Shortly after I joined CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) in January 2001 I attended a presentation by a friend who was working at the Canadian embassy in Kenya in the late 1990s. He related that he was at home on August 7, 1998 when a massive blast took him and a colleague off their feet and threw them across the room. Once he recovered he rushed to the embassy only to learn that a massive truck bomb had just gone off outside the US embassy in Nairobi. Almost simultaneously, some 860 km away a second bomb exploded near the American offices in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. In all, 224 people were killed in the two attacks and nearly 4,000 injured. My friend is still haunted by the images he saw of the dead and wounded in Nairobi.
When the dust had cleared it turned out that a group named Al Qaeda had claimed both incidents. For many, the immediate response was ‘Al who?’ AQ was not a household name in 1998, certainly not the notorious terrorist organisation it became a little more than 3 years later on 9/11. The bombings were catastrophic and presaged the much higher casualty count in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on a September morning in 2001.
So here we are, 20 years later. We tend to associate significance to anniversaries and in that light I’d like to weigh in on terrorism in Africa today. Are things any better? Any worse? Who are the main actors? How large is the threat to the continent? Let’s look at what is happening across Africa.
Of course Africa is a large continent with many nations, peoples, ethnicities, languages, etc. and it is not possible to do any analysis of terrorism justice in a blog post. And yet, even a cursory glance of events in the very recent past, up to incidents that have occurred in the last week, show quite clearly, at least to my mind, that terrorism is alive and well and not giving any signs of disappearing from Africa any time soon. Here is a whirlwind tour of that part of the world:
- there is a longstanding terrorism campaign by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria (although the terrorists have struck neighbouring countries as well) that the government (erroneously?) says is on its last legs. Just today 7 villagers were killed in a raid in Nigeria’s Borno State.
- much of the Sahel (the area bordering the Sahara) is beset with a variety of Islamist extremist groups. On June 29 the AQ-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims claimed an attack on the military HQ of a Sahel anti-terrorism force known as the G5.
- In Somalia Al Shabaab and a smaller group which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) are active on a daily basis in spite of US airstrikes and an African Union military presence (AMISOM). Yesterday Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Mogadishu that killed at least 4 people. Attacks are also frequent in northeastern Kenya (the April 2015 Garissa University siege that killed 147 is probably the most famous).
- an Anglophone separatist movement in Cameroon is taking on the characteristics of a terrorist campaign. Militants seeking an independent ‘Ambazonia’ attacked a Defence Minister’s convoy on July 14, wounding 4 soldiers.
- Egypt is dealing with an IS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed hundreds, including Coptic Christians. The Egyptian military says it killed 52 terrorists in the region in recent days.
- Much of Libya is still ungovernable since the death of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi in 2001. In May IS-linked terrorists killed 14 in an attack on the Libyan elections commission.
- There have also been extremely violent incidents in Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, and Burundi, not to mention the tragic situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the latter is probably not strictly always terrorism but has nevertheless exacted a huge death toll.
It should be self-evident that Africa is wracked with terrorism, and in many of these countries solutions are not forthcoming, no matter how often governments say the end is nigh (this is particularly egregious in Nigeria and less so in Somalia). How to deal with terrorism, beyond a purely military response, is not obvious. Africa is still beset with other pressing issues – the economy, jobs, schools, drought, etc. – that it is far from clear what priority fighting terrorism should get.
I don’t like to be pessimistic but I can’t say I see a lot of hope on the horizon for Africa when it comes to terrorism. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong.