Powell Network Blog

May 3, 2011

What will Osama bin Laden’s death mean for Africa?

Filed under: Uncategorized — medjallow @ 4:33 pm

Two huge car bomb attacks on August 7, 1998, aimed at the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. REUTERS/Gerardo Magallon/Files

What will Osama bin Laden’s death mean for Africa? I posed this question to some colleagues as we watched president Obama announce the death of the Al-Qaeda leader on Sunday night.  Since declaring his war on the United States, Osama bin Laden and his terror network have killed hundreds of Africans, and if we count the deaths associated with  attacks  by other Islamic fundamentalist groups sharing his ideology, the numbers will easily run in to the tens thousands. The simple answer to my question is that whether it was the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, the menace of Al-Qaeda  in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic radicalization in Northern Nigeria,  or his earlier roles in Sudan and Somalia, Osama bin Laden had an unmistakable impact on the African continent.

It was in Africa, specifically Sudan, that the terror mastermind established his first base of operations when he left Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Until he was forced from Khartoum in 1996, Osama bin Laden, or those associated with him were implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, the most notable being the assassination attempt on former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and the 1993 world trade center bombings in New York. The Al-Qaeda leader also established terror-training camps in Sudan, and fostered contacts that would later be instrumental to the U.S. embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

In other parts of the continent, the Al-Qaeda leader’s handiwork was evident. He is believed at some point to have financed Islamic terrorist groups in Algeria, specifically the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) , and provided material support and training in their fight against the government. This group was noted for its brutality against both civilians and the military, giving credence to Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Splinters from the GIA and other groups would subsequently mutate in to what is known today as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). None other than Ayman al- Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s  second in command, officially merged AQIM into the terror network in 2006.They have since been involved in smuggling and kidnappings in Algeria, Mali, , and Niger, and were involved in the 2009 killing of an American aid worker in  Mauritania.

Al-Qaeda was also suspected of engaging in conflict diamond smuggling out of Liberia and Sierra Leone during the civil wars in those countries. Western intelligence agencies reported that several members of Al-Qaeda’s inner circle bought diamonds s in Liberia and from Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone to finance their operations. Douglas Farah, an investigative reporter with the Washington Post first brought to light the extent in which Al-Qaeda  infiltrated the blood diamond trade by shifting money into valuable commodities that would not only hold their value over time, but proved harder to trace. Al Qaeda managed its blood diamond operations through Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, one of its senior financial operatives, and Ibrahim Bah, a Senegalese national who trained with terrorist groups in Libya and Afghanistan. Blood diamonds later wrecked havoc on Sierra Leone by fueling the conflict which killed and maimed tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

While there has been no concrete evidence, Al-Qaeda is also believed to have infiltrated northern Nigeria, taking advantage of the large Muslim population there, as well as their disaffection with the Nigerian central government. While we are all familiar with the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Al Mutallab, and his attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Eve in 2008, Al-Qaeda-influenced ideology has been growing in Nigeria for over a decade. A former Nigerian Police Chief, Mike Okiro, was among the first to publicly raise alarms over Al-Qaeda’s activities in the country when he claimed that Al-Qaeda planned to launch an attack using time bombs on Nigerian soil. While the Nigerian state security services (SSS) over the past few years made dozens of arrests of suspected Al-Qaeda linked militants in the country though no one was convicted. However, the threat of Al-Qaeda is more evident in its influence towards groups that share a similar ideology. Boko Haram, the most notorious of these groups shares a similar ideology with Al-Qaeda, and has killed hundreds of people in the north over the past few years. Therefore, even if Bin Laden was not directly involved in Nigeria, his influence, and his ideology gained traction in some quarters.

In Somalia, the Islamist group, Al-Shabab publicly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. In a 48-minute video documentary released by the group on the internet, and distributed in market places around Mogadishu, the group called for a united front with Al-Qaeda while paying homage to what it called “the mujahedeen (holy warriors) in Palestine and the Arabian peninsula, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Like Nigeria, the strongest links between Bin Laden’s al- Qaeda and Al Shabab are ideological, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report on the rise and influence of the group in Somalia.

Therefore,  the death of Bin Laden will undoubtedly rob militant groups in Africa of an ideological, spiritual, and rallying figure. Since declaring war on the United States, Bin Laden and his terror network has killed hundreds of Africans, while his Islamic fundamentalist ideology led many to take up arms in the name of a religion that preaches peace. His death will directly represent justice for the hundreds of people killed in Kenya and Tanzania, and indirectly for the tens of thousands that were killed in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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  1. Great piece. I really hadn’t even considered that topic.
    Funny enough, while I was reading an article on AllAfrica.com I saw this to article and video http://allafrica.com/view/group/main/main/id/00013185.html which relates to what you are talking about.

