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Al-Qaida in North Africa: It's Not the Same Old Story

By Henry "Chip" Carey

Here’s the situation in the Middle East: Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was largely defeated in Iraq by Sunni warlords and the U.S. counter-insurgency surge, yet radical Islamic bombings are a daily phenomenon in Iraq today. Al-Qaida’s ally in East Africa, al-Shabaab, has been expelled from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, but has regrouped and rearmed in the Northern Province of Puntland and in parts of Kenya. There are jihadist groups across northern Africa, many with global aspirations, but only one with any direct connections to the original al-Qaida. Jihadi terrorists threaten U.S. global interests, but generally do not threaten the U.S. homeland.

These conflicts with the Middle East are complicated and should not simply be described as religious wars, which is so often the tendency in the United States. The temptation has been to assume that the groups in the Middle East have only one identity, that of a radical strain of Islam, and only one enemy, the West. In a frenzy to redirect aggression away from the Western world, the United States and its allies have declared war on terrorism, but they are not getting the war they want to fight. Militarization has not stopped the spread of radical Islam or the threat to the West.

Starting with direct fighting or arming already weak, repressive states, and poorly organized troops creates an atmosphere of chaos, which ultimately breeds more hatred of the West, and with it, more terrorism. Drones epitomize this strategic blunder, but the same logic applies to other war strategies against asymmetric foes. In order to combat this growth in terrorism it is imperative that we understand the concurrent phenomena of jihadis, nationalism, ethnic separatism, and criminal networks. Only with this understanding, will we avoid another disastrous intervention like Iraq, Afghanistan, and our undeclared war in Pakistan, where not only does al-Qaida hate the United States, but most of Pakistan.

The interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have provided the United States with hands-on experience in dealing with al-Qaida-linked groups, but North Africa is a completely new situation that should be treated as such. North Africa has aspects of both Saddam Hussein’s national security state and the narco-guerilla warfare of Afghanistan. The Algerian military defeated the Islamist threat through a combination of Qaddafi and Hussein repression tactics, but still Algeria and Libya remain the springs of many global militants. This is not a group that can be swept into one seemingly all-encompassing category.

The alarms about a worldwide conspiracy of jihadists have been ringing since a spate of recent al-Qaida related incidents: the killing of dozens of Algerian militants and their hostages, after the seizure of the foreign-managed oil field, along with the presence of other “al-Qaida linked militants” among the Libyan and Syrian rebels, followed by the French invasion of Northern Mali to liberate the ancient cities of Goa and Timbuktu of al-Qaida groups. Similar to the Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill warned about in 1946 in Missouri, the concern has been raised about a new Islamist Curtain from the Magreb—extending from Mauritania to Egypt, including Northern Mali, Sudan, and the rest of the Sahara, and moving into non-Arabic speaking Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa, as well as the coasts of Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania, and as far as South and Southeast Asia.

When Prime Minister David Cameron has not been declaring the United Kingdom’s independence from the European Union, he has spoken of the various North African terrorist groups representing an existential, global threat.

"What we face is an extremist, Islamist, violent al-Qaida-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa,” On January 20, 2013, Cameron declared, "This is a global threat and it will require a global response. "It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months." However, the al-Qaida label does not fit the complex, militant landscape, even if most guerrillas find the Islamic discourse a convenient frame to pitch their battles.

Cameron has recently visited Nigeria to organize increased British cooperation in the worldwide threat of arms from Libya getting in the hands of Islamic militants, Boko Haram, who are as much separatists as jihadists. The Algerian-dominated al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has reportedly been training Boko Haram in Northern Mali to prepare for its assassinations in Nigeria. Cameron has used the same, unhelpful, exaggerated language that George W. Bush and Tony Blair used after 9/11. This hysteria is exactly what these militants want to evoke: They want to seem omnipotent, united, and ready to take over the world. Aggregating all the various elements of modern radical Islam is absurd, even though self-styled terrorists, and various ethno-national and religious groups, many of them old-style ethnic separatists, will remain forces of instability. However, this shift back in to historical grievances means that militant groups should not be lumped together as a monolithic, united religious crusade. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s terrorists lack the ideology and the capability to attack the United States. To consider most of the potential military targets is foolish since the likely outcome would be to convert them into terrorists who not only hate their own governments, but also hate the United States enough to try to attack it.

