The Islamist threat in Africa
Recent warnings in Washington about the influence and cooperation of Islamist movements in Africa should not fall on deaf ears.
Nigerian women weep after Christmas Day bombing. Photo: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Speaking at a seminar of the Africa Center for Strategic studies in Washington
last week, US Army Gen. Carter Ham warned that Islamic movements in
Africa were linking up and threatening regional stability.
concerns me is the indications that the three organizations are seeking to
coordinate and synchronize their efforts.... That is a real problem for us and
for African security in general.”
These movements are al-Qaida in the
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in
Beginning with the establishment of the Africa Center for
Strategic Studies in 1994 and the activation of an American military command
that focuses on the 53 states in Africa in 2008, the US has taken a leading role
in efforts to train, equip and advise African countries that face threats to
Increasingly, the threat has come from Islamist
terrorist movements. The oldest of the groups, AQIM, has its origins in the
Algerian civil war of the 1990s that cost the lives of some 200,000 people.
After the Islamists failed to take over Algeria, some of the fighters formed
AQIM, which sought to spread terrorism throughout the countries bordering the
Sahara. Like al-Qaida operations elsewhere, it tried to be a shadow umbrella
group for allied movements while its main actions involved the kidnapping of
Westerners. For instance, it allied with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group in Mali
that allies itself with the Tuareg rebellion there.
In recent months that
rebellion has carved out a separate state in northeast Mali. When the Malian
Islamist fighters captured Timbuktu they desecrated a 16th-century tomb that is
a UNESCO world heritage site.
Al-Shabab in Somalia also has its origins
in an earlier period. In the 1990s. during the civil war that engulfed Somalia,
an Islamist organization known as the Islamic Courts Union emerged as one of the
most powerful players in the country.
Unwisely, it sought out conflict
with Ethiopia by encouraging Islamic rebels across the border, and it was
eventually brought to the brink of defeat. In its place al- Shabab emerged in
2006. It has launched terrorist attacks in other African states, such as twin
bombings in Uganda in 2010, has imposed strict Islamic law and been responsible
for the public execution of teenage girls as “spies.”
Most worrying is
its global influence. In testimony to Congress, National Counterterrorism Center
director Michael Leiter noted that at least 20 US citizens had traveled to
Somalia since 2006 to aid the organization.
On June 20, Pakistan arrested
a Frenchman of Algerian descent named Naaman Meziche. Meziche, who had lived in
Europe and known 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta, moved to Pakistan where he linked
up exiled fighters from the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. The Pakistanis
believed that he was set to move on to Yemen and then Somalia when he was
The recent explosion of violence in Nigeria at the hands of the
Boko Haram movement is also troubling.
Founded in 2001, Boko Haram aims
to enforce Shari’a law throughout Nigeria and has been responsible for weekly
bombings and attacks on churches throughout the country. According to recent
reports in Nigeria there are allegations that Boko Haram is receiving funding
from foreign sources and Gen. Ham has asserted that it is now working with
networks that lead back to AQIM and Shabaab. But there are skeptics.
January op-ed in The New York Times, Jean Herskovits, a professor at the State
University of New York, Purchase, argued that “there is no proof that a
well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even
Yet her claims are belied by recent actions of the group
that forced Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to sack his defense minister
and national security adviser on June 23.
Gen. Ham’s recent warnings in
Washington about the influence and cooperation of Islamist movements in Africa
should not fall on deaf ears. In February and April he made similar statements
about the very “real danger” that these groups pose. Recent attacks throughout
countries bordering the Sahara, combined with the weakening of state power in
Tunisia, Libya and parts of Egypt, mean this combined threat harms innocent
Africans and has the potential to spread terrorism to the Middle East, Europe