North and West Africa: The Global War on Terror and Regional Collaboration

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 15

Terrorism is not new to North and West Africa. The region as a whole has been affected by a range of ethno-nationalist and religious conflicts, a number of which have been accompanied by highly destructive campaigns of terrorism. The civilian carnage wrought by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria is one of the more graphic examples, although more limited campaigns have also been associated with the Christian/Muslim communal conflict in Nigeria, Tuareg insurgent violence in Mali, the Cassamance struggle in Senegal and, to a certain extent, the POLISARIO secessionist struggle in the Western Sahara. While much of the terrorist violence in the region revolves around specific catalytic events (such as the annulment of the Islamic Salvation Front’s electoral victory in Algeria in 1992 and the institution of Shari’ah law in Nigeria’s northern states in 2000), institutional weakness, autocratic governance and economic marginality have all provided an environmental context that is highly conducive to political violence and extremism.

These various manifestations of terrorist violence have had a notable impact on stability throughout the region. At the national level, it has played a prominent role in polarizing sub-national ethnic and religious identity, leading to highly divisive societies that have been unable to forge institutional structures for peaceful communal coexistence. Nigeria provides a graphic case in point, suffering over the last decade from an increasingly serious Christian-Muslim gulf borne of what is rapidly becoming an entrenched culture of extremist sectarian mobilization and violence. Equally as indicative is Algeria, where viscous campaigns waged by the GIA, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and associated splinter groups over the last two decades have torn and, arguably destroyed, much of the underlying social fabric holding the country together. Economically, terrorism has discouraged foreign investment and tourism as well as necessitated the re-allocation of scarce resources away from productive uses.

Just as critically, the rhetoric of counter-terrorism has frequently been co-opted by regimes to legitimate draconian internal security measures and institute all-embracing anti-opposition crackdowns, which have had a highly damaging impact on human rights and notions of responsible and responsive civil governance. The combined effect has been the emergence of states lacking most, if not all of the prerequisites for viable socio-political development.

Regionally, terrorism and terrorist-infused armed campaigns have also had a marked impact, complicating bilateral interstate relations and often negatively interacting with other transnational threats to stability. The POLISARIO struggle in the Western Sahara, which has involved documented, albeit sporadic attacks against civilian Sahrawis, has been a major factor in heightening tension between Morocco and Mauritania as well as undermining the prospects for the development of a wider economic community in the Maghreb. External terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda are strongly suspected of having forged mutually beneficial links with West African crime networks, particularly in Nigeria, paying syndicates to facilitate everything from document forgery to people, weapons, diamonds and drugs trafficking. Finally, the integrity of borders between neighboring countries has periodically been called into question as a result of population displacements and illicit commodity movements connected to, if not directly caused by extremist activity and/or repressive internal security drives.

Although for the most part terrorism in North and West Africa has manifested itself as a local phenomenon, there have been exceptions. The Algerian GIA, for instance, has carried out numerous attacks in France, benefiting from the overseas assistance of various diaspora communities scattered throughout southern Europe. More seriously and with particular salience to post-9/11 threat contingencies, the region has been directly connected to the global anti-western jihadist ambitions of Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is known to have made logistical inroads into West Africa, seeking to radicalize regional Islamist sentiment, benefit from the pervasive influence of organized criminality that infuses states such as Nigeria and exploit the weak, porous borders and institutional structures that are characteristic of states throughout the Sahel and Maghreb. [1]

Moreover, there is increased evidence of North African Muslim involvement in the insurgency in Iraq where security officials fear they are gaining critical training and combat experience that could be used to inflame local jihadist sentiment in much the same way that occurred following the anti-Soviet mujahideen campaign in the 1980s.