    Comment by Ayo — May 3, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

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    Pingback by John Campbell: Africa in Transition » Blog Archive » Osama Bin Laden and Africa — May 5, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  3. I respectfully disagree. The roots of Islamic fundamentalism in Sub-Saharan Africa are much deeper than Bin Laden. In fact, they precede Bin Laden by more than a hundred years so they will outlast Bin Laden.

    Anyone who knows the history of the Sahel region of Africa knows that there is a rich history of Jihad in that part of the World. Usman Dan Fodio and the Mahdi in Sudan were two of the most prominent jihadis. There still remains a strong tradition of Jihad.

    A major driving force of violence in the Sahel region of Africa is the competition between a rapidly growing Christianity moving Northwards and fundamentalist Islam. The secession of Southern Sudan is a logical consequence of this phenomena.

    The author also mentioned Boko Haram. Boko Haram may have been influenced by Al Qaeda, but I see them as spiritual successors of a certain Mohammed Marwa Maitasine who died in 1980. There were Maitasine riots as far back as 1982/83 in the same area (Maiduguri) that Boko Haram is active today. It is also instructive to note that Mohammed Marwa Maitasine was killed in the Kano insurrection in 1980.

    In summary, Osama Bin Laden was never really a big deal. The real problem are millions of poor, uneducated, illiterate and gullible young men traditionally prone to violence.

    Comment by King Jaja — May 5, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

  4. Very thorough article – I recently read an article about the strength of Al Qaeda in Foreign Affairs by an Australian in counter terrorism agent who discussed the connections between Al Qaeda and the groups you mentioned as well as their increased power. Thank you for addressing what has certainly been a hard time for the African continent due to the impact of terrorism there.

    Comment by Linda Morse — May 5, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  5. Let me repeat that Bin Laden’s death does not mean a whole lot.

    Most of the terrorism by African Islamic terrorists is against locals not the West. Bin Laden’s death will not change that.

    As I said earlier, the roots of Islamic grievance against the West are deeper than Bin Laden’s exhortations, they also predate Bin Laden. The legacy of Bin Laden is that he created a network that provided terrorists all over Africa with (a)an ideology and (b)the operational capacity to do “their jobs better”.

    That network and the ideology it espouses is still very much alive and will grow stronger if not checked.

    I am from Nigeria and I have spent some time in Kano (Northern Nigeria). There are 1.4 million “Almajiris” – street children who are traditionally sent off by their parents to Koranic schools (what you would term Madrassas in Pakistan). They usually spend most of the day either begging or learning the Koran by route. These young men are cannon fodder for the next fundamentalist superstar.

    There are too many idle young muslim men in Sub-Saharan Africa for us to be smug about Bin Laden’s death. For example, in Nigeria there is widespread anger about corruption in government. The anger is also driven by a perception that corrupt Nigerian politicians are lackeys of the West. Politicians tried implementing Sharia law as a escape valve for these tensions – but that seemed not to work.

    The sad thing is that for these young men with little hope of employment or even a better future, Osama Bin Laden’s narrative of Jihad seems to be the most compelling narrative and in many cases the only narrative .

    Africa needs economic growth and jobs more than it needs expensive “counter-terrorism” programs.

    Comment by King Jaja — May 5, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

  6. nice piece, all said and done, am usually bothered by some questions. 1. why was there no suicide bombing in cairo, and other arab hot spots during the uprising, 2. why is it that bin laden love stayin in non arab countries.3. why is it that discussions in nigeria concerning islam has alwys overlook the fact that there ar about 72 denominations in islam.

    Comment by folohunso — May 6, 2011 @ 7:41 am

  7. [...] to become much more complicated for U.S. policymakers trying to combat terrorism. Mohamed Jallow looks at what bin Laden’s death means for Africa. Bobby Chesney examines the precedent that killing bin [...]

    Pingback by James M. Lindsay: The Water's Edge » Blog Archive » Friday File: GOP Presidential Candidates Bash Obama — May 6, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  8. [...] Mohamed Jallow asks What will Osama Bin Laden’s death mean for Africa? [...]

    Pingback by Sunday Reading « zunguzungu — May 8, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  9. [...] this debate, we’d like to draw your attention to an interesting piece on the impact of Osama’s death in Africa. In the US, in the wake of Osama’s death, lawmakers [...]

    Pingback by International Health Policies » IHPNews#116 — May 9, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  10. [...] people have commented at the implications this may have for Africa – see this ISS brief, or this blog post by CFR program associate Mohamed Jallow (via John Campbell’s blog). And just today, Reuters [...]

    Pingback by What Foucault has to say about Bin Laden’s death « On Africa — May 9, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

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