Nowadays, it seems like al-Qaeda is everywhere to be found in Africa: in Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government, the Ethiopians, and the US allege that the escalation in the insurgency is an al-Qaeda deed, not to speak about the allegation that al-Qaeda's activists are being hidden in Somalia by the Islamists. On the other side of the continent, the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility on April 11 for two suicide car bombings in Algiers, one targeting the prime minister's office and the other a police station. No group has claimed responsibility for the Casablanca incidents, in which suicide bombers unsuccessfully targeted on April 14 the US consulate and an American cultural center only four days after another group of bombers blew themselves up in a confrontation with city police. Although no group has claimed responsibility for the Moroccan incidents, it seems like that together with the Algerian attacks -- which killed 33 people and wounded up to 330 – the Maghreb countries face an acute threat from established regional militant groups allied with al-Qaeda.
These supposed bases and activity of al-Qaeda in Africa are the same as those which appeared in an article, which was circulated in the Jihadi forums on February 12, 2007. This article, titled "Al-Qaeda Organization and the Africa Continent: Past, Present and Future", was published for the first time in June 2006 under the title "Al-Qaeda is Moving to Africa" by a virtual magazine of supporters of global Jihad, called Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad), and was also circulated in the Jihadi forums. The most important thing arising from these articles is the fact, at least according to its writers, that al-Qaeda has focused its attention on East and North Africa alone, while it does not have an important role in other parts of Africa. This can be seen from its operations' list, which includes the US Embassies Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the Expulsion of the Americans from Somalia in 1993; its involvement in Sudan; and the terrorist attacks conducted in Mombasa, Jerba, Casablanca, Sharm al-Sheikh, and Sinai. Furthermore, some of the most famous operatives of al-Qaeda originated from North Africa, the most senior of them is Ayman al-Zawahiri, originating from Egypt.
Furthermore, these articles describe the advantages of Africa over other regions for al-Qaeda's operatives. First and foremost among them is the political and military conditions prevalent in most African countries, combined with the broad weakness of its governments as well as the internal fighting and corruption of these regimes ease the ability of al-Qaeda operatives to move, plan, and organize themselves far from being seen. Secondly, the frequent wars and conflicts in Africa provide a gold opportunity for al-Qaeda's operatives to easily move between different African countries, without any surveillance whatsoever. These conditions provide huge amount of weapons and military equipment east to obtain and, in most cases, much cheaper than in other regions. Moreover, the general condition of poverty and the great social needs omnipresent in most African countries might enable al-Qaeda's operatives to provide some finance and welfare, and, thus, to post there some of their influential operatives.
The question asked after reading these articles is whether the same situation that was described in them is still true nowadays? Does al-Qaeda have still bases of operations in Somalia, Sudan and North Africa? And, if so, did it spread its bases of operations to other countries of Africa, such as the Sahel region, where it is alleged to have bases, and Nigeria, where the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which attacks oil field run by foreigners in the Niger Delta region, is alleged to be linked with al-Qaeda? Is it really so, or, alternatively, does al-Qaeda serve only as a source of inspiration for African local groups, who use its mode of operations to achieve their own goals?
The Advantages of Africa for al-Qaeda's Activity
Before answering these questions, a short survey concerning structural and ideological conditions enabling al-Qaeda to operate in Africa is in order. First of all, there are a number of Islamic centers in Africa including the Sahel Zone, the tropical zone along the Gulf of Guinea, the Sudanese Nile region, Ethiopia, the East African coastal strip, Somalia, and the Cape region. In most of these areas the interpretation of the Islamic legal law appears to have been moderate until recently. Yet, this practice is subject to change. This change is manifested by the introduction of Shari'ah in twelve Nigerian states, the clashes between Sufis and Wahhabi-influenced Muslims in West Africa, the rigid adherence to Shari'ah in the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, the demand to implement Shari'ah rule in the coastal area of Kenya and in Zanzibar, and the extremist tendencies among Muslims in South Africa.
Besides this radicalization process, one has to remember that Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many failing states. But even in more or less functioning states, such as Kenya and Tanzania, the state is hardly capable of effectively controlling its entire territory, where border areas and the slums of the big cities are, as a matter of fact, out of the state control. The security forces' training and equipment are insufficient and corruption and criminalization of police are far advanced. This situation makes possible capital transactions and trafficking in weapons, raw materials, and consumer goods, which are vital for the operation of terrorist networks. Thus, the incapacity of most African security forces to protect targets threatened by terrorism stands in stark contrast to the great variety of such Western potential targets. Indeed, it should be stressed that al-Qaeda took advantage of these structural conditions prevailing in Kenya and Tanzania to carry out the Embassies Bombings in 1998.
