Security Challenges in East Africa: Global Jihadist Groups

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background on current national and homeland security topics. In his first post in this series Dr. Morag gave an overview of his recent participation in the Eastern Accord 2012 Counter Violent Extremism Exercise in Arusha, Tanzania.  Today he’ll focus on some of the primary security threats affecting the region coming from the trans-national and global Jihadist groups operating in the region.

CTU Faculty - Nadav Morag in East Africa - CTU Homeland Security DegreeThe East African region, and neighboring Yemen – located just across the Bab al Mandab straight – have been a central area of activity for al Qaeda, its affiliates and fellow travelers.  Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda carried out its first major attack against the United States in the region when, in August of 1998, al Qaeda suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

A Vulnerable Region
The East African region is particularly vulnerable to infiltration from Jihadist groups because its countries are either weakly governed or, as in the case of Somalia, failed states. They also happen to be close in proximity to Yemen and other areas of extremist activity in the Arabian Peninsula.  Governmental weakness has meant that these countries have porous and largely un-policed borders, widespread access to weapons, and poor internal security. Their informal economies in which smuggling and other illicit activities play a large role and can provide cover and support for extremist activity.

Naturally, there are significant differences between the countries of the region and some enjoy comparatively better governance, such as Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti. Other countries, such as Somalia and South Sudan, are either collapsed states or are barely functioning.  Terrorists can thrive in areas where governments have little or no control over national territory and use those ungoverned spaces to build an infrastructure – including bomb-making factories, arms depots, recruitment operations, etc. –not only to threaten their immediate area, but also from which to potentially launch attacks against the U.S. homeland and/or against U.S. personnel and interests overseas.  This is occurring, to some degree, in parts of East Africa and, if left unchecked, could potentially develop into a threat against the United States.  There is already a nexus between the radical al Shabaab movement in Somalia and Somali-American communities in Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Diego. At least one Somali-American went back to his native homeland in order to become a suicide bomber for al Shabbab. 

Jihadist Presence
While al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and AQIM (Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb) are very different organizations with somewhat differing ideologies and significant differences in objectives, they have been cooperating more intensively recently and there is evidence to suggest that they are sharing techniques and tactics.

Al Shabaab
Al Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, is an offshoot of the radical Islamist Somali Islamic Courts Union, which was created to take control of Somalia and institute extremist interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law.  Al Shabaab is considered to be the Somali version of al Qaeda, though the exact relationship between it and al Qaeda’s core leadership (based largely in the tribal areas of Pakistan), is unclear and appears to be fluid.  Al Shabaab has not only killed countless people in Somalia, but is also responsible for multiple terrorist attacks in Kenya and Uganda.  Al Shabaab has also been implicated in terrorist plots against a Danish newspaper and the creators of the television show South Park (in both cases, due to satirical portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad).

Boko Haram
Boko Haram (which means “Western education is sinful” in the Hausa language) is a Nigerian Jihadist organization that has expanded its operations into other parts of the African continent, including East Africa.  The group’s main focus is still on Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country and second largest economy, which lies in West Africa – and its primary objective is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in country.  However, some Boko Haram terrorists have received training from al Shabaab in Somalia. The relationship between the two groups is well known. Boko Haram has also coordinated efforts with AQIM and has expressed an interest in attacking U.S. and other Western targets.  Boko Haram has been implicated in providing some support for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a bizarre and very violent Christian fundamentalist guerrilla and terrorist organization that operates in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

AQIM is an al Qaeda affiliate that operates primarily in the West African portions of the Sahara desert and the Sahel (a grassland and savanna transition zone between the Sahara desert to the north and the more heavily wooded and jungle areas to the south).  AQIM has a strong base of operations in Mali and also operates intensively in Mauritania, Niger, and in southern parts of Libya and Chad.  AQIM has links with both Boko Haram and al Shabaab and is thought to provide training and expertise to both groups.

In short, as with many other areas of the world in which governance is weak and poor countries with limited public finances struggle to enforce their laws and control their respective territories, ungoverned areas prove to be prime territory for the growth of terrorist organizations. As has been shown in the past with respect to areas such as Afghanistan, the tribal regions of Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and other locales, ungoverned areas can become bases of operation for al Qaeda and other global Jihadist groups. These organizations can use those bases to carry out attacks against neighboring areas as well as to reach out and strike Europe or the United States.

Next week we will focus on economic challenges and social divisions affecting the East African countries of Djibouti, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Burundi.

Main image photo credit: Nadav Morag, Ph.D. (left) pictured at the Eastern Accord 2012 Counter Violent Extremism Exercise in Arusha, Tanzania photo via The Missouri National Guard.