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Radical Islam in East Africa

One month after I was confirmed as the United States (US) Ambassador to Tanzania, al-Qaeda bombed our embassy there. One month after the bombing, I assumed my post. Needless to say, for the two and a half years I was in Tanzania I thought a lot about terrorism and the impact of radical Islam in East Africa. In light of my work at Boston University, these are issues I continue to follow.

The initial assumption that Tanzania (and Kenya) were hit because they were “soft targets” did not seem to add up. There were a number of reasons why. At the time of the bombing of our East African embassies, very few American embassies met the security standards later set by the Crowe Commission.[1] There were any number of US missions outside of Africa that could have been attacked that would have given al-Qaeda greater bragging rights and more political fodder than the attacks against Tanzania and Kenya.

Relative to Tanzania, in particular, there were a number of other factors that cut against the “soft target” theory. First of all, from the liberation era to the end of apartheid, Tanzania provided safe haven for almost every liberation movement in Africa, and beyond. Secondly, its founding President, Julius Nyerere, was one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement during the Cold War years. Finally, given the neighborhoods in which the embassies were located and the composition of the workforces at the embassies, there could have been no doubt that the attacks would result in exponentially more Africans than Americans being killed. These factors, along with the ease with which other higher profile embassies could have been attacked, would seem to have exempted Tanzania from this sort of assault. The only issue on which Tanzania could be considered vulnerable, given al-Qaeda’s ideological bent, was its “friendship” with the United States. Ergo, the conclusion that the Africa embassy bombings were not about terror, but about territory. That is, territory in the sense of shrinking America’s field of influence. Africa, in this case, was simply a pawn in a hegemonic game of radical Islamists extending their influence and joining the battle against America in another theater. It was against this backdrop that I started to look more closely at the issue of political Islam and Africa.

One of the first things I came to appreciate was that there is a history here. It is a history reflecting a clear record of hegemonic incursions by Arabs and Islam in Africa. In the earlier years, the contact was less so about conquest. Islam has a 1,000 year history in West Africa. In East Africa it is even longer, reflecting the trade patterns of the dhow countries. Over the centuries, conquest would increasingly come to define Islam’s approach in Africa. Prior to the present jihad against America, there were five other jihads. Two were launched in Africa:

“After the first centuries of the creation of the Islamic states, there were only four widespread uses of jihad as a mobilizing slogan—until the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. The first was by the Kurdish warrior Saladin in response to the conquest and slaughter of the First Crusade in the eleventh century….The second widespread use was in the Senegambia region of West Africa in the late seventeenth century…The third time jihad was widely waged as a ‘just war’ was in the middle of the eighteenth century in the Arabian Peninsula, proclaimed by Muhammad Ibn Wahab….The fourth widespread practice of jihad as an armed struggle was in the Sudan when the anticolonial leader, Muhammad Ahmed (1844-1885), declared himself al-Mahdi (the Messiah) and began to rally support against a Turko-Egyptian administration.”[2]

In both cases, what started out as liberating efforts by Muslims in Africa, degenerated into oppressive regimes over time.  So, that Africa would be in play by radical Muslims is reflective of a larger historical pattern. Islamists have demonstrated an historic comfort in treading through African soil on the way to a “greater cause;” or in violating African sovereignty as the “larger prize.” For both reasons, radical Islam is a threat to African sovereignty and stability on the east coast of the continent, and particularly in the Horn of Africa.

Beyond the threat to sovereignty and stability reflected in the Africa bombings, radical Islam’s threat to East Africa and the Horn is reflected in other ways. The longest civil war on the continent, which has devolved into genocide, has taken place in Sudan. When the settlement to end the war was negotiated in Addis Abba in 1972, all of those involved agreed that the war pitted Arabs of the North against the Africans of the South. It is inarguable that this divide defines the genocide presently taking place in the country.

Somalia is another flashpoint in the Horn. At present, Islamist militias control Mogadishu. Somalia’s interim Prime Minister recently appealed for international assistance to help protect the country from what he purports to be an extension of the al- Qaeda network. While it is unclear the extent to which al-Qaeda might have infiltrated the country, the CIA has been pursuing leads on three Somalis believed to have been involved in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of my former embassy as well as our embassy in Kenya. Further complicating the picture in Somalia, and the Horn of Africa, is the assessment by some analysts that if Somalia falls to radicals, war with Ethiopia is imminent.

