Just as World Cup organisers were breathing a sign of relief that the finals had not been targeted by terrorists, news came in of the bombings in Kampala which left at least 74 dead. The attacks in Uganda, thought to be the work of the al Qaeda-linked group, al Shabab, indicate both the danger of Islamic terrorism in Africa as well as its limitations.
Last April the arrest of Abdullah Azzam al-Qahtani, an alleged al Qaeda supporter who claimed to be planning an attack on the Dutch and Danish teams in South Africa, increased fears that the finals might be targeted. But al-Qahtani’s plot turned out to be little more than a madcap scheme and the Kampala killings, horrific though they are, will be a passing news story for the Western media.
In terms of high profile terrorist attacks on African soil there has been nothing since the 2002 Mombasa attack and the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. This does not mean, however, that Islamic terrorism in Africa is not a growing danger.
The Sahel region of Africa is increasingly being seen as “the new frontline of the War on Terror” with Islamic militants believed to be operating across a swathe of territory between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Somalia has long been seen as a haven for al Qaeda, and the Kampala attacks are thought to have originated from within its boarders.
Al Shabab had recently threatened to take revenge against Uganda’s provision of African Union peacekeeping troops to Somalia and last month in the breakaway state of Somaliland, fifteen suspected Islamic terrorists, including six women, were arrested in possession of bomb-making equipment. Last October car bombs thought to be planted by al Shabab, left 25 dead and dozens injured in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa.
“Terrorists live in the seams between countries” says Michael Chertoff, former head of Homeland Security under the Bush administration explaining why the unguarded boarders of the Sahel region are attractive to militants.
Last year in Mauritanian an American was shot and a suicide bomber killed two when he detonated himself outside the French Embassy. Last month 11 Malian security forces were killed by militants and whilst kidnappings in the Sahara desert have become increasingly frequent they seldom capture the headlines. This week militants threatened to execute a French hostage and last June British tourist Edwin Dyer was beheaded in the Malian desert.
Jihadism spreads beyond just the Sahel region. The so-called ‘pant-bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down an American Airlines plane, came from Nigeria and 24 alleged members of an al Qaeda cell were arrested in Morocco in March.
The West has responded to this, increasing its intelligence and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on military support to countries in the region. The US funded 2003 Pan-Sahel Initiative was superseded in 2005 by the Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative, and in April a three week joint military exercise took place involving the armies of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad with the support of the American, British, German, French and Spanish militaries.
A police issue
But military solutions can only be part of the the answer. Some critics argue the strategy has been counter-productive with heightened militarization of desert areas leading to resentment and encouraging the very extremism it was intended to prevent.
According to security expert Professor Alain Bauer “terrorism should be a police issue rather than a military one”. He also argues that there is too great an emphasis on fixing the problem rather than understanding why there is a problem in the first place.
The first World Cup to be held in Africa was a resounding success. The scaremongers and doom-sayers were proved wrong. But nonetheless we should not forget the dead and injured of Kampala nor underestimate the gradual rise of Islamic terrorism across the African continent.
Stefan Simanowitz is a London-based journalist and political analyst.