Will Zimbabwe Become Al-Qaeda’s Newest Hub?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 21

The role played by failed states in harboring militant Islamist groups is a feature of the war on terror that is likely to receive a great deal of attention in the coming years. Africa has been singled out as particularly vulnerable in this regard, not least because of the endemic dysfunctional character of many states across the continent, some of which contain significant Muslim populations. U.S. concern is currently concentrated on countries located in the north, east and west of the continent, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia. Thus far, comparatively little attention has been paid to southern Africa, and, in particular, to one country that, for all intents and purposes, appears to be on the verge of full-scale breakdown – Zimbabwe.

The Deteriorating Situation in Zimbabwe

A former British colony, Zimbabwe is currently in dire straits. The country’s first ten to fifteen years as an independent and sovereign entity were marked by a booming economy, ethnic harmony, a transparent and largely accountable system of law and order, a world-class tourist industry and a comparatively efficient government bureaucracy. It was, in short, a successful state that was widely hailed as a model for post-colonial stability and racial reconciliation.

By 2004, however, Zimbabwe had an external debt burden of some US$6 billion, one of the highest inflation rates in the world (roughly 622% at the time of writing), a full 70 percent of the country living under the poverty line, chronic shortages of everything from gasoline to toothpaste tubes, a HIV/AIDS epidemic that afflicts nearly 1/3 of the population and a life expectancy of just 34 years. The government presently pays little regard to freedom of the press, routinely ignores rulings from the Supreme Court and systematically uses terror and violence to maintain power. [1]

Zimbabwe and al-Qaeda?

Do these deleterious conditions hold a realistic potential for harboring or otherwise facilitating an al-Qaeda presence? Operationally, it would seem unlikely that Zimbabwe would serve as a major focus of activity. There are few symbolic political or economic targets of worth to attack, western tourists are now almost non-existent and civilian deaths – in a country already marked by human suffering of major proportions – are unlikely to elicit major international attention. If al-Qaeda were to decide on a campaign of terror in this part of Africa, South Africa would seem to be a far more logical and operationally relevant choice. Indeed in August of this year, several Islamist militants who were reportedly planning a series of attacks in the country were seized in Pakistan. According to law enforcement sources in Gujrat who carried out the arrests, the detainees were captured with maps and plans allegedly detailing strikes against various high profile targets including the Johannesburg stock exchange, the Sheraton Hotel and U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, the national Parliament, a waterfront tourist complex in Cape Town and, reportedly, the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE 2) cruise ship while it was docked at the Port of Durban. [2]

Equally, Zimbabwe does not offer particularly fertile ground for recruitment. While there is clearly considerable discontent on the ground, no organized Islamist groups of any import exist in the country. Moreover there is no sizeable indigenous Muslim element among the local population and most people remain too pre-occupied with basic day-to-day survival to concern themselves with politico-religious prerogatives – extremist or otherwise. [3]

Logistically, however, there may be more reason for concern. Opaque, largely lawless states offer inherent advantages for terrorists – both as sanctuaries and as territorial mediums through which to smuggle people, arms, materiel and contraband. In this respect, Zimbabwe may be no different than other ungoverned regions of western and eastern Africa (or, for that matter, Central or South Asia).

The country borders South Africa to the south, Mozambique to the East and lies close to the neighboring territory of Angola to the west. The first, as noted above, offers an attractive operational theater on account of its modern and largely western character. Gaining entry to South Africa from Zimbabwe would be far easier than arriving by land or sea – both on account of major road transportation networks connecting the two countries and the lack of concerted border controls, even at major crossings such as Beitbridge.

With regards Mozambique and Angola, these two countries represent significant sources of weaponry as a result of stocks left over from former civil wars and the failure of internationally mediated disarmament programs. Because Zimbabwe is situated ideally between both of these “markets,” it is able to act as a useful center from which to procure and subsequently disseminate a wide range of combat weaponry. Many of these munitions are exceptionally cheap; an AK47, for instance, can reportedly be bought on the Mozambique border for as little as $14, or simply exchanged for a bag of rice or sugar. Moreover, the existence of shady arms brokerage/dealership firms – some of which have been directly tied to the procurement activities of prominent terrorist organizations such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – ensures that weapons can be purchased in bulk quantities if so desired.[4]

Zimbabwe has also emerged as a relatively significant hub for more generalized organized crime, much of which is run by West African syndicates from Ghana and, especially, Nigeria. Law enforcement sources estimate that several thousand gang members may be present across southern Africa, engaging in everything from drugs smuggling and the trafficking of human beings to vehicle theft, poaching, counterfeiting and so-called 419 scams (advanced fee swindles). Zimbabwe, itself, is known to have been exploited as a transshipment point for cross-continental consignments of cannabis, heroin and cocaine as well as blood diamonds derived from civil wars in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). [5] In addition, the country is believed to have served as an “off-shore” documentation forgery center, particularly for South Africa – the main destination for much of the illicit regional trade in people.

