Al-Qaeda expands its reach to 'like-minded' groups in Africa

USA Today/April 23, 2012

The Nigerian religious sect Boko Haram had been sporadically attacking police stations and people for years with machetes and sometimes guns to create an Islamic state in its corner of Africa's largest nation.

Then, in 2010, the group exploded into violence with suicide bombings, car bombs and coordinated assaults, months after an al-Qaeda leader in Algeria disclosed that the terror group had decided to help the Nigerian radicals.

Now Nigeria, whose government was trying to calm old conflicts between Muslims and Christians with negotiation, is headed for possible civil war in what experts say is an emerging strategy by al-Qaeda to convert local rebellions across sub-Saharan Africa into part of a global terror front against the West.

"This new Jihadist nexus in Africa" is a rising danger that the West has yet to fully comprehend, said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The pattern is seen not just in Nigeria, but also in Somalia and Mali, where al-Qaeda is prompting independence movements to broaden and heighten attacks, analysts said. Unilateral military operations, such as drone strikes, may have a role, but the focus should be on bolstering U.S. allies throughout North Africa and training their security forces to combat this growing extremism, Boot said.

In Somalia, al-Qaeda recently announced a merger with al-Shabaab, which had been at war for years against a coalition of U.S.-backed African countries.

Al-Qaeda's influence on al-Shabaab has been profound, said Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project.

Al-Shabaab has forged ties with al-Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere to obtain foreign fighters, expertise and cash, Zimmerman said. The group then shifted from an exclusive local fight and launched attacks in Kenya and Uganda, and trained Boko Haram militants, she said.

"That's one of the dangers of al-Shabaab having a safe haven in Somalia, that it can train other like-minded radicals in its tactics," Zimmerman said.

In Mali, thousands of fighters from tribes known as Tuareg had been fighting for an independent state since the 1960s. Earlier this month the Tuareg overran government outposts and declared independence in an area the size of France.

But it fought with help from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Muslim jihadist group that seeks a strict Islamic state in Algeria and uses kidnappings and smuggling across the Sahara desert for funds. Although the main Tuareg rebel group said it still wants a secular democracy, other Tuareg groups are now loyal to al-Qaeda and control Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, the three largest cities in the region.

The Tuaregs "made the mistake of thinking they could use the Islamists, ride the tiger, but the tiger turned on them," said Africa expert J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb brings a "clear benefit" to its Tuareg al-Qaeda allies who were said to number only a few hundred men before it linked up with them, said Andrew Lebovich, a contributor to al-Wasat, a blog about Islamic terrorism and ideology. "AQIM can provide dedicated, hardened fighters, a significant factor."

The White House said it has been paying attention to militants in Nigeria and Mali for a long time. Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said al-Qaeda is trying to take advantage of the instability in Mali but that the main Tuareg group has pledged to reject its efforts.

Pham and other Africa watchers said the United States can and should do more to prevent a radical Muslim movement from spreading across the continent.

Susanna Wing, a Mali expert and professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, said the U.S. should provide logistical support and training to nations that have pledged to commit troops to calm the rebellious north.

Pham said military action isn't enough. "You can crush a militant group but you have to replace it with something — a government that governs," he said.

The region needs governments that are accepted as legitimate by their citizenry, provide goods and services to the people and support its towns against extremists, Pham said. "We need to either get partners that can fill the space or we need to get out of this business."

John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, said the Obama administration is not taking such action because it doesn't believe in the existence of a global threat from Islamic terrorism. "This is a symptom of policy being driven by ideology rather than facts on the ground," Bolton said.

The Bush administration created the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in 2006 to improve democracy and security in a continent where the risk of Islamic extremism was seen as great in Muslim nations ruled by corrupt regimes with loose borders and restive populations.

The command has been helping countries intercept weapons flowing out of Libya following the overthrow of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, according to Army Gen. Carter Ham, Africom's commander. It also provides counterterrorism training in Mauritania and Somalia.

But even Ham said military intervention can only accomplish so much. "An enduring solution" in a place such as Nigeria "will require addressing the underlying conditions which lead individuals to support Boko Haram," he said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.