Foreign Policy Blogs

East African alliances necessary for U.S. to combat radicalism

Kenyan soldiers secure area after bombing of Gikomba Market on May 16, 2014

Kenyan soldiers secure area after bombing of Gikomba Market on May 16, 2014

Ever since the events unfolded on Sep. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the U.S. has focused an exorbitant amount of resources to ensure that similar attacks, targeting Americans, are prevented. This means identifying areas that could become breeding grounds for future radicals that are capable of perpetrating attacks against Americans and U.S. allies.

East Africa is morphing into such a breeding ground and its increased division and volatility should ring warning bells to U.S. security agencies. Al-Shabab, a extremist Islamic group with close ties to al Qaeda and designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.,  is deeply entrenched in southern Somalia, first taking the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. However, recently the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a collaborative effort of troops from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi, have struck some devastating blows to the group. While this has forced al-Shabab to abandon some of its strongholds, including the southern port city of Kismayo, the center of al-Shabab’s operations, it has also provided them an opportunity to expand their reach and recruit new soldiers within neighboring countries.

This is particularly true of Kenya, where troops entered the fray in Somalia as a direct response to Al-Shabab’s practice of kidnapping foreigners on Kenyan soil. However, since joining AMISOM and moving against al-Shabab, Kenya has payed a steep price for their efforts. In September of 2013, four gunman entered the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring over 200. Then, in May 2014, two improvised exploding devices (IEDs) detonated in Nairobi, killing 12 and injuring 99 more. Both of these attacks have been blamed on al-Shabab, which continues to extend its reach into Kenya, especially in the coastal city of Mombasa. President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed to fight the evil of terrorism following the most recent attack.

To the south of Kenya, parts of Tanzania have begun to show the presence of radical elements within the fabric of their society, especially on the island of Zanzibar and in the northern city of Arusha.  In Zanzibar, militants have murdered a Catholic priest, detonated bombs outside a Cathedral in the capital of Stone Town and thrown acid on two London teenagers, all in the span of one year. All of these attacks have links to al-Shabab or al-Qaeda. In May 2013, a blast at an Arusha Christian church left two dead and 30 injured. On May 30, police in Arusha arrested 16 people, including respectable business people, that were running underground recruiting operations for al-Shabab. Twenty-five other suspects have been traced and targeted. This rise of extremist elements and al-Shabab links within Tanzania is alarming for a nation that has a track record of peace since its independence in 1961. With contentious elections expected in 2015 as the incumbent party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), who has dominated Tanzanian politics since independence, will be heavily challenged by Chadema, the potential for violence and chaos could rise. This would cause a division in Tanzanian politics, opening up a window for radical groups to gain a larger foothold in the country due to uncertainty and contention.

With 250 million Muslims, sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has generally been dominated by tolerant Islamic sects. However, over the last decade, a sharp increase in radicalism has emerged across the continent, with East Africa at its center. Since these groups tend to pray on the poor and impoverished, the collective sample in the region is practically endless as corruption, food security and poverty are an everyday struggle for much of the population of East Africa. When presented with an opportunity to be a part of something that promises to offer a better life than their current reality, young and impoverished African males can be persuaded to join the ranks. This creates a hotbed of radicalism that is spreading across East Africa and has the potential to establish a breeding ground for violence and international terror operations. This is a security issue the U.S. must not ignore.

Extremist groups such as Al-Shabab are rapidly spreading across East Africa

Extremist groups such as Al-Shabab are rapidly spreading across East Africa

While the United States has contributed over $ 160 million to AMISOM and relief efforts in Somalia, this is not enough. In a region dominated by Chinese economic investment, the U.S. must make a point to shore up its allegiances with Kenya and Tanzania to combat the rising tide of extremism that threatens regional and global security. Kenya specifically would most likely welcome U.S. support, as the government knows that future attacks on Kenyan citizens must be prevented. On a recent trip to SSA, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the need for the U.S. to combat al-Qaeda elements in East Africa, but this too falls short of effective U.S. security policy in the region.

For the U.S. to ensure that radical elements do not gain more traction in East Africa they must partner with the countries that share the same agenda in the region of wiping out radical elements, primarily Tanzania and Kenya. Who can forget the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam? Since that time terror organizations have become more creative and more aggressive in their pursuit of destruction of anything deemed a threat to their long-term survival. It is because of the potential volatility of these two countries, the rising tide of radical Islam internally and regionally and the history of attacks that the U.S. would be wise to shift their focus to Kenya and Tanzania. By building strong alliances with both countries in both economic and security spheres, and offering support in combating terrorism locally, the U.S. can ensure that both nations remain power brokers to battle terrorist elements in the long-term.

But if these countries are ignored and these elements gain more traction, then a more direct strategy may be needed in the future, including U.S. boots on the ground. This is not what America or its citizens want. So for now, shoring up alliances and helping strike at the rise of radical terrorism will help prevent future security issues globally. When dealing with terrorism, it is always better to be proactive and on the offensive then waiting for something to happen and striking back and the U.S. has two very capable partners directly in the heart of the fray.

 

Author

Daniel Donovan
Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative (http://www.acainitiative.org/) . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.

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