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The Elusive Quest for al Qaeda in Africa, 10 Years on
12 September 2011

As the US and the rest of the world commemorate the 10th anniversary of those colossal terrorist attacks against America on 11 September 2001 (or 9/11), few people, even in Africa, probably remember that last month, 7 August, marked the 13th anniversary of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam terrorist bombings. Personally masterminded by the late al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, the attacks targeted American embassies in those two cities and catapulted al Qaeda onto the global stage. Africa, like many regions of the world, had already experienced terrorism in its various incarnations for decades, but the sheer scale and devastation of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings, which killed over 250 people and injured 5000, were unprecedented and served as a presage for what was to occur in the US three years later.

For those who were in New York on 9/11, the shock and the drama that unfolded will remain vivid. The titanic nature of the attacks and their far-reaching political and economic ramifications, it was evident that when the smoke that blanketed New York that day disappeared, the world would never be the same again. Indeed, 10 years on, much has changed. An indefinite 'war against terrorism' was launched, which has already crushed authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Our notion of security has also changed fundamentally. But what have the implications of 9/11 been for Africa specifically and how has the continent fared in its attempts to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa?

Africa began its 'war against terrorism' nearly 10 years before President George W Bush declared that this was 'America's war'. At its 1992 summit in Dakar, Senegal, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted a decision to tackle the wave of violent religious extremism in parts of the continent.. A similar decision was passed two years later in Tunis. The OAU responded to the 1998 attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam by adopting a Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism at it summit in Algiers in 1999, in which it provided a continental definition of terrorism and binding measures on African states to prevent and combat terrorism individually and collectively. That said, the events of 9/11 propelled terrorism to the top of the world's agenda, with widespread implications for many aspects of governance and security.

During the past decade, Africa's major concern in the 'war against terrorism' has been to ensure that the continent's development agenda is not overshadowed by the demands of combating terrorism. Africa had embraced the new millennium with hopes for economic development - a position that was chrystallised with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which aimed to alleviate abject poverty on the continent. This goal was in danger of being marginalised by 9/11 as the 'war against terrorism' took center stage and Africa's development partners and the international community diverted resources to the hunt for Ossama bin Laden and his al Qaeda cohorts.

Despite the political reticence to focus resources and energy on combating terrorism, African states came under pressure after 9/11 to strengthen their existing policies, particularly in the area of security sector reform, thus joining the 'war against terrorism.' In the decade that has followed, two areas stand out in the continent's success record in this regard:

  • The first has to do with policies--prior to 9/11, less than 10 African countries had specific counter-terrorism legislation and policy frameworks. Currently, more than half of the 55 African states have some form of legislative framework, 23 have comprehensive national counter-terrorism legislation, and 53 have designated a specific national coordination mechanism or focal point. In addition, continental and regional organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have assumed greater coordination roles. The AU, for example, has taken additional measures by adopting a counter-terrorism Plan of Action, an additional Protocol to the 1999 OAU Convention, and is in the process of finalising a comprehensive anti-terrorism model law. The AU has also established an African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism, dedicated to dealing with technical issues, as well as capacity building and coordination of counter-terrorism activities in Africa.
  • The second relates to military operations in the hunt for terrorists across the continent. Since 9/11, several high profile terrorist leaders have been defeated. The latest killing of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed in Somalia in June 2011 is one of a long list of al Qaeda and al Shabaab leaders killed in action. These include Abu Hubeyda (May 2011), Saleh Ali Nabhan (2009), Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro, (2008), Nabhan Dhobley (2008), and Abu Taha al Sudani (2007). Boko Haram's leadership was almost decimated in operations in 2009, which led to the killing of its ideological founder Mohammed Yusuf. In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the land of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has lost most of its original senior members and some, including Hassan Hattab and Abou El-Abbes  have surrendered to Algerian security forces.

Despite these achievements, counter-terrorism in Africa faces daunting challenges. Most interventions have been military-focused, bringing to the fore the vexing issues of good governance, democracy, corruption and human rights. The main lesson has been that the targeted killing of terrorist leaders achieves only short-term goals such as the disruption of group's coherency and its ability to plan and execute major attacks in the 12-month period following the leader's elimination. This strategy has failed to end terrorism or dismantle terrorist organisations. Instead, a recent trend is that local terrorist groups such as al Shabaab and Boko Haram quickly regroup, change recruitment and resource mobilisation tactics, and merge with al Qaeda to extend their reach and survival. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May this year many have shaken al Qaeda but has not shown signs of the group waning. The killing of al Shabaab leader in 2008 only revitalized the group, which became even stronger to occupied many areas of Somalia including the capital Mogadishu. The group's twin attacks in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010 demonstrated its continued resilience and threat. Furthermore, the killing of Boko Haram leader in 2009, has not reduced the capabilities of the group to launch daily atrocious acts in Northern Nigeria and its recent suicide attack on the UN headquarters in the capital Abuja last month.

Targeted killing has become a prominent feature in the 'war against terrorism' raises many human rights concerns, particularly relating to extra-judicial killing, torture, rendition and forced deportation. The failure to effectively address these issues and to guarantee transparent due process is likely to undermine the good efforts of states and the progress achieved thus far.

Over and above the military-style approach to countering terrorism, the most pressing challenges facing Africa include the lack of adequate political will, technical expertise, infrastructure and resources to develop appropriate interventions to prevent and respond to terrorism. Progress in these areas is crucial to reduce the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates such as Boko Haram and al Shabaab. Ten years after 9/11, it is clear that to succeed, counter-terrorism must be anchored in a solid criminal justice response that can include, but should not be limited to, military interventions. A real challenge will be to counter the threat posed by groups such as Boko Haram, al Shabaab and AQIM, which have extended their tentacles to al Qaeda.
Martin A. Ewi, Senior Researcher, International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS Pretoria Office
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