Confronting Terrorism in Africa

June 27, 2012 --

All Africa, Somalia


Recently, U.S. officials in Kenya warned of an imminent threat of a terrorist attack in Mombasa, Kenya. A day later, a hand grenade was thrown into a bar in Mombasa, killing three people. As America’s attention slowly shifts away from Afghanistan over the next few years, there is growing reason to increase American influence in Africa as the world faces the rising threats threats of al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. While the U.S. is likely to to keep the number of troops engaged in operations low, battling al-Shabaab and Boko Haram will be neither cheap nor short.

American intervention in Africa has been a sensitive issue since the “Black Hawk Areas of Control Map - Somalia. Image from Buraan News.Down” tragedy, failure of Somalia in the early 90’s, and the lack of involvement during Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Since this time, the U.S. has primarily provided assistance to African allies by way of intelligence, logistics, and training, committing only a small number of troops for training and other limited efforts. Efforts beyond this have been politically sensitive, as a permanent U.S. military presence is viewed unfavorably by the international community.

So far, it would appear that most African countries are pleased with the support they are getting; it does appear that this level of support is successful in only keeping the status-quo, and offers little in the way of substantial progress or success. The African Union forces in Somalia, along with soldiers from the Transitional Federal Government, have been battling al-Shabaab since 2007, and progress has been incredibly slow. While pressure on al-Shabaab has increased over the last year, al-Shabaab still controls most of southern Somalia. In early 2012, al-Shabaab joined al-Qaeda, which merger dramatically increased U.S. interest in al-Shabaab. Given this merger and al-Shabaab’s willingness to carry out transnational terrorist attacks across Africa, al-Shabaab has quickly become a new priority for the U.S. in Africa.

Similarly, in nearby Nigeria, the terrorist organization of Boko Haram, while suffering some setbacks, has become both more frequent and more violent in its attacks over the past few months. While connections to al-Qaeda for this organization are still being confirmed, it is believed by U.S. officials that some members of the leadership do have ties with a branch of al-Qaeda. This increased interest by the U.S. has led the U.S. Department of State to designate the leaders of Boko Haram as terrorists, enabling a freeze of any assets they may have in the U.S. as well as limiting communication to these individuals by U.S. citizens or U.S. companies. While Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are not the only threats the U.S. is keeping its eye on in Africa, the emergence of these two groups in the past decade and their growing ties to al-Qaeda represent an increase in the complexity of U.S. involvement in the African Continent. While the U.S. may share friendly relations with most countries in Africa, there appears to be little interest in increasing U.S. involvement beyond providing money and intelligence .

While this aid by the U.S. and other Western countries has enabled individual countries and the African Union to have some success in battling these threats, progress has been slow and, at times, short-lived. While U.S. interest may be moving and growing in Southeast Asia, the U.S. would be wise to remember that the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the approaching withdrawal of combat troops in Afghanistan is not the end of the terrorist threat to the U.S. or the world. America, while politically limited in what it can do in Africa, should seek to strengthen ties and find ways to do more across the continent. Moving forward, the U.S. should consider a broader range of support beyond just money and intelligence, such as technology and capability so that faster progress can be made in combating these terrorist organizations. These organizations are changing and evolving into greater threats than simple insurgencies against their governments. Left unchecked, these organizations pose a long term problem for Africa and potentially the West as these groups seek to commit transnational terrorism across the globe.

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