From the Sept. 11 attacks up until the death last year of Osama bin Laden, the subject of terrorism, and particularly radical Islamic movements, took center stage as the primary issue on the foreign policy agenda. Now, however, there appears to have been a shift in focus as other issues take the fore, such as Iran and China, while the once-dominant issue of terrorism has subsided into the background.
Further proof of this is found in the government’s response to the recent embassy attack in Benghazi, whereby public rioting was assumed to be the cause before evidence surfaced that it was in fact a terrorist attack.
It would, of course, be naive to assume that the global threat of terrorism has altogether subsided or that the death of bin Laden has signalled an end to radical Islamic movements. More accurately, the threat to the United States has been substantially quelled by the targeting of al-Qaida over the last decade. Threats to the U.S. still very much exist: the embassy attack being a sober reminder of this, as well as the foiled bombing of the Federal Reserve building in New York last month. However, it seems the general objectives of today’s militant groups are targeted more at local sources of authority than across the Atlantic.
Much of today’s radical Islamic militancy has found a home in North Africa. This can be explained by a number of reasons, but the two most substantial being the relative success of the war against terrorism in the Middle East, and the Arab uprisings taking place over the last couple of years. However, to understand the roots of this phenomenon, one has to go back to the war in Afghanistan following the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979.
When Afghanistan came under Soviet attack, the war was seen by many in the Islamic world as an affront to their religious and cultural base. Consequently, thousands of fighters from across the Muslim world came to the aid of Afghan fighters, in what was the first real battle of Islam’s modern-day jihad. Upon the conclusion of the war, these fighters, known by this point as Mujahedeen, returned to their homelands with a new inspiration to defend Islam from poisonous outside interference. Bin Laden, himself a veteran of the Afghan war, became one of the prominent leaders of the widescale new movement.
Since North Africa is a predominantly Muslim and Arab region, militant groups soon began to sprout up in a number of countries. Al-Qaida itself has had a very strong presence in the area, while bin Laden spent a number of years in Sudan in the 1990s, protected by its government, while hiding from his numerous enemies. When bin Laden was killed, and al-Qaida’s operations largely suppressed, North Africa was a natural choice for many of its members to find safety and rebuild the group.
The sustained rise in activities of radical Islamic groups has been compounded by the recent Arab uprisings. With the removal of a number of authoritarian leaders, such groups have found opportunities to fill the subsequent power vacuum. Egypt now has a president hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood, while Islamic groups continue to fight for position in Libya, Syria and Yemen, among others. Additional groups have become very active in other parts of North Africa, particularly Nigeria and Mali, in which both political systems are being threatened by sustained violence. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab has been driven from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, but is thought to be an ever-present threat, coordinating activities, weapons and funds with groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaida’s North African branch.
Counterterrorism activities in the region may have been drawn down in recent years, but measures are still being taken to challenge the networks of activity these groups are establishing in North Africa. The United States is discussing options for a resolution to the civil conflict in Mali, while Israel this week admitted to operating in Sudan and was accused by the African country of bombing an arms factory outside its capital, Khartoum.
Terrorism and radical Islamic militancy may not be a prominent issue in today’s political conversations in the U.S., and the threat to America may be more subdued than in years past, but the phenomenon nonetheless remains very present, and is increasing in stature, in North Africa. It seems it will only be a matter of time before this is thrust back into the political spotlight. These activities will inevitably have a global impact and it would be dangerous to assume that the problem will be contained to just that region.