Report: Al Qaida Finding Fertile Ground in Africa

Henry Ridgwell

From eastern shores of Somalia to western borders of Mali, there has been an upsurge in Islamist violence across Africa.

A new report from Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) cites growing evidence that al-Qaida is expanding its reach via a network of affiliates and partnerships across the continent.

According to London-based security analyst Valentina Soria, author of "Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa," the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is forcing the terror organization's central leadership to look beyond their traditional heartland.

"The aim is now for the central leadership to try to forge strategic relationships with like-minded groups in Africa ... like al-Shabab, and obviously strengthen the already existing relationship with AQIM, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," she says, adding that al Qaeda is also working with other terror organizations to secure stable footholds in volatile countries.

In Somalia, for example, where al-Shabab is active, Soria says al-Qaida's Islamist agenda is key to drawing in fighters who carry out increasingly sophisticated attacks on government forces and African Union peacekeepers.

"The first thing for these groups is the ability to attract recruits ... who may well be attracted by the more transnational aims that these groups [such as al Qaeda] might pursue, rather than the more localized agenda," she says.

Al-Qaida's African affiliates in turn provide expertise to localized Islamist groups. Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example, has recently staged a series of deadly attacks on Christian and government targets.

"There is the availability of experts going to provide some kind of expertise and know-how to Boko Haram fighters," she says, "and also Boko Haram fighters travelling to join training camps run by both al-Shabab and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb."

Soria says recent conflicts in north and west Africa - such as the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali - have provided more opportunities for militant groups to prosper.

"In Libya, for example, [we saw] the easy availability of weapons, which enabled groups like AQIM to strengthen themselves," she says, adding that the current crisis in Mali represents "fertile ground for al-Qaida to reorganize and re-energize its campaign against the West."

Richard Dowden, director of Britain’s Royal African Society, says al-Qaida and its affiliates are bringing a different type of warfare to the continent.

"This phenomenon of having a religious movement, an Islamic movement, and letting off car bombs and things like that, is completely new," he says.

However, Dowden cautions against fears that all of Africa is vulnerable to Islamic insurgents such as Somalia's al-Shabab.

"I think [al-Shabab is] trying to establish this Islamic state, but I think that’s completely different from what's happening in Nigeria, and different again from what's happening in Mali and across that area," says Dowden. "They’re obviously influenced by Islamic fundamentalism but I don’t think it’s coordinated. They may be learning from each other but they’re not working together."

While Islamist militant groups may pose a growing threat in places like Nigeria and Mali, analysts also warn of the potential for so-called "home-grown" terrorists to seek training and support in Africa for staging attacks in the West.

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