With the election of President Barack Obama to a second term as President of the United States, the operational realities of an exit strategy for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan by 2014 began to be put into place. Obama campaigned strongly on the notion of turning the security of Afghanistan over to the national forces in two years, and this plan appears to be coming to fruition as transition talks are already being held to prepare for the departure of over 60,000 U.S. troops.
The elimination of Osama Bin Laden and over 13 years of war waged inside the country have destabilized the al-Qaeda stronghold provided by the Taliban. And while the notorious terrorist group may never be completely extinguished inside Afghanistan or its duplicitous neighbor, Pakistan, the work done by U.S. forces in both countries have dealt major blows to the organization’s regional position.
Now the current leadership for al-Qaeda and other terrorist cells have been scrambling for a new safe haven to regroup and plot terror attacks to unleash their global jihad. Unfortunately they may have found it in the lawless lands of West Africa.
When a coup shook the poor West African nation of Mali back in March, extremist groups with ties to al-Qaeda saw their opportunity and seized it. Originally, a separatist group of Tuaregs — a minority people that populate the northern territories of the country — took control in order to advance their plans for the creation of a separate Tuareg state. However, just three short months later, the Tuaregs were forced to flee into neighboring Burkina Faso as extremist al-Qaeda linked groups chased them out, enlisting a new rule that was based on Sharia Law. Three such groups now maintain a stranglehold over the north, governing with Islamic extremist authority and providing a potential safe haven for al-Qaeda to regroup.
In addition, continued violence in the northeast region of nearby Nigeria by the extremist Muslim group Boko Haram have produced another hotbed for international terrorist cells and Islamic extremists. Recently, the organization announced its affiliation with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Boko Haram has used brutal terrorist tactics to kill 770 people so far in 2012, making it the worst year for deaths attributed to the group. They also have aspirations of overthrowing the Nigerian government and also enlisting a rule based on Sharia law.
These two situations are just the latest in the growing trend of Islamic extremists in Africa. Until recently much of southern Somalia was controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliated group al-Shabaab. Although an African Union force recently derailed the organization and seized control of much of the country — which has been controlled by militants for over two decades — al-Shabaab remains a threat to the Horn of Africa, especially neighboring Kenya.
At a speech last week at George Washington University, General Carter Ham — leader of the U.S. African Command — told a forum that he was concerned about cooperation among the extremist Islamic groups that continue to populate the continent. He noted that intelligence has already shown a level of unification between organizations in Mali, such as Ansar Dine, and Boko Haram of Nigeria. He urged the promotion of an African solution, as was the case in Somalia, to quell the emergence of these threats throughout the continent.
Whether the U.S. will take a backseat to any African coalition over the long-term is unclear. What is clear is that an alarming number of Islamic extremist groups are arising all across Africa. This poses a major security threat to both Africa and the West. These groups must not be allowed to carve out a base of operations anywhere on the continent. Any functioning safe haven for a terrorist cell can provide the means to carry out attacks on an international scale, threatening the peace of the global environment. It has become common practice for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups to migrate to regions that provide the most instability. With the problems occurring in Mali, Nigeria, Libya and Somalia, as well as a number of fragile, adolescent or nonexistent democracies present in Africa, the threat of the continent turning into a hotbed for Islamic extremism is very real. While the West focuses their interests on the Middle East, they must also keep a close eye on this alarming rise of extremists in Africa and recognize this as the potential new threat to the global community.