The same conditions prevail also in the Republic of South Africa, where the threat for many high value Western targets is very real. Although its government hopes that its neutrality in the so-called war against terrorism and its pro-Palestinian stand will spare it from the attacks of radical Muslims and al-Qaeda operatives or supporters, the Republic of South Africa has porous borders and large Muslim immigrant communities that can easily, if needed, shelter terrorists. Moreover, the obsession of the Republic of South Africa with protecting basic right coupled with widespread official corruption make it much easier for skilled and experienced al-Qaeda operatives or supporters to operate and further their aims without any fear of detection.
In the ideological field, al-Qaeda has benefited from the activity of Islamic charities, which are funded by Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, throughout Africa, and from their intense propagation of the Wahhabi doctrine among Black African Muslims, which cause them to being radicalized. In addition, some of the branches of these charities are suspected of funneling money to al-Qaeda and to other Islamist organizations active in Africa, especially in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, as happened in the case of the Embassies Bombings in Nairobi and Dar as-Salaam in 1998, after which the IIRO was outlawed in Kenya.
In order to further enhance its appeal among Black African Muslims, al-Qaeda has even changed during the passing year its enmity approach towards the Sufis, who still comprise the majority of Black African Muslims, and resorted to a pragmatic approach towards them, based on the common heritage of Jihad. Generally speaking, the Sufis are perceived to be peaceful and to have nothing to do with radical Islam. However, in Africa, it was not always the case. There was a strong linkage between Sufis and Jihad all over the continent, but particularly in West Africa. The first African Sufi who waged Jihad was the great Muslim scholar, Othman dan Fodio, a member of the Qadiriyyah Sufi sect. In his efforts to reform the Muslim society in which he lived, which he thought was corrupt and not abiding by Shari'ah law, Othman migrated from this "sinful" community, and declared Jihad against those Muslims at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the territories that he conquered, Othman established the Sultanate of Sokoto, which was governed by Shari'ah law. Afterwards, throughout the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Sufis stood at the forefront of the Jihad against the Europeans in all parts of Africa.
Thus, the radical attitude inherent in the Sufism in Africa and the strong connection between Sufis and Jihad, which is manifested even nowadays in the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia -- which united under its framework both Sufis and radical Muslims – were hailed by al-Qaeda supporters throughout the Jihadi forums as a possible common ideological basis for cooperation between radical Muslims, including, of course, al-Qaeda operatives, and Sufis in Africa.
Al-Qaeda in Africa: A Success Story or a Failure?
It seems like despite all of these above mentioned pre-conditions, that should have guaranteed al-Qaeda operatives the possibility to erect bases in Africa, it has no much appeal in Sub-Saharan Africa and, more important than that, it seems like its operatives and supporters would not like the idea of even going there.
The recent al-Qaeda's interest in Africa developed last year on the background of the escalation in the crises of Darfur and Somalia and the scenario of UN peacekeepers coming to Darfur. Thus, on April 23, 2006, al-Jazirah TV channel broadcasted Bin Laden's audiotape in which he called "on Mujahidin and their supporters, especially in Sudan and the Arabian peninsula, to prepare for a long war against the Crusader plunderers in Western Sudan". He further said that "our goal is not to defend the Khartoum government but to defend Islam, its lands and its people". Following the publication of the audiotape, it seems that the interest in Darfur grew among al-Qaeda supporters, who raised many questions in the Jihadi forums concerning Darfur and how to reach it. Yet, this growing interest was not interpreted to the practical arrival of the Mujahideen at Darfur.
So, the interest in Darfur throughout the Jihadi forums dropped significantly, only to rise again on September 29, 2006, with Ayman al-Zawahiri's videotape, which was circulated throughout the Jihadi forums. In his videotape, al-Zawahiri criticized the UN for its proposal to send peacekeepers into Darfur to quell the violence there. He further called his audience "Rise, O Muslim nation, to defend your land and your honor from the Crusader's aggression which is now hiding behind the masks of the UN… Nothing will protect you but a Jihadi popular war to be led by the Mujahidin". Thereafter, following the news about the Sudanese government erecting ten training camps for Arab and foreign volunteers that spread throughout the Jihadi forums on October 18, 2006, a plea was made to all those who can't go to Iraq or Palestine, to travel to Darfur instead.
