March 6, 2012: American intelligence agencies fear that the three largest Islamic terror organizations in Africa (al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and Boko Haram) are trying to arrange an alliance to pool capabilities and coordinate operations. There's no evidence of that but there's no doubt that the three groups know of each other and some members in each organization have been in touch with the others. Meanwhile, each of these groups is quite different, with unique origins, goals, and situations. A meaningful coalition of these groups is unlikely.
The oldest of these groups began forming a decade ago when several Islamic radical groups in Algeria, defeated in a 1990s rebellion, fled south and reformed. These men became the local al Qaeda franchise, calling themselves Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa), or AQIM. This effort included forming new chapters south of Algeria among tribal rebels and disaffected urbanites in Niger, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania. This was more PR than reality at first. There were already some Islamic terrorists in the region and these pronouncements appeared to be an attempt to unify pro-Islamic terrorist elements via the Internet and the mass media. So far, the many disaffected groups in the region have shown little interest in uniting, especially under the leadership of al Qaeda. Too many different objectives and al Qaeda has a reputation for being a loser. But the terrorists have extracted over $100 million in ransoms from kidnapping Western visitors and millions more by working for drug smugglers. This has enabled the group to expand from less than a hundred paid staff to over 300. The money went to bribing local officials and tribal leaders, as well as buying vehicles, weapons, satellite phones, and much more.
Last year, this also led to the formation of a more radical splinter group: MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). The appearance of MOJWA presented the possibility of a war among Islamic radical groups. MOJWAs, for example, recruited from an even older rebel group, Polisario, and that caused some problems. This may have something to do with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remained powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several more refugee camps. Because Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, Polisario still had enough diehards out there to keep a lot of people in Western Sahara unhappy. Polisario was known to provide recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. For two decades the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polasario and Morocco. In the 1990s Algeria cut off all support for Polasario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences, have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a population of less than 300,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would prefer to fight for independence rather than submit to Morocco. Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders (the area was administered, until 1976, as a Spanish colony). If the fighting breaks out again, possibly inspired by Islamic radicals, it could go on for years, just as it does in many other parts of Africa and the immediate neighborhood. Getting involved in cocaine smuggling provides money, some of which goes towards buying guns and vehicles, making the Polisario fighters more formidable. Mali and Mauritanian police are increasingly arresting members of the Polisario Front who are involved with a major drug smuggling operation (moving cocaine from Guinea-Bissau, where it is flown in from South America to the Mediterranean coast). Polisario Front members have long been involved in smuggling and other illegal activities but their involvement in moving cocaine is relatively recent. This implies cooperation with al Qaeda, which apparently has worked out deals with Polisario. AQIM is a major player in the drug smuggling network that brings South American cocaine from Guinea-Bissau, where it is flown in from South America to the Mediterranean coast. But all that money, and radical groups with different agendas, could lead to terrorists terrorizing other terrorists.
In Somalia, al Shabaab recently announced a merger with al Qaeda. This was more PR than fact because al Shabaab, like all previous Islamic radical groups in Somalia is suffering defeat and splintering. Six years ago al Shabaab itself was the result of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) moderates (ARS or Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia) splitting away and joining an attempt to form a new government in Somalia. The radicals in the ICU left and formed al Shabaab. Other remnants of the ICU fled to Eritrea or formed smaller radical groups (which were later destroyed by, or absorbed into, al Shabaab). The ICU itself goes back to the 1990s, when religious leaders formed militias in an attempt to reduce the banditry and feuding rampant in the country. The ARS wanted to keep Islamic terrorists out of the country in return for more foreign aid. Al Shabaab offered to shelter al Qaeda and help establish a worldwide Islamic government. Somalia became a base for many al Qaeda members chased out of Pakistan and Arabia, although many of those men have since fled to Yemen to escape the many peacekeepers and local militias pressing in on al Shabaab.
Boko Haram formed in the Moslem north of Nigeria about five years ago. Modeling themselves on the Taliban, Boko Haram became larger, and more violent, because of popular anger at rampant corruption and mismanagement in Nigeria. Some Boko Haram leaders were spotted in Somalia several years ago, and others are known to have been in contact with al Qaeda members from West Africa. But for the moment Boko Haram is intent on turning Nigeria (which is half Christian) into an Islamic dictatorship.
The three Islamic terror organizations described here cover a vast area (from the Atlantic Ocean coast of West Africa to the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa) as well as numerous very different cultures. While involved are Islamic radicals, only AQIM is Arab (or at least most of them) while Boko Haram and Somalis are black Africans (generally despised by Arabs). Moreover, the Somalis consider themselves Arabs, which creates even more tension.