Last week’s tragic events in Kenya served to bring a very important issue to the attention of policy makers and commentators the world over. Terrorism in Africa is getting worse. It seems that whilst ISAF forces have been fighting in Afghanistan and CIA drones have been pummelling the Pakistani Mountains with missile strikes, extremism in its most raw and concentrated form has been spreading across North and East Africa. Places like Somalia, Algeria and Libya have become safe havens for radical groups who follow an extreme and distorted view of Islam. Recently, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has begun to receive more attention from the press, largely thanks to their attack on the Algerian oil refinery in January of this year. They have also gained footholds in many North African countries in the wake of the Arab Spring, most notably in Mali.
Al Shabaab, another extremist group based in in Somalia have claimed responsibility for the recent attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Attacks such as this reinforce a growing belief amongst many that terrorist organisations are exporting their training operations away from the heavily fortified regions of the Middle East to the barren deserts and lawless regions of North and East Africa. Simply put, religious terrorism in the name of Islam has found a new home.
Terrorist attacks in Africa are not a new phenomenon. In 1997, before the War on Terrorism had begun, sixty-two people were gunned down by terrorists at an archaeological site across the Nile from Luxor. In 1998 the embassies of the United States in Kenya, Tanzania and Dar es Salaam were bombed. Masterminded by Osama bin Laden, the attacks came less than a year after the tragic events in Egypt. It’s also worth noting that the prevalence of extremist activity in Africa has by no means diminished the level of violence occurring in Middle Eastern cities like Islamabad, Kabul and Sanaa’. Far from it, terrorist attacks have been an unfortunate and often disastrous feature of Middle Eastern history for decades and there are no signs to suggest that their occurrence will abate.
The number of terrorist attacks in Africa has remained relatively small in comparison to that of the Middle East. This is largely due to the relative infancy of the extremist groups that have popped up in Africa. What concerns me, and should concern policy makers in Whitehall and Washington, is the growing number of people who identify themselves with groups like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and AQIM. These organisations will be increasingly more difficult to intercept or better, exterminate, the more powerful they become.
Take Boko Haram, the Nigerian Government’s biggest headache. This group is responsible for several armed engagements with Nigerian forces in the north of the country. They are responsible for the deaths of civilians and members of the Nigerian armed forces. Yet, despite the best efforts of the Nigerian Government to destroy this organisation, they continue to spread death and destruction across the north of the country to those who do not subscribe to their extreme interpretation of their religion. Nigeria is predicted to be one of the world’s richest economies by the year 2050, with this great wealth will come much attention. It must have the necessary security infrastructure in place to deal with extremism and ensure that strong and stable governance can be applied across the whole country.
I certainly do not advocate operations similar to that of the invasion of Afghanistan to be conducted in the troubled regions of Africa. It is clear, now operations have nearly concluded, that a full on invasion of a country that harbours terrorists doesn’t result in enough success to warrant the loss of life and treasure that such an undertaking involves. I would instead insist upon greater cooperation between Western and African security organisations, so as the continent develops, so too does its ability to respond to security threats, which will likely grow in their complexity as time progresses.
There may be some who would argue that the extremist groups that plague North and East Africa are of little concern to Western Security organisations because they do not threaten our national security. Indeed, they may not do so currently. However, that should not be an excuse for complacency. With that being the case, logic dictates that it won’t be long before they have the resources and expertise to launch operations on Western targets either at home or abroad.
The attack on the shopping centre in Nairobi has demonstrated that these extremist groups possess the audacity to hit peaceful democratic populations without fear of any repercussions. These groups are experts at exploiting weakness wherever it can be found and harness it to achieve their ends. The international community is never going to stop attacks like this from ever happening ever again, but they must do everything they can to learn from what has happened and to ensure that those responsible are apprehended and made to answer for their crimes. Further, they have a duty to cooperate with their international partners to exchange ideas and expertise, because if resources are pooled internationally we stand a greater chance of dealing a fatal blow to those that seek to destroy our way of life.