Terrorism in Africa did not begin on September 11, 2001. It began in Sudan in the 1990s, where Osama bin Laden operated and where an attack against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was organized.
Three years later, in 1998, Al Qaeda cells blew up the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
In retaliation for these attacks, the United States (US), in addition to an attack in Afghanistan, bombed a chemical plant in Sudan, claiming that it was producing elements for chemical weapons for Al Qaeda.
From the time of these attacks, US policy in Somalia became preoccupied with searching for, capturing, and killing the perpetrators of those attacks who were believed to have taken refuge there.
The seeds of later US policy and all that has followed in Somalia were planted then.
Yet the vast majority of conflict and terrorist activity in Africa is not linked to international sponsorship or any vast conspiracy against the West.
The Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, the various militia in eastern Congo, the militants in the Niger Delta, the extremist sects in Kenya, Nigeria, and elsewhere are the principal security threats to the African population.
Africa is no more immune to the threats from terrorism than any other continent.
Its combination of relatively weak states, ethnic and religious diversity and sometimes discrimination, its poverty, and in many places its ungoverned space all lend Africa a significant susceptibility to the growth of radical and sometimes internationally connected movements that employ terrorism.
Some of these are aimed specifically at African governments, for example, the radical Islamic Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Mombasa Republican Council in Kenya.
These groups pose serious security challenges to key countries and potentially even a threat to the continent’s new success.
The biggest story in Africa south of the Sahara over the past few years hasn’t been plague, famine or war but the emergence of the world’s poorest continent as one of its fastest growing – thanks to factors that include fresh investment, economic reform, the spread of new technology, higher prices for commodity exports and generally greater political stability.
Nigeria and Kenya, the most important economies in West and East Africa respectively, are pillars of the change in Africa as well as having the largest and most easily accessible markets for foreigners.
Both now face growing battles with Islamist groups; Kenya throwing troops into neighboring Somalia in pursuit of Al-Shabaab fighters, Nigeria struggling with bombings and shootings by its home-grown Boko Haram sect.
Kenyan forces pushed into southern Somalia to drive back Al Qaeda-linked militants, blamed by Nairobi for a string of border incursions and kidnappings, including the abductions of foreign tourists from coastal resorts which have damaged one of Kenya’s most important industries.
Al-Shabaab has in return called for all-out war on Kenya and ‘huge blasts’ by its unknown number of supporters there. Grenade attacks, that have seen many killed and several wounded, jangled nerves in Nairobi, where more than 200 people died in an Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in 1998.
Killings by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect – whose name means Western education is sinful – had been largely confined to a remote corner of the semi-desert northeast and ignored by much of the country until bombings struck the capital Abuja, killing hundreds. A suicide car bombing on the United Nations headquarters in August killed 24 people.
Boko Haram is now by far the biggest security headache for President Goodluck Jonathan in Africa’s most populous nation – which, if estimates of population and the Muslim-Christian balance are to be believed, might have more Muslims than any country in the Middle East.
While Islam in Africa has traditionally co-existed comfortably with other religions, more heavily populated Muslim regions are often relatively marginalized economically and politically. This leaves plenty of ground for radicalism to sprout.
Getting sucked into a foreign war against a Somali enemy, which drove out Ethiopia’s far more experienced army in 2009, is just what Kenya doesn’t need at a time when it is already in the doldrums due to drought, soaring inflation and a plummeting currency.
It is not only the cost in lives and money that count.
Counterinsurgency wars – even in regions distant from the main centers of business – can harm foreign investor sentiment starting to warm to Africa. They drain resources that might better be used improving infrastructure or education and lead to a greater role for security establishments at the heart of power and policy making, rarely a recipe for success in post-independence Africa.
Beyond the biggest countries, poorer neighbors may be at greater risk. A flood of weapons across the Sahara desert from Libya’s civil war – as well as hundreds of thousands of now unemployed former migrant workers – could further destabilize West Africa’s Sahel countries, already prey to kidnappings and attacks by Al Qaeda’s regional offshoot.
The challenge in combating terrorism in Africa is balancing a legitimate program of security improvements with a continuing and sustained attack on poor governance, poverty, and deprivation of human rights.
Getting the balance right is particularly acute because the democracies in Africa are fragile, and any crackdown on terrorist activity has to be carried out with great sensitivity to the historic grievances of marginalized groups, the incipient struggle for human rights, and the relatively weak civilian oversight of the military and security institutions.
Overall, optimism remains strong. Businesses compare Africa with China and India in past decades and eye a market of a billion consumers with money to spend on more than just basic survival.
Whether or not the threat of Islamist militant groups can be contained to the margins, the extra strain could certainly be felt in a continent where many have only recently seen good reason to believe in a better future.