Perhaps Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has reason to crow when he announced in July 2010 that Al-Qaeda is at its weakest level since 9/11. After all, Gustavo del las Casas has pointed out that 40 percent of the Al-Qaeda leadership has been killed or captured since 2001 and that eleven of the organisation’s top twenty most wanted has been killed since 2008. Indeed the life expectancy of Islamist militants seems to be diminishing thanks to US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). On 5th August 2009, Baitullah Mahsud, a key Bin Laden ally and leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, was killed in Waziristan. His successor lasted only six months before he too was fatally wounded by a Hellfire missile also fired from a US drone in South Waziristan.
Indeed these Predator drones neutralised many leading jihadis in Pakistan:
- On 22nd November 2008 Rashid Rauf, the suspected ringleader of the plot to blow up 10 airliners over the Atlantic, was killed.
- Usama al-Kini, Al-Qaeda’s head of operations was killed on 8 January 2009.
- Another close ally of Bin Laden and leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – Tahir Yudashev – was killed on 27th August 2009.
- Senior Al-Qaeda commander, the Egyptian Abu Musa al-Masri was also killed in Waziristan on 21 October 2009.
Whilst these leaders have been replaced there is every reason to believe that the new leadership is not as experienced as those killed, contributing to a less efficient terrorist network.
These counter-terror successes have been mirrored in Asia and the Middle East. In Indonesia security forces have practically defanged Al-Qaeda’s local offshoot -Jemaah al-Islamiyyah. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s networks in the Middle East have all suffered serious reversals. Getting squeezed elsewhere, Al-Qaeda has increasingly found the ungoverned spaces of Africa attractive. This we witnessed most vividly on the 7th August 1998 when two massive bombs exploded outside the two US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. These killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, whilst a further 5,000 were injured. Responsibility for these terrorist atrocities was quickly traced to Al-Qaeda.
Since then, Al-Qaeda has increased its presence on the African continent: in the Horn through the likes of Al Shabaab; in the Arab Maghreb through it local franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); in the West through local structures like Boko Haram in Nigeria; and now increasingly South Africa. Consequently Islamist terror attacks across the continent have escalated. On 16 February 2009, two deadly bomb blasts shook Algiers. A week later, Cairo suffered the same fate. In August 2009 AQIM attempted to attack the French embassy in Mauritania.
Recent developments in Libya suggest that AQIM has also got its hands on sophisticated weaponry in rebel controlled areas to the east of the country. On 18thSeptember 2009, the AU Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) Force Headquarters in Mogadishu was attacked. The Somali capital was to be targeted again on 4thDecember 2009 when a suicide bomber detonated his vest killing more than 50 people, including three Somali government ministers, at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu. Following their merger with other radical Islamists in Somalia and its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, Al Shabaab have become more powerful, as demonstrated by the twin bombings in Kampala in 2010. Unsurprisingly, the US State Department is of the opinion that Al-Qaeda’s most active affiliates were in Africa.
Other reasons also account for Al-Qaeda and other Islamists’ preferences to operate on the African continent, and this relates to a growing nexus they have forged with organised crime syndicates. The Lebanese Hezbollah, for instance, run a well-organised and extremely sophisticated global network of drug-trafficking. In West and Central Africa, for example, criminal networks launder cash from the illicit trade in diamonds, which Al-Qaeda has increasingly exploited.
Given the transnational nature of the threat posed, it is imperative that in addition to beefing up the national security apparatus, the sub-regional and regional architecture of African security also needs also to be strengthened. At the regional level, the level of the African Union – the Peace and Security Council (PSC) needs to be greatly strengthened and institutional ties between it and sub-regional entities as well as between it and national governments and the broader international community needs strengthening. Whilst the AU has several counter-terrorism legal instruments, including a 1999 Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, a 2002 Protocol to the Convention, and a 2004 Plan of Action, there is a vast discrepancy between what is on paper and measures being taken for the implementation of this counter-terrorism regime. The US State Department euphemistically refers to the AU’s ‘counter-terrorism capability gaps’. One of the AU structures, for instance, the African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ASCRT) arm in Algiers, needs far greater resources and a much stronger mandate. It would be most useful for each of the sub-regions in Africa to have their own regional arm of the ASCRT co-located with each of the sub-regional organisations such as the Southern African Development Community, the Inter-Governmental Agency on Development and the Economic Community of West African States. Such AU structures also need to connect with African civil society – at least those operating on a regional basis such as the African Council of Religious Leaders (ACRL). In its Tripoli Declaration of December 2008 the ACRL stressed the importance to educate, ‘…religious leaders to address heresies and misinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures to ensure peaceful co-existence and tolerance’. Partnering with civil society elements might not only strengthen the effectiveness of AU initiatives but also serve to legitimise them in the eyes of the African citizen.
At the level of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) two structures need to be mentioned: the Inter-State Defense and Security Committee (ISDSC), which consists of amongst others senior defense and intelligence officials from the various countries; and the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Co-operation Organisation (SARPCCO). As the name suggests, it consists of the heads of the police of each of the SADC states. Moreover, this organisation also acts as the Interpol arm for Southern Africa, so there is an important interface between the sub-region and the international. This interface needs to be expanded upon. Cooperation between these two bodies needs to be expanded upon and further institutionalised. Co-operation should not just be occurring for big events like the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and then decrease in intensity and regularity after such an event. Moreover, institutions like the ISDSC and SARPCCO need greater capacity. For a start, ways could be examined to beef up both organisations’ secretariat. Second, they could develop a common list of terrorist organisations, and, within them, certain high-value individuals. This would greatly assist in focusing the attention of security agencies in the region on specific targets, so as not to waste resources on a generalised approach to counter-terrorism where the enemy is not clearly identified and targets are therefore hazy.
Such sub-regional co-operation should not preclude bilateral or even trilateral co-operation occurring within Southern Africa. France and Spain for instance formed joint anti-terrorism investigation teams. Similarly given the growing nexus between jihadis in South Africa and Mozambique, these countries could form similar joint task teams.
In order to ensure that all international efforts are synchronised, there also needs to be the connection between the regional and the global. To a certain extent this has started happening especially in the area of money laundering and anti-terrorism finance. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), as the international standard-setting body to address threats of money laundering and terrorist financing, has spawned a number of regional bodies, or in official parlance, FATF- Style Regional Bodies (FSRBs). In sub-Saharan Africa, two such FSRBs are the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG) and the Inter-governmental Action Group against Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (GIABA). This is an important development since it connects the regional and global, thereby squeezing terrorist organisations’ access to finance. However, what is needed is for these connections between global and regional to be emulated in other areas such as broader intelligence sharing and issues of radicalisation. After all this is truly a global jihad with entities such as Al Shabaab operating not only in Mogadishu, but Cape Town, Copenhagen, Minnesota, Sanaa and Wazirstan. Similarly counter-terror efforts have to be synchronised at every level from the local to the international.