Africa and Threats of Terrorism

Police workers remove the remains of a car bomb used to destroy the US embassy in Nairobi

Police workers remove the remains of a car bomb used to destroy the US embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998. (Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP-Getty Images)

The devastating twin attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on August 7, 1998 were some of the first indicators that the threat of terrorism would be a driving force in the global political landscape of the 21st century.

Still, it is safe to conclude that few Americans believed this threat of terrorism could affect them directly until the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Since the beginning of the war on terror, some African states have been targeted as possible safe havens for terrorist groups, but resources to combat these elements are often diverted to more high-profile missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a fact that to ignore Africa in the war against terrorism is a mistake. Recent reports made public by the Central Intelligence Agency confirm that suspected terrorists operate predominantly in so-called "failed states."

The country that tops this list is Somalia, which has been without a central government for more than a decade since the death of dictator Siad Barre. Somalia has fallen into the hands of tribal leaders whose allegiances are often bought and sold. The areas in which suspected groups operate—and indeed most parts of Africa — are today in a woeful economic state.

America's war on terrorism cannot be fought alone, and it has frequently sought the assistance of African leaders to help police porous borders. The recent deployment of American marines along the Gulf of Guinea is an example of action taken in the name of American interests around the continent. In the current war in Iraq, statistics have shown that about twenty five per cent of foreign fighters detained are from Africa, especially from the East and Horn of Africa.

In The Guardian on August 5, 2004, a front-page report linked an e-mail address, which was allegedly used by the Al-Qaeda group to Nigeria. In the report, which has not been denied, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was recently arrested in Pakistan, allegedly linked a particular e-mail address used by the group to Nigeria. As is customary with such shadowy groups, such addresses are used once or not frequently to prevent detection.

Reports have often claimed that terrorist operatives have been moving around the northern part of Nigeria. The Guardian report quoted a CNN and Fox News report which in turn quoted an American official as saying "United States forces said Khan told interrogators that Al-Qaeda uses websites and e-mail addresses in Turkey, Nigeria and tribal areas of Pakistan to pass messages among themselves."

This is not the first time that Nigeria has been mentioned in reports that Al-Qaeda suspects have passed through the borders of the country. The Daily Independent reported in 2002 that an Al-Qaeda operative had lodged in a hotel in Kano.

A crackdown on terrorism in Pakistan resulted in the arrest of several Africans, including a 30-year-old Sudanese student Ahmed Maglad. When he was arrested, he said he met Mounir el Motassadeq (a Moroccan), while living in Hamburg, Germany in 1977. He said the Moroccan introduced him to Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on September 11. An Egyptian, Sheikh Esa — alias Motassadeq — was recently arrested in Pakistan in connection with plans to foment attacks.

A recent United Nations court has also linked the former Liberian President Charles Taylor with Al-Qaeda blood diamonds. The confidential report from the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, which is seeking the extradition of Taylor from Nigeria, indicted him for allegedly selling conflict diamonds to the terrorists group's operatives. The document, by prosecutor David Crane, stated, "it is clear that Al-Qaeda has been in West Africa since September 1988 and maintained a continuous presence in the area though 2002." Global Witness also accused Taylor of facilitating the process, which allowed the Al-Qaeda to get into Sierra Leone to mine diamonds there in exchange for arms.

How did all these and other terrorist activities throughout the 1990s escape the attention of the world — especially the United States, which is often the target? This, according to the Washington Post, is due to the fact that "the United States has not perceived itself to have a strategic interest in sub-Sahara Africa on the terrorism front until very recently. The development in Liberia is not a secret to anyone who has been to West Africa or who lives in the region. The whole scenario is part of the neglect by the outside world."

It is now clear that the war on terrorism must not neglect Africa if it is to succeed because most of the governments on the continent have failed their citizens, and most citizens who are pauperized by the failings of their governments may seek out other means of survival.

In this year of election in America, Africa and its security must be of concern to all.