In September, two deadly attacks by terrorist groups called the world’s attention to al-Qaeda’s stranglehold over the continent of Africa. On September 21, members of Somalia-based al-Shabaab stormed the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and killed 62 civilians. A week later, the Nigerian terrorist cell Boko Haram murdered 50 sleeping college students. The rise of terror in Africa has prompted the U.S. military to launch a series of raids to capture top al-Qaeda leaders, but it may be too late to curtail its influence in the region.
“It was a night of horror,” Sagir Adam told the BBC News. He managed to survive the Boko Haram attack on his dormitory at Yobe State College of Agriculture in poverty-stricken northeastern Nigeria. Many of his classmates were not so lucky. The attack is just the latest in a wave of increased violence.
Boko Haram roughly translates to “Western education is a sin.” Members of the radical Islamist group believe that the government of Nigeria is biased toward the Christian elite and demands a return to Islamic law and governance. In recent months, their tactics and rhetoric have been reminiscent of al-Qaeda, leading many to believe that the global terrorist group is exerting more influence over Africa.
“It is the growing connectivity between some of these groups that is starting to form a network across Africa which could be very, very dangerous,” General Carter Ham, former chief of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, told the Associated Press last year.
Al-Qaeda’s connection to local groups is especially evident in the actions of al-Shabaab, which coordinated an attack on a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi that specifically targeted non-Muslims. In 2012, the leader of al-Shabaab publically pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s ideals and pivoted their focus from capturing control of Somalia to a global jihadist movement.
Al-Shabaab emerged from years from violent anarchy in Somalia as a loose coalition of moderates and extremists calling themselves the Islamic Court Union (ICU). The ICU managed to briefly bring some security to the war-torn nation when it rose to power in 2006.
“The Courts achieved the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and re-establishing peace and security,” a report by the Chatham House said in 2007. In December 2006, the U.S., fearing that the country would become a safe haven for al-Qaeda, backed an Ethopian invasion of Somalia that splintered the ICU. The extremists ultimately won a protracted struggle for control of the group, killing any moderate members who opposed al-Shabaab’s new identity as an international terrorist organization.
The attack on the Kenyan mall and the slaughter of students in Nigeria captured headlines around the world and signaled al-Qaeda’s intention to embed itself in Africa. Al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter to promote itself during the attack is seen as further proof of their desire to create a spectacle to attract worldwide attention.
The U.S. responded with two raids on October 5 aimed at capturing top al-Qaeda operatives in North Africa. In Libya, U.S. special forces captured Abu Anas al-Libi, a senior leader suspected of involvement in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998.
A second U.S. Navy SEAL team attemped to capture al-Shabaab leader Abdul-Kadir Mohamed Abdul-Kadir in Somalia, but withdrew after a gunfight ensued at the compound. Al-Shabaab has sinced claimed that Abdul-Kadir was not present during the raid. According to Al Jazeera, U.S. intelligence indicates that he is involved in planning acts of terrorism, but there is no specific evidence tying him to the September 21 Westgate Mall attack.
In a press conference held on Tuesday, President Obama defended the legality of the raids, but stressed that the U.S. is not interested in becoming embroiled in a long conflict in Africa.
“There is a difference between us going after terrorists who are plotting directly to do damage to the United States and us getting involved in wars,” Obama said, according to Reuters. “Where you’ve got active plots and active networks, we are going to go after them.”
The U.S. Department of Defense did not express an interest in intervening in Nigeria or launching raids against Boko Haram. The focus is on dismantling al-Shabaab, which it sees as the primary threat to African security and American interests in the region.
“For the foreseeable future, we must maintain focus on Somalia to sustain security progress made to date, as al-Shabaab is likely to remain the primary threat to Somalia and East Africa stability for some time to come,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amanda Dory. “With sustained assistance from the United States and other international partners, Somalia’s national security apparatus will be better positioned to fend off the al-Shabaab insurgency and gradually transform the fragile state into a success story.”
By Jonny Eberle – Grey Cell Staff Writer