Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Is Africa the new ‘playground’ for Al Qaeda?


That’s the gist of a new report by Global Post, which says the links between local rebel movements in Mali, Nigeria and Somalia and the Islamist terror group Al Qaeda are growing stronger. The report coincides with today’s anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

It’s a good series, but I can’t help but worry that this angle will translate into a simplistic pitch for a military response to the continent’s troubles with various separatist movements. Are these conflicts really about Al Qaeda? I’m not so sure.

Here’s an artsy map accompanying the GP’s series on this thesis:

Al Qaeda in Africa

Some of these alleged linkages to Al Qaeda are not new, of course, and most are often preceded by squishy lingo such as “believed to be” linked with or “has ties to” the terror group.

It’s often not clear just how strong such ties are, or even if they mean much more than sharing a similar ideology or antipathy. Nigeria’s Boko Haram, for example, is perhaps best thought of as an Islamist separatist movement that has only recently sought to ally itself with Al Qaeda. Does that translate into anything on a material basis, or is it just a boast aimed at boosting the group’s terrorizing image?

Somalia’s Al Shabaab clearly considers itself part of Al Qaeda. But militant movements in parts of Africa and hostility to the U.S. goes way back (remember Blackhawk Down?) and it would be simplistic to think this is all due to Al Qaeda’s influence.

In any case, the possibility of a growing Al Qaeda movement in Africa should be taken seriously. Bin Laden had his base in Sudan for many years in the early 1990s. The question is how best to respond to this trend. Will we take the standard route and support a policy of responding to terror simply with military or police actions? Or will we also battle for hearts and minds?

Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, aka AfriCom, had this to say today:

To successfully defeat terrorism requires not only the collective efforts of many nations, but it requires the combined effects of military, diplomatic, development, economic, good governance, education, food security – it requires all of those to work in concert to address the underlying causes that establish the conditions in which young people, primarily young men, find themselves attracted to these terrorist organizations.

Sounds good, but AfriCom (which was launched by Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush Administration) has yet to actually find a home anywhere in Africa. It was supposed to be headquartered somewhere on the continent in 2008 but has so far remained in Stuttgart, Germany.

Africans, and others, appear reluctant to allow the U.S. military to establish a large presence there. And a new survey indicates many Americans are also not that interested in expanding our military footprint overseas.

If Al Qaeda is indeed gaining turf in parts of Africa, the first step is make sure we understand why. Are these separatist groups joining forces with Al Qaeda for ideological or practical reasons? Was Ho Chi Minh primarily a communist or a Vietnam nationalist? Many would say the failure to answer this question accurately prompted what was, until Afghanistan, our longest war.

Al Qaeda is probably best thought of as a fungus rather than as a military force. It tends to only really flourish in places of rot – places of poverty, injustice and dysfunction.

Sure, it’s a lot more fun and entertaining to use a flame-thrower to fight a fungus. But the more reasonable approach is to just stop the rot.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.