September 28, 2006 | World Defense Review

The Growth of Militant Islamism in East Africa

The few resources in America's global war on terror as have been directed to Sub-Saharan Africa have largely (and not unreasonably) gone to helping build security capacity in the vital assets like the increasingly vital hydrocarbon supplies in Nigeria and other volatile West African producers. Or they have gone to countering the rising threat to the Horn of Africa posed by the Islamist radicals who seized effective power in Somalia from that country's farcical “Transitional Federal Government,” which barely controls one town —  and that only with Ethiopian propping.

However, a consequence of this resource allocation is that perhaps not enough attention is being given to a less immediate but strategically significant trend: the growth of militant Islamism in East Africa.

According to one Congressional Research Service report, “from 1991, when Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan, al-Qaeda has been building a network of Islamist groups in both the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia) and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda).” The report went on to suggest that, as it did in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, the terrorist group and its allies would exploit poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, porous borders, and ineffective (and often corrupt) government officials to create a “terror center” in East Africa.

We have already seen how this has played out. On August 7, 1998, massive explosions destroyed the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than two hundred people and injuring thousands. One of the perpetrators, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, crossed into Mozambique the day after the attacks. A week later, he entered South Africa on a tourist visa he had obtained in Dar es Salaam the day before the embassy bombing. Mohammed then applied for asylum under a fictitious name and lived and worked in Cape Town for more than year before being discovered and arrested. Convicted by a federal court in New York, he now serves a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

However, despite episodic attention occasioned by subsequent attacks launched by al-Qaeda affiliates in the region (e.g., like the two simultaneously launched against Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya, on November 28, 2002, which killed thirteen people and injured about two dozen others) as well as by the U.S.-sponsored $100 million East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) launched in June 2003, much more needs to be done.

Kenya, for example, has a relatively small Muslim population, amounting to perhaps 6 percent of the population, concentrated in the coastal and northeastern areas. While most of this population is no doubt peaceful, neither militants nor grievances are absent. One day after the attack against the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, for example, a group calling itself the Islamic Liberation Army of the People of Kenya published a manifesto aimed at the Kenyan government as well as the United States:

The Americans humiliate our people, they occupy the Arabian peninsula, they extract our riches, they impose a blockade and, besides, they support the Jews of Israel, our worst enemies, who occupy the Al-Aqsa mosque … The attack was justified because the government of Kenya recognized that the Americans had used the country's territory to fight its Muslim neighbors, in particular Somalia. Besides, Kenya cooperated with Israel.

While some have argued that this “al-Qaeda-type” of militant Islamism will find little traction among the relatively permissive Muslims of East Africa, it is hard to dismiss the anti-American sermons preached on many Fridays in Nairobi's landmark Jamia Mosque and other Muslim places of worships, especially in the city's Eastleigh neighborhood. The Jamia Mosque, incidentally, played host to the Dalsan operation which, as I noted in last week's column, contributed significantly to the victory of the Islamists in Somalia. In fact, Kenya's proximity to Somalia is part of the problem: the ease with which radicals from the latter country – ungoverned except where the Islamists hold sway – can enter Kenya and hide within the large community of ethnic kin hampers policing efforts. And the security challenge for Kenyan authorities was aggravated just this past weekend when the key Somali port of Kismayo, just over the border from Kenya, fell to advancing Islamist militias.

Furthermore, there is also the increasing activism of and support for the Islamic Party of Kenya, a political group not recognized by the electoral commission because it violates the secular nature of the Kenya constitution, but which nonetheless advocates the adoption of sharia in Kenya. The chairman of Kenya's Council of Imams and Preachers, Ali Shee, for example, has repeatedly warned that the country's Muslim regions will attempt to secede if sharia is not established.

In Tanzania, where roughly a third of the mainland population is Muslim, the area of concern is the overwhelming Muslim autonomous island of Zanzibar, which was a overseas possession of Oman and then a distinct Arab-ruled sultanate under British protection until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1964.

Increasingly influential on the island is a radical cleric, Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda, who has been repeatedly detained by Tanzanian security officials for involvement in often deadly communal violence, usually aimed at forcibly taking over moderate mosques and radicalizing them.

Ponda's rise to prominence is associated with the ongoing investment, estimated in the millions of dollars per year, by Saudi charities in new mosques and madrasas in Tanzania which propagate radical creeds and bring local Muslims into contact with foreign elements. A Time magazine article even quoted one Tanzanian Islamist activist, Mohammed Madi, as saying, “We get our funds from Yemen and Saudi Arabia … Officially the money is used to buy medicine, but in reality the money is given to us to support our work and buy guns.”

Meanwhile in Uganda, while international most attention has focused on the government's fight against the cult-like Lord's Resistance Army (itself a terrorist organization, albeit one without the transnational ambitions of the jihadis), a challenge has also posed by the Allied Democratic Forces/National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF/NALU), an armed Islamist group started in the mid-1990s with help from the National Islamist Front government in Sudan as well as Osama bin Laden, then resident in Khartoum. After al-Qaeda settled in Afghanistan, it brought several members of the ADF/NALU over for advanced training. President Yoweri Museveni's support for the war on terror has made him a repeated target by these militants.

In all of this it should be recalled that al-Qaeda and other radical groups do not need anything even approaching the support of a majority of the Muslim minority in the sub-region. All that the extremists need are just a few disaffected individuals within the Arabic-cultured Muslim community that has seen its power and privilege diminished in favor of the largely Christian or animist black majority since the nations of East Africa achieved their independence. Just a few well-placed supporters, hidden within a larger community, would be sufficient ground on which to construct terrorist cells, secure safe houses, and carry out attacks. And, if necessary, there is ready refuge to be found in Somalia with Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys and the radicals of the Islamic Courts Union, as the three African al-Qaeda leaders indicted for the U.S. embassy bombings – Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comorros, who figures on the FBI's “Most Wanted Terrorists” list with a $5 million bounty on his head; Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan of Kenya; and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan – can attest.

While militant Islamism in East Africa has not yet reached the critical proportions that it has in the Horn of Africa or even the higher risk levels that it represents in the resource-rich countries of West Africa, the sub-region nonetheless could use sustained assistance from the U.S. and other Western nations in reinforcing the capacity of its states, especially in the security sector.

The governments of all three countries briefly surveyed above – Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda – are America's partners, albeit ones with weak capacities. A small investment now in such basic counterterrorism measures as on-the-ground human intelligence and border control technologies will pay off handsomely in opportunities and lives not lost as al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups continue to sow their poison in what they perceive as fertile soil.

The challenge we help our allies head-off today will be the conflict, which we will not have to fight ourselves tomorrow.

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.