January 3, 2008 | Memo

The War on Terrorism in Africa: Assessment and Prospects

The former Somalia. The territory that was once the Somali Democratic Republic – it has not had a functional central government since early 1991 and the current internationally-recognized “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), the fourteenth such attempt at an interim body in as many years, is at best a notional entity – was the central African battlefield in the struggle against Islamist extremism at the start of 2007. The good news was that the Islamic Courts Union, which seized control of Mogadishu as well most of the country, was routed by an Ethiopian intervention, during which United States forces in the subregion, including those at the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti, availed themselves of the opportunity on several occasions to strike at al-Qaeda and other terrorist-linked targets as well as to nab one Abdullahi Sudi Arale, the link between al-Qaeda in the tribal agency areas of Pakistan and the terror network’s branch in East Africa.

However, as I warned in a column published while the Ethiopian offensive was still underway exactly one year ago, “while the Islamists have apparently abandoned concentrations in urban centers, they are not yet eliminated as a force” since “it is certainly conceivable that, having been beaten in conventional fighting but not quite destroyed, the Islamists and their foreign supporters could adopt the same non-conventional tactics that foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents have used to great effect in Iraq.” By November, as I subsequently reported, the TFG was falling apart while its Ethiopian saviors were wanting to withdraw but finding themselves unable to do so because the promised African Union peacekeepers largely failed to materialize (the 1,700 Ugandans who did show up as promised have largely gone to earth, where they were recently joined by barely 100 Burundians).

Meanwhile, helped by the ham-fisted nature of the unrepresentative TFG as well as arms and other assistance from subregional spoiler Eritrea, the Islamists have managed to build a broad-based insurgency that embraces clan and other rivals of the so-called government as well as radical elements. Although details are sketchy, it appears that late last week Ethiopian troops were forced to withdraw from Guriel, the central Somali town that straddles the road between the two countries.

My prediction is that 2008 will not be a good year for this war-torn land unless the United States and other nations adopt something along the lines of the advice I offered nearly a year ago: realize that our “interests in the critical regions like the Horn of Africa require security and stability, neither of which will be achieved by shoring up inherently illegitimate and, in fact, destabilizing regimes constructed at some international conference center. If one seeks the domestication into international society of the former Somalia, recognize well-deserving (and de facto independent) Somaliland, encourage developments in promising (and already semi-autonomous) Puntland, allow the rest of the land to coalesce as its inhabitants see fit, and definitely give up the idea that the ‘international community’ can somehow impose a state structure that has even the slimmest chance of long-term success.” (See my analysis last month of subtle shifts in this direction, at least with respect to Somaliland.)

Sudan. Most international attention on Sudan has focused on the western region of Darfur, where one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world is taking place even as the Islamist regime of President Umar al-Bashir – with a bit of assistance from its ally, the People’s Republic of China (which is also, not so coincidentally, its biggest purchaser of oil and seller of weaponry) – has managed to stall for yet another year the deployment of an effective international peacekeeping force. As I reported last month, the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation, dubbed UNAMID, which this week subsumes the 5,000-strong African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) that was deployed two years ago, has almost no operational capacity.

Meanwhile an even larger conflict looms between the Khartoum and the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) over the former’s failure to honor the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended decades of civil war between the Arab-dominated Muslim north of the country and South Sudan, where the population is largely Christian or adherents of traditional African religions, which left more than two million people, mostly South Sudanese, dead. While differences appear to be temporarily papered over, tensions will continue to rise since, under the terms of the CPA, there should be elections across Sudan in 2009, including voting for an elected GOSS. These polls are to be followed by a referendum in 2011 which, as I observed over a year ago, will lead to only one conclusion: the confirmation of South Sudan as a sovereign state. Of course, General al-Bashir’s regime could not survive such a loss, so count on it to do everything to obstruct this eventuality.

As I argued in October, “with the tensions simmering just below the surface and the collapse of the peace agreement looming at the edge the horizon, only a credible armed force can provide the long-suffering South Sudanese with the security they yearn for and deter the Khartoum regime from igniting a new conflict that will be far deadlier and geopolitically more destabilizing than the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur.” To prevent this catastrophe, over the next year the United States needs to redouble efforts to honor the pledge to help South Sudan stand up professional security forces as well as be prepared to recognize the new nation whose birth it facilitated through the CPA.

The Maghreb and Sahel. If the former Somalia was the main battleground against Islamist extremism in Africa during 2007, expect to see the theatre to shift to North Africa, also known as the Maghreb, and the Sahel, the critical boundary belt where Sub-Saharan Africa meets the latter. Last February, I observed that while “fortunately to date radical Islamism has not attracted widespread support among the 100 million or so inhabitants [of this subregion] … the extreme poverty of and simmering ethnic tensions within the region, when compounded on the general weakness of its governments, render the terrain especially fertile for extremist penetration.” By the middle of the year, as I subsequently reported, it was clear that such an infiltration was well underway with the transformation of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization Salafist Group for Call and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC) into al-Qaeda’s African franchise operation, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The “rebranding” was more than cosmetic as the group seemed to get a “shot in the arm” if its spiraling activity – including two spectacular car bomb attacks in Algiers last month, one aimed at United Nations offices in the Algerian capital – are any indication. Thus I have argued repeatedly that:

We need to increase technical assistance to help allied governments in the Sahel and Maghreb increase their ability to police their own territory and enhance their collaboration with each other in tracking and blocking terrorist activity that is no respecter of borders. This type of partnership also serves a longer-term objective which African nations have made their own: the increasing integration of countries within subregions and across the continent as a whole. Since al-Qaeda’s new African affiliate is a local, regional, and intercontinental franchise operation, it will only be beaten by a competitive effort that has similarly integrated and forward-looking strategic perspective.

