Al-Qaida’s Inroads in Africa

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"Today, I have glad tidings for the Muslim Ummah that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers," Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, said in a recording made public in 2012. The Egyptian Al-Zawahiri, a physician by profession who succeeded Osama bin Laden as Al-Qaida’s leader and who has a bounty of $25 million on his head, was saying that the militant Islamist group in Somalia, Al-Shabab, had joined Al-Qaida’s ranks.

By doing so, al-Zawahiri gave official recognition to the cooperation between Al-Shabab and Al-Qaida. Experts say that such cooperation had already existed for quite a few years. For example, United States officials believe that some of the Al-Qaida operatives who perpetrated the terror attacks against the embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania in 1988 fled to Somalia, where they received protection from Al-Shabab members. It is also believed that the terror attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa in 2002 were planned by a Somali Al-Qaida cell.

“There is no Al-Qaida in Africa,” Yoram Schweitzer, the director of the Terrorism and Low-Intensity Warfare Research Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, told Haaretz. Instead, he says, “Africa is an area where Al-Qaida is active.” Several organizations identify with Al-Qaida, he says, including Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in North Africa; the Nigerian group Boko Haram (its actual name is Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad; the name Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful”), which seeks to institute sharia (Islamic law) in North Africa; and Islamic groups that are active in Mali. He adds that Al-Shabab is unusual in that it is the only African group to have joined Al-Qaida’s ranks.

Experts say that while the terror threat on the African continent may be rising, this does not mean that a wave of terror attacks is about to sweep over the region. One reason for this is that radical Islam is a fairly new phenomenon. “Until the mid-1990s, Africa had a moderate kind of Islam that was tolerant of local customs and could contain the abundance of local African cultures,” Professor Galia Sabar, director of the inter-university program in African studies at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz.

“The problem began in the mid-1990s,” she says, ”when financial troubles swept the continent, inviting the entry of Shiite groups funded by Iran and Sunni groups funded by Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arab peninsula. They went precisely into the places that were suffering from shortages, established schools and medical clinics and provided professional training. Along with the education and health services, they also introduced a more rigid form of Islam.”

Al-Shabab (literally, “the youth”), which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Somalia, appeared for the first time as a significant force in 2006, as an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which took control of large portions of Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu. The rise of Al-Shabab and its place in the country must be understood in the context of Somalia’s own modern history, which is quite dismal. Somalia, which was established as a republic in 1960, was plagued by dictatorships, civil war, natural disasters, foreign invasions, horrific poverty and cruel leaders of militias. Last year, the first official parliament in 20 years was sworn in, but to many people, Somalia is still a failed and non-functioning state.

Besides instituting sharia, Al-Shabab seeks to expel the invaders from Somalia. It punished Uganda for having sent its soldiers to Somalia, by killing 76 people at the 2010 FIFA World Cup championships in Kampala’s Mandela National Stadium. Now it appears to be Kenya’s turn.

“Most of the Muslims in Africa oppose Al-Qaida’s actions,” says Dr. Moshe Terdiman, an expert in Islam in Africa and the founder and director of the think tank, Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA). “These groups’ activity will not overthrow regimes. The key to change is in dealing with the root problems of the various countries, and then the people will have no interest in joining all these radical groups.”

Al-Shabab fighters conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia in October, 2010. The militia appeared for the first time as a significant force in Africa in 2006.Credit: AP

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