Sub-Saharan Africa: The Next Front?

By Cohen, Hank J. | Stability Operations, March/April 2010 | Go to article overview

Sub-Saharan Africa: The Next Front?


Cohen, Hank J., Stability Operations


The War Against Islamic Terrorism Spreads, Somewhat

A few years ago, the president of the Republic of Mali spoke at the National Defense University. During the question period, President Amadou Toumani Touré was asked if the 500 million Muslims in the African countries south of the Sahara constituted a potential terrorist problem for the United States.

ATT, as the Malian president is called, was not offended by the question. As a devout Muslim himself, the president understood what was behind the question. His reply was interesting:

"In Black Africa, Islam is 'tropicalized'. We are very tolerant of other religions. In West Africa, Muslims celebrate Christmas. We have a lot of mixed families. When 'missionaries' come visiting from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with their Salafist teachings, we tell them they are wasting their time. African Muslims are devout in their religion, but they are not interested in mixing religion with politics."

President Touré's analysis remains valid. Sub-Saharan Muslims, who speak Bantu languages and are present from Senegal to Cameroon (and in every country in between), are not likely to embrace the jihad preached from the Afghan-Pakistani border. This view of the world explains why Muslim majority countries such as Mali, Niger, Senegal and Mauritania are working so closely with American agencies in cooperative relationships designed to thwart jihadist penetration. They fear extremist Islamic terrorism even more than Americans because they have administrative weaknesses that are vulnerable to exploitation by outsiders seeking opportunities to overthrow regimes, blow up facilities and kill people at random.

In the Sahel states just south of the Sahara, the Osama bin Laden franchise in southern Algeria, known as "al-Qaeda in the Maghreb," has been foraging in under -populated northern Mali, Niger and Mauritania in an effort to destabilize those governments and drive the populations toward extremist Islam.

The organization was defeated in Algeria after two decades of wanton terrorist murder in the villages and is now looking for new ways of remaining relevant by joining forces with dissident nomadic tribes, as well as South American drug traffickers who utilize the vast desert spaces to move narcotics to Europe. In addition to drug transit, some of the terrorist revenue also comes from ransoms paid to free kidnapped European "desert tourists" and remote mining employees.

The northern Sahel has therefore become a "roaming land" for bands of Islamonarco terrorists - who are keeping national armies on their toes. For this reason, the United States continues significant training in counterterrorism and counternarcotics for military and police in countries immediately south of the Sahara. Does this narco-terror activity constitute a real "Islamist" danger to the regimes? The answer is no, but it is a real threat to morale, to the countries' fragile finances, and a deterrent to investment.

What about the aborted December 25, 2009 attack on a Northwest Airlines transatlantic flight by the Nigerian Muslim, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab? Is this the beginning of a trend in Africa's most populated country? Probably not. Abdul Mutallab was clearly radicalized in the United Kingdom, where he went to school, and not in his home region of northern Nigeria, where his actions have been regarded with genuine disgust. …

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