Africa is seen as ripe for terror networks

Poverty, instability lend message appeal

War On Terrorism : The World

November 06, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Three years after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, officials are focusing renewed attention on Africa as a region where Osama bin Laden's terror network and anti-American ideology can take root and spread.

With its many unstable or corrupt governments, proliferation of ethnic conflicts, large Muslim population, porous borders, uncontrolled financial systems and widespread poverty and deprivation, the continent offers a potentially receptive audience for bin Laden's brand of extremism and a relatively easy environment in which al-Qaida cells can operate, analysts say.

Susan Rice, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, calls the region a "soft underbelly," ripe for international terrorism.

During the Cold War, the United States formed close relationships with a number African regimes to keep them out of the Soviet orbit, but American attention to the area dropped off sharply after the Cold War's end.

The threat of terrorism raises the prospect of another competition for Africa. But it's not yet clear how many African states will prove receptive to terrorist organizations.

The Arab states of northern Africa - from Egypt in the east to Morocco in the west - have long contained pockets of Islamic extremism. Officials and analysts say the nations of the vast sub-Saharan region now also might be vulnerable to bin Laden's appeal.

Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are wanted by U.S. law enforcement authorities for plotting the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed 212 people in Nairobi, Kenya, and nine in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Rice said the bombings pointed to "very, very active al-Qaida cells in East, West and Southern Africa."

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the United States has reached out to African states with which it has had strained or even bitter relations, including Sudan and Kenya, for information on al-Qaida operatives and groups that might have a connection to bin Laden.

Officials are trying to learn the extent of al-Qaida's penetration on the continent and follow the bin Laden money trail.

"We are widening the circle and starting to get a clearer picture of who knows who and where they link back," a senior U.S. official said.

Over the past week, the president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the foreign minister of Kenya, Christopher Obure, were in Washington for meetings that dealt in part with terrorism.

A particular worry is Somalia, still lacking a central government and riven with lawlessness eight years after American forces decamped in the wake of a firefight that killed 18 U.S. soldiers.

News agencies reported a large anti-American, pro-bin Laden demonstration in the capital, Mogadishu, in late September, along with rising fears locally that Somalia could be the next U.S. military target after Afghanistan.

Defense officials say the war on terrorism will likely expand and don't rule out Somalia as a target.

There, al-Qaida's connection is deeply rooted, with ties to the militant Islamist organization, al Itihaad al Islamiya, or Islamic Union, which also operates in Kenya and is accused by the Ethiopian government of staging guerrilla raids into Ethiopia.

On Sept. 24, the United States fingered al Itihaad as one of 27 groups whose worldwide financial transactions it sought to freeze and pressured foreign banks to follow suit.

But the potential for Islamic extremism to grow extends throughout the Horn of Africa and beyond. East African states that are vulnerable include Sudan, where bin Laden lived between stays in Afghanistan; Ethiopia, whose population is evenly split between Muslims and Christians; Eritrea and Uganda.

"The Horn of Africa has two elements - a large Muslim population, which in some cases is mobilized, even radicalized, combined with the fact that it is home to a number of failed states. These are two key ingredients that radical Islamists are looking for in seeking a base," said Ken Menkhaus, a specialist on the region at Davidson College in North Carolina and an adviser to the State Department.

The U.S. government lists Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi as part of the Greater Horn of Africa.

U.S. officials worry about these countries as hospitable settings for extremism, but the problem assumes a strategic dimension across the continent in Nigeria, on the Atlantic Coast.

Africa's most populous nation with more than 100 million inhabitants, now struggling to cement democratic institutions after years of corrupt dictatorial rule, Nigeria is a major oil exporter where such key U.S. companies as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Texaco have billions of dollars at stake.

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