The "Global War on Terrorism," or GWOT for short, has become such a staple of political discourse that it has been embraced both by Republicans and Democrats as well as the media. Republicans cite Iraq as the "central front" in the GWOT to justify continuation of the war in that unhappy land while Democrats point to Iraq as a distraction from the GWOT, which presumably is taking place elsewhere. Both views are echoed by an uncritical media eager to tell a good story and willing to pay any price to do so.
Both the Republican and Democratic spins are, unfortunately, factually challenged. Al-Qaeda Between-the-Two-Rivers in Iraq does not threaten to take over the country, is only a small part of the resistance, and would quickly become completely marginal if the U.S. forces were gone. It has exactly zero capability to transfer its activity to American soil. That there is a GWOT elsewhere that is starved of resources by Iraq is also a myth, as the U.S. government effort against terrorism is, if anything, overly muscular, with armored brigades being poorly employed to cope with a threat that should be dealt with through better use of intelligence, diplomacy, and law-enforcement capabilities. Because of the convenient shorthand provided by expressions like GWOT, the Republicans, Democrats, and media all lump terrorist groups together, not distinguishing between those like al-Qaeda that genuinely threaten the United States and groups like Hamas, the Chechens, and Hezbollah that do not.
The blinders firmly fixed in place on the politicians and the media are not just another neocon mind game, however, and have genuine consequences in terms of the billions of dollars and thousands of young lives that are being wasted. The profound misreading of reality virtually guarantees a continuing tragedy for the United States and its citizens, still more for the countless foreigners who have been on the receiving end of American military power. Terrorism is serious business, after all, and the failure to learn from mistakes made has unfortunately become a hallmark of the White House and its policies. The most recent failure has been in Africa, which is rapidly becoming an epicenter for terrorism that actually threatens both Europe and the U.S.
Africa, more particularly North and East Africa, is home to many of the Salafist terrorist groups, a name that derives from Salafism, an approach to Islam that supports a purer, simplified form of worship that looks back to the origins of the religion. The Salafist movement that subscribes to "jihad" grew out of the armed resistance to the Algerian military government’s clampdown on religious parties in 1992. The Salafist jihadists believe that there is an obligation to engage in perpetual struggle against corrupt Muslim governments as well as against Western political dominance and the West’s values. Salafists believe that government and Islam are essentially identical and that the former should be run under strict Shariah or religious law. Al-Qaeda is philosophically Salafist, as are Jemaah al-Islamiah in Southeast Asia, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and many of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt, but the center of the movement in terms of numbers and impact is in North Africa.
The Salafist movement is particularly dangerous to Europe, as millions of North Africans reside in France, Belgium, Spain, and Holland. Many Arabs living in Europe have been radicalized by a number of factors. The perpetrators of the Madrid train bombings in 2004 were Salafists. The Salafist threat to the United States is also real, as many of the Europeans with roots in North Africa hold European Union passports that enable them to travel with relative freedom to the U.S.
The United States has responded to the terrorist threat in Africa with the Pentagon’s recent creation of an Africa Command distinct from existing regional commands in Europe, the Pacific, and Central Command, which have hitherto divided Africa among them. Africa Command, currently operated out of Stuttgart, Germany, is expected to be fully up and running by 2008. The Bush administration also beefed up CIA stations in Africa, but the lead in the counter-terrorism activity has been given to the military by the White House because the Pentagon can act without the "findings" that the intelligence agencies require. This means that Congress is out of the loop. Defense Intelligence Agency offices are now in place in many embassies in Africa, while military teams, frequently operating under aliases as civilians, have been sent to a number of countries. The marching orders of the covert teams do not require them to coordinate with the CIA stations and the U.S. ambassadors. In fact, under orders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, such liaison has been considered unnecessary and even discouraged.
The proliferation of clandestine teams reporting only to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Center (JSOC) immediately led to problems. Soldiers, unfortunately, look and act like soldiers. There were a number of incidents involving the covert units, made up primarily of Delta Force soldiers and Special Forces. In one instance, last year, the U.S. ambassador in Kenya had to personally intervene to get a group out of jail and onto a flight home. This and other embarrassments in South America, most notably in Paraguay, led to a recent decision by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that requires any Pentagon operational unit to coordinate with local ambassadors and the CIA chiefs of station. Uniformed Special Forces teams are also reported to be operating in Kenya, Algeria, and Mauritania. Djibouti, with French assistance, has become the center for technical support for the entire African effort and is home base to a fleet of drones that monitor developments in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
In spite of the intensified effort in Africa, the results have been bad, nearly as bad as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney was behind the decision to oust the Islamic Courts Union movement from Somalia in December 2006. The genuinely popular Islamic Courts, admittedly Islamists of a fundamentalist type, had brought order to much of Somalia for the first time in 15 years. They had repressed the warlords in many parts of the country, set up religious courts to try criminals, reopened the country’s airport and seaport in Mogadishu, and suppressed piracy along the coast. Their leader, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, rejected U.S. claims that his movement was linked to al-Qaeda and was sheltering Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged planner of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.
