry pose a serious threat to American interests and to the still fledgling democratic government of Nigeria.

Nigeria is a classic case, however, where our diplomatic and economic resources are poorly deployed. The U.S. does not even have a presence in the Muslim-dominated north of the country – no eyes and ears, no daily program of public diplomacy, no capacity for measuring the trends of Islamic debate and their implications for the U.S. The U.S. similarly has no presence in the oil rich, but deeply troubled delta region. There are few senior officers in the political and economic sections of the Embassy. It is hard to understand, therefore, how we can anticipate and respond to the potential threats there.

Moreover, our response in Nigeria has to be more robust than it has been to date. President Obasanjo, now in his second term, is pushing forward a more aggressive reform program than in his first term. He is seeking to make the oil sector more transparent, to privatize the refineries, and to attack corruption. There are efforts, long overdue, to revitalize the agricultural sector. The United States must be prepared to respond with further support and incentives. There is understandable resistance to providing debt relief to Nigeria until some of these reforms are more firmly in place. But now is the time to begin to lay out the parameters of what debt relief would look like and to make clear that the prospects are real as the reforms move forward. Nigeria also needs much more technical assistance to take advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Except for oil Nigeria has hardly begun to exploit this potential.

Congress must moreover resolve the impasse over providing security assistance to Nigeria. There are serious human rights issues with Nigeria’s military. But poor police capacity and a military without further training do not serve Nigeria’s or our interests. The current spate of political killings, in the context of local elections, only underlines the seriousness of the security situation. If the Government does not soon get a handle on law and order, the country could descend into a generalized violence that could destabilize the entire nation. The lack of law and order was one of the reasons people in the north took so enthusiastically to the imposition of shari’a.

The New Frontier: the Sahel

Nowhere has interest and action on terrorism moves so rapidly in Africa recently than in the areas bordering the Sahara desert. A once small and almost unremarkable program, the Pan Sahel Initiative, has been energized by the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) in conjunction with the states on both sides of the desert: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad in the south; Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in the north. With improved communication and logistical equipment, and assisted by U.S. satellites and advisory troops, these countries have been engaging in military action against the GSPC, chasing it across borders and inflicting significant losses on its cadres. In an area where U.S. security presence has traditionally been limited, and influence marginal, the U.S. has now become a significant player. In the process, EUCOM spanned the bureaucratic divide that exists in the State Department between North and sub-Saharan Africa to develop a cohesive and truly regional approach.

This is a welcome initiative. As the President of Mali said in a speech in Washington last year, it would otherwise be impossible to know what was transpiring in this vast, sparsely populated area. Not only could it be a place of refuge but potentially the site of new training sites for terrorists forced out of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But we also must be concerned with the fragility of democracy in states like Mali and the limitations on democracy in countries like Mauritania. Mali’s democracy is dependent upon the reconciliation that was achieved in the 1980s between the majority people of the south and the Tauregs of the north, ending decades of friction and occasional insurgency. Mali is understandably concerned that nothing in the new counter terrorism efforts undermine that unity. Mauritania is a country where the line between the government’s legitimate opponents on the one hand and terrorists and coup plotters on the other is a thin one. The U.S. has to be especially careful that we do not become partners in a political process that drives people into the arms of Islamic extremists. Chad is not very different, with historic friction between north and south and between various tribal groupings. Let us tread here with care and discretion.

The Need for Balance

The one U.S. government agency that has taken the terrorist threat in Africa to heart has been the Defense Department, in particular the U.S. commanders in NATO, EUCOM, and the CJTF. NATO Commander General James Jones has described West Africa as “where the action is.” EUCOM Deputy Commander Charles Wald has traveled across the continent several times and was instrumental in fashioning the Pan Sahel Initiative into an active action program. DOD has undertaken HIV/AIDS awareness and control programs with militaries throughout the continent. With additional resources DOD is prepared to assist the oil producing countries of the West Coast in establishing offshore security capability, guarding against attacks on the drilling installations springing up all along the coast.

Welcome as this interest is, it is dangerous if not matched by an equivalent level of interest and capability in State and USAID in addressing the political and economic factors that make Africa worrisome. A response overly balanced to the military side will push us too close to the line of oppressive regimes, too insensitive to the political dynamics of an anti-terrorism strategy, too limited in our response to the problems of poverty that underlie every African security problem. Our military colleagues would in fact agree.

I have already noted the shortfalls in this regard in Nigeria. The same is true, however all across Africa, whether in senior personnel, language proficiency, presence in strategic locations, or dynamic public diplomacy. The problem is scheduled to get worse rather than better. As the U.S. prepares to staff a new Embassy in Baghdad, personnel slots are being taken from all over the world, including Africa – including Nigeria! We are in danger of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The level of interest in Africa must in fact go higher than State and USAID. It must go to the White House and the National Security Council, where there must be recognition that Africa is of strategic interest to the United States, not just humanitarian as has so often been the case up to now.

There was a telling moment in this regard during last year’s crisis over Liberia. As rebel forces approached the capital, African and European nations alike urged the U.S. to provide troops on the ground to stabilize the situation. The UK had done so in neighboring Sierra Leone, France in Cote d’Ivoire. The President sent 3,000 Marines offshore of Liberia, but after a few days and after only a few troops had gone on shore for a short while, the troop ship sailed away. The President said that our primary interest had been that food and medicine could be provided, and once that was done our job was largely done. However one judges the desirability of providing American troops in that situation, the conclusion that our primary interest in a failing state, where once al Qaeda had reaped fortunes in diamond trading, was humanitarian was unfortunate. Our interest in Africa must be seen as strategic. Once that fundamental recognition takes place, the resources that will be needed can be judged accordingly. And only then will we meet the totality of the terrorist threat on the continent.

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