Considered ‘a gold mine for global jihad,’ North Africa is becoming al-Qaeda's newest base

MICHAEL PETROU November 19 2007


Considered ‘a gold mine for global jihad,’ North Africa is becoming al-Qaeda's newest base

MICHAEL PETROU November 19 2007



Considered ‘a gold mine for global jihad,’ North Africa is becoming al-Qaeda's newest base


Al-Qaeda’s top leaders are widely believed to be holed up somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the threat they and sympathetic Islamist extremists present has been cited by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf as justification for declaring a state of emergency and suspending the constitution. The global terror network also has an active franchise in Iraq. But far from the mountains of Central Asia, or the target-rich deserts of Mesopotamia, al-Qaeda is seeking a new stronghold at the very gates of Europe.

Last June, an Islamist strategist published an article titled “Al-Qaeda is Moving to Africa” in the online magazine Echo of Jihad. The author, Abu Azzam al-Ansari, was identified by a confidential source with ties to U.S. intelligence agencies as a Saudi national and alQaeda affiliate who spent time in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet occupation, and while the country was controlled by the Taliban. Ansari described Africa as “an unexplored gold mine for global jihad.” “There is no doubt that al-Qaeda and the holy warriors perceive the significance of the African regions for military campaigns against the crusaders,” he went on to say. “Many people sense that this continent has not yet found its proper expected role, and the next stages of the conflict will see the presence of Africa in the battlefield.”

Ansari identified several factors that make Africa attractive for transnational Islamists, including the growing strength of Islam on the continent, the ease of movement between and within poorly governed countries, the weakness of local military and security agencies, and the prevailing poverty that will “enable the holy warriors to provide some finance and welfare and thus post there some of their influential operatives.” Most significantly, Ansari noted links to Europe from North Africa, “which eases the move from there to carry out attacks.” The Strait of Gibraltar, separating Morocco from Spain, is only 13 km wide. But more important than geographic proximity is the access to Europe provided by Islamist sympathizers among the tens of thousands of North African immigrants in western Europe. A stronger presence

The geographic proximity between Africa and Europe makes it an ideal spot for terrorists to launch attacks

in North Africa could give al-Qaeda a base from which to expand into that community.

European intelligence agencies have long worried about the presence of North African Islamist groups on their soil, and this fear has been justified. The Armed Islamic Group, an Algerian jihadist organization responsible for the widespread massacre of civilians in Algeria, carried out a wave of

bombings and an attempted hijacking in France during the 1990s. More recently, the 2004 Madrid bombings, which killed almost 200 people, were executed largely by Moroccan immigrants, including at least one member of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, another North African Islamist organization.

Within North Africa itself, however, support for Islamist groups floundered during the late 1990s and early 2000s. An Algerian government amnesty caused many members of the Armed Islamic Group to quit the organization, and general revulsion directed at the group’s murder of civilians dried up much of its support. Two factors helped revive militant Islam in North Africa. The first was the war in Iraq, which inflamed public opinion, but also provided Islamistminded young men with a theatre where they could directly confront American soldiers. Injune 2005, U.S. central command claimed that up to 25 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were North Africans, mostly from Algeria. However, those who didn’t blow themselves up likely had a bigger impact on the spread of Islamic extremism. In Iraq, they met jihadists from around the world, including members of al-Qaeda, and they took these contacts and their ideas back to North Africa.

“When you have a North African who goes to Iraq, they’re basically in a melting pot,” says Emily Hunt, a former fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has conducted extensive research in North Africa. ‘They’re being exposed to people from other parts of the Middle East that they never would have encountered before in their small village in Algeria, or their small village in Morocco.

And that’s what makes this so dangerous, is this melting pot, this cross-pollination of ideas and techniques and tactics that then is reexported to Algeria and Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa.”

The second factor in the revival of violent Islamism in North Africa flowed perhaps inevitably from the exposure of North African militants to al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq. In October 2003, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, pledged its support for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s holy war against the United States.

Three years later, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept.

11 attacks, bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri announced an alliance with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

“We pray to Allah that this event will be a thorn in the neck of the American and French crusaders and their allies, and an arrow in the heart of the French traitors and apostates,” he said in an interview with alQaeda’s propaganda wing that was circulated on the Internet. “We ask Allah to help our brothers hit the foundations of the crusader alliance, primarily their leader, the infidel United States, praise be on Allah.”

Several months later, in January 2007, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat formally changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., says the relationship between al-Qaeda and its latest franchise in North Africa is loose but valuable to both parties. “It works both ways,” he told Maclean’s. “Al-Qaeda gets to claim credit for actions in a theatre where it previously didn’t have an operational presence. And this local group now has an international brand. I don’t think there’s direct control. No one is sending orders from the

The U.S. military claimed that up to 25 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were North Africans—mostly Algerians

tribal regions of Pakistan telling these guys what to hit. But it’s a mutually symbiotic relationship.”

Pham says al-Qaeda has much to gain from an alliance with a local jihadist group in North Africa because of the access North African Islamists provide to Europe. “French and Spanish intelligence have long noted that they have much better reach into the immigrant communities in western Europe than al-Qaeda itself does. So there’s a whole new opening.”

The United States was arguably slow to

recognize the threat posed by Islamist terrorism in Africa—even after car-bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed hundreds in 1998. American military and intelligence agencies directed comparatively few resources at Africa, especially south of the Sahara. In the months and years leading up to the Sept. 11,2001, attacks, al-Qaeda operatives frequently travelled to Liberia to launder money in exchange for blood diamonds mined in neighbouring Sierra Leone— a process that appears to have escaped the notice of the CIA.

Meanwhile, across the continent, aggressive Saudi funding of mosques and social welfare programs spurred the growth of the severe Wahhabi form of Islam in place of the more spiritual Sufi strain that traditionally predominates in Africa. On a recent visit to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, a Maclean’s reporter encountered desperate poverty and few buildings higher than one storey—with the exception of a large and well-built mosque that locals said was paid for by Saudis.

In the last several years, however, the U.S. has made an effort to re-establish a securityminded presence on the continent. Last month it launched AFRICOM, a command centre to oversee military activities in Africa, which was previously divided between three unified combatant commands. The United States is also working to build the counterterrorism capacities of local governments and militaries, often through training programs run by U.S. Special Forces.

According to Pham, who consults for both the Pentagon and the Department of State, these programs have been successful in part because they don’t involve a large or disruptive American military presence. “The goal is to improve these countries’ capacities in self-governance. It’s not an American agenda.

It just so happens that it also benefits America’s interests, and those of its Western allies,” he says.

Other American military initiatives in Africa are geared more toward winning hearts and minds. Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti, builds schools, drills wells, and provides medical and veterinary assistance while trying to improve conditions for increased foreign investment. “Our overarching goal is to create an environment that counters the ideological support of terrorism and extremism,” an American military officer at the base wrote in an email to Maclean’s.

It’s a lofty goal, and a difficult one. The West’s Islamist opponents have equally farreaching aspirations. “In radical jihadi eyes, Africa is therefore just a base,” writes Ansari, the Islamist strategist, “maybe even a future alternative base to Iraq or Afghanistan.” M