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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Al-Qaeda In Africa

Link: A. Al-Qaeda Presence In African Countries

(Today's post is the first in a four-part series to begin 2015.  This series will discuss the current state of affairs for the various Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups around the globe.  The next in the series will be the Middle East, followed by Southeast Asia, and concluding with Europe/United States.  Somewhere along the line I will throw out a few comments about Al-Qaeda's presence in Latin America, especially as it relates to drug trafficking, smuggling and the tri-borders region.)

When I originally googled "Al-Qaeda" and "Africa", I expected to find a Wikipedia page full of useful dates and details.  Have a look at the link so you can share in my disappointment. No matter; Al-Qaeda is so active at present that a review of any international news provider should bear fruit.  Surprisingly, the link from Wikipedia doesn't even identify Mali as a location of interest, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has been stirring the pot in the north of the country for a few years now.  But enough criticism of Wikipedia.  It is an invaluable resource that I would hate to lose, so follow my example and give them a few dollars whenever they start one of their fund-raising drives.  Back to Al-Qaeda and Africa.

Personally, the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 were the first time that I connected the terrorist group Al-Qaeda to the African continent.  I was aware of the organization, mainly because I was already employed for an Intelligence Agency, and I was working in a counter-terrorist branch at the time.  Having spent some time in Kenya and Tanzania, I was immediately useful, as street maps were spread out over desks and rolled-up, dusty maps were pulled out from behind cabinets.  Interestingly enough, I can't remember a time when the group Al-Qaeda was not synonymous with Osama bin-Laden.  Even then in the early years pre-9/11, everyone was already referring to the two as inseparable evils, and with good reason.  Bin-Laden carried his organization on his back, figuratively and literally.  He had spent some time in Afghanistan and trained in the Sudan and Yemen.  I can't be sure but I believe the planning for 9/11 was already in place when the embassy bombings occurred.  I believe another attack was intended, one involving multiple airliners that were to be hijacked out of Manila, and these three attacks (Kenya, NYC, Manila) were going to deliver a message to the West.  The third operation never got off the ground, thank goodness.

Since the 1980s, Al-Qaeda has been active in Africa.  When Somalia descended into post Siad-Barre hell, Al-Qaeda positioned itself to become an integral part of the conservative and extremist Islamic Courts Union, which was the de facto government in Moqdishu for a while.  Once the African Union and the Ethiopian Army removed the Courts from Somalia, they found a comfy exile in Eritrea.  I just don't understand the government of Eritrea, why they would want to announce to the world that they are friendly with Al-Qaeda.  Obviously this is just another case of, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", and the Eritreans despise the Ethiopians with a venom that is hard to match.  Presently, with Puntland trying to sort itself out, and the Somali government in Moqdishu just trying to get the power back on, the bad guys, who have morphed from the "Islamic Courts Union", to "Al-Shabaab", are doing what they can to cause trouble in Kenya.  Don't be fooled; Al-Shabaab is an unpolished, illiterate, ill-trained version of Al-Qaeda, and they understand the importance of establishing a presence in Kenya.  The unemployment rate in Kenya is so high, I don't think the Kenyan government bothers to log it anymore.  Most young men, at an age when they are supposed to be the most physically productive, are playing soccer in the townships and smoking hash behind the shabeen. The first time I ever saw someone wearing an Osama bin-Laden t-shirt was in Kibera, the huge township that feeds and feeds off of Nairobi.  They are hungry in Mombasa as well, and in Nakuru and Kisumu.  Al-Qaeda has always intended on taking advantage of the squalor and hopelessness of the third world, to recruit and spread its anti-west, anti-glutton message.  But for some reason they have never really succeeded in appealing to the masses.  But Africa, and Kenya in particular, give them an ideal opportunity.  For Al-Qaeda, Somalia is over.  The question is, to relocate the operatives and resources to Sudan and Yemen (and Eritrea), or to make a real push in Kenya. 

In west Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has caused quite a bit of heartburn.  A few years back in Mali, the Tuaregs attempted a bit of a revolution.  These usually non-confrontational, private nomads were having their traditional way of life negatively impacted by the activities of various French oil and mineral exploratory operations.  They complained to the government in Bamako, but the Euro talks, and the Camel walks, so to speak.  So the Tuaregs started a bit of a rebellion.  Almost from the start it was hijacked by AQIM, and before long, the Tuaregs had been basically muscled out of the conflict altogether.  AQIM proved too much for the Malian Army, so Mother France was called, and to make a boring story short, the French military sorted out AQIM in short-order.  In the summer of 2014, when all of west Africa was focused on the anti-Ebola campaign, AQIM popped up again, and this time began attacking targets in Niger.  Fortunately the French military always seems to be available, and it is yet to be determined if AQIM will acquit itself in a more positive way this time around.  Unfortunately, the French can only be in so many places at one time, and AQIM has a habit of attacking Malian military targets, separate from a French military presence.

Boko Haram has been described as "Al-Qaeda in Nigeria", which is not far from the truth.  Originally, Boko Haram was created as a method of educating and providing security for Muslim communities in northern Nigeria.  A change in leadership was instrumental in Boko Haram's evolution into an Islamic extremist group, and they have quickly silenced the Islamic opposition (what there was of it).  I have never considered Al-Qaeda to be overly religiously motivated, but they won't pass an opportunity to hijack a conservative Islamic movement, as they have demonstrated many times.  In reality, I don't think Al-Qaeda has any input into the actions of Boko Haram.  They make a bunch of noise and get a good deal of press, but until Boko Haram takes control of the Nigerian Oil Industry and starts pumping that oil to fill Al-Qaeda's coffers, I don't see the possibility of an Al-Qaeda initiative here (unless the U.S. and Nigerian security is lax and the embassy becomes a target of opportunity).

Africa can be a dangerous place for Americans.  Because of the ease in which a person can cross one border after another, the U.S. Diplomatic Security folks have to always be on their game.  Africa is useful to Al-Qaeda for three reasons: targets of opportunity, training, and recruitment.  We know about the first two, but just how much success have the bad guys had at recruiting operatives in Africa?  Up to now, I think it has been negligible.  But that could change this year.  Keep your eye on Kenya.      

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