Most of the American media has focused on the late-2010 attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to detonate explosive-laden ink cartridges in cargo planes over the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the continued threats emanating from Yemen. That nation certainly provides favorable conditions for extremist groups such as AQAP to fester and export terror.
However, Africa, specifically the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, arguably afford the most growth potential for two burgeoning al Qaeda franchises: al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), a morph of an earlier ultraviolent, Algerian Islamist movement, and Somalia‘s al-Shabaab group, which effectively controls 80 percent of Somalia and pledged loyalty to al Qaeda senior leadership in early 2010.
AQIM, operationally based in desolate northern Mali, is now a regional menace in Africa’s Sahel region and poses an increasing threat to U.S. interests in North Africa as well as Mediterranean Europe. The terror network composed of approximately 400 fighters is kidnapping and executing Westerners, facilitating a lucrative drugs and weapons smuggling enterprise from West Africa into Southern Europe, and making inroads through forced intermarriage and intimidation tactics into marginalized populations such as the ethnic minority Tuareg and Hassaniya Moors of northern Mali.
Additionally, AQIM is spreading its tentacles into resource-rich Nigeria through joint-training with the Nigerian Taliban. In its current state, AQIM is not a “clear and present danger” to the U.S. homeland, although the requisite conditions of extreme poverty, political instability, resource scarcity and weak governments and security forces in the Sahel are ripe for it to continue to mature and develop into a more serious transnational threat. The addition of a charismatic and media savvy propagandist, like al Qaeda‘s Anwar al-Awlaki in the Arabian Peninsula, would likely thrust the organization onto the global stage of jihad.
The security situation in Somalia is even more precarious than in the Sahel. Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based insurgent/terror group, is comprised of more than 4,000 battle-hardened fighters and recruits from faraway places such as Minneapolis and London. Compounding the issue, Somalia is the epitome of a failed state as the Transitional Federal Government is sequestered to a fraction of Mogadishu with lawlessness and street justice rampant. Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are also forging a burgeoning relationship, with fighters from Yemen among the largest contingent of foreign fighters in al-Shabaab’s ranks. Lastly, as a demonstration of the group’s intentions to expand operations, al-Shabaab has proven it is able and willing to conduct out-of-area operations through its piracy-terror nexus in the Gulf of Aden, as well as the July 2010 large-scale, complex attacks in Kampala, Uganda.
Traditional military methods in dealing with terrorism in Africa would likely be ineffective and even counterproductive due to the political sensitivities of U.S. military intervention. For example, the mere discussion of moving the military’s Germany-based AFRICOM to the continent was a hot-button issue for most African nations. As Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, advocates, a direct approach or lethal targeting of terrorist groups may temporarily disrupt the network, but it is rarely decisive in victory. The direct approach is certainly integral to a balanced counterterrorism strategy. However, it should not be the main effort in an approach that draws on all instruments of the government.
Enduring results derive from the indirect approaches or long-term initiatives that shape and influence the social environment through better enabling partner nations in Africa to combat the root causes of terrorism. Furthermore, this strategy should be coupled with actively working with our partner nations in Africa in deterring insurgent-vulnerable populations, such as the Tuareg and Moors of Mali, from sympathizing with and facilitating AQIM and their drugs, weapons and kidnapping operations in the Sahel.
Ultimately, targeting Africa’s terror-conducive environment through primarily nonmilitary initiatives as well as grasping the complex and diverse “human terrain” of high-risk regions and terror focal points will likely be the silver-bullet in defeating the center of gravity for both AQIM and al-Shabaab: support from the local populace.
Steven L. Katz, a former Army officer, intelligence professional and current graduate student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.