After atrocities in Kenya, has Africa become the most important front in the war on terrorism?

Barak Seener and Alex Vines


The assassination of Osama Bin Laden was hailed by US intelligence chiefs as a crushing victory against al-Qaeda, with the prediction that its affiliates would soon eclipse its core capabilities. But the attacks in Nairobi show us that militant Islamism is very much alive, and that Africa may be the new centre ground. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated remarkable flexibility in its capacity as a decentralized organization, establishing relationships with organisations in areas where there was a vacuum of governance, such as sub-Saharan Africa, and offering them financial and logistical support. From these areas they can proceed to target Western interests. As such, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen offered weapons and training to al-Shabaab in Somalia. The attack against the Westgate Mall – popular among expatriates – was consistent with al-Qaeda’s attempts to target Westerners. Barak Seener is an associate Middle East fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and chief executive of Strategic Intelligentia.


The siege by armed gunmen at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi should not come as a surprise. Unfortunately, Kenya has long been a terrorist target, but that threat has changed over time. Kenya’s decision in October 2011 to become directly involved in military operations in Somalia against al- Shabaab increased the chances of a reprisal act of terror by its supporters and heightened the threat. This differs from the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 by al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is driven by a Somalian agenda and, although affiliated to al-Qaeda and attracting international jihadists, its vision is limited. Talk of an emerging ark of terror from Somalia across the Sahel to the Atlantic is exaggerated. The root causes and solutions lie in the Somalia, northern Nigeria and Mali. The solution is to address poverty, youth underemployment and radicalisation, with specific interventions designed for each different society. Alex Vines is director of area studies and international law at Chatham House.