Some warn of an “Arab Winter” having been suddenly unleashed by the Arab Spring two years ago. Even if true to some extent, the persistent presence of Islamic militants in the northern Mali desert had little to do with any recent overthrow of autocracy in Mali—since Mali had been one of Africa’s stable democracies. Rather than resulting from the overthrow or opening of a longstanding dictatorship, the situation in northern Mali has resulted from a breakdown of Mali’s longstanding democracy early last year. It also reflects the authoritarian crackdown on Islamist rebels in Algeria by its military dictatorship.

In fact, in some of these different countries, like Libya, Algeria, and Syria, the rise of Salafist militia reflects the absence of democracy and the presence of repressive regimes, often supported by the West. The same debates about counter-terrorism versus a more comprehensive nation-building and counter-insurgency strategy is present in every one of these potential and actual interventions, with prospects of success no better than U.S. strategies in Afghanistan.

Yet we in the United States feel threatened by al-Qaida’s apparent proliferation in North Africa, despite our lack of fear prior to 9/11. Europe, in contrast, has been targeted for terrorism far more in past decades, but they are not as fearful as Americans of these groups because they seem to have a better understanding of the nature of the threat. Europeans generally understand, having colonized the Muslim world in the Ottoman Empire, from Morocco to Malaysia, that attacks will occur periodically. Europeans understand that they will probably continue to be subjected to these attacks for years to come. However, the risk of being victimized by a terrorist attack in Europe, as well as the United States is enormously less than our risk of dying in a traffic accident.

Even if it made sense to equate al-Qaida central in Afghanistan with a rag-tag group in Northern Mali, it would not mean we were ripe for another 9/11 style attack. An attack on an oil refinery does not imply the capability to make and send bombs designed to confuse Western security infrastructure. Of the disparate Islamic groups, there are few that have the wherewithal to pull off our stereotype of an al-Qaida style assault—a few dissidents with a coherent base, led by highly competent commanders and a visionary leader who is protected by a regime. There is hardly a militant group that compares with what existed a dozen years ago. There are only lone wolves who can launch small-scale attacks.

Neither Mumbai nor the Algerian oil refineries were part of any global organization. Just as Osama bin-Laden unified disparate groups two decades ago, someone could do so again.  But, so can provocative Western counter-terrorism policies that alienate a Muslim postcolonial world, through reckless, if not deliberate, armed attacks on militants that end up killing many civilian bystanders. The fragmented, Al-Qaida linked groups are proliferating, even if the only common thread they share is funds. Al-Qaida did not invent armed insurgencies and terrorist attacks, even among religious terrorists.

The United States has repeatedly been ignorant of context in its foreign policy. Its interventions in Vietnam, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were all based on almost caricatured descriptions. The more recent developments in Algeria and Mali are part of the al-Qaida network that the United States assumed was controlled by al-Qaida central in Afghanistan. Yet, Islamist terrorist networks are not from a chief base. The very term "terrorist network" is misguided.

Each radical Islamic insurgency has its own agendas and methods, sometimes often based on nothing more significant than fighting for local, tribal or religious sect goals, or opportunities for profit. To the communities that support the insurgencies, their activities are not ones of terrorism. In fact, those same communities define the United States and the regimes that it supports as state terrorists. On the ground, they often see many more civilian casualties as a result of these internationally espoused regimes than from the supposed 'terrorist networks'.

The constant splitting off and proliferation of new factions amounts to confusion, but it is a pattern that continues a longstanding tradition that started with secular national liberation movements ending colonialism. Western analysts often forget that colonialism was not so much defeated through conquest as it simply yielded to asymmetric warfare (what the West normally calls terrorism), because the costs of colonialism came to greatly exceed the benefits.

Many Islamist guerrillas from North Africa have been prevalent in the wars of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, and Mali—including those who were tortured by the United States or its agents in some or all of these countries. Connect the dots: The Libyans, who comprised half of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, were water-boarded by the United States, then tortured in Libya by Qaddafi, then armed by the United States to overthrow Qaddafi, and have armed al-Qaida in Mali. Many of these fighters have shifted among various groups, in the same way that many of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) lost many of its fighters to even more radical leaders like Abu Nidal and George Habash.

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Henry "Chip" Carey is the co-editor of Trials and Tribulations: International Criminal Tribunals and the Challenges of International Justice (Lexington 2013).

[Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal]

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