East Africa: Agents Of Al Qaeda & The New Front

The recent bombing of Kampala has brought to light several key strategic insights regarding both the nature and drive of Islamic terrorists and the strategic alliance of American presence in East Africa; particularly regarding our relation to Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and the center of gravity that drives terrorist alliances in Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan.  This fluid state of affairs of non-state actors is threatening the consensus driven institutions that dominate Washington and Western allies.  A review of the model used to examine and anticipate non-state actors along with examining the strength, financing and movement of terrorist cells yields much insight into western weakness.

The Western struggle known as ‘the long war’ is revealing severe weakness absent a strong American Executive, for the consensus driven nature of both Republican and Parlimentary regimes cannot effectively respond to the contingencies of ‘the long war’, especially in forecasting developments and consistent execution of strategy.  This challenge is exacerbated by the intrinsic difference between war aims and statecraft between the adversaries.  The United States under the Obama administration is unsuccessfully implementing a monolithic Liberalism in tribal societies.  Currently with General Petraeus, this strategy is now under serious review.  The terrorists are seeking to create a Caliphate implementing Sharia law through anarchy.  It is not difficult to anticipate who will win under the current conditions.  Jihadists of irregular transnational movements can adapt far easily to geography and indigenous domestic politics than Parliaments or Republics.  The nature of this conflict is ideological.  This means that absent the development of stable political institutions, time is on the side of terrorists.  This is a global movement whose primary geopolitical conflict is currently Central Asia emanating outward into East Africa taking advantage of political instability along regions historically favorable to Islam.

The west’s problem begins intellectually.  We are in an analytical muddle unbecoming a great Superpower in that the institutions that dominate our governance are extremely fragile and require not only the strengthening of the executive branch but a purging of bureaucratic lethargy.  Our failure is attenuated in not accepting our adversaries rhetorical claims.  We continue to conflate counterinsurgency, terrorism, religious fundamental fanaticism with failed states.  As historically valid such claims are, they are historically and strategically myoptic, more especially for East Africa.  We must see this movement for what it is:  an Islamic militant response to modernity.  This movement has its antecedents with the birth of the modern age at the defeat of Islam throughout the Mediterranean region beginning in 1500 A.D. The Cold War only obscured an engagement that was already present throughout history.

For the ‘long war’, what does success look like?

The United States already has about 2,000 personnel monitoring the Horn of Africa, (Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa) acronym CJTF-HOA.  The purpose is to accelerate the movement, the sharing of intelligence, and political consolidation between the United States and African nations along the African Horn.  The dynamics of acknowledging the political need for early, fast domestic consensus is key to identifying and eliminating terrorist insurgencies along the eastern seaboard of Africa.  CJTF-HOA originated in October of 2008 and has dramatically excellerated since Kampala.  Both American and African planners survey extensive intelligence along the lengthy coastline between Eritrea and Tanzania, for it historically remained open to constant infiltration from the Arabian peninsula.

How does the geography and political region of east Africa help Islam?

The region itself is dominated by high unemployment, ethnic conflict, chronic political instability and transnational conflict.  Such domestic unrest will aid Jihadist’s in acquiring future targets.  Eastern Africa is particularly vulnerable to permanent cultural and racial conflict.  Like the United States it must put its domestic house in political order for effective response.  The allied partners throughout east Africa and the United States must prevent Jihadist’s from infiltrating existing insurgencies, from hijacking parochial goals or radicalizing ethnic conflicts.  This requires sound principals grounding the allied relation in identification and elimination of terrorists.  Regional proximity to Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia or Saudi Arabia can only assist Jihadist’s.

How did Uganda get involved?

There are several points of interest regarding exactly how Uganda and the Kampala bombing have their origin in the Bush Doctrine.  First, the existing proximity to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen along with the American success in the Middle East and Central Asia have pushed the Jihadist fighters to seek both safe havens and soft targets in territories with weak governance throughout territory nominally held by Islam in East Africa. Secondly, Al Qaeda’s principal lesson drawn from Ethiopia was to infiltrate and develop local support which protects foreign Jihadists from identification, capture or ransom.  Successful terrorist campaigns also improve recruitment, training and ideological fervor for future campaigns.  Kampala was a calling for recruitment originating in Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and ultimately Yemen.

Al Qaeda’s first experience in Africa was very frustrating as detailed in captured surveillance reports in early 1990.  Arab operators were used as interlopers in long standing tribal and ethnic conflicts.  It soon discovered that soft selling its resources was a successful model for expanding its brand.  East Africa and the Horn are now the vortex of Islamic fundamentalism outside of Central Asia.  For the near term, how are African states to conduct themselves in light of the bombings in Kampala?

First, post colonial Africa has experienced significant internal conflict and instability.  Only Kenya and Tanzania have avoided long term domestic instability through engaging a neighbor in war. Poverty and lack of development contribute to instability throughout the region.  Somalia and Sudan still remain deeply divided and unstable.  Add deeply porous borders and large numbers of transnational Sunni non-state actors financed by Gulf state petro autocracies that finance major cultural, social and theological endeavors throughout both east Africa and the Horn render most of Africa ripe for terrorist activity.

Failure to combat overt aggression throughout the Horn and Uganda will give terrorists the initiative throughout the region.  Many African states may not respond to aggression demonstrating a reluctance to stoke sectarian or ethnic rivalries. Others fear acknowledging any threat.  Many suffer from political paralyzation only extending a domestic malaise unbecoming a winning strategy in effectively dealing with Islam in the region.

With an unstable civilian population how are African leaders to access how to begin any strategic encounter?  Three dominant themes ought to inform any existing strategy as African states begin their assessment.  First, strengthen pre-existing bilateral organizational efforts.  Secondly, reassess misguided domestic political policies in light of intelligence gains throughout the region.  Third, anticipate the domestic awakening of an aggrieved indigenous Islam permanently thriving throughout east Africa with consequences.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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