February 4, 2009
While al Qaeda is the primary terrorist/extremist threat in East Africa, the region suffers more broadly from a danger of radical Islamist groups and organizations that the United States and its allies must address to reshape the region's security environment, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.
"The internal conflict and corruption enveloping weak African governments make it easy for terrorists to move, plan and organize," said Angel Rabasa, the report's author and a senior policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "The United States and its allies in the region need an effective, long-term solution to rid the area of the extremist and terrorist elements that reside there."
Rabasa writes that the most serious threat is al Qaeda, which has made East Africa a central part of its global strategy. But the terrorist organization is just one component of a much larger universe of radical Islamist groups and organizations. Numerous indigenous radical Islamist groups with varying degrees of affinity to al Qaeda' agenda also populate the region. Of particular concern is the radical Shabaab militia in Somalia that has regrouped and intensified its operations in the wake of the Ethiopian occupation of Mogadishu.
Despite the inroads of radical groups, East Africa is not particularly fertile soil for radical Islam. "Although Salafism has made inroads among the educated elites, traditional and Sufi practices dominate the Muslim population," Rabasa said. "Despite the effects of proliferation of Gulf charities in the region, the strength of Islam rooted in local cultures acts to retard the spread of extremist ideas."
He writes that existing counterterrorism programs in East Africa can help to lay the groundwork for stronger counterterrorism collaboration in the region. But this assistance alone is unlikely to provide the effective long-term solution of attacking the conditions that make the region open to extremist and terrorist elements.
Among the report' key recommendations:
- Establish a long-term U.S. military presence in East Africa by building the required infrastructure.
- Use Defense Resource Management Studies program funds in East Africa to strengthen military and internal security structures in East African nations.
- Take stronger steps to promote a political settlement among Somali factions that would permit the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Mogadishu.
- Consider diplomatic recognition for Somaliland (the region at the north end of Somalia) as an incentive to keep the region on a democratic track and secure effective cooperation in counterterrorism.
- Assist cooperative regional governments in gaining better control of their land and maritime borders.
"The aim should be to build sustained national resilience that is intolerant of terrorists and extremists," Rabasa said. "This will occur only if hard security measures are linked with a broader array of policies designed to promote political, social and economic stability. Otherwise, there is little chance that counterterrorist efforts will work."
The report, "Radical Islam in East Africa," is available at www.rand.org.
The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.