Beyond the previous examples, the unsettling influence of radical Islam in East Africa is potentially exacerbated by a couple of other related factors. On the one hand, the region is home to a substantial number of Muslims. On the other hand, is the connection between radicalism and poverty. In a recent speech at Boston University, sponsored by my Center, Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete, a Muslim, suggested that if belief is the potential seed of radicalism, then poverty is the fertilizer. He said,

“…[P]overty seems to push people closer to their religions for protection, services, and material needs when the communities or government units in their areas cannot provide these amenities. This would be okay if it ended there. If this reaction is intensified it may have disintegrative effects in the communities and then at the level of the nation. In other words, poverty tends to disintegrate people from the larger territorial community only to integrate them in their community of believers.”

“This is how poverty indirectly effects nation-building. It effects democratization as well. Democracy, human rights, etc. mean little to a hungry person. Researchers have cited cases of poor people who have sold their voting cards during elections for amounts equivalent to one or two meals. More disturbing, however, is the potential for poor people being recruited by global terrorist movements of a religious or secular nature. What I am saying is that poverty can destroy all that we have achieved at the national or global level, and therefore it should continue to be addressed seriously at both levels.”

After the embassy bombing, I had any number of conversations with African politicians and diplomats in Tanzania about what happened and their sense of what it meant. It became clear to me that a “dirty little secret” that no one wanted to discuss openly, was political Islam’s corrosive effect and adverse impact on development and stability on the continent, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa, in particular. It is inarguable that Islam is a factor in East Africa. The only question is whether there are strategies and tactics that might mitigate (or at least, neutralize) any potential adverse impact. This question is one that requires a response within the continent and outside of it.

The need for a response within the continent is rather obvious. Overcoming the factional divide within Islam is important because the fissures are latent in countries with large Islamic populations. So, dealing with those virulent strains so as to not weaken the body politic is critical. This is the cultural dynamic at stake. The political and economic dynamic, simply put, is about stability and development. A house divided against itself can not stand, it can not attract investment, nor can it develop a consensus relative to the end game of growth and development.

Though not obvious, the response from outside the continent is as necessary for a number of reasons. The emergence of political Islam, as we know it, was a response to Western power.[3] Its evolution is a reaction to Western hegemony. A fundamental lesson of September 11 is that distance is no arbiter relative to political Islam’s impact on the West. Thus, wherever these radical strains exist, the way in which we mollify, modify, or mitigate these elements is fundamental to ensuring Western security.

In a nutshell, there are a number of things that need to be done to mitigate the impact of radical Islam on growth and development needs, stability, and communal needs of the East African Region. Kikwete’s words are once again instructive relative to fashioning a framework for responding to the challenges to the radical elements in the Muslim world. He said:

“…[M]anaging religious conflicts is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face now, nationally and internationally. We have no choice but to work harder to promote inter- and intra-religious tolerance and understanding as we deal with religious-motivated terrorism and political violence.”

Africa is an area of the world where our interests are most vulnerable and where we have one of the best opportunities to defend and propagate the values that are the underpinnings for democracy and the free market.

The threat to our interests in Africa is real. The fingerprints of bin Laden and his cohorts are visible all over the African continent. Almost half of the FBI’s 25 most wanted for attacks against American interests are from African countries. In addition to Egypt and Libya, they come from such places as the Comoros Islands, Zanzibar, and Kenya. The effort—by those like the maitasine—to institute Sharia in the northern provinces of Nigeria is nothing more than an effort to “Talibanize” the country. All of the players that have fomented problems elsewhere had been present in the northern provinces of Nigeria—Sudan, Libya, Iran, and Pakistan. Immediately after September 11, a Mauritanian national was detained in Berlin because of suspected direct ties to those involved in the suicide plot. There are reports from Tanzania that Muslim extremists (the wanaharakati) have dedicated themselves to seizing control of the 487 mosques in the Dar es Salaam region. One source asked to distinguish between the local groups and al-Qaeda, said: “They are the same people everywhere.” People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in South Africa has suspicious connections and has been declared a terrorist group in the aftermath of September 11. Sudan, as has been well documented, is a former retreat and staging ground for bin Laden. Were these direct links not enough to make the point of Africa’s vulnerability to fanatical elements, logic would suggest that there ought to be some concern. In light of the significant amount of attention we are paying to the Middle East and Far East, and the extent to which Europeans are focusing on terrorists in their midst, there are few places that these people might find safe haven. Under the circumstances, Africa would certainly be one of them.

