Al Qaeda in Africa

Arnaud de Borchgrave reminds us of both the scope of the terrorist threat and the amazing level of violence on the African continent.

There are now 40,000 U.N. blue-helmeted peacekeepers in six sub-Saharan African countries. Most of them are “volunteered” by other African countries. The best troops are from South Asian countries — Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Soon Sudan, emerging from the nightmare of a 30-year civil war, will need 8,000 to 10,000 more. But before the first peacekeepers could get there, a new insurgency erupted in the west — the Chad-based Darfar rebellion.

Khartoum hit back ruthlessly with scorched-earth tactics and ethnic cleansing. About 100,000 refugees made it across the border into Chad. Another 600,000 were without shelter and the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders said they were now faced with “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” No TV footage, no story.

The only sub-Saharan country with a professional army up to Western standards is South Africa, which keeps 75,000 under arms. Forty percent of the force is HIV positive. And only 3,000 men are deployable for peacekeeping duties. Nigeria, Africa̢۪s most populous country with 130 million, maintains a 17,000-strong air force, but only one troop transport can fly.


There has been sufficient al-Qaida input in the thousands of square miles of unpoliced territory in both West and Equatorial Africa for French and U.S. intelligence to draw the conclusion terrorist networks are alive throughout the region. But there is also ample evidence that little of this is controlled by al-Qaida Central.

Osama Bin Laden and his associates haven’t been using satellite and cell phones for the past two years. They know the National Security Agency can intercept mobile phone signals in a nano-second and flash global positioning system information back to Special Forces looking for them in the mountain ranges that straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida cells operate autonomously with sleeper agents among Muslim communities in most western, eastern and African countries. Bin Laden’s capture — dead or alive — won’t change the correlation of forces between terrorists and counter-terrorists. The growing wretchedness of West Africa’s populations — over a million a year die of malaria in Nigeria alone — greatly facilitates the marabou’s mission of recruiting Islamist desperadoes.

The toughest among them survive the desert trek to Morocco and Algeria and from there take small craft to Spain. Their bodies wash up on Spanish beaches every day. Those who make it alive into Spain have also made it into the European Union.

The scope of this problem is amazing. Indeed, while I pay more attention to this stuff than most, I’m only peripherally aware of some of these situations.

The piece also serves as a reminder of how much the U.N. actually does in the peacekeeping arena. While it will never be the international security guarantor that so many envision it becoming–or, indeed, think it already is–it is amazingly useful for many of these situations. Most of these conflicts are sufficiently intractable and the states involved so marginal that they’d never be deemed worthy of intervention by any major power.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kate says:

    About 5 years ago I read a non-fiction book called “Out of Africa” that detailed the last thousand years or so of the continent’s history.

    It covered different regions of the continent, recounted the rise and fall of tribal kingdoms… all of it drenched in blood and genocide.

    Don’t remember the author, just the title, and the conclusions it left me about how likely it is that we’ll see any significant change in our lifetimes. Virtually none.