Accessibility links

Sub-Saharan Africa Noted For Giving Haven To Islamic Extremists - 2001-09-23


Political analysts say sub-Saharan Africa sometimes provides safe harbor and even a place of recruitment for Islamic militants.

In recent years, Sudan has attracted the most attention among the sub-Saharan countries the State Department says are linked to terrorism. Until 1996, Saudi Arabian-born terrorist Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan.

But Khartoum says it has broken all links with Bin Laden and is cooperating with the United States in its fight against terrorism.

A report in South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper September 21 quotes unidentified U.S. officials as saying Washington is interested in getting information on and possibly custody of two-dozen people with links to Bin Laden who have been closely tracked by the Sudanese government.

South Africa has also attracted attention in recent years because of several bombings against businesses with American connections like Planet Hollywood and Microsoft in Cape Town. Members of the Muslim group called PAGAD, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, have been found guilty of some of the attacks. South African authorities say there is no known connection between PAGAD and the Bin Laden group.

The Cape Town-based "Cape Argus" newspaper reports that a local group called Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders is signing up mostly young unemployed men to go to Afghanistan to fight if the country comes under attack from the United States.

The South African government says it will cooperate with Washington's investigations, but rules out military support for the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, the government is considering tightening anti-terrorist legislation.

Fiona Lortan is an analyst with the Pretoria-based research organization called Safer Africa. "If a bombing like the one in New York were to occur here, there is no adequate legislation to prosecute people," he said. "If property were to be bombed, people could not be charged with anything more malicious than having done damage to property, so I think there will be an attempt to get legislation on statute books to deal with terrorism."

A recent Congressional Research Service report says the Bin Laden Al Qaeda group is suspected of having a presence in the East African countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Ms. Lortan says she is concerned about it gaining ground in another: Somalia.

She says Somalia has several attributes that might prove attractive to Islamic militants like a weak interim government. It is Somalia's first national government since the civil war that toppled Siad Barre 10-years ago. The war also decimated the country's police and judiciary.

Today, local Islamic "Sharia" courts administer crime and punishment. The courts have proved popular in Somalia, and Islamic fundamentalism is said to be growing.

Meanwhile, the lack of an effective national telephone system has led to a mushrooming number of private cell-phone networks. As a result, Ms. Lortan says Somalia has the most open phone system in Africa. "It also has extensive telecom links to rest of world through satellite phones through privately owned phones and the Internet," he said. "If it is true that organizations like Bin Laden's operate in a loose network of autonomous cells, then Somalia would provide them with ideal opportunity because it allows them to operate independent of any form of monitoring from any state organization."

Security analysts say Sub-Saharan Africa provides an ideal hideout, or way station, for Islamist terrorists between attacks.

Gamal Nkrumah is the international affairs editor for the newspaper Al Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He says for terrorists, Africa's appeal lies in the weak state structures that make police security efforts ineffective, if not impossible.

"Africa is the weak link in terms of security because African governments tend to have a limited budget, so the security situation is lax," he said. "Also the state apparatus is rather weak and officials in key positions can be bribed to let someone in and let certain people in without much public scrutiny; there are also a lot of porous borders. That is why many African countries are regarded as near perfect hide-outs for potential terrorists who lie low until the situation becomes more ideal for them to strike again."

Analysts say Western help will be needed if African states are to be able to better manage their own internal security.

Professor Cyrus Reed teaches political science at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. "In the old days in the times of the Cold War if you wanted to crush a terrorist movement you could talk to the Republic of China, Russia and the United States," he said. "They were the biggest supporters of insurgencies around the world, and you could reduce the level of violence by withdrawing aid. But today, many of these movements have a financial base Bin Laden's is based on his own private fortune; in Africa, the rebel group UNITA in Angola [and rebels in Sierra Leone have] been funding [their] wars on so-called blood diamonds."

But political scientist Cyrus Reed says in helping Africa, the West will be revisiting some old problems from the past. Money used to strengthen African states could also be used to repress the domestic and democratic, opposition. Professor Reed says it recalls the argument of the early 1980's, when Washington policy makers debated whether it was better to support authoritarian or totalitarian governments. He says many never found a satisfactory answer to the question.

Other security analysts say sub-Saharan Africa is a recruiting site for terrorist cells.

Poor and unemployed young men are among the targets. Gamal Nkrumah says that in West African states such as Senegal, Nigeria, and Mauritania, these young men were prominent among the Muslim crowds celebrating after the news broke of the terrorist attacks.

Mr. Nkrumah says it has been reported in the Middle East that militant Islamists are suspected of working under the cover of aid programs, in particular those of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Nkrumah stresses that it is not the policy of the Saudi government to encourage or recruit Islamic militants.

"The influx of Saudi money to militant Islamist organizations in Egypt or Algeria was instrumental in mushrooming of movements and so the same thing applies to West Africa, including Nigeria," he said. "There is a lot going to Mali, Senegal, [Chad], and specific organizations. In Sudan, Saudi Arabia has recently been the only country sending airlifts of food aid and tents after the flooding. This situation is being taken note of. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a mushrooming of Arabic language schools whereby the many parents are being lured into sending their kids to the Arabic schools, as opposed to the government schools where French, English, or [local languages like Hausa in Nigeria] are taught."

Mr. Nkrumah says the aid programs till the soil for the seeds of terrorism that will later be planted by militants who come afterward. "It is like the old argument with the missionaries: they come first with the Bible and then with the gun. This is the new fear against that kind of aid. It is not that the current form of Saudi aid and largesse is bad: to the contrary many are benefiting directly from it," he said. "But in the longer term it potentially comes with something else, not necessarily by the very government or individuals which are delivering it. But by individuals who have hidden agendas who sneak in, who under the guise of this without even the Saudi authorities having the knowledge of it."

The United States reduced direct bilateral aid to the developing world after the end of the Cold War. Government-to-government development assistance has been replaced by an emphasis on improved trading ties.

Analysts say both types of support may need to be increased if young, unemployed Muslim men are to see the West in general and the United States in particular as key to their development, rather than, as Bin Laden tells them, the cause of their misery.

XS
SM
MD
LG