That there is a cost for African governments not taking on fanatical forces that have demonstrated their willingness and intent to destabilize and subvert their governments is indisputable. What we need to appreciate is that quite often these fanatical elements operate from relative positions of strength in the countries in which they are present. They draw their strength from several sources: (i) these elements have constituencies within the countries where they’ve set up shop; (ii) with the exception of Mauritius, the promise of capitalism has not been fulfilled in these countries, thereby giving weight to the extremist’s argument that capitalism is not the answer to Africa’s problems; and, (iii) they have the history of our exploitation and neglect as a propaganda edge. (The West exploited billions of dollars in human and natural resources from Africa during the colonial period; and spent billions during the Cold War to destabilize African countries and thwart development, with the aim of furthering Western hegemony.). Furthermore, we need to appreciate that there are ways for countries—like those in East Africa—to mitigate the impact and influence of these forces within their borders that doesn’t necessarily translate into a secure environment for the United States. September 11 is the proof in the pudding! Our challenge is to make it more beneficial to be our friend than to be indifferent to our interests. To say it differently, our challenge is to raise the level of our engagement in Africa such that the “cost-benefit” makes it worth their while to combat these forces because it is to our mutual benefit. To engage at such a level, simply put, means our seeing African economic security as relevant to our national security.

We cannot break the backs of organizations like al-Qaeda without the help of governments in Africa. While in Tanzania, I saw first-hand how invaluable African intelligence assets were to our investigation of the Africa embassy bombings. Without the help of the Tanzanians and the South Africans, we would not have captured K.K. Mohamed, the only person tried, convicted, and incarcerated for the Dar bombing.

There are a number of things that we need to do, both general and specific.

Pro forma, our government needs to check in with those African countries with which we have good bilateral ties and are our “natural” allies because of their commitment to democracy and free market economies, in order to determine the extent to which they are threatened by the same hostile forces that threaten us. We need to look for ways to help them shore up the public and private sector institutions that will enable them to fight off the assaults to the nascent opportunity societies they are trying to create. In the main, that means doing several things:

  • Aid. One of the most cost effective counters to fanaticism is aid. The leadership of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) projects that the entire agenda to further democracy and free market reform in Africa could be underwritten for $64 billion a year. This is exponentially less than military expenditures to fight fanaticism presently in our budget. One critical area to which increased aid could be directed is education. Not only is an educated citizenry necessary for a country to compete in a global market driven by technology; but “secular” schools provide educational alternatives to the madrassas, the religious schools that are incubators for fanaticism and do little to assist in the skill development necessary to combating poverty;


  • Trade policy. We talk a lot about the necessity for free and open markets; but it is important for us to do more than “talk the talk,” we must “walk the walk.” Western countries provided $245 billion in 2000 for subsidies to their farmers. Not only is this five times the total development aid the West provided to the rest of the world, it clearly puts farmers in developing countries at an extreme competitive disadvantage in the global market place. Our prohibitive industrial tariffs also contribute to the lack of open markets in the West. We need to move forward with free trade agreements with those African countries moving toward democracy and free market reform.

Beyond the general areas of focus I have suggested, a very specific area for American involvement is Darfur. The Bush administration has led the way in calling the catastrophe in Darfur what it is—genocide. It is important that the United States take the next steps.

Given that we are overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can not send troops to the region. But, if we are as serious as we say we are, we need to provide the necessary resources for the African Union peacekeepers to enforce that peace and rein in the reign of terror of the Sudanese government. We can not continue fiddling around over the issue of UN peacekeepers while innocent women, children, and men are literally, and figuratively, allowed to burn.

We were told in the aftermath of September 11 that our strategy to defend and protect America would be far-reaching. But, in reality our efforts have not reached far enough. It is not enough to focus on the Middle East and the Far East. It is not enough to focus on developing the right military strategy, perfecting our intelligence technology, and building up our security infrastructure. We need to develop friends for the long haul so that we are not in the position of befriending leaders and countries in the short term that do not share our values.

In a speech, some time ago, to graduates at West Point Military Academy, President Bush inadvertently affirmed the need for a broader strategy when he stated that there are terrorism cells in close to one third of the countries around the globe. A military strategy on all these fronts is not only impossible, but also inappropriate. In other words, we must rise to the diplomatic challenge because the only real and lasting antidote to fanaticism is the alleviation of the poverty and discontent that incubate it. What better place to make a primary theater for this fight against fanaticism than Africa, where a substantial number of leaders have declared that they are ready, willing, and able to fight for democracy and free market reform, at home and abroad.

[1] After the August 7, 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, retired Admiral William J. Crowe headed the Accountability Review Board charged with investigating the bombings. The Board found the vast majority of our embassies sorely lacking relative to the ability to withstand transnational terrorist threats. The Crowe Commission recommended spending $14 billion over ten years to enhance the safety of all embassies and overseas installations.

[2] Mahmood Mamdani. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. pp. 51-52.

[3]Mahmood Mamdani. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim., p. 14.

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Director, African Presidential Archives and Research Center, Boston University;
Visiting Professor, Department of International Relations, Boston University;
United States Ambassador to the United Republic of Tanzania, 1998-2001