The Current War on Terrorism and Where it Began

Five years on from the first major Al-Qaeda attack  – the destruction of the U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - and poverty stricken East Africa continues to be the stage for deadly atrocities by Muslim militants

Just after 10:30 a.m. on August. 7, 1998, explosives hidden in a pickup truck wrecked the Nairobi embassy -- as another bomb shattered the U.S. mission in Dar es Salaam. The near simultaneous attacks killed 231 people, mostly Africans.

Since then, further attacks in East Africa including last November’s suicide bombing of a Jewish-owned hotel in Mombasa in which 15 people died and the attempt to destroy an Israeli passenger jet by surface to air missile, have shown the strength of the grip that Islamic militancy has been able to hold in the region.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, author of ‘Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror’ labels Africa an ‘intelligence blackhole’ for Western governments and cites the instability due to conflict and general lawlessness of the region combined with poverty as the reasons why  Muslim militants are able to operate there so efficiently.

‘There are large parts of East Africa that are unpoliced - as a lawless zone it is vulnerable to terrorist penetration,’ says Gunaratna. ‘Terrorists are like sharks  - they rapidly move in search of new opportunities.’

Like sharks, terrorists have to keep on moving it seems and Dr Gunaratna also believes that not only are Al-Qaeda cells active in East Africa but around ‘a few hundred’ of the most wanted fugitives who escaped from Afghanistan may also be hiding in the region which is easily accessed through its seemingly porous borders, especially at main ports, and the lack of effective security in certain areas.

Kenya, which now seems to be the continent’s epicentre for militant attacks against the West after suffering two atrocities on its soil, is struggling to control terrorism within its boundaries.

The East African state announced in June that intelligence reports showed that extremists were planning more attacks in the country, a warning that triggered immediate travel advisories by several Western countries, including a ban on flights to the country which was later lifted.

The Kenyan authorities last month saw its proposals for the controversial Suppression of Terrorism bill rejected by a parliamentary committee. The bill allows police to arrest and search property without authority from the courts, and allows investigators to detain suspected terrorists for 36 hours without allowing them contact to the outside world and was met with fierce opposition by hundreds of protesters on the streets of Nairobi as well as human rights organisations.

The main opposition party, Kenya Africa National Union, fear that the bill would be the first step along the way to creating a U.S military base and long-standing presence in the East African state while many of the country’s moderate Muslims which make up over 30% of the population, have been expressing fears that the bill deliberately targets and discriminates against them.

The government has also charged four Kenyans in connection with the Mombasa attack, an act seen as aimed at pacifying the United States, which has accused the state of not doing enough to counter terror threats.

But with long, remote borders with Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, and Ethiopia that are hard to police for a country with limited financial and human resources, there are plenty of ‘lawless zones’ to be taken advantage of.

Rex Hudson of the Washington-based Federal research Division of the U.S Library of Congress argues: ‘In Kenya and Tanzania, Al-Qaeda operatives have proven adept at exploiting opportunities provided by poorly trained security forces, porous borders and sympathetic Muslim communities.’

But Dr Gunaratna believes that the economic neglect of Western governments towards this part of the continent has led to poverty and disenfranchisement playing what he calls a ‘significant’ role too in Al-Qaeda’s ability to rise, maintain support and operate in the region.

The situation is not improving in Africa either. Aid donors and relief agencies are concentrating increasingly on recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq while losing focus on poor countries on the African continent according to the Red Cross’s World Disasters Report 2003.

The report states that while the U.S Defence Department raised $1.7bn for the relief and reconstruction of Iraq, but the UN had a shortfall of $1bn to avert starvation in 22 African nations.

Al-Qaeda expert Dr Gunaratna believes this type of investment, not only logistically, in Africa and other Muslim states would be crucial in limiting terrorism. ‘Western governments must share their expertise and resources with the Muslim world,’ he says. ‘The west must engage the rest of the world, not only governments but non-governmental groups too.’

Recently, the U.S has moved to thaw relations with Sudan after the icy period during the Clinton administration when the America imposed sanctions on Sudan and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in the state after claiming initially claiming it was being used to make chemical weapons.

However, the Bush administration’s new policy of collaboration with the military dictatorship in Khartoum has been met with cynicism by those in the North and the South of the war torn country who believe that America is favouring the Bashir junta in Africa’s longest conflict simply because it feels they can provide intelligence material on Al-Qaeda. The militant group was based in the state between 1991 and 1996 before moving to Afghanistan and Dr Gunaratna believes that the militant group managed to harvest and nurture the poverty and instability in neighbouring countries like Kenya and Somalia when it was based in Sudan from late 1991 to mid 1996 making ‘significant inroads into East Africa.’

But it is unlikely that any future American intervention in Africa will take on the same form of full scale invasion as seen in Afghanistan or in Iraq. Like South-East Asia, the East African front will be approached differently by the U.S but the goals remain the same. Experts agree that measures must be taken and East African states must get tough on terrorism but to some extent their hands are bound by financial limitations. U.S aid therefore is crucial in providing stability and resources for the region particularly economically while being careful to ensure that already resentful citizens’ civil liberties are preserved and their quality of life possibly improved.

As Benjamin Mkapa, the President of Tanzania, where the U.S embassy in Dar-es-Salaam was destroyed five years ago this month, recently said: "It is futile, if not foolhardy to think there is no link between poverty and terrorism."

Jamie Barton is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in terrorism and international issues.

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Author`s name Margarita Kicherova