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African Terrorism


Following the failed London bombings on July 21, new attention was directed toward the African continent as a source of terrorism. Several of the suspects arrested in connection with the attack were born in East Africa.

On July 21, London suffered its second round of terror attacks this year, with the discovery of four bombs that failed to explode in the British capital's transit system. Unlike the deadly July 7 attack, whose bombers were mainly British-born men of Pakistani ancestry, some of those arrested in connection with the subsequent plot were born in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian-born Hussain Osman, who was arrested in Rome, told investigators that the second bombing was designed to frighten, but not kill, Londoners. Two other suspects, Yassin Hassan Omar and Ibrahim Muktar Said, were born in Somalia and Eritrea, respectively.

Young Muslims Make Easy Recruits

Evan Kohlmann, the author of the book: Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe spent time in London studying radical Muslim communities. He says the isolation and frustrations of some young Muslims make them easy recruits for extremist organizations.

According to Mr. Kohlmann, "Many of them feel like they've been rejected by mainstream British society and some of them harbor resentment because of it. Others feel that mainstream British society does not reflect their traditional values. And in searching for their own identity, they become fundamentalists of many types, social, cultural, political and religious."

International authorities have been concerned about the African continent as a training ground for terrorists, particularly since the Taliban were ousted from Afghanistan. The 1998 al-Qaida attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya showed the links between Africa and international terror. And several of those arrested in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings were of Moroccan origin.

The US has organized the Pan Sahel Initiative, begun in 2003, which sent American troops to train soldiers in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger. The Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, launched in June, dispatched US troops to train soldiers in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Nigeria to combat terrorism.

Some African Countries Harbor al Qaida

Martha Crenshaw, a professor of government at Wesleyan University and an authority on terrorism, says it is not surprising that some African countries could be used as launching grounds for terror. "These are areas in which the states are extremely weak, they often don't like to be called 'failed states,' but they're certainly states in which there are large, 'lawless zones,' as we call them, where the authority of the central government is non-existent, and therefore where training, recruitment, conspiratorial plotting can all take place. Furthermore, these are areas in which there has been conflict and fighting."

Somalia, which lacks a functioning government, has long been cited as a possible training ground for terrorists. Matt Bryden directs the International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa Project. His organization recently released a report on the possible links between al-Qaida and Somalia.

Mr. Bryden says, "So far, the al-Qaida presence in Somalia seems to be limited to those who were responsible for the Kenyan attacks, most of whom are fugitives, and they are under suspicion, surveillance, and pressure from counter-terrorism efforts [so] they don't seem to be able to organize a network effectively, but we're talking about less than a half dozen people probably. It's a very small presence."

Better Government in Some African Countries May Stem Terror

Somalia's transitional government is now attempting to create local administrations throughout the country. It is Somalia's first broad-based government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. According to Matt Bryden, the lack of a stable government in Somalia contributes to the possibility of it becoming a terrorist haven.

According to Mr. Bryden, "We argue in the report that although counter-terror measures in the short-term have seen some successes and some of the members of these networks have been apprehended, the ultimate solution has got to be the return of a legitimate and stable government in Somalia. The problem at the moment is that we have a government that is divided."

Unstable countries with terrorist networks cause upheaval both at home and abroad, according to terrorist expert Martha Crenshaw. She says they create a climate of desperation and conflict, particularly in immigrant communities.

"We know that in those situations a number of things occur; one, that people are socialized into violence," says Professor Crenshaw. "Another is that you have a large number of refugees and diasporas, people fleeing outside the country, and taking with them that legacy of conflict. And we know there are Muslim populations in these areas in which al-Qaida did try to recruit and where people who were involved in conflicts in these countries did go to Afghanistan in the early days."

Terrorists in Britain

Terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann says the circumstances that led to the London bombings in July have been developing for a while. He says the fact that the group responsible for the July 7 bombings was based in the northern English city of Leeds shows that this is a problem throughout Britain.

Mr. Kohlmann says, "It's been going on for years, right under the nose of the British public and of the British government, and we're not talking about in far away towns like Leeds, we're talking about right in downtown central London where al-Qaida recruiters, people with direct links to senior al-Qaida members, have been recruiting young people, not just in Arabic and Urdu, but in English, and have been instructing these people that terrorism is a virtuous cause, and that Osama bin Laden is a hero and that [September 11, 2001 hijack leader] Mohammed Atta is a martyr and someone to aspire to become like."

Martha Crenshaw says the London bombings underscore the isolation and frustration in some immigrant communities that could lead to involvement in terrorism. She says authorities should be more aware of the attraction of radical ideologies to disillusioned youth.

Professor Crenshaw says, "We probably paid insufficient attention to second generation immigrants, second generation diaspora sorts of politics, and the fact that if you have young people, and we're dealing with young men, by and large, they are susceptible to the appeals of an extremist ideology that they perhaps are searching for an identity, searching for a larger cause within which to subsume themselves."

Most analysts agree that the wide-ranging campaign against terrorism both on the African continent and elsewhere will continue. They say Africa's unstable governments, poverty and proximity to Europe and the Middle East make it a likely outpost for terrorist activity. And the role that Africa plays, whether through counter-terror initiatives or African communities abroad, will be significant.

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