Osama bin Laden’s Islamic terrorist group is grabbing new footholds across the African continent. The expanding breadth of US counter-terror activity is a gauge of al Qaeda’s success. Whereas last year, US Army Special Forces and Marines ran Operation Flintlock counter-terror training exercises in Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, this year more than a thousand US personnel are running a month-long summer exercise to train company-sized units of seven foreign armies.
Later this year, US EUCOM, from Stuttgart, Germany, will launch a $100-million a year program called the Trans Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative for nine countries in West Africa.
East Africa, especially Kenya and Somalia have long been al Qaeda stamping grounds, but new attention is focusing on Nigeria and its porous borders with Islamic Niger and Chad.
Kenya suffers most from the spillover from lawless Somalia, long a hotbed and sanctuary of al Qaeda operations. Security officials in Nairobi say insecurity in Somalia is the greatest threat to Kenyan and foreign interests, a focal terror point which lends its neighbor Kenya a vital interest in dismantling international terror groups.
Kenya went on high alert for two groups linked to al Qaeda which are believed to have infiltrated the country after an attempt on the life of Somali prime minister Mohamed Ali Gedi last month.
The groups are Al-Itthad-al-Islamiya and Al-Takfir W’al Hijra, both believed under the command of al Qaeda’s East African agent, the slippery Mohammed Fazul, veteran mastermind of the most egregious outrages in Africa to date.
Fazul: Al Qaeda’s indefatigable East African agent
He is hunted as suspected mastermind and financier of the 1998 Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam US embassy bombing attacks that left nearly 200 people dead.
debkafile identified Fazul as the leader of the November 2002 Mombasa Paradise bombing attack, in which 15 people died. Our sources traced his escape from Kenya by speedboat to a haven in Somalia.
Last month, the Somali prime minister, elected seven months ago, was preparing to address a rally at the Mogadishu stadium when a grenade exploded. He escaped harm and returned to Kenya, where he had been living since the transitional Somali government was elected last October with Somali president-elect Abdullahi Yusuf.
Realizing they may not be safe in Kenya either, Gedi returned to Somalia on June 18 and set up an interim base in the southern city of Jowhar until security is restored to the capital, Mogadishu.
The Kenyans cannot shake off the Somali-al Qaeda shadow.
Their intelligence believes one of Fazul’s contacts in Kenya, known as Abdul Karim, may be his conduit for funneling money to Ras Kiamboni, a Somali Indian Ocean island which is believed to be the hideout of Al-Ittihad operatives as well as the site of a secret training facility for terrorist cells.
The Al-Ittihad established itself on Ras Kiamboni in the 1980s. When the Said Barre regime collapsed in 1991, the group determined to set up an Islamic state in Somalia. In 1996, Addis Ababa accused the Somali terrorists of attempting to murder an Ethiopian cabinet minister and attacks on hotels in the Ethiopian capital. Last week, Ethiopian primeminister Meles Zenawi alleged the group had been re-activated against targets in his country.
Nigeria is targeted
Nigeria with its long history of bloody religious conflict, size and oil riches is joining the list of African countries exploited by al Qaeda to spread its jihad against the West. Its population of 140 million is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.
This most populous of African countries drew serious security attention after the al Jazeera Arabic television station broadcast a videotape of Osama bin Laden pointing to Nigeria as worthy of jihad because of its close ties with Washington.
This month, the US consulate and embassy in Lagos closed down over a security alert, followed the next day by the British High Commission and the missions of Germany, Italy, Finland, Russia, Sweden, India and Lebanon. For the first time, Nigerian police and armed security men screened vehicles on embassy row and patrolled the area.
The cause was not officially defined but one official said that a terrorist threat had been made. He did not specify if it had come from al Qaeda or Nigerian collaborators.
A small local Islamic sect called “the Talibans” is known to have emerged in northeast Nigeria. It has staged several attacks on government offices and police stations and calls for an Islamic state to be established in Nairobi. A point of entry for foreign fundamentalist influence would be Nigeria’s northern borders with Niger and Chad.
An investigation has uncovered secret al Qaeda training bases in Nigeria. The CIA has found that the rise of religious extremism is threatening to turn Nigeria into a breeding ground for international terrorists. But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, al Qaeda’s thrust into Nigeria is further developed than it would appear.