Terrorism in Africa 20 years after the Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings

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:

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.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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