In the last few weeks Africa has resurfaced as a hot spot for ‘Islamic Terrorism.’ The devastating attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya carried out by Al Shabaab reignited a firestorm of fear and highlighted the political instability of East Africa. The US raids on Somalia and Libya to capture terrorist suspects emphasized that US counter-terrorism efforts on the continent are still going strong.
As usual, context and nuance was overshadowed by inaccuracies and distortions in the media frenzy. Actions of extremist groups like Al Shabaab do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a convoluted geopolitical reality, one largely shaped by the US’s ‘Global War on Terror.’
Thankfully, there have been many insightful analyses of the Westgate mall attack. Here are some of my favorites that are must reads for those seeking a deeper understanding of the issue:
- The Nairobi massacre and the genealogy of the tragedy, Abdi Ismail Samatar
- Senseless [and sensible] violence: Mourning the dead at Westgate Mall, Mahmood Mamdani
- Kenya’s Westgate Mall Attack and the Politics of Spectacular Violence, Samar Al-Bulushi
These articles stress the importance of looking to the not too distant past of disastrous foreign interventions as an explanation for the emergence of groups like Al Shabaab and the destabilization of Somalia. The US government and CIA financing and supporting Somali warlords, the Ethiopian and Kenyan invasions, and AMISOM, only further radicalized and bolstered the cause of Al Shabaab-not to mention the thousands of innocent Somali lives lost as a direct result.
The double raid conducted by US special forces in Libya and Somalia is further proof of US meddling. In Libya US commandos captured an al-Qaeda leader accused of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In Somalia, the raid was less successful and the mission was aborted without the capture of Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir a leader of al Qaeda’s East Africa branch.
The problems with such covert actions are obvious. Firstly it is a violation of national sovereignty. In most cases US counter-terrorism operations are done unilaterally without explicit consent of foreign governments. Secondly, the rendition of suspected terrorists is against international law because it denies them due process. All people accused of a crime must have access to a lawyer, be promptly charged in front of a judge in a civilian court of law, and be tried in their own countries. As has been said time and again, if the tables were turned the US would never stand for such infringements.
In the case of Libya and Somalia, the question of government consent to US counter-terrorism efforts are more complex. Although said to have been informed of the raid, the Libyan government expressed frustration with the the kidnapping of their citizen. But the Libyan government is eager to normalize relations since the US is a vital ally. The weak Libyan government might not be happy with the US’s blatant disregard for its sovereignty but they don’t intend to rock the boat.
The same imbalanced power dynamics are at play between the equally weak, fairly new Somali government and the US. This clip of Somali Foreign Minister, Fawzia Yusuf, on CNN says it all. In response to the question about how the Somali government views the Navy SEALS raid, the Foreign Minister says “we accepted it, we welcomed it, we are welcoming more…and they don’t have to ask us.” This is a disappointing statement that reveals the lack of control the Somali government has over its territory and constituency. Like Libya, Somalia is beholden to US financial and military support at the expense of self-determination and self-sufficiency.
Many say that Africa is the new frontier for the Global War on Terror. The launch of AFRICOM in 2007, the building of a drone base in Niger, the involvement of the US and NATO in Libya, and the role of the Pentagon in Mali, Somalia and other African conflict zones are but few examples of increased US militarism on the continent. The consequences of such foreign interference is well known-one only need to look at the fate of Somalia.
African governments must resist cooperating with the imperialist aggression of outsiders. Instead, they should adopt an anti-imperialist stance and begin looking inward to build the necessary institutions to combat extremism.