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.

June 30, 2012 23:42
3 minute read.
Nigerian women weep after Christmas Day bombing.

Nigeria Boko Haram special 390 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)


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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.

“What really 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.”

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These movements are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

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 their stability.

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 caught.

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.

In a 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 exists today.”

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 and America.

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