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.