AFRICANGLOBE – In January 2013, a statement from the White House claimed that the United States (US) government’s counter-terrorism strategy had succeeded in eliminating al-Qaeda’s core leadership, but noted the emergence of its cells in Africa as a worrying development.
Despite the global decline in the visibility of ‘al-Qaeda central’, local al-Qaeda affiliates or ‘self-declared al-Qaeda wannabes’ have become a serious concern.
The story starts in September 2006, when al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) officially announced its affiliation with al-Qaeda. The declaration by the group, which has Algerian roots, was welcomed by the leadership of al-Qaeda. On 11 September 2006 the then second-in-command and present-day leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the merger a ‘blessed union’ and described AQIM as ‘a source of chagrin, frustration and sadness’ for the region.
On 24 October 2011 the militant Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, which has grown significantly in capacity and reach in the past few years, officially declared its cooperation with AQIM. This statement realised the worst nightmares of regional leaders, who feared that collaboration between the different terrorist groups would intensify their attacks and sophisticate their operations by diversifying their financial and recruitment sources.
According to Niger’s Foreign Minster Mohamed Bazoum, members of Boko Haram received training on explosives at al-Qaeda camps in the Sahel. There are also reports connecting Boko Haram and the Somali al-Shabaab. These reports claimed that some of Boko Haram’s fighters and leaders were trained by al-Shabaab in Somalia. Citing intelligence documents recovered from the house of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abotabad, Pakistan, reports also concluded that there had been regular communication between Bin Laden and Boko Haram.
The third African group to officially declare its affiliation with the international terrorist network was al-Shabaab. The group released a joint video with al-Qaeda on 10 February 2012, announcing that the two groups had officially merged. Al-Shabaab’s leaders said they ‘pledged obedience’ to Al-Zawahiri. The group also expanded its operations from an exclusively localised fight to attacks in Kenya and Uganda.
Apart from the affiliation of these terrorist groups with international terrorist networks, a terrorism network triangle seems to be in the making as reports linking the terrorist groups in the different regions emerge. In June 2012 the head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, confirmed that Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and AQIM were coordinating and synchronising their efforts.
The effective collaboration between the three terror groups has created a dangerous network of terrorist organisations from the western to the eastern tip of the continent. This ‘al-Qaeda-sation’ of Africa and proliferation of terrorism networks creates a significant security threat to countries in the region and the African continent as a whole.
The rising threat of Arab terrorism and its expansion on the continent at the moment affects West Africa and the Sahel the most. Significantly, the proliferation of terrorist groups caries the serious risk of attracting international intervention as fighters from various parts of the globe are drawn to them.
The alliance may also inspire other rebel and political groups with local agendas to join the network and resort to violent means to pursue their goals. Claims by the Coast Provincial Commissioner in Kenya of a link between al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council, which accuses the Kenyan government of marginalising the region and calls for self-determination, support this argument.
Perhaps the most problematic consequence of this surge in Arab-style terrorism is its effect on the dynamics of local conflicts and in militarising international engagement. In this regard, the first such manifestation was the evolution of the Somali conflict following the emergence of al-Shabaab.
Currently, the terrorism dimension has taken over the conflict in Mali following the defeat of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) by extremist groups in northern Mali early in 2012. This changed the dynamics of the crisis in Mali and redefined the nature of international engagement.
The reality could also further intensify a trend by African governments of labelling political opponents and dissenting voices as terrorists with links to al-Qaeda. Such attempts undermine the underlying issues by ruling out political dialogue and consultation and weaken attempts to address the real issues by sweeping them under the carpet of ‘transnational terrorism’.
The African Union (AU) has labelled AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab as terrorist organisations. A report by the former AU chairperson on November 2010 stated that different regions’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks varied and that at present North Africa, West Africa and the Horn of Africa received the most attention.
The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) has repeatedly discussed the threat of Arab-style terrorism in Africa and passed numerous decisions and recommendations. At its meeting on 13 November 2012, ‘The prevention and combating of terrorism and violent extremism in Africa’ was the main item on the PSC’s agenda. However, the AU still lacks a coordinated and harmonised approach to tackle the mammoth challenge.
Like many of its instruments, the AU faces a serious challenge in implementing its policies on fighting terrorism. The African Center for Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), which was established by the AU in 2004 as a research and expertise hub on terrorism, is yet to make its mark in identifying trends or visibly contributing to understanding and combating terrorism.
Leaving aside the obvious financial and personnel gaps, the continental body encounters serious challenges related to foreign intervention. Sensitivities regarding the sovereignty of its member states pose a significant challenge for the implementation of its instruments.
The most important issue is whether the AU has the right approach in dealing with the problem. The AU has been trying to respond to the threat of terrorism through its traditional tools, mostly through the framework of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which consists of diverse apparatuses for conflict prevention, management and resolution.
It is questionable whether the existing tools available to the PSC are adequate to deal with security threats like terrorism, and whether APSA has the flexibility and space to address risks associated with terrorism. Trying to approach such threats with traditional mechanisms like peacemaking and peacekeeping may not be effective, and the dynamic nature of terrorism calls for an investigation into whether the existing mechanisms need to be adjusted.
By Hallelujah Lulie, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa