As the United States continues to prosecute its war on terror, security analysts remind us this is a global war on terror requiring a global approach. For too long they say the United States has ignored the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism on the African continent. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on a recent conference in Washington that discussed the U.S. national security interests in Africa.
Much of the African continent provides fertile ground for radical Islamic terrorists to operate. According to panelists at a recent conference in Washington sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, many African nations’ central governments are weak, corrupt and exercise little control over much of their national territory. In some cases, states have become functioning criminal enterprises willing to do the dirty work of wealthy terror networks.
Phillip van Niekerk is the founder of G3, the Good Governance Group, a risk assessment company that focuses on the investment environment in Africa, the Middle East and Russia. He says the United States ignores the growing threat in Africa at its peril.
“We tend to see Africa as being on the periphery of the global war on terrorism,” he says, “yet the continent has become a critically important theater in the conflict, inextricably linked to the turmoil in the Middle East. The embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, Sudan’s role in incubating the nascent Al Qaeda organization, Somalia’s connections to terrorism, and the role of North Africans in the Casablanca and Madrid attacks have all been headlined.”
Less-well publicized, Mr. van Niekerk says, is the fact that a new front is opening in West Africa. Both Hezbollah, which has historic ties to the Lebanese Diaspora in the Ivory Coast, and Al Qaeda, which has an interest in the regional diamond trade, are active in West Africa. According to Mr. van Niekerk, the region serves as a staging area for attacks on the continent and also provides a safe haven for Islamic radicals involved in terrorist activities in the Middle East and Europe.
Perhaps even more worrisome, he says, are signs that long-standing conflicts in West Africa are acquiring religious undertones. Muslims and Christians in Africa have generally coexisted peacefully but this has changed in recent years, particularly in northern Nigeria, where a dogmatic, anti-Western outlook has taken root. Mr. van Niekerk blames Saudi Arabia’s funding of religious schools and charities devoted to preaching a hostile anti-Western message.
“So conspiratorial and hostile has the view of the West become that some Muslim clerics in northern Nigeria have urged people not to take the polio vaccine because they say the medicine is a Western plot to render girls sterile and is contaminated by the HIV virus,” he says. “The result is that a disease that was almost completely defeated is starting to spread once more.”
According to Phillip van Niekerk, the best way to combat this growing hostility is a serious commitment from the world’s wealthier nations to fight poverty and promote economic development. Mr. van Niekerk says there’s no easier way for the United States and other Western democracies to show good faith than by supporting initiatives to combat corruption and promote good governance in Nigeria and other West African countries.
But what can the United States and its allies do when there is no government in place to deal with? That’s the challenge in Somalia, a failed state run by feuding warlords.
David Shinn, who spent 37 years with the U.S. State Department at posts throughout Africa before serving as director of East African affairs, says the Horn of Africa and East Africa are at the vortex of terrorism, Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda. According to Ambassador Shinn, endemic corruption and loose border controls allow terrorists to operate freely, taking advantage of vulnerable populations.
“Poverty and lack of development are omnipresent in the region,” he says. “It seems to be politically correct in recent years to suggest that poverty and terrorism are not related or perhaps only marginally related. This is nonsense. Poverty provides an environment that better-educated and more prosperous terrorist leaders can exploit. And they do exploit it.”
Numerous non-profit humanitarian aid groups are working in the area, including charities sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. David Shinn says some are known to funnel money to Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Because these charities perform useful humanitarian work, shutting them down can alienate the people they help. “Some way needs to be found to cut off the money for the terrorists while not exacerbating local social problems,” he says.
According to Ambassador Shinn, it is unrealistic for Europeans or Americans to think they can successfully cope with terrorism in East Africa. How many American soldiers or civilians speak fluent Swahili or Somali and have a solid understanding of the different cultures in Somalia or along the Swahili coast of Kenya and Tanzania? he asks. Precious few you can be sure. Local governments must lead counter-terrorism initiatives.
“In order to make significant progress, however, local governments require significantly increased financial assistance and training to improve their intelligence and security capacity, reduce corruption and poverty and increase economic development in areas where international terrorists now thrive,” Ambassador Shinn says.
But that doesn’t mean the United States should abandon its own intelligence gathering in the region.
Douglas Farrah is a former Washington Post newspaper correspondent who broke the story on Al Qaeda’s connections to the diamond trade in West Africa. In 1998, when the United States froze al Qaeda assets after attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, the terror network realized its financial structure was vulnerable and began moving assets into commodities such as diamonds and tanzanite, a unique blue colored gemstone.
Mr. Farrah obtained a copy of a 2002 investigation by European intelligence agencies which disclosed in the months prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, senior al Qaeda operatives went on a $20 million diamond-buying spree in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
According to Douglas Farrah, if the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone had been staffed with an intelligence analyst familiar with the West African diamond trade, the United States could have picked up on Al Qaeda’s actions in the region.
“In Sierra Leone they were paying attention,” he says. “The ambassador actually wrote a cable back to the State Department saying something is wildly out of whack with the diamond industry because local buyers can’t buy anything. And what people call ‘bad Lebanese’ were buying up all the diamonds. Another anomaly was that most of the diamonds weren’t going to Antwerp. They were going straight to Beirut. Somebody sort of picked that up, but it didn’t mean anything to most people and it disappeared into the ether.”
To address this problem, Mr. Farrah argues the United States must put more people on the ground who can study local intelligence and follow up when necessary. After the Cold War, a lot of resources were shifted from Africa to other parts of the world. According to General Charles Wald, deputy commander U.S. European Command, the United States is now trying to pay more attention to Africa.
“We are shifting our defense attaches and our office of defense cooperation personnel from places where previously they were in numerous numbers,” he says. “For example in France, we have 14 members of the staff there. We are going to start shifting some of those people to Africa. It will take a little time to do that. It’s a rotational issue.”
Until the United States has more intelligence and diplomatic personnel on the ground who are trained to deal with different regions of the continent, these analysts say counter-terrorism efforts in Africa will continue to be stymied.