Two major developments to unfold in the coming years signal Africa’s growing strategic importance, especially the Horn of Africa (HoA). As of October 1, the African continent came under the auspices of a newly created U.S. military command, AFRICOM, establishing one staff responsible for affairs with the 53 African states (https://www.africom.mil). The second development, potentially far more troubling, is the newly announced project to build the world’s longest bridge—17 miles connecting Yemen and Djibouti—under Tarek bin Laden’s Middle East Development LLC.
The United States may finally be recognizing the significance of Africa to its own national interests. On the economic level, access to African oil and the will to counter China’s increasing presence on the continent are vital strategic interests that are pushing Washington to rationalize its approach. The U.S. wants to see its share of African oil imports go from 15% to 25% by 2015. In light of this, the security issue is paramount, and explains why U.S. involvement in Africa is growing. Recent U.S. military action in HoA more than showed the need for a dedicated military command to counter al-Qaeda’s presence and operations in the region. At the end of 2006, the U.S. military helped Ethiopian troops in their rapid assault against Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, and in January 2007 American planes bombarded southern Somalia near the Kenyan border to unofficially strike an al-Qaeda site. Dating back to the 1990s, bin Laden and his organization have had operational ties to eastern Africa; first with Sudan, then of course in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The proposed construction of a bridge connecting Yemen and Djibouti, however, is likely to threaten the ongoing U.S. mission in Africa.
HoA: al-Qaeda Breeding Ground?
On the military and counter-terrorism level, Washington’s policy is clear: make sure that grey zones—the African “ungoverned spaces”—do not become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda. Yet, despite the conventional wisdom decreeing al-Qaeda’s desire to operate in failed states, recently declassified Harmony documents illustrate the serious challenges that the terrorist group has faced while operating in Somalia. The internal al-Qaeda situation reports found that the rampant warlordism prevalent in Somalia made it too difficult to do business. There were simply too many separate leaders to pay-off who were ultimately unreliable partners.
Yemen, on the other hand, provides an ideal location for al-Qaeda operations, aside from President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s security services. Indeed, there has been much Salafi militancy in Yemen as of late. On July 14, an al-Qaeda militant drove an explosives-laden vehicle into a group of Spanish tourists visiting the ancient temple of the Queen of Sheba in Marib, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis (BBC News, July 14). In turn, Yemeni security services killed four al-Qaeda militants involved in the attack, one of whom escaped from a Sanaa prison last year. That escape, in which 23 prisoners fled through underground tunnels leading to a neighboring mosque, has only focused the spotlight further on Yemen’s security shortfalls. Some of those men—including al-Qaeda militants involved in the attacks on the USS Cole—are believed to be hiding near the Saudi border (al-Wasat, September 12; Terrorism Monitor, September 27).
Since 2000, a spate of al-Qaeda attacks have been conducted in Yemen, aimed at destabilizing the U.S.-allied Saleh government. Seventeen American sailors were killed in the attack on the USS Cole off the port of Aden. Two years later, a similar attack was carried out against the French tanker Limburg, killing one and injuring 12. Other attacks have since been directed at oil facilities employing foreign workers. Even before these incidents, the Yemeni-Saudi border held the reputation of being one of the most notorious gun-running areas in the region (Terrorism Focus, April 8, 2004). Moreover, Abd al-Majid al-Zindani’s school, Jami’at al-Iman (Faith University), has produced a number of al-Qaeda militants, not to mention the even more nefarious Dar al-Hadith school in Dammaj, where reports of foreign students coming home in body bags made their way to the international press last March (Agence France-Presse, March 26). Then, a French and a British student, both converts attending the madrassa, were killed in skirmishes with Shiite rebels. The two were apparently part of a group of foreign students armed by school leaders to act as guards at night. The Salafi school appears to have been providing military training to its students as well as ideological instruction.
