The investigations and recriminations have begun over the foiled attempt by a Nigerian Islamic extremist to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Here in America, that will result in longer delays in boarding flights due to stepped up security, more intrusive searches and tighter scrutiny on who can actually board aircraft. We Americans are worried about the added inconveniences and invasions of privacy that will take place. However, the consequences for Africa could be much broader.
For the past few years, the U.S. government has stepped up its counter-terrorism activities in Africa due to the number of al Qaeda members and allies from or operating in Africa. Al Qaeda has been involved in a number of bombing attacks in North Africa, has supported civil war in Somalia and was responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat is waging an insurgency against the Algerian government and is now called the al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Mahgreb. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the Islamic courts union in Somalia, is believed to have strong links to al Qaeda. Another successful terrorist attack in Kenya in 2002 claimed 15 lives and was believed to be the work of al Qaeda operatives. A group known as the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announced that they were joining al Qaeda two years ago. The ruling National Islamic Front in Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden and more than 200 of his supporters and their families from 1991 to 1996 and has used their prior relationship to try to ward off the full impact of sanctions.
Two weeks ago, three alleged al Qaeda operatives were brought to New York and charged with plotting to transport drugs through the Sahara Desert to raise money for terror attacks. The three suspects – Oumar Issa., Harouna Toure and Idriss Abdelrahman – are originally from Mali and had been arrested by authorities in Ghana The arrests were part of an international collaboration of law enforcement to fight a growing alliance between al Qaeda and transnational narcotraffickers.
Back in the early 1990s, I managed democracy training programs in Guinea, and the leaders of the Islamic community even then were lamenting the influence of radical Islamic training received by their young men in the Middle East. Nigeria, the home of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the thwarted Detroit airplane bomber, has for some time now been the target of aggressive, radical Sunni Muslim agents supported by religious groups in Saudi Arabia. Their aim in Nigeria has been the establishment of extreme Shari’ah (Islamic) law along the lines of the Wahhabi sect as the exclusive law in northern Muslim states in Nigeria. This trend has been exacerbated by al Qaeda branches believed to be operating in Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
In response to the increasing threat from radical Islamists in northern and central Africa, the U.S. government established the Pan Sahel Initiative following the 9-11 terrorist attacks to prevent al Qaeda and its allies from establishing safe havens in the vase unpopulated and/or ungoverned areas of Africa. Following the expiration of that program in 2004, the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative was launched in 2005, operating in ten Mahgreb and Sahelian countries. Its stated aim is to build indigenous counterterrorism capacity and facilitate cooperation in the region among willing governments. The Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative was funded at a level of US$500 million over six years, and there will be heightened pressure to continue this program, whose duties were transferred to Africom in late 2008.
The cooperation of sympathetic Africans may be damaged by the limp response of the U.S. government to the warnings by Abdulmutallab’s family. His father warned the U.S. embassy in Abuja of his son’s dangerously radical views, but while the son’s name was placed on a list of potential terrorists, he was never placed on a no-fly or watch list of passengers. The coordination of these lists is likely to be enhanced, but it could also impact family members of suspected terrorist. In the days after the 9-11 hijackings, conspiracy theorists noted that the U.S. government made arrangements for bin Laden’s family to be flown out of the country, even though they had no ties to the al Qaeda leader’s terrorist activities. To avoid the appearance of aiding terrorists, the U.S. government could make it more difficult for family members of suspected terrorists to travel, which could hinder their willingness to cooperate.
Travelers from countries such as Nigeria already have a difficult time gaining visas to enter the United States and Europe, and tightened restrictions could interfere with flights into the U.S. from all points in Africa and other areas of the world with passengers from countries with suspected al Qaeda activity.
However inconvenient and difficult travel will become for Americans and other Westerners because of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it could be disastrous for a continent struggling to establish multiple direct air links with the United States, for African and American business people attempting to create and maintain commercial relationships and for cooperative Muslims willing to engage in the fight against radical Islam.
In the aftermath of 9-11, the Patriot Act and other legislation designed to tighten security against terrorist attacks had the inadvertent effect of limiting U.S.-Africa trade. The steps taken over the next several months need to be carefully calibrated so as not to cause unnecessary collateral damage that will harm the long-term interests of the United States.