An informal competition took place during the Bush years for the title of "second front" in the war on terror. Administration officials often referred to Southeast Asia as the next major franchise location for al-Qaeda, with the Philippines in particular slated to become the "next Afghanistan." Then there was the border between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, which State Department officials termed a "focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America." Worried about the spread of al-Qaeda operatives in North Africa, the Bush administration also developed the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which became the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative before finally being folded into the Pentagon's new Africa Command.
In none of these regions did a new Afghanistan in fact develop. Still, U.S. counter-terrorism operatives continue to ply their trade all over the map. The "second front" thesis, meanwhile, is alive and well and living in Africa and its immediate environs.
Last summer, long before the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the CIA was already billing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the most urgent threat to the United States. Beginning in May, the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) began using drones to target AQAP leaders in Yemen, which lies across the Red Sea from the horn of Africa. The campaign escalated over the summer, culminating in the killing of AQAP leader, U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, at the end of last month. The administration has also emphasized the link between al-Qaeda and the al-Shabaab militias in Somalia – through AQAP as a go-between – and is now supporting Kenya's recent incursion into that country. Then there's the recent dispatch of U.S. Special Forces to central Africa, with Pentagon chief Leon Panetta worrying about "elements there that either have ties to al-Qaeda or that represent the forces of terrorism on their own." And plenty of pundits and politicians are urging the administration to address the prospect of radical Islamists taking over the North African countries liberated during the Arab Spring.
It might seem a strange time for all this terrorism talk to resurface. Osama bin Laden is dead, and his cohort in Pakistan is beleaguered. There are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a spent force, and the Obama administration announced last week that all U.S. troops will be out of the country by year's end (though as many as a thousand may in fact remain behind).
After the first Gulf War, Colin Powell complained that the United States was running out of enemies to fight. Now, the United States is discovering that it might be running out of terrorists to fight as well.
Ah, but "terrorism" is a flexible term, and Africa is a big place. The "second front" thesis continues to thrive. But it’s just as full of hot air as before.
Let's start with AQAP, the CIA's greatest terrorist concern. It's not particularly large, probably no more than 300 core operatives, according to Fawaz Gerges in his new book The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, and it lacks any mass following. "Although AQAP is extremely dangerous – as shown by its offensive against the Yemeni authorities, the failed underwear bomber, and the foiled mail bombings – it poses a relatively slight challenge to Yemen and a limited security menace to the West," Gerges writes. "It does not possess the material, human means or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure."
The situation in Yemen is complicated by a major grassroots effort to unseat the country’s long-serving authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Obama administration has called on Saleh to step down. But it has also relied on Saleh's support to conduct aerial attacks. Indeed, as Ibrahim Sharqieh of Brookings Doha Centre has pointed out, the United States is worried that Yemen's Islamist-flavored opposition, should it take power, would not continue to fight AQAP. Just as in Pakistan, however, the drone strikes in Yemen are focusing anger at the United States and helping to create future terrorists. The Obama administration would be well-advised to stop the drone attacks, decisively end its relationship with Saleh, and welcome a new political order in Yemen. Given the deep-seated rift between Islamist politicians and al-Qaeda terrorists, this would also make for the most effective counter-terrorism policy.
Obama is making similar mistakes just across the Red Sea in Africa proper. Last week, Kenya sent troops and tanks 100 miles into Somalia to fight the militant organization al-Shabaab, which it accused of kidnapping several foreigners in Kenya. Although the U.S. government has denied conducting air strikes in support of the operation, U.S. ambassador to Kenya Scott Gratian pledged technical assistance to the Kenyans. What seemed initially to be an invitation to the Kenyans to intervene has turned into something altogether different. Although equally disposed against al-Shabaab, the Somali government has rejected the invasion, thinking that Kenya was only intending to provide training and logistical support. The last time a country invaded Somalia – Ethiopia in 2006, with U.S. support – the disastrous action gave birth to the very al-Shabaab that Kenya is now fighting.
Al-Shabaab, Arabic for "the youth," is not exactly a group of choir boys. In 2010, the group announced its formal affiliation to al-Qaeda. Despite this announcement, the group's ties to al-Qaeda are likely to be weak, and its popularity recently plummeted because of its culpability for the famine that has struck Somalia. But there's nothing like a foreign invasion to bring a country together across ideological lines, as happened after the Ethiopian invasion five years ago. Al-Shabaab might just have been given a new lease on life by Kenya's actions.
In nearby Uganda, meanwhile, the dispatch of U.S. Special Forces is, on the face of it, about dealing with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by the pathological Joseph Kony. The LRA certainly qualifies as a terrorist outfit, but Kony is no Islamic radical. He considers himself some form of Christian. So why is Panetta suddenly talking about al-Qaeda in this case? It goes back to the link the United States has asserted between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in Somalia.
"The Ugandans did not pull out from Somalia following the 2010 Kampala bombings," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Paul Mutter in Great Game in the Horn of Africa, "and remain committed to maintaining a force there, something other U.S. allies in Africa have been reluctant to do. Those boots on the ground might go some way in firmly establishing a central Somalia government the United States and Uganda can live with."
Terrorism is, of course, not the only thing the Obama administration is looking at in Africa. Securing access to oil is a key priority for the United States, and it needs relative stability to guarantee that access. Uganda is just starting up a new oil industry. Energy corporations are ramping up their exploration in Kenya. To the north, the oil fields of South Sudan have outside investors salivating.
On the other side of Africa, Ghana has also recently discovered black gold, and it's already had an effect on its economic statistics. "According to Economy Watch, Ghana was the world’s fastest growing economy in the first half of 2011 with a GDP growth rate of 20 percent, which is six percent higher than the first runner-up, Qatar," writes FPIF contributor Kwei Quartey in Dismantling Elmina Castle. But the oil profits remain concentrated in the hands of the few in a country where the gross national income per capita hovers around $700 and life expectancy is only 57.
The discovery of new oil fields in Africa raises the stakes considerably. The intersection of oil and militarism, what Kevin Philips has called petro-imperialism, has transformed the U.S. military into a "global oil-protection force." The maps of oil fields in Africa and U.S. military involvement in the continent correspond all too closely. The threat of terrorists from Africa sponsoring another lone suicide attack on America certainly captures headlines. But the threat of terrorists disrupting the flow of oil from the region is the more immediate concern of national security officials.
During the Bush years, second fronts in terrorism proliferated as the ruling neoconservatives imagined remapping the globe to accommodate U.S. interests. Today, there is really only one second front, Africa. As U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Central Asia and the Middle East, this second front is fast becoming the war on terrorism’s first front. It will be a terrible irony if the first American president with roots in Africa ends up turning the continent upside down in America's endless search for, and production of, enemies.