Yet, all efforts to convince al-Qaeda's operatives or supporters to travel to Darfur were to no avail. Thus, when the UN personnel arrived at Darfur on December 28, 2006, there was no one from al-Qaeda to challenge them. What went wrong? As all knows, bin Laden was in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. His presence there was made possible by Hassan al-Turabi, whose influence on the government waned since then and nowadays he is under house arrest. Moreover, he was even of heresy for his recently declared liberal views on the role of women in Islamic society. The Sudanese government underwent some significant changes too with Christians from South Sudan occupying leading positions in the administration. Furthermore, it aligned itself closely with the US in the war on terrorism. Under these circumstances, the presence of al-Qaeda operatives or supporters in Sudan is not wanted.
Even though there were no Al-Qaeda operatives or supporters to be found in Sudan, it still served as a source of inspiration for the Islamists in Sudan. Thus, on September 13, 2006, a previously unknown group called al-Qaeda in Sudan and Africa claimed responsibility for kidnapping and beheading the chief editor of al-Wifaq, a Sudanese independent daily, eight days earlier, on September 5. The murder of Muhammad Ahmad Taha Jankal involved for the first time in the history of terrorism in Sudan – the beheading of a person in the "Jihadi Iraqi" style. He was murdered since in May 2005 he offended the Islamists by republishing an article from the internet that questioned the ancestry of the Prophet Muhammad.
This was presented as the first operation of al-Qaeda, or its branch, in Sudan. The announcement on the establishment of al-Qaeda Organization in Sudan, under the leadership of Sheikh Abu Ya'li or Yu'li was circulated throughout the Jihadi forums already on July 4, 2006. According to this short announcement, this organization was trained to action and was waiting instructions for the time being.
It is not known whether this organization is affiliated with bin Laden's al-Qaeda, or even whether it is still active. What is important to stress here is the fact that al-Qaeda has become recently a source of inspiration for Islamists in Africa, who use its methods of action and its tactics in order to achieve their local aims.
This is true also to Somalia, where warfare methods and tactics used by the Islamists in Iraq are emulated by the insurgents in their fierce warfare against the Ethiopian and the Transitional Federal Government forces in Mogadishu, which seems to be more and more as a second Iraq. These tactics include suicide bombings; mortar and rocket attacks on TFG and Ethiopian installations, and the city's seaport and airport; machine gun attacks on police stations and checkpoints; targeted assassinations of public officials, military and security personnel, nongovernmental activists, and their relatives; unexplained homicides; planes' downing; burning TFG and Ethiopian soldiers and mutilating their bodies; and the use of roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices.
The emulation of al-Qaeda and Jihadi tactics from Iraq to Somalia does not mean that there are al-Qaeda operatives there and that it is a base of al-Qaeda, as the US claims. Indeed, Hassan Dahir Aweys -- the leader of the Islamic Courts Union and the head of the radical Somali organization al-Ittihad al-Islami, who has a place on the American list of terrorist suspects -- and Adan Hashi Ayro, who is an Afghanistan-trained militia commander, who headed the youth wing of the ICU, called Hizb al-Shabab, which was a radical and independent organization under the umbrella of the ICU and served as its "special forces", are linked to al-Qaeda. However, their link to al-Qaeda does not mean that they gave refuge to al-Qaeda operatives, who fled there from Kenya following the Embassies Bombings in 1998 and the Mombasa attacks in 2002. As for now, the US launched two aerial attacks against alleged al-Qaeda bases in Somalia, without hitting any al-Qaeda operative. It seems more likely that the TFG has every interest to promote the idea that al-Qaeda are present in Somalia in order to legitimize their actions against the Islamists in the eyes of the Ethiopians, and most importantly, of the Americans. That is why the US so the rise to power of the ICU as a victory of al-Qaeda.
However, al-Qaeda confined itself to a passive and verbal support to the Islamists, while threatening the West not to interfere throughout the ICU's rise to power and its expansion in Somalia. This passive attitude changed with the outbreak of the war with the Ethiopians-backed TFG, when officials of the ICU called on Muslim fighters from all over the world to come to Somalia and help them fight against Ethiopian troops on December 23, 2006. Following this invitation, a call for the Mujahidin to come to Somalia and fight against the Ethiopians was circulated throughout the Jihadi forums on December 26, 2006. Moreover, the flight schedules of planes from Jeddah, Dubai, Djibouti, and Nairobi to Somalia were circulated in the Jihadi forums under the title "Support Our People in Somalia… Flight Schedules to Mogadishu". The ICU also got support from the Iraqi Islamic nation in Iraq, who circulated in the Jihadi forums a call to all Muslims "to stand by their brothers in Somalia and to aid them with money, ammunition and men". Despite these invitations, the Ethiopians defeated the Islamists within ten days. The Islamists, on their part vowed to continue fighting.
