When Osama bin Laden first wanted to get America’s attention, he chose to attack a part of the world this country has learned to ignore—Africa. The now infamous 1998 bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya left 224 people dead and made bin Laden a fixture on CNN. In November, his Al Qaeda followers trained their sights on Africa again, sending suicide bombers barreling into a Kenyan resort hotel and narrowly missing an Israeli airliner with a shoulder-fired missile.
For advocates of Africa, terrorists’ interest in the continent is alarming but not surprising. After all, bin Laden himself lived in the Sudan for five years after his native Saudi Arabia exiled him in 1991. Operations like his generally find haven amid misery and failed governance, conditions Africa had—and continues to have—in abundance. “The ingredients are just right for a terrorist group to lay roots,” says Gregory Meeks, a Democratic congressman from New York and a member of the House Subcommittee on Africa. “You have areas where there is simply hopelessness, where no one is paying attention . . . places where we held up brutal dictators and did nothing to help. You have what could be a planting field for terror.”
Now the field may be ripe for harvest. On December 29, The Washington Post reported that two Al Qaeda lieutenants took refuge in Liberia and Burkina Faso after the embassy bombings. It was the first report of official collusion between a sub-Saharan government and Al Qaeda. In choosing a place like Liberia, where an autocratic president frustrates efforts at recovering from seven years of civil war, or Burkina Faso, where life expectancy tops out at 46.11 years, bin Laden’s forces seek to replicate the freedom they once enjoyed in the devastated reaches of Central Asia.
“The terror took root in Afghanistan partly because it was a failed state,” says Lloyd J. Dumas, professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas. “There was enough lawlessness to do what the terrorists wanted to do. There have been places in Africa where there is so much chaos and violence, and so many contending groups, that terrorists could find haven.”
In addition to being chronically underdeveloped, countries such as Nigeria have significant Muslim communities, some of which have become radicalized and have clashed violently with rival faiths. “You can talk about . . . Eritrea, Ethiopia, and clearly the Sudan. Look at Nigeria, where there is a large Islamic population. Terrorists will use Islam as an entrance,” says Representative Meeks.
Four days before hijackers reduced the World Trade Center to ash and memory, Muslims and Christians in the Nigerian town of Jos attempted to reduce each other simply to ash. Many of the town’s Muslims had gathered that day for Friday prayer. Rioting began after Muslims refused to move from a street. By the time it ended, churches had been torched, authorities were teargassing mobs, and hacked bodies lay burning in the street. Some 500 people were dead. “I wonder what sort of Muslims and Christians start burning churches and mosques—places where God is worshiped,” Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo said after sending in the army to quell the discord. “True believers in God cannot start killing other human beings.”
Islam has been a presence in sub-Saharan Africa for over a millennium, so jihad is nothing new to the continent. More recently, Africa’s widespread political unrest and economic instability have made many of its countries candidates for the next Afghanistan. Former African dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Daniel arap Moi of Kenya spent decades murdering dissidents and fleecing their nations to the tune of millions—and did it largely with the backing of the American government, which saw supporting them as means to stave off the advance of communism.
In addition, Western corporations seeking to profit from the continent’s formidable natural resources haven’t been the most respectful of guests. Shell Oil, perhaps most notably, has been implicated in wreaking environmental and societal havoc on Nigeria’s oil fields.
But while big business has paid attention to potential riches, American policy makers have looked the other way. So far the Bush White House has followed the lead of previous administrations in ignoring the endless string of African disasters, from recurring famine to the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Most recently, President Bush canceled a five-nation tour of Africa scheduled for this month. “Like every preceding administration, this one has been about lip service and not about development in Africa,” notes Karl Schonberg, professor of international politics at St. Lawrence University.
The combination of American apathy and Cold War politics has sown seeds of anti-Americanism in Africa, and some are sprouting. Robert Mugabe has managed to extend his dictatorship in Zimbabwe largely through anti-Western propaganda and racism. In retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, America mistakenly bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, a move which only fanned that country’s smoldering hatred of the West. In Nigeria, anti-Americanism mixed with ethnic and religious strife has repeatedly proved deadly. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after September 11, the Islamic stronghold of Kano—a town where Osama bin Laden posters are openly displayed—erupted in rioting. The disturbances began as peaceful protests, but ended with murder. The body count crested 100.
Still, some observers aren’t quite ready to hit the panic button. “There are several states in Africa that are in very severe states of ungovernability,” says Patrick Gaffney, professor of anthropology at Notre Dame. “They are like Afghanistan in structure, but they wouldn’t have the ideological parallels.” Gaffney notes that extreme fundamentalist Islam has not gained the same sort of traction in sub-SaharanAfrica as in the Middle East.
But in seeking a new base of operations in Africa, Al Qaeda may care less about religious identity than the bottom line. According to the Washington Post report, the two lieutenants paid Liberia’s authoritarian ruler Charles Taylor $1 million for safe haven, then cornered the market on the country’s diamond trade in hopes of financing weapons purchases for Al Qaeda. While Taylor isn’t a guy you’d have over for coffee and crumpets, neither is he another Mullah Omar. The secular Liberia has never been a beacon for fundamentalism. But it has been a beacon for states that exist in name only. Gutted by war and corruption, Liberia is exactly the sort of failing state where terrorists could set up camp and disappear from global view.
Making Liberia an exception for the continent as opposed to the rule may necessitate a shift in U.S. foreign policy. Advocates for Africa say that as the government extends the mailed fist to Iraq, it must also extend a velvet hand to countries teetering on the brink. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently acknowledged as much after pledging $29 million for modernizing the Arab world. “Hope begins with a paycheck,” said Powell. While the Bush administration may be well aware that Africa could become the new home of its greatest enemy, the political will—and indeed the democratic will—to prevent that may be lacking.
“I think if you spoke with people in the administration, they would say, ‘Yes, we know.’ But whether they can deliver in an era where there is intense pressure to increase defense spending is not clear,” says Schonberg. “Foreign aid is never popular, and the problem of development just seems so insurmountable. I think it would be very hard, if only for no other reason than the fact the economy here wasn’t doing well.”