Analysts are growing concerned that al-Qaeda — under pressure in its long-time hideouts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq — is looking towards Africa, seeking to capitalize on the instability there to regroup and reorganize. According to a recent study by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Africa represents a fertile ground for a diminished ‘Al-Qa’ida-core’ to…re-launch its mission of global jihad.”
The release of the report is particularly timely, given recent events in Mali. On March 22, rebel soldiers mounted a political coup in the capital, Bamako, ousting elected President Amadou Toumani Toure for his inability to equip the army to suppress the growing Tuareg insurgency in the north. The insurgents, fighting to carve out a new country in the region, were recently energized by the return of some 2,000 Tuareg fighters from Libya where they worked as mercenaries for Moammar Qaddafi. Since the ouster of Mali’s president, however, the Tuareg rebels have taken control over several large towns, including the ancient town of Timbuktu.
Al-Shabab militants (Photo: Reuters)
On Wednesday, France warned that the Tuareg rebellion is playing into the hands of local al-Qaeda units. The militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has since taken over Timbuktu and declared the imposition of sharia law there. According to one resident, the Islamists have prevented bars from opening, and women in the secular city are now wearing headscarves. In addition, three of the four leaders of al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch — Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam — were reportedly seen in Timbuktu on Tuesday.
According to the RUSI report, aside from Mali, recent “attacks in Nigeria, coupled with [the] ongoing insurgency in Somalia…underline that the jihadist challenge may be migrating to Somalia, Kenya, north Nigeria and the borderlands of some of the vast territories of West Africa.” In Nigeria, the radical Islamist group of Boko Haram, tied to AQIM, is blamed for more than 360 deaths in 2012 alone. And in February, the Islamist militant group wreaking havoc in Somalia, al-Shabab, announced its official merger with al-Qaeda.
There’s good news to take home from these reports: The U.S. war against al-Qaeda in its traditional safe houses has weakened the group. But if Washington and its allies aren’t quick to turn and assist in fighting the growing al-Qaeda problem in African countries, they may soon have a new problem on their hands.