The existence of these organized criminal enterprises would, conceivably, be of considerable interest to al-Qaeda, providing an ideal nexus through which to garner operational capital and facilitate the covert infiltration of cadres to potential attack sites. More pointedly, while the Zimbabwean authorities are no doubt aware of the activities of Nigerian and Ghanaian syndicates, it is unclear whether they are willing to move concertedly against these operations – possibly because they are directly profiting from their illicit activities. In this sense, Zimbabwe offers the same benefits and overall latitude of action that is commonly associated with other weak or failing states that have been connected to the logistical preferences of al-Qaeda on the African continent such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and Somalia.

Finally Zimbabwe retains well-established air links with several major western cities, including London, Amsterdam (both non-stop), New York and Perth (each of which can be reached via Johannesburg). These corridors, at least in the short run, could conceivably prove to be more attractive in terms of covertly infiltrating operatives into Europe, North America and Australia largely because Zimbabwe has no major identifiable link with the Muslim world and has yet to be recognized as a significant operational hub for al-Qaeda.

The possibility of a logistical link emerging between Islamist extremism and Zimbabwe has been the subject of a degree of speculation since 9/11. According to Kroll Associates, a prominent U.S.-based risk consultancy service, there is some evidence to suggest that diamonds procured from the DRC are being traded via Lebanese traders linked to al-Qaeda.[6] Investigative journalists in South Africa have also periodically hinted that Bin Laden has specifically sought to establish a logistical base in Zimbabwe – possibly on some of the large, remote land-holdings appropriated from white farmers in Mashonaland – and that his second-in command, Ayman al-Zawhiri has traveled to the country on at least two occasions to facilitate such an arrangement. [7] Finally, regional commentators have occasionally averred to the possibility of Zimbabwe (and other neighboring states) acting as a sub-Saharan “way-station” for a militant East African Muslim network that connects cadres from the Persian Gulf to Cape Town.[8]

Implications for U.S. Policy

If the United States is to ameliorate these potential concerns and challenges, it will need to transform what is presently a benign environment for terrorist logistical activities to one that is hostile. The best way to achieve an outcome of this sort will be to institute a strategy that is based on three sequential policy tenets.

First, concertedly back an international process to remove Robert Mugabe from power, ideally implemented through influential organizations such as the United Nations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Commonwealth. Such policies have been shown to work if applied consistently and forcefully enough as the example of Charles Taylor in Liberia demonstrates.

Second, conclude a workable program of bilateral assistance with a new, more responsible Zimbabwean government that is aimed at rooting out corruption, heightening the professionalism of the security and law enforcement establishment and strengthening extant border, custom and immigration procedures.

Third, integrate and extend the scope of these measures with neighboring states under the auspices of a formalized sub-regional security arrangement, possibly modeled along the lines of the Pan Sahelian Initiative (PSI) already up and running in West Africa. Embracing Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger, this $100 million program provides at least 60 days of training to military and law enforcement units within the four participating nations, coaching them in everything from border surveillance to remote terrain navigation in addition to providing a range of transportation and communications equipment.

One of the key lessons to have emerged from the post-9/11 era is that unexpected contingencies can quickly arise from areas of the world that have traditionally had little, if any, connection to international terrorism. Islamist bombings in Mombassa, Bali and Casablanca readily underscore this reality. While Zimbabwe has yet to be directly tied to the logistical and operational designs of al-Qaeda, the potential certainly exists. Moving to ameliorate the conditions that work in favor of such a nexus would not only play an important contributory role in the general global war on terrorism, it would also usefully serve the accompanying objective of bolstering regional governance and stability – both defining features of contemporary U.S. foreign and international security policy.


1. “Failed States in a World of Terror,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2002).

2. “South Africa Warns Against al Qaeda ‘Paranoia.'” India Daily, October 19, 2004; “Suspects Allegedly Targeted South Africa,” The Associated Press (Johannesburg), August 5, 2004; Micahel Wines, “Arrests and Plots Give South Africans a New Problem,” The New York Times (South African Bureau), August 09, 2004.

3. RW Johnson, “al-Qaeda and the Zimbabwe Nexus” Focus 34, June 2004, 1.

4. One 1997 swindle that reportedly involved Zimbabwe Defense Industries (ZDI), for instance, is believed to have netted the LTTE some 32,000 mortar bombs. For an interesting account of the incident see Mike Winchester, “Ship of Fools: Tamil Tigers’ Heist of the Century,” Soldier of Fortune 23/8 (1998).

5. Peter Gastrow, Organized Crime in the SADC Region: Police Perceptions (Pretoria: Institute of Security Studies Monograph 60, August 2001), chapter 6; Johnson, “al-Qaeda and the Zimbabwe Nexus”; Douglas Farah “Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade,” posted on ZWNEWS.com, November 3, 2001, available on-line at https://zwnews.com/print.cfm?ArticleID=2925.

6. Johnson, “al-Qaeda and the Zimbabwe Nexus”.

7. Ibid, 3-4.

8. Interviews, London, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, 2003-2004.