The U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), rebaptized this past year as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP), which involves Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia as well as a number of America’s enduring European allies, provide training – including everything from marksmanship skills and first aid techniques to operational planning and communications – and other capacity-building assistance to counter AQIM and other threats in the subregion. Personnel from all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces have been involved in training their counterparts, including Army Special Forces, Air Force commandos, Navy intelligence, and Marine units. In addition to the Department of Defense, the new initiative also integrated contributions from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The successes of this approach are beginning to add up and it needs to be sustained and expanded in 2008.

Nigeria and West Africa. As I emphasized repeatedly in this column space, 2007 was a critical year for Nigeria and the world (especially the United States, for which the West African nation is the fourth most important foreign supplier of petroleum) as the country went to the polls for what should have been the first transition from one democratically-elected president to another in its history. Unfortunately, as I reported after observing the election firsthand, the voting was marred by widespread violence, fraud, and other irregularities. While the man “elected,” Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was duly inaugurated, he faced mounting challenges, not least of which was violence in the oil-rich southeast where attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other groups had cut overall oil production has been cut by about 500,000 barrels per day, that is, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of Nigeria’s total capacity. As I subsequently warned, “the vulnerability of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is not only a threat to U.S. interests, but also a potentially mortal danger to the country’s own future.”

Compounding Nigeria’s problems in 2008 will be potential spillover from the conflicts in the Sahel. Early last year, my assertion of a resurgence for the “Nigerian Taliban,” a group which first appeared around 2003 and was composed, like the Afghan group whose name it adopted, primarily of radicalized religious students (the members actually refer to themselves as the “Muhajirun,” or “migrants”), was rather greeted by many analysts with skepticism as was my warning that Nigeria’s “indigenous extremists now have access to local power brokers, to say nothing of foreign partners eager to supply them with not only with weapons and other material support, but also a virulent ideology with global ambitions.” Yet the warning proved to be on target: in mid-November, Nigeria’s State Security Services arrested al-Qaeda-linked militants in three northern states, capturing the would-be terrorists with weapons, explosives, and other deadly materiel. With the gathering strength of AQIM to its north and its own internal difficulties, Nigeria – and with it the rest of West Africa – will likely face a rocky road in the years ahead.

The rest of Africa. While the terrorist threat in the rest of Africa is not as immediate as that in the subregions discussed above, neither is it altogether absent. Earlier this year, writing with South Africa in mind, I noted that while one should be careful not to over exaggerate the imminence of the threat, the overall risk is very real: “Between the ideologically-motivated ignorance [of many among the country’s rulers] to the dangers posed by transnational Islamist terrorism as well as the attractiveness of South Africa’s highly-developed infrastructure to terrorist networks seeking a base for and/or a theater of operations, terrorists understandably find in South Africa an enabling environment at the very least.”

The need for vigilance against terrorism, in fact, could be described as “pan-African.” Even countries with little or no history of Islamist violence – or much of Muslim population for that matter – face nowadays face challenges as witnessed by the confrontation in Uganda’s Bundibugyo district, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, between the government and the so-called “Allied Democratic Forces,” a group launched in the 1990s with help from Khartoum (see my piece more than a year ago on “The Growth of Militant Islamism in East Africa”). An apart from concerns about Islamist militancy, there is the phenomenon of state-sponsored terrorism. For example, as I warned earlier this year with respect to Eritrea, “the rogue regime in Asmara … is fomenting a growing cycle of violence phenomenon that not only threatens the stability of its neighbors, but, because of its support of an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency [in Somalia], risks opening a broad terrorist front across the entire Horn of Africa.” In this context, the possible renewal of conflict along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border which, as I reported most recently in late November, is a very distinct possibility given Asmara’s violations of the demilitarized buffer zone, casts a shadow on the coming year.

Two years ago, in the very first column in this series, I observed: “A war on terror must be fought globally, whenever and wherever extremists try to find shelter. While some priorities must inevitably be set in the allocation of scarce resources, entire regions must not be ignored simply because they do not figure prominently in certain conventional worldviews. Otherwise, in this conflict, a forgotten front can quickly inflame into an Achilles’ heel.” Through the creation of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and other initiatives, which this column has consistently advocated, Africa is no longer the “forgotten front” in the struggle against terrorism that it had been just a few years ago. However, there is still much to be done in what is, indeed, a “long war.”