Published 27 Jul 06
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Al Qaeda moves to Africa
While events in the Middle East understandably preoccupy American policymakers at the moment, we cannot afford to forget that Israel's war of self-defense against the terrorist Hamas and Hezbollah organizations and their state sponsors is part of a global conflict being waged on many fronts. While that war is currently hot in the Levant, it can also just as quickly get heated in other geostrategically sensitive areas.
When I testified in Congress last month about the rising threat of the Islamists in Mogadishu, one of my fellow witnesses was in utter denial about the connections of Islamists in Africa and international terrorist groups: "I think that it is important that we don't sort of rush to judgment and say, because they are Islamists they must be extremists ... I think what we know is very limited."
Actually, perhaps the gentleman would have been more accurate to say that what he knows is very limited. The fact is that our enemies have been very forthcoming in what they up to, but for a variety of reasons – ranging the general neglect of Africa in U.S. foreign policy circles to concerns about overstretched resources to the unwillingness to acknowledge a problem lest it compel us to act – many have chosen to give the extremists a virtually free pass.
In June, for example, an online magazine for actual and aspiring global jihadis and their supporters, Sada al-Jihad ("Echo of Jihad"), which late last year took the place of Sawt al-Jihad ("Voice of Jihad") as the publication of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, ran a four-page article by one Abu Azzam al-Ansari entitled "Al-Qaeda is Moving to Africa." (The quotations from the document in this column are my own rendering. An English translation of the entire Arabic-language article is available on the website of the Project for the Research of Islamists Movements (PRISM) of Israel's Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.) And, pace my fellow witness, the author of the Sada al-Jihad article is quite up-front about his agenda for Africa:
There is no doubt that al-Qaeda and the holy warriors appreciate the significance of the African regions for the military campaigns against the Crusaders. Many people sense that this continent has not yet found its proper and expected role and the next stages of the conflict will see Africa as the battlefield.
With almost admirable detachment from rancor, he then proceeds to enumerate and evaluate what he perceives to be significant advantages to shifting operations to Africa.
These include, the fact that jihadi doctrines have already been spread in many African countries; the political and military weakness of African governments; the easy availability of a wide range of weapons; the geographical position of Africa vis-à-vis international trade routs; the proximity to old conflicts against "Jews and Crusaders" in the Middle East as well as emergent ones like Darfur, which is explicitly mentioned; the poverty of Africa "will enable the holy warriors to provide some finance and welfare, thus, posting there some of their influential operatives"; the technical and scientific skills that potential African recruits would bring; the presence of large Muslim communities, including ones in conflict with Christians or other Muslims; the links to Europe through North Africa "which facilitates the move from there to carry out attacks"; and the fact that Africa has a wealth of natural resources, including hydrocarbons and other raw materials, which are "very useful for the holy warriors in the intermediate and long term."
Consequently, Abu Azzam concludes in a passage I could echo from the opposing side:
In general, this continent has an immense significance. Whoever looks at Africa can see that it does not enjoy the interest, efforts, and activity it deserves in the war against the Crusaders. This is a continent with many potential advantages and exploiting this potential will greatly advance the Jihad. It will promote achieving the expected targets of Jihad. Africa is a fertile soil for the advance of Jihad and the Jihadi cause.
An interesting note about Abu Azzam is that, however unintentionally, he answers analysts who are always quick to point to the significant presence in Africa of Sufi and other Islamic traditions that the Wahhābī and Salafi ideologies have historically tended to condemn as heterodox.
Abu Azzam takes a more pragmatic approach in order to exploit the continent's geopolitical and strategic advantages: "The Sufis have no doubt a huge presence in Africa, more than in any other continent. Many holy warriors in other countries have learned that working with the Sufis is easier than working with any other sect, such as the Shi'ites or the Communists."
Although he does not mention them specifically, one cannot help but wonder if the author is not thinking about the potential of grafting his own violent campaign of global jihad onto African traditions of military campaigns historically carried out by charismatic African leaders under the banner of Islam, including the empire-building jihad of Uthman dan Fodio in what is now northern Nigeria.
In fact, the Sufi brotherhoods among that region's largely Muslim Hausa and Fulani peoples have long-standing ties with the Middle East and, following the colonial interlude, proved receptive to the ministrations of Saudi-educated imams who looked down upon more moderate expressions of Islam. Recently, with the restoration of democracy, Islamist tendencies in the West African giant have taken on a political edge as Muslims from the north have felt sidelined as they are no longer accorded the automatic dominance that they enjoyed under British colonialism and post-independence military rule, a sense of grievance accentuated by the realization that their region, unlike the southern areas, is resource poor.
It was in this context of Muslim political decline on the national level that northern politicians began raising – quite successfully, one might add – the banner of sharī‘a to reinforce their positions.
In summary, increasing economic and political marginalization, combined with the intrusion of "religious" ideologies into a still maturing polity, make for a volatile situation even before the entrance of foreign extremist elements.
Likewise, while Senegal, a relatively stable and prosperous country with an overwhelming Muslim population, has managed to maintain, since the tenure of its extraordinary independence leader and first president, the humanist scholar Léopold Sédar Senghor (himself a member of the Académie française and a Roman Catholic who was married to a French woman). The country's civil authorities have paid due deference to the leaders of its influential Sufi brotherhoods – including the Tidjaniyya, Muridiyya, Quadriyya, and others – who, in turn, accept the secular government's control of civic matters.
The current president, Abdoulaye Wade, for example, lets out that he is a "Mouride," an adherent of a reformist group within the Hizbut Tarquiyyah brotherhood. However, outside the relatively moderate traditional religious establishment, there are a number of radical Islamists groups whose leaders have been trained in the Middle East. These are particularly active among younger Senegalese, especially university students, as the innocuous-sounding name of one of these groups, the Associations des Etudiants de l'Université de Dakar, indicates.
In short, even if some analysts inside the Beltway cannot or will not see it, our jihadi foes are already setting their sights on Africa as the venue of choice for future operational bases, especially as they continue to be rooted out of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, and now, Gaza and Lebanon.
Over the long term, a terrorist foothold in Africa – whether among the Islamists in the Horn of Africa or in West Africa or both – may well prove to be an even greater threat to the interests of the United States and its allies than those in the current arenas of conflict.
We have been warned: al-Qaeda itself has served us notice.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.
© 2006 J. Peter Pham
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