Five years after the first major Al-Qaeda attack outside Saudi Arabia – the destruction of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - poverty stricken East Africa continues to be the stage for deadly atrocities by Islamic groups.
Just after 10:30 a.m. on August. 7, 1998, explosives hidden in a pickup truck wrecked the US embassy in Nairobi, as another bomb shattered the U.S. mission in Dar-el-Salaam. The near simultaneous attacks killed 231 people, mostly Africans.
Since then, further attacks in East Africa including last November’s suicide bombing of a hotel in Mombassa, in which 15 people died, and the attempt to destroy an Israeli passenger jet by surface to air missile are proof of the strong grip that these groups maintain in the region.
Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of ‘Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror’ labels Africa an ‘intelligence black hole’ for Western governments, and cites the instability - due to conflict and general lawlessness of the region - combined with poverty as the reasons for why terrorist groups have been able to operate there so efficiently.
‘There are large parts of East Africa that are un-policed - as a lawless zone it is vulnerable to terrorist penetration,’ says Gunaratna. ‘Terrorists are like sharks - they rapidly move in search of new opportunities.’
Like sharks, terrorists have to keep on moving it seems, as according to Dr. Gunaratna; not only are Al-Qaeda cells active in East Africa, but ‘a few hundred’ of the most wanted Al-Qaeda fugitives who escaped from Afghanistan may also be hiding in the region. The region’s notoriously porous borders - especially at the main ports - and the lack of effective security in certain areas allows for easy access and escape.
Kenya, which now seems to be the continent’s epicentre for militant attacks - after suffering two atrocities on its soil - is struggling to control terrorism within its boundaries.
The East African state announced in June that intelligence reports indicate that extremists were planning more attacks in the country, a warning that triggered immediate travel advisories by several countries, including a ban on flights to the country which was later lifted.
The Kenyan authorities last month saw its proposals for the controversial ‘Suppression of Terrorism’ bill rejected by a parliamentary committee. The bill – which allows police to arrest and search property without prior authority from the courts and allows investigators to detain suspected terrorists for up to 36 hours without allowing them contact with anyone - was met with fierce opposition by hundreds of protesters on the streets of Nairobi as well as human rights organisations.
The main opposition party, Kenya Africa National Union, fear that the bill would be the first step to creating a U.S military base and long-standing presence in the East African state, while many of the country’s moderate Muslims (30% of the population) have been expressing fears that the bill deliberately targets and discriminates against them.
But with long and remote borders with Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, and Ethiopia that are difficult and costly to police, for a country with limited financial and human resources, there are plenty of ‘lawless zones’ to be taken advantage of.
Rex Hudson of the Washington-based Federal research Division of the U.S Library of Congress argues: “In Kenya and Tanzania, Al-Qaeda operatives have proven adept at exploiting opportunities provided by poorly trained security forces, porous borders and sympathetic Muslim communities.”
But Dr. Gunaratna believes that the economic neglect of Western governments towards this part of the continent has led to poverty and disenfranchisement - playing what he calls a ‘significant’ role too in Al-Qaeda’s ability to rise, operate and maintain support in the region.
According to the Red Cross’s 2003 World Disasters Report, the situation is not improving in Africa either. Aid donors and relief agencies are concentrating increasingly on recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, while losing focus on the poor countries in the African continent.
The report states that while the U.S Defence Department raised $1.7bn for relief and reconstruction in Iraq, the UN had a shortfall of $1bn to avert starvation in 22 African nations.
Al-Qaeda expert Dr. Gunaratna believes this type of investment, not only logistically, would be crucial in limiting terrorism in Africa and other poverty-stricken Muslim states. “Western governments must share their expertise and resources with the Muslim world,’ he says. “The west must engage the rest of the world, not only governments but non-governmental groups too.”
Recently, the U.S has moved to thaw relations with Sudan following the icy period of the Clinton administration, when America imposed sanctions on Sudan and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in the state after initially claiming it was being used for the manufacture of chemical weapons.
However, the Bush administration’s new policy of collaborating with the military dictatorship in Khartoum has been met with cynicism by those in the North and the South of the war-ravaged country. They believe that America is favouring the Bashir junta in Africa’s longest conflict simply because the US feels they can provide them with intelligence material on Al-Qaeda, who were based in the state between 1991 and 1996 before moving to Afghanistan. Dr. Gunaratna believes that Al-Qaeda managed to harvest and nurture the poverty and instability in neighbouring countries like Kenya and Somalia while being based there for five years, making ‘significant inroads’ into East Africa.
It is highly doubtful that any future US intervention in Africa will take on the same form of full-scale invasion seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like South-East Asia, the East African front will be approached differently by the U.S., but the goals will still remain the same. Experts agree that measures must be taken, and East African states must get tough on terrorism, however their hands are bound by financial limitations. U.S aid therefore is crucial in providing stability and resources for the region, particularly economically, while being careful to ensure that already resentful citizens’ civil liberties are preserved and their quality of life possibly improved.
As Benjamin Mkapa, the President of Tanzania, where the U.S embassy in Dar el Salaam was destroyed five years ago this month, recently said: "It is futile, if not foolhardy, to think there is no link between poverty and terrorism."
Jamie Barton is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in terrorism and international issues - he contributes to Al Bawaba periodically. More of Jamie’s articles can be found at www.jamiebarton.co.uk.
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