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The al Qaedaization of Africa Continues

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Last week, the head of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, issued a dire warning about increased cooperation between various African jidadi groups, particularly Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al Shabaab, Mali’s Ansar Dine, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

“Each of those three organisations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat,” Ham told an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington. “What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts – in other words, to establish a co-operative effort amongst the three most violent organisations … And I think that’s a real problem for us and for African security in general.”…

“Most notably I would say that the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials.”

The General, predictably, did not back up these warnings with any concrete evidence, but rather spoke merely of “indications” that these groups were coordinating efforts.

What does this mean for Western countries and the United States in particular? Someexpress caution in reading too much into this supposed threat:

While the coordination among terrorist groups in Africa is a concern, there’s little evidence so far that such groups are targeting the U.S. homeland, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a counter-terrorism specialist and former Navy helicopter pilot who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Right now, these groups are not threatening the U.S. homeland in any way comparable to what al-Qaeda was doing three or four or five years ago,” before drone strikes weakened the militant group’s core, Nelson said.

The specter of al Qaeda opening a new front in Africa has is nothing new. (I have written about the al Qaedaization of Africa before herehere, and here.) Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, of course, operated in African during the late ’90s, bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But, since 2002 al Qaeda proper has not mounted a single attack on the African continent.

Counterterrorist officials and experts have been warning of al Qaeda’s expansion since the middle part of the last decade, particularly in North Africa. In the ensuing years, however, these threats did not materialize due to a combination of police work, international cooperation, and internal group dynamics. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did not become the successor to bin Laden’s organization; rather it imploded as the result of factional conflictand ultimately has descended into pure criminality. Tunisia, once seen as an emerging hotspot of jihad, became instead the model for popular revolution in the Arab world.

Now, it seems, the counterterrorists’ attention has turned southward. This is in large part due to the emergence in recent years of jihadi groups and increased violence in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few years. However, this narrative cannot be completely separated from American strategic interests in Africa and the inexorable logic of counterterrorism.

General Ham’s warnings must be understood within this context. We should not automatically assume that he is lying or purposely overstating the threat. From the perspective of officials charged with “protecting the homeland,” being overly vigilant is an occupational necessity. To not attend to even the slightest of threats is to shirk one’s duties and, potentially, to allow attacks to come to fruition. Furthermore, lawless and weak states have historically provided fertile ground for jihadi groups with global ambitions — e.g. Afghanistan — so officials have good reason to worry about growing instability in already unstable African countries.

But, we should uncritically believe the predictions or heed the warnings of counterterrorist and military officials. The American military, despite high levels of public trust in it, has tallied up quite a number of deliberate untruths, from the story behind Pat Tilman’s death to a relatively insignificant Taliban attack last month. This does not mean that General Ham is lying. But it does suggest that skepticism is warranted.

There are some who might argue that the General probably has access to “secret information” that is too sensitive to be released, and thus we should take him at his view. Similar arguments were made during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But, this argument was belied by the fact that the Bush Administration either publicly paraded or privately leaked every available piece of intelligence at their disposal to bolster their case for war, with little concern for protecting sources or intelligence operations.

The Obama Administration has continued this practice. They’ve leaked information about the infiltration into the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda by a Saudi intelligence agent, they’ve leaked details about kill lists and drone strikes, they’ve leaked information about cyberattacks against Iran. They’re even providing Hollywood’s favorite militarist with inside information for a film about the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin.

So, assuming that the threat of al Qaeda’s African “affiliates” is based on actual intelligence, why wouldn’t the Administration release the information? Why not show the public satellite photos, tapes of satellite phone conversations, transcripts of informants’ statements, whatever they have? Why the reliance of vague “indications”?

My suspicion is that there is no hard intelligence, only an assumption that these groups must be working together because that’s what terrorists do. From the anarchists of the nineteenth century, to the leftwing militants of the seventies and eighties — to the jihadis of today — the idea of an organized, transnational conspiracy is a favored narrative of counterterrorists and politicians. There can be no local phenomena, all violence must be linked by some nefarious invisible hand.

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Philippe Duhart

Philippe Duhart