Al-Qaeda Africa wing dreams global, acts local
17 December 2013, 09:13
Washington - Armed extremist groups in North and West Africa may have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda's vision of global jihad, but they act independently of its core command and have yet to make good on threats to strike the West.
Counter-terrorism experts meeting in Washington noted an increase in anti-Western rhetoric from groups in the Sahel, Nigeria and Somalia, but said that African militant groups were still fighting local wars.
And the United States and its allies should be cautious, they warned, of intervening in these struggles and giving African Islamists a reason to expand their campaigns to target European and American interests.
Al-Qaeda's Yemeni franchise, once locked in a local struggle, is now an international threat that has put parcel bombs on planes and trained a Nigerian to make a failed suicide attack on a passenger jet.
"The movements in Africa - they all enjoy the al-Qaeda brand, they love the franchise. It gives them a certain panache," said Michael Hayden, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
"But I'm not sure they want to become real enemies of the United States and they want to commit to the global Islamic caliphate," he added, referring to late al-Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden's goal of a single Muslim empire.
‘Clearly not controlled by al-Zawahiri’
Some groups, including the North African offshoot al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had pledged allegiance to their late "sheikh," but bin Laden's deputy and successor Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri does not have the same star power.
"The jihadist movement in Africa is clearly not controlled by al-Zawahiri, if he controls anything," said Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council think tank.
"But the al-Qaeda brand helps some local groups to distinguish themselves from other local competitors.
"It gives them a bigger sense of meaning to attract young people and in some cases the al-Qaeda cachet helps them secure funding from overseas, especially the Gulf," he explained.
The African groups' ideological independence reflects their roots in different regional struggles, and has allowed them to latch onto and exploit causes such as Tuareg nationalism in Mali and northern Nigeria's resentment of corrupt governance.
But it also limits their real influence beyond their home areas, and even among diaspora African groups in the West.
From core al-Qaeda's point of view, groups like the Sahel's AQIM, Somalia's Shabaab and Nigeria's Boko Haram and Ansaru have a use mainly as propaganda for a movement sometimes seen as on the back foot.
"It serves al-Zawahiri to make the world believe he has more influence that he really has. He is a lonely man sitting in a house somewhere," said Pham.
"He has greater perception of impact if he can claim credit or partial credit for all these independent actors in Africa."