European diplomats present in Mogadishu as well as UN representatives believed that the Islamic Courts Union represented the best option for a stable and peaceful Somalia. Dick Cheney, true to form, disagreed. He insisted that the U.S. would not deal with anyone linked to terrorists, in spite of the numerous signals being sent by the leadership of the Courts indicating willingness to negotiate an accommodation with the U.S. and Somalia’s African neighbors. The White House instead chose to covertly fund the Ethiopian army for an invasion of Somalia in support of the weak and generally unpopular provisional government that remained isolated in the town of Baidoa while the Islamists took control of much of the remainder of the country. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military operation was successful while the aftermath was not. The Ethiopians are now withdrawing, and Mogadishu has reached a tipping point in instability, experiencing a wave of warlord generated violence that virtually guarantees chaos for the foreseeable future. It also increases the likelihood that Somalia will again become a "failed state," allowing genuine extremists with a jihadist agenda to take advantage of the instability and assume control.
Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and even Libya are also experiencing a resurgence of terrorism. Osama bin Laden has frequently cited Africa as the future of his movement, and that moment has perhaps already arrived. Five months ago al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the incorporation of the North African groups in Libya, Morocco, and Algeria into the central al-Qaeda organization. A recently issued State Department Worldwide Warning about terrorist activity resulted from intelligence raising particular concerns over an expanded Salafist campaign in North Africa, to include Libya. At most risk will be economic targets, an al-Qaeda specialty. While the Algerian al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC) has been targeting foreign oil workers for some time, there is new evidence that Libyan jihadist groups, previously quiescent, are now also ready to launch attacks against the Sahara region’s gas and oil production.
Recent developments indicate that cooperation and guidance from al-Qaeda have already created a more potent and effective terrorist force in North Africa and that the Maghreb has now become the focus of efforts to pursue global jihad. In late December 2006 there was a series of running gun battles in generally peaceful Tunis, resulting in 14 deaths and the discovery of plans by Islamic militants to attack the U.S., British, and Italian embassies. The militants organizing the attacks reportedly came from Algeria, and the Tunisian authorities also arrested 18 Tunisians who traveled to Algeria for terrorist training, taking advantage of the relatively borderless Sahara region to move from west to east all the way across the continent and even into the Middle East.
Last week’s suicide bombings carried out in Algiers, which almost killed Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, were the first major attacks in the Algerian capital in more than seven years. They were also the first suicide bombings in Algeria, and responsibility for them has been claimed by al-Qaeda. There has also been a recent surge overall in successful terrorist attacks countrywide, though most have taken place in remote regions. The Algerian terrorists, who came close to toppling the military government in the early 1990s, have rejuvenated themselves after a series of reverses over the past five years and are now capable of staging more devastating attacks. There are concerns that new bombings, now employing the difficult-to-prevent suicide technique, will again focus on urban centers, leading to an enormous increase in both casualties and the resulting political instability.
And there are also signs that the terrorists are working more effectively together. The deaths of four would-be suicide bombers in a Casablanca safe house during a police raid the day preceding the Algiers bombings thwarted an apparent joint operation in which the Moroccan cell would have carried out their own attacks in support of the Algerian cell. Four days later, two more suicide-bombing attacks in Casablanca targeted the American Cultural Center and the U.S. consulate. The coordination of activity reveals that even though terrorist groups now recruit, train, and finance themselves locally to avoid detection, they still plan and communicate across national borders.
And so the story of Bush administration ineptitude in its self-proclaimed war against terrorism continues as Africa heats up. The ideologically driven GWOT is a war that always prefers the exercise of a military option and ends up creating more terrorists and terrorism-supporters than it eliminates. Afghanistan and Iraq pose little in the way of a terrorist threat outside their own borders, but they dissolve into chaos while a new, genuine threat grows stronger in Africa.