It is this extra-regional dimension that is currently informing the threat perceptions of Western governments and intelligence analysts. In the United States there is a growing appreciation that terrorism in North and West Africa could pose a serious long-term threat to American national security interests. Economically, the region remains important, both with regards to oil – roughly 17 percent of Washington’s non-gulf petroleum imports come from the Central/West African basis – as well as in terms of overall trade and investment on the continent. Outbursts of extremist political violence obviously hold direct implications for ensuring the protection of these strategic energy supplies and otherwise providing a safe and stable environment in which to conduct macro-economic business. Just as importantly, the Bush Administration has become concerned that the combination of autocratic governance, economic degradation, political corruption and disregard for human rights will radicalize Islamic sentiment in West Africa and possibly avail the emergence of a new al-Qaeda front that could be used as a base from which to plan and execute future attacks on American global interests. The steady depletion of its regional diplomatic and intelligence capacities over the last several years has further heightened misgivings in the U.S., not least because it has translated into a weakened grasp of quickly evolving trends on the ground and created acute vulnerabilities that could be brutally exploited in the same manner as the 1998 bombings of Washington’s embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Apart from the United States, both France and the United Kingdom have exhibited a keen interest in dampening the potential for terrorism in North and West Africa. London and Paris retain substantial economic and political ties to many states in the region, which they do not want to see jeopardized as a result of extremist ethno-nationalist or religious violence. Moreover, by virtue of their past colonial relationship, the two countries continue to share an unwritten obligation for maintaining stability in this part of Africa by actively working to dampen cross-border and transnational influences such as terrorism. On a more practical level, the proximity of conflict-ridden states such as Algeria has galvanized concerns about imported extremism into Europe. France has already been severely affected by GIA hijackings of its commercial airliners – including a thwarted 1994 plot to fly an Air France jet into the Eiffel Tower – and during the summer of 1995 was hit by a wave of devastating subway bombings in Paris. Since 9/11, there have also been growing fears that al-Qaeda has effectively exploited the so-called Maghreb-southern Mediterranean backdoor to implant operational and sleeper cells in major metropolitan cities stretching from Rome to London. [2]

International concerns have been further galvanized by the endemic culture of transnational organized crime (TOC) that exists throughout West Africa, much of which is carried out by loosely organized networks based in Nigeria. These entities are known to have engaged in a variety of illicit pursuits including, notably: gem, people, drugs and weapons trafficking; document forgery; and advanced fee fraud (which essentially involves the creation of bogus business proposals that promise the recipients substantial financial rewards for participating). Algerian Islamists linked to the al-Qaeda network are widely suspected of using false passports and fake credit cards supplied by Nigerian syndicates to gain entry into France, Italy and Britain, while Bin Laden, himself, is alleged to have exploited the underground West African diamond trade to hide terrorist assets to the tune of at least $240 million.

As in many parts of the world, regional counter-terrorist structures and policies remain nascent or have yet to be developed. The reasons for this are complex, although most relate to one or more of the following eight considerations:

– The inherent tension between state sovereignty and the common will upon which regional cooperation is founded – namely that effective collaborative action necessarily requires individual member countries to cede some of their national independence to the wider group collective.

– The highly personalized nature of governance and politics in Africa, which has not only hindered the development of institutionalized forms of cooperation but also made these efforts contingent on the nature of the individual relationships that exist between what are often overly powerful presidents.

– The proliferation of regional groupings with overlapping memberships and/or mandates, which has resulted in duplication of effort, wastage of resources and conflicting spheres of jurisdiction. Moreover in several instances it has led to highly problematic institutional confusion, much of which has arisen from the pursuit of contradictory policies that have been instituted by countries belonging to more than one organization.

– A general lack of stakeholder involvement – particularly in relation to those constituencies most affected by regional security cooperation and related decision-making processes.

– Differing perceptions of the terrorist phenomena and the specific threat that it is seen to pose.

– A general absence of integrated national counter-terrorist structures through which to channel and direct wider regional responses.

– Insufficient national resources – both technical and human – to invest in counter-terrorism strategies commensurate with the rhetorical missions and designs adopted at the international level.

– The frequent use of proxy sub-state actors to undermine and destabilize bordering states.

The challenge for Africa in terms of counter-terrorism and security cooperation is first to undertake an honest assessment of the current threat environment confronting the continent; second to utilize the lessons regional governments have garnered from previous efforts at multilateralism; and third, to determine realistic policies for addressing cross-boundary challenges and influences. The stakes are high, as evidenced by a recent statement by Major General Richard P. Zahner, Chief intelligence officer for the United States’ Eastern Command: “[It is clear that] al-Qaeda is assessing local [North and West] African groups for franchising opportunities. I am quite concerned about that.” [3]


1. See, fort instance, Timothy Docking, “Terrorism’s Africa Link,” The Christian Science Monitor (November 14, 2001 Congress, 2002); and John Mackinlay, “Osama Bin Laden: Global Insurgent,” African Security Review 10/4 (2001).

2. Interview, New Scotland Yard, London, June 2003.

3. Major General Zahner, cited in Schmitt, “As Africans Join Iraqi Insurgency, US Counters with Military Training in Their lands,” The New York Times, June 10, 2005.