PARIS (AFP) – Al-Qaeda could be seeking new sanctuaries in unstable African nations and the continent’s disparate armed Islamist groups may forge closer ties under the Al-Qaeda umbrella, experts and officials warned.
The organisation founded by the late Saudi-born Osama bin Laden has largely been driven out of former safe-haven Afghanistan, and it has been battered by US drone attacks across the border in Pakistan, leaving it in need of new bases.
Al-Qaeda has already established links with a number of African Islamist groups.
Its declared north Africa affiliate is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Somalia’s Shebab also swore allegiance to bin Laden, who was killed by US commandos in May.
“Al-Qaeda traditionally has taken advantage of areas that are wracked by conflict, turmoil and lack of government. It is a safe haven they seek to launch attacks,” said John Brennan, US President Barack Obama’s top anti-terrorism official.
Somalia, without a stable government since 1991 and currently led by a weak government that is largely confined to the capital Mogadishu, could therefore be an ideal sanctuary, Brennan said.
“Somalia is one of the most challenging areas of the world because it has this internal conflict, it has such a devastating famine, and it is an area that Al-Qaeda has tried regularly to exploit,” he added.
AQIM has been linked to attacks and kidnappings across north Africa.
And the already volatile region was further destabilised by the months-long conflict in Libya, which may have flooded the region with weapons once controlled by Moamer Kadhafi’s fallen regime, officials said.
Vast, sparsely populated areas across countries such as Mauritania, Mali and Algeria could also offer senior Al-Qaeda leaders a safe haven, some officials said.
Although Nigeria has little appeal as a territorial base, the Boko Haram Islamist group there is also thought to have ideological links to Al-Qaeda.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for August’s suicide bomb attack in Abuja at the UN headquarters in Nigeria that killed 24 people.
Shebab, AQIM and Boko Haram are “each individually of concern,” US general Carter Ham, who heads the Africa command, said recently in Washington.
“But what really concerns me is at least a stated intent for those organisations to link and synchronise their efforts,” he added.
“That, to me, would be a very, very dangerous outcome for us.”
The Abuja blasts highlight this fear, as Nigerian police have said that Boko Haram’s number two, Mamman Nur, spent time in Somalia with the Shebab before returning to Nigeria in July to plan the attacks.
The suicide bombing carried out by a driver in an explosives-packed car also had the stamp of Al-Qaeda methodology.
Relations between the Shebab and Al-Qaeda are well-established.
In mid-October, a video appeared on a jihadist site showing a young masked man, who identified himself as Abu Abdullah al-Mouhajir, filmed in an area of Somalia controlled by the Shebab.
Speaking in English, he said he had been sent to Somalia by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden as Al-Qaeda’s chief.
Roger Middleton, an East Africa specialist at London’s Chatham House think tank, sees a risk of even closer ties between the Shebab and Al-Qaeda.
“Some of the leadership of Shebab are pretty committed to the idea of global jihad and rebuilding the Caliphate and all these kind of ideas,” he said.
“Some of them fought in Afghanistan and come from that kind of background, so there are certainly international links but they are pretty busy in Somalia,” he added.
“There probably are ideologically some similarities, but I don’t have any evidence of operational cooperation.”