News / Africa

Africa Terrorism Threat Remains

Anne Look
2013 appears to have been the year the world woke up to African terrorism.  Military gains against Islamist extremists in places like Mali and Somalia were followed by major terrorist attacks in neighboring countries - highlighting how complex and persistent the threat really remains.

The year opened with a French military intervention in Mali.  Al-Qaida-linked fighters in control of the north were pushing south.

Malian troops could not have held them back alone.  But even as French and African troops liberated the north, jihadist fighters launched a revenge attack on a natural gas facility in Ain Amenas, Algeria, taking hundreds hostage and ultimately killing at least 36 foreigners.

Somalia looked to be turning a corner at the start of 2013.  Kenyan and African Union troops had chased the militant group al-Shabab from key urban strongholds.

But in September, a small number of al-Shabab militants attacked an upscale Nairobi shopping mall, killing more than 60 people and laying bare failings by Kenyan security and intelligence agencies.

The world watched as hundreds escaped.

Nigeria says it is turning the tide against the homegrown radical insurgency, Boko Haram, that it has wrestled with since 2009.

In May, Nigeria began an offensive against the sect.  The United Nations says the ongoing offensive has killed more than 1,200 people.  But Boko Haram continues to attack.

An all-too-familiar pattern is playing out in Africa.  Islamist insurgents seize territory where they can. They set up safe havens. They may even try to govern.  But faced with military action, they abandon their urban fiefdoms and disperse.  Some are killed.  Others live to strike back, joined by more young recruits.

Senegalese researcher Bakary Sambe says military intervention, in particular by Western forces, feeds radicalization.

"It's absurd to say you can make war on terrorism which by nature is constantly regenerating and evolving.  We also need to fight the causes of radicalization: poverty, a sense of frustration and rejection by the state, and under-development," said Sambe.
Analysts say al-Shabab remains the most organized and far-reaching of the African al-Qaida affiliates and that the publicity it got from the Westgate Mall attack revitalized the al-Shabab brand, helping it recruit internationally.

A Horn of Africa expert in Nairobi, Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamed, says the international community must keep up the pressure.

"They [al-Shabab]  have an agenda beyond Somalia.  They have an agenda beyond the region.  They are going to Islamize the whole world….by force, not by preaching, by force," said Abdisamed.

The United States and the European Union are keeping a close eye on these threats.  But with the exception of France, which continues to battle militants in Mali, Western powers say that in the year ahead, they will continue with the more hands-off approach of financing, assisting and training African troops to contain violent extremism.

Gabe Joselow contributed, reporting from Nairobi

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