Saturday, 19 October 2013

Is Africa in the grip of transnational terror?

While Africa continues to grow economically, its many nations cohering around a unified future for the continent, a number of serious persistent intra-state security concerns continue to grab headlines in multiple African countries. Worryingly, the reality of African conflict is attracting radical Islamic terrorist organisations enticed by the security vacuums of weakly-governed nations.

al Shabaab members, Somalia
Observant western countries will continue their trend of emphasising the limits of free movement and capabilities of radical Islamic groups, in the interest of international security. But while these groups display serious regional threats isolated generally to within their own countries, their actual capabilities to conduct severe attacks outside of their recognised operational range is highly constrained both by the groups' own ideology and intent, as well as by international intervention.

Strictly speaking, it is uncommon for African internecine wars to threaten developed countries. Unless those developed countries specifically wish to intervene militarily, there is generally little reason to deploy more than the expected groups of United Nations armed forces to contain the internecine hostilities. This is because most African militant’s goals rarely require campaigning armies and are usually sufficiently described in the entirely unimaginative diplomatic verbiage as “low-intensity conflicts”.

Keeping African states stable enough for smooth governance has proven to be a less than simple task. The realistic or unrealistic expectations for African governments to comply with international regulations can sometimes miss the cultural and traditional norms already informing the actions of various African governments. Nevertheless, the international community has identified clear security interests in Africa it feels it must commit military and economic resources to contain.

Instead of ending conflict in general, western containment is generally directed at groups which could pose a transnational threat or those which have aligned with other transnational militant groups. When fighting does break out in African nations, a security vacuum can very often follow, into which militant groups with more ambitious goals collect and thrive. Developed countries looking at the various low-intensity conflicts worry splinter groups or terrorist entities could then leverage failing states as launching-pads for attacks into the West.

Over the past decade especially, controlling the spread of such organisations has been conducted mostly by France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other NATO signatories. Because maintaining the security of many African nations is going to be a long-term effort, this reality could see western governments conducting many more years of containment and disruption operations as the chances of decisive success against terror groups are low.  

While many of these groups operating in Africa have indicated intentions to attack western targets, few actually possess the ability to do so. Western-led military training programs of local African armed forces in troubled countries aim to maintain this status quo. Groups such as al Shabaab - an al Qaeda affiliated terror organisation based in Somalia - and Boko Haram - which operates out of north-eastern Nigeria - are just two examples of the more serious radical Islamic groups in Africa.
Islamic militant groups across northern Africa

Recent headlines buzz with horrific terror attacks roughly follow the line of the equator over Somalia and Nigeria. The al Qaeda- linked group known as al Shabaab is now launching daring attacks further than expected from their usual stomping ground in war-torn Somalia. Although historically the group has been unable to attack targets outside of east Africa, and presently is focused on consolidating their control over Somalia, al Shabaab could be developing the skills necessary to evolve into a transnational threat.

For instance, Kenyan authorities fought a prolonged inner-city battle with members of the Somali terrorist organisation in the heart of downtown Nairobi during the closing days of September. The attack killed at least 72 people and wounded 175, including members of western diplomatic families. This particular attack involved al Shabaab gunmen controlling a popular shopping centre, a strategy similar to other time-tested terrorist tactics. Should the group evolve their intent, as well as their links to other organisations, and develop better tactical abilities, a repeat of such an attack further afield is possible.

However, the technical and tactical abilities of al Shabaab suggest the group is still a regional, rather than transnational threat. Even though the group has presented oscillating military competency fighting peacekeeping forces inside Somalia, al Shabaab remain an ideological and regional militancy. The skills necessary to be able to conduct even marginally sophisticated terror attacks appear to be eluding al Shabaab, as do the international connections required for critical logistics.  

This reality was fortified by an explosion in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa October 13. Occurring in a predominantly Somali section of the city, two illegal Somali immigrants were allegedly assembling multiple explosive devices when they accidentally detonated. The blast appears to have killed only the alleged bomb-makers, probably as a result of poor improvised explosive building techniques.

The two may not have had the requisite training for the attack, and clearly relied on local fellow Somali civilians. Scene evidence however indicates al Shabaab deeply wishes to operate in countries adjacent to Somalia, and could be increasing the tempo of attacks. Ethiopian authorities claim they discovered components of explosive suicide vests alongside replica football shirts, possibly indicating the deceased men meant to conduct an attack at the World Cup qualifying football match taking place the same day. Such an attack would have been similar to the July 11, 2010 al Shabaab attack in Kampala, Uganda which killed 70 football fans in the capital.

Remains of a car following a Boko Haram attack, Nigeria
In the west of Africa, Nigerian militant group Boko Haram is facing intense pressure domestically as Nigerian security forces arrest members of the group and conduct targeted raids to kill other members. Boko Haram is not the only militant group in Nigeria, but it is the largest. Just like al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram has traditionally focused their attacks almost exclusively on Nigerian targets. Much of the group’s justification for existence is political, intended to influence the government in Abuja to recognise laws more in line with a strict Islamic doctrine.

Boko Haram is nervous of attracting significant foreign intervention from the United States. Lessons have been learned when other groups publically announced intentions to evolve into transnational organisations and attack western targets. Each time, those groups see a corresponding reaction from western governments severely disrupting that militant group’s operations, as seen in Somalia, Mali, and now in the Central African Republic. The Nigerian radical Islamic group is very careful to remain mostly unaligned to other Islamic groups and limits their rhetoric by concentrating on Nigeria as their sole target.

Abuja recently brokered a cease-fire with the militant group. Militant attacks are certainly down since the cease-fire, but the reality in Nigeria is that unrest follows predictable political patterns. Splinter groups make it difficult for the Nigerian government to negotiate with an overarching militant body. Add to this the unaddressed issues arising from poverty and high unemployment and militancy from Boko Haram can be expected to persist for some time yet.

Despite the international attention, militancy in most parts of Africa has not yet reached the point to threaten targets outside the continent. Much of the dangers posed by radical groups place the populations of countries experiencing unrest - and sometimes adjacent nations - at risk. Distant countries, while understandably concerned, might better focus their worries on copycat attacks from local grassroots actors sympathetic with those radical Islamic groups.

More capable terror groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could offer to fill the operational and technical gaps in many African militant groups’ repertoire. Western countries are wise to maintain containment operations and build up the capabilities of local armed forces in troubled African countries. This present security environment may change in the future, but African militant groups will need to develop significantly more competent and proven terrorist techniques to reach the stage of true transnational organisation.


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