Following the ICU's defeat, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a videotape on January 5, 2007, which was circulated in the Jihadi forums, titled "Help your Brothers in Somalia!". He told the Islamists in Somalia that "the true battle will begin with your attacks against the Ethiopian forces". He advised them "to resort to mines, ambushes, incursions and martyrdom attacks", as the insurgents do nowadays. He again called on the Mujahidin "to respond the call of Jihad in Somalia". He made a special plea to the Mujahidin from Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Sudan, and the Maghreb to "rush aid to their Muslim brothers in Somalia by means of fighters, money, opinion and expertise".
This videotape and the repeated calls on the Mujahidin to come to Somalia may show us that their attitude towards the pleas for help was passive, as was the case in Sudan. It seems like only a few Mujahidin, if any at all, really came to Somalia. Yet, the Mujahidin expressed moral support and gave many advices for the Islamists in Somalia how to act from now on in the spirit of Ayman al-Zawahiri's videotape. All of these expressions of moral support and advices were posted in the Jihadi forums. It seems like al-Qaeda has failed to attract the Arab and Muslim Jihadis to Somalia. This failure may be a result of Somalia's remoteness from the main Jihadi theatres – Afghanistan and Iraq – and from their preference to go and take part in these Jihadi theatres instead of going to Somalia.
Yet, in November 2006 an announcement was posted throughout the Jihadi forums that told al-Qaeda supporters and operatives of the creation of a new organization called "The Mujahidin of the Land of the Two Hegiras (Ethiopia)", which "aligned themselves with bin Laden and al-Qaeda Organization and agreed to fight for the Jihad until Islamic law is enforced throughout the Land of the Two Hegiras". Its appeal is questionable, although about 75 Muslims are reported to have joined it. As for now, its existence is also questionable.
Ethiopia and Nigeria
Al-Qaeda serves as a source of inspiration not only for the Islamists in Sudan and Somalia, but also for local groups in Ethiopia and Nigeria, which make use of its tactics in order to achieve its local aims.
On April 24, 2007, Ethiopian rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), raided a Chinese-run oil-field, killing 74 people and destroying the exploration facility located in the border region between Ethiopia and Somalia. It was the first such attack ever on a foreign company in Ethiopia. The raid followed a warning issued last year by the same organization against any investment in Ogaden region that might benefit the West. In August 2006, the ONLF issued an electronic threat against a Malaysian oil company that was contemplating drilling in Ethiopia. The ONLF was formed b the Somali minority in Ethiopia in 1984 and since the beginning of the 1990s, its members have fought for the secession of the Ogaden region from Ethiopia. In this connection, it must be stressed that attacking oil-fields and foreign investments in Africa is a preferred target by groups inspired by al-Qaeda, which sought to attack the oil-fields in Saudi Arabia, and, thus, to cripple world economy.
The same is true to Nigeria, where the Christian organization, called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has made use of al-Qaeda tactic methods in order to achieve its local aims. MEND is a militant indigenous people's movement dedicated to armed struggle against what it claims to be the exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta and the degradation of their natural environment by foreign multi national corporations involved in the extraction of oil in their homeland. Therefore, its stated goals are to localize control of Nigeria's oil and to secure reparations from the national government for pollution caused by the oil industry. Thus, in order to achieve its aims, on February 18, 2006, MEND's military leader, Major-General Godswill Tamuno, declared a total war on all foreign oil companies and their employees. It was the opening shot for a wave of kidnappings, attacks on Nigerian government and police buildings and installations and the use of car bombs, which has been haunting, with some short intervals, the Niger Delta until today.
It should be emphasized that the first attack of MEND in late February, following its declaration of total oil war, was timed perfectly with al-Qaeda's failed attack on Saudi Arabia's largest oil complex at Abqaiq on February 22, 2006. It is well known that one of the main strategies of al-Qaeda has long been to damage American economic power by attacking oil facilities and targets. Therefore, the most threatening effect posed by this increased violence in the Niger Delta against government facilities and foreign oil companies is the potential for a goal-oriented alignment between Christian MEND and radical Muslims abroad. MEND may provide inspiration to radical Islamic groups, who are witnessing its "successful" actions, to carry out attacks against foreign oil installations across the globe.
