Containing al Qaeda in Africa

5 Mar 2012

By Former Programme Officer Orla Hennessy

The Arab Spring was remarkable for many reasons but one feature particularly worth noting was the absence of al Qaeda throughout the uprisings. In recent years commentators have begun to suggest that Africa will be the next haven for al Qaeda, with al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram all having affiliations with al Qaeda in varying degrees. Those in the counter terrorism field will be monitoring these alliances closely, seeking to understand how great the threat from al Qaeda in Africa may be, how deep these alliances run and where the incentives and ideologies overlap. However, despite the increase in pro – al Qaeda rhetoric coming from terrorist groups in Africa, these alliances may not be as strong as they seem and it can be argued that groups’ nationalist agendas hold far greater sway.

There is good reason however to believe that Africa will become the next battle ground for religious based violent extremism. The most recent and widely reported terrorist attacks occurred in Nigeria where Boko Haram, the Salafist Jihadist terror organisation, has drastically stepped up its bombing campaigns. Boko Haram attacked several Christian Churches on Christmas Day and carried out further bouts of violence in northern Nigeria in January, killing 200 this year. There have been reports that the group has received training at al Qaeda camps in the Sahel and possibly from al Shabaab as well. Equally, al Shabaab in Somalia has used violence and terror to wrest control from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). While pledging allegiance to al Qaeda in 2009, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri “formally” accepted the Somali group into al Qaeda on 9 February this year with a video message. Finally, AQIM has conducted a number of kidnappings and terrorist activities in Northern Africa. Originally called Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), and based in Algeria, it sought to align itself with al Qaeda and contributed troops to the Islamic cause in both Afghanistan and Iraq before renaming itself al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2006.

Reasons why African terror groups would align with al Qaeda are debatable. J. Peter Pham argued that, originally, al Qaeda was reluctant to associate itself with GSPC. But after the group successfully provided many soldiers for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in June 2006, the U.S. military announced that approximately 20% of suicide bombers in Iraq were Algerian, while another 5% were Moroccan or Tunisian), Pham argues that the agreement became “mutually beneficial”. For al Qaeda the expansion was consistent with its doctrine of global jihad and for AQIM it meant it could use the “al Qaeda” brand to help increase recruits and also glean training and expertise from al Qaeda’s well organised leaders. The same is equally true for the Boko Haram and al Shabaab alliances.

Arguably, however, the alliances with al Qaeda are superficial. Yes, all three African groups espouse the idea of global jihad and abhor western culture and values but in all three cases their national agendas will trump these ideologies. Not only because the main aim of all three groups is to install themselves in power, but because the national ideology is the one which will garner the most local recruits – more so than global concerns. Furthermore, many of these groups may, if they have not already, devolve into mere fronts for criminal activity: through kidnappings or piracy for ransoms or drug trafficking as members of AQIM were caught for in Morocco in 2011. In such cases it is profitable to be a member of a terrorist organisation and for many recruits the al Qaeda religious ideology may be relegated to second place.

Of course there will be hardline ideologues in all organisations – we should not pretend there are not. But we must be aware of the other incentives for terrorist activities and the many complex levels involved.

Currently, al Qaeda is not fully embedded in Africa – as its absence throughout the Arab Spring demonstrates. However in the wake of the Spring many African countries with substantial Arab populations are undergoing fragile transitions and so the opportunity is al Qaeda’s to take.

To tackle the spread of al Qaeda in Africa practitioners should examine the nationalist agendas behind the rhetoric. They may find that the “cause” may not be the cause at all. For instance after the Somali peace settlement negotiated in 2008, the newly elected President enacted Sharia law across the country (a key demand of Al- Shabaab) and for a brief period the group was substantially weakened. Fighting and disorganisation within the TFG has since hampered its progress but the precedent was there. In order to counter terror one must deal with the underlying motivational factors. Not the ideology of groups but the social, economic and political inequalities that groups seek to redress. The various alliances that African terrorist organisations are forming with al Qaeda are cause for concern and to tackle the spread of al Qaeda in Africa requires concerted collaborative effort(s) from all of the policy makers in the region. Tackling national agendas and the social, economic or political grievances of groups is a huge challenge even under the most stable of circumstances. The worry, however, is that concerted, collaborative effort(s) between these governments is/are particularly problematic as newly elected or transitional authorities come to power in North Africa and they are focused on rebuilding their countries. Their first priority is not necessarily forming diplomatic relations with their neighbours – whose governments may still be subject to change.

Al Qaeda has certainly not succeeded in asserting its influence in Africa and there is still opportunity for countries in the region to counter this by tackling the root causes of terror groups’ motivations and their attractiveness amongst the Nigerian, Malian, or Somali and Kenyan population, to mention just a few. Obviously this is an enormous challenge for any government. For a number of reasons this is even more the case for those undergoing transition in the wake of the Arab Spring. But if terrorism is to be fought, the underlying cause needs to be understood. Not the superficial claims from the al Qaeda propaganda machinery but the real cause that serves as the breeding ground for violent action. The future of a region, uncertain as it is, is at stake.