Igniting Instability: Al Qaeda's Inroads into Africa

By Isaacson, Mark | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Igniting Instability: Al Qaeda's Inroads into Africa


Isaacson, Mark, Harvard International Review


As a result of the West's continued presence in the Middle East, al Qaeda has turned its focus to the occupation of a new front in its global jihad: Africa. With their presence threatened in what was once a safe haven, al Qaeda leaders, cells, and attacks are moving to northern and eastern Africa. Once there, they can capitalize on social instability and latent extremism. This geographic shift is a threat not only to the security of African nations, but also to the West, which remains a target for al Qaeda.

In Somalia, the fundamentalist Council of Islamic Courts, which the United States alleges has ties to al Qaeda, has been actively fostering violence. Militants and terrorists sympathetic to the Courts are preventing the establishment of peace and continue to fuel violence against the extremely weak Western-backed Transitional National Government. Neighboring Eritrea is a key component in this conflict. As a result of the Eritrean government's funding and equipping of Islamic insurgents in the battle for control in Somalia, the US State Department has seriously contemplated adding Eritrea to its list of state sponsors of terror. Eritrea has provided safe harbor to the leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The US State Department has since named him an al Qaeda collaborator.

Al Qaeda is gaining ground and winning followers even beyond the Horn of Africa. In early January 2007, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC) became part of the larger al Qaeda organization under the name "al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM). Since then, AQIM has focused its efforts on increasing recruitment and improving its public image by highlighting government corruption and foreign involvement in Algerian affairs. Developing a sophisticated training program and recruiting combatants from within and outside Algeria, AQIM has carried out a number of high-profile urban bombings, such as the December 2007 bombing of United Nations and government buildings in Algiers. AQIM's targets reportedly include nearby Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Spain, Italy, and France.

Officials in Nigeria often downplay the presence of al Qaeda, but they did arrest three suspects in November 2007 who had allegedly trained with SGPC in Algeria two years prior. Western diplomats are now worried about the possibility that religious tensions in Nigeria, a nation equally split between Muslims and Christians, may lead to violence. As further indication of these concerns, the US Embassy in the country has warned of the increased likelihood of attacks. Libya is yet another a concern. In late 2007, al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that a group in the country had been added to the growing al Qaeda network. At the same time, al-Zawahiri called on North African mujahedin to target the governments of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Officials in countries like Nigeria and Algeria are at least attempting to crack down on suspected terrorist activity, but as al Qaeda continues to gain support, officials may be less likely to continue such efforts.

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