The GSPC/Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb
Al-Qaeda's greatest achievement in Africa -- in addition to inspire local groups to use its tactic methods to achieve their local aims – is the joining of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) to al-Qaeda as proclaimed by Ayman al-Zawahiri on behalf of in Laden on September 11, 2006 and as confirmed by the group itself three days later. On January 2007, it changed its name into the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Indeed, in the last few months, the group targeted buses in Algiers carrying foreign workers fron an affiliate of the US company Haliburton in December 2006 and a bus carrying Russian workers in March 2007. On April 14, 2007, suicide bombers unsuccessfully targeted the US Consulate and an American cultural center in Casablanca, four days after another group of bombers blew themselves up in a confrontation with city police. On April 11, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for two suicide car bombings in Algiers, one targeting the Prime Minister's office and the other a police station. No group has claimed responsibility for the Moroccan incidents, but together with the Algerian attacks – which killed 33 people and wounded up to 333 – they indicate that North Africa, the US, and even Spain and France face an imminent threat from established regional militant groups, which are connected somehow with global Jihad.
The GSPC is a militant Islamist group, whose aim is to overthrow the Algerian regime and establish an Islamic state instead. The GSPC was founded by Hassan Hattab, a former GIA (Armed Islamic Group) regional commander, who separated from the GIA in 1998 in protest of its slaughter of innocent civilians. The GSPC is estimated to include between a few hundreds to 4,000 members. In September 2003, Hattab had been deposed as the National Emir of the GSPC and replaced by Nabil Sahraoui (Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Mustafa). Following his death in June 2004, Abu Mus'ab Abd al-Wadood became the leader of the GSPC.
Following the GSPC's enjoinment to al-Qaeda and its switch from a local Islamist group to an Islamist group more committed to global Jihad, it has a growing presence and activity outside of Algeria, particularly in Tunisia, Morocco, and the Sahel, which is being used more and more as a recruitment and battle ground. The Sahel represents a haven for groups like the GSPC. It has many advantages: it is immense and densely populated; the borders are not materialized, or, more importantly, controlled; illegal trafficking is omnipresent, making it much easier for the GSPC to acquire weapons and recruit people; the population is Muslim and poor, so that it welcomes the newcomers, who provide them with schools, medical supplies and other basic services. The Islamists, of course, take advantage of this situation to recruit people from the small radical Islamic communities present in the Sahel states (Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania).
Thus, it is no wonder that the GSPC has regularly carried out attacks throughout the Sahel including: the carrying out of an ambush in October 2006 against a rebel Tuareg group, killing seven of them; on June 3, 2006, the group attacked a Mauritanian military base in the country's North-East desert, killing 15 soldiers and wounding 17; in March 2003, the GSPC kidnapped 32 European tourists in Mali. Warnings were also issued by the French intelligence services that an ambush was being planned on the car rally between Lisbon and Dakar, which took place on January 16-17, 2007. So, the itinerary was changed, and three Mauritanians were arrested. However, it seems like the Sahel is not the real target of the GSPC, which uses it as a source of finance, and as a place where its members can regroup, train themselves for upcoming operations and launch attacks against their real targets: Tunisia and Algeria. Therefore, the Algerian government has been active in fighting the GSPC. The Mauritanian security services also announced the arrest of tens of GSPC members, who were presumably planning attacks and involved in the killing of soldiers in Mauritania in June 2005 and in the Madrid attacks in March 2004.
This deployment of GSPC and other Islamist groups in the Sahel undisturbed was and still is threatening Spain and France. Here, it should be emphasized that the Madrid attack were planned in the Sahel. For some time, France and Spain have been on the agenda of global Jihad and have become officially two of its main targets. The GSPC's merger with al-Qaeda makes the threat more real and imminent. Since then, the GSPC's leader has already reiterated several times the group's intention to attack France and its citizens, though for the moment the GSPC seems to limit its attacks to Algeria.
To conclude, al-Qaeda's main achievement in Sub-Saharan Africa is its ability to perform as a source of inspiration and emulation for local groups, radical Muslims as well as Christians. It is very unlikely, in my point of view, that radical Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa will become an important and integral part of al-Qaeda's network, not to speak about its supplying of soldiers for the global Jihad cause. In contrast to North Africa, membership is likely to be limited to a few individuals. Thus, al-Qaeda's call after the Mombasa attacks in 2002, on African Muslims to join their cause was met with decidedly more indignation than approval, with one important exception, the GSPC.
Moreover, the importance of Africa in terms of global Jihad will focus in the short term on two factors. First, the weak and desolate states of Africa provide an excellent space to draw back to, and their informal economies offer superb conditions for money-laundering and parking capital. Second, ineffective state security apparatuses create a convenient environment for carrying out attacks, as is the situation in the Sahel zone.