Al-Qaeda’s activity and infrastructure in Yemen indicates a growing presence in the country, despite President Saleh’s cooperation with the U.S. war on terrorism. It is, of course, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, with his father hailing from the valley of Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen, to the south of the Empty Quarter (al-rub` al-khali). Some terrorism experts have even questioned whether bin Laden has sought refuge in one of these areas after losing his sanctuary in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Interestingly enough, the United States seems all the more aware of the dangerous situation in Yemen. As proof, on August 26, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa warned its employees to avoid tourist sites, restaurants and shopping malls. Explaining that the risk of terrorist attacks against Westerners was considered high (al-Qaeda might want to lead a new terror wave campaign), they were recommended not to leave their workplace or residence except in case of a major emergency (al-Watan, August 28).
Bridging the African Divide
Impacting these developments is a planned bridge connecting Yemen and Djibouti. This past April, the Dubai-based Middle East Development LLC issued a notice-to-proceed to Noor City Development Corp., based in Napa, CA, authorizing the firm to “proceed with the planning, development, construction and management of the bridge between Yemen and Djibouti” (Engineering News Record, May 1). The Saudi billionaire and half-brother to Osama, Tarek Bin Laden, heads the project, estimated at $10-20 billion. The project enjoys the full support of the presidents of Djibouti and Yemen.
Yet, Tarek Bin Laden’s pedigree should add additional concerns. More than merely a developer, in the 1990s he was general supervisor of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a fraudulent Saudi group designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as having aided al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups’ fundraising efforts. The IIRO, or Hay’at al-Igatha al-Islamiya al-‘Alamiyaa, is one of eight bodies under the umbrella of the Mecca-based Muslim World League (WML). The IIRO’s terrorist ties go back to the first Afghan jihad against the Soviets, when Osama bin Laden’s Maktab al-Khidmat (Office of Services) worked with Wael Julaidan, then with the IIRO and WML (Government’s Evidentiary Proffer Supporting the Admissibility of Co-Conspirator Statements, United States of America v. Enaam Arnaout, Jan. 6, 2003). The IIRO provided logistical support to the mujahideen and Julaidan, according to the federal government, and “was a leading supporter of the jihad through the relief organization network.” On August 3, 2006, the Treasury Department designated the Philippine and Indonesian branches of the IIRO, as well as its Saudi executive director, “for facilitating fundraising for al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups.” The group was identified as a major fundraiser for Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya.
All of this begs the question: how could Osama bin Laden’s half-brother be constructing a bridge linking Yemen to the HoA at the birth of AFRICOM? The project physically and figuratively links al-Qaeda in Arabia to the African continent, posing a serious long-term security dilemma. For the next year, the nascent AFRICOM will take over responsibilities from EUCOM, under the recently confirmed General William E. Ward. This new structure will not mean more U.S. military troops on African soil. The only U.S. soldiers present (1,800 in all) will be the ones already stationed in Djibouti, a potentially short drive from Yemen.
In fact, the U.S. military decided to settle in Djibouti after the September 11 attacks for a few reasons. First, Djibouti is crucially located at the Horn of Africa. Second, it is a moderate Muslim country and is politically stable amid a chaotic region. U.S. Rear Admiral James Hart, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), U.S. Central Command, recently explained to Le Monde: “In 2002, we thought that al-Qaeda might move from Afghanistan to Africa and we wanted to have a military force here. We also wanted our soldiers to train Africans in order for them to get professional armies, capable of fighting off the terrorist threat. But this threat did not materialize as we thought it would.” Third, Djibouti is a safe location, due to the long-standing presence of French troops, whose mission is to protect Djibouti.
In light of this secure environment, Americans came to Djibouti with little military firepower: two combat companies, a few Blackhawk helicopters, a C-130 transport plane, three to four P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircrafts; but no fighter jets. It appears that the United States is there to stay; indeed, it recently renewed its lease for five more years with an option for 10 additional, and the size of the camp has just been multiplied by five.
Six years after the September 11 attacks, it is baffling to imagine a project under Tarek bin Laden, through a California-based firm, linking Yemen to Africa. Taking into regard al-Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen, it is even more puzzling as to how the U.S. envisions this project promoting greater security or helping to combat terrorism in the region. What does seem a given, however, is that U.S. troops (at the only U.S. base in Africa) could end up being at far greater risk than they are today.