September 19, 2011: While most al Qaeda activity is in Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen, there is also a growing al Qaeda presence in Africa (Somalia, Nigeria and along the West Coast). But most of it is al Qaeda in name only, and Islamic terrorism activity is quite low compared to Pakistan.
Somalia has become a refuge, over since 2007, for desperate al Qaeda members fleeing Iraq, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Most appear to have regretted it. Somalia is poor, chaotic and dangerous, even for hardened al Qaeda terrorists. Moreover, the al Qaeda effort to recruit Somalis for the world-wide war on the West ran into armed opposition from their host, Islamic terror group al Shabaab. Some al Shabaab members saw the foreign al Qaeda fighters as there to help conquer all of Somalia and put it under Islamic rule. But others saw al Qaeda as trying to recruit al Shabaab for the al Qaeda goal of global conquest. This was seen as a distraction that al Shabaab could not afford. As a result of this, there has been some al Shabaab violence against al Qaeda members. But al Qaeda maintain sufficient al Shabaab allies to survive, mainly by providing training in how to carry out suicide and roadside bomb attacks. There have not been a lot of these attacks, partly because few Somalis will volunteer to be suicide bombers.
Al Qaeda provided training to any Islamic radicals who could make it to Somalia alive. That wasn’t easy, and most of those who made it were persuaded, or coerced, to stick around and fight (and often die) for al Shabaab. The al Qaeda training attracted some Nigerians, who took the training home with them, to a local group (Boko Haram) that was inspired more by the Taliban. Boko Haram has been festering, and growing, in northern (mostly Moslem) Nigeria for nearly a decade. Since the al Qaeda bomb makers and attack planners got back from Somalia in the last year or so, there have been many more bombings. Boko Haram is more a reaction to local corruption and misrule, than an attempt to take on the rest of the world. However, al Qaeda would find support from Boko Haram, which has cells in southern Nigeria as well. Unlike in Somalia, al Qaeda would not be able to exert as much influence on Boko Haram.
Remnants of the Algerian Islamic terror groups, which were defeated in a bloody 1990s war with the government, are now most active further south. These Islamic terrorists have been paying more attention to making money than making bombs of late. Some 80 percent of the cocaine reaching Europe is coming in via Africa. Al Qaeda has become the security arm of drug smugglers, who bring cocaine (flown or shipped in from South America) and hashish (produced in West Africa) north, where most of it is smuggled into Europe. At the same time, the Arab states of North Africa have become more hostile to Islamic terrorism, but still receptive to new ways of making a lot of money. Thus a growing number of al Qaeda activists are being corrupted by all this new wealth, and corrupting local officials as well. It’s an old problem with zealots, and it means the activists keep the same brand name, but slip into a new business model. But most key members of this group are still, at the very least, nostalgic for the good old days of Islamic radical mayhem. So al Qaeda can expect at least a warm welcome, and possibly some actual support, from this group.
What al Qaeda cannot do is somehow unite these three groups into a new international terrorist threat. The Somali and Nigerian groups are very much into obtaining local power, and both are facing formidable opposition. The old Algerian Islamic radicals are more into cash than conquest these days.