The Evolving Threat to U.S. National Security Produced by Islamic Terrorist Organizations in North Africa
News reports coming in are based on early information and have not been confirmed. Current reports are that a U.S. airline carrying almost 200 people, originating in Germany and destined for the U.S., has disappeared somewhere near Iceland. Without warning or calls from the aircrew, the aircraft disappeared from radar. A well-known terrorist group based in North Africa is claiming to have blown up the plane as part of its ongoing war with the Crusaders from the U.S. and Western infidels. Shock and disbelief are spreading around the globe! This event has not happened. However, this type of attack against the U.S. is a commonly repeated goal of several Islamic extremist-based Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) in North Africa.
This research paper examines four key Islamic FTOs based in North Africa and the threat they pose to the U.S. Homeland and U.S. interests in the region. The organization, history, and goals of the Islamic extremist FTOs: Islamic State (IS, aka: ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram will be covered in this research. A primary focus will be the current attack capabilities of these organizations and desire to attack Western nations and the U.S. An example of these anti-U.S. attacks is reflected in statements from Al Qaeda (AQ) and the IS. In one such announcement in 2010, Said al-Shihri, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) deputy leader, encouraged Al Shabaab to work with AQAP in the fight against the U.S. (Counter Extremism Project, 2017a). While FTOs like Al Shabaab perform most of their attacks within the region where they are based, a transnational terrorist attack is not completely outside of their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Al Shabaab demonstrated their international capabilities on February 2, 2016, when they claimed responsibility for a laptop-bomb attack on an international flight carrying Western intelligence officials (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). Across North Africa, from the Western Sahel, the Sahara region, through the Maghreb, and to the Horn of Africa (HOA), there are violent Islamic extremist organizations formally recognized by the U.S. as FTOs with shared goals, the same as their counterparts in the Middle East. They want to attack the U.S. Homeland and continue the fight against the non-believers in the U.S. The leaders of the U.S. must understand and accept these constant and evolving threats from North African Islamic FTOs and set strategic goals designed to prevent attacks against U.S. interests in the region and on the Homeland.
The intent of this paper is to emphasize the current and evolving threat to the U.S. from these Islamic FTOs based in North Africa. These threats not only include violent explosive and asymmetric attacks, but also the use of social media to radicalize and mobilize homegrown violent extremists (HVE). This thesis will take a hard look at the realistic possibilities of a transnational terrorist threat out of North Africa, targeting the U.S. through violence and propaganda. This paper will conclude with recommendations for U.S. leaders designed to set a deliberate course of action for a successful counterterrorism strategy in North Africa. The hypothesis tested in this proposal is: The United States is capable of countering the growing transnational threats presented by the evolving Islamic terrorist organizations in North Africa, however, it will require a dedicated push within the U.S. and a combined diplomatic, military, informational, and financial approach, engaging with the ruling governments in key partner nations.
There is a plethora of information available related to terrorism linked to the four Islamic FTOs presented in this research. A combination of sources was used during the research efforts supporting the position that these FTOs are a violent threat in their regions. The collection of information and literature used to frame the understanding of the growing Islamic terrorist threat from North Africa may be categorized into four parts. First, there is an extensive body of literature generated by U.S. government documents including reports from the Congressional Research Service. Second, the American Public University System online library provided access to the data bases of EBSCO Suite and ProQuest. Third, the online platform, Google Scholar, was also used in discovering supporting papers and informational links to other sources. Fourth, a solid base of information centered on intelligence collection sources like the Counter Extremism Project, Counter Terrorism Center, REUTERS, the Long War Journal and others, provide a threat analysis supporting the position that these Islamic-based violent extremists are looking to expand in North Africa. As the linkage strengthens between the smaller FTOs in North Africa and the transnational Daesh and AQ affiliates in this part of the world, the threats to U.S. interests in North Africa and to the U.S. homeland will increase. It is important to establish a definition for North Africa as it will be used in this report.
The evolving terrorist threat that is the focus of this report spreads across most countries in the Sahel, Maghreb, and Sahara regions of Africa (WorldAtlas.com, 2018). These combined regions include nations that are looked at by some as East Africa and West Africa. For the purposes of this research North Africa includes: Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. The decision to use this established group of nations as “North Africa” in this paper is based on the area of operations of the four key FTOs that this research focuses on. The definitions for the regions impacted are derived from maps and country lists as provided by WorldAtlas.com (2018). Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, is the main region where Al Shabaab is based and projects its operations.
The Foreign Terrorist Organizations in North Africa
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) designated Al Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on March 18, 2008. Al Shabaab is known by several other names: al-Shabaab, Shabaab, the Youth, Mujahidin al Shabaab Movement, the Youth Movement, and many more (DOS, 2008). Through the rest of this paper the name Al Shabaab will be used when referring to this FTO. Al Shabaab has been reported on in several products from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). The CRS has produced numerous reports for Congress that are related to the terrorism in Africa and the U.S. response to these threats. One of the CRS Analysts in Middle Eastern and African Affairs, Carla E. Humud submitted a report titled “Al Qaeda and U.S. Policy: Middle East and Africa.” In this report, Humud presents several facts corroborating the violence and threats to the U.S. by Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has and continues to target U.S. citizens in the region. At least five Americans have been killed in Africa by Al Shabaab since 2010 (Humud, 2016).
Al-Shabaab has a much longer history than most realize. Information from the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) gives 1996 or 1997 as the year of Al Shabaab’s origin (CEP, 2017a). The name Al Shabaab is interpreted from Arabic to English as “the Youth”. This terrorist organization operates, and some say controls, most of southern Somalia. There are also pockets of the organization in Kenya and Ethiopia. In the areas under its control, Al Shabaab imposes very strict Sharia Law. The CEP (2017a) provides information that this group conducts most of its attacks against the government of Somalia and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Al Shabaab is considered Al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, operating in the Horn of Africa (HOA) after it pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. Since then, the organization has increased its number of violent attacks in neighboring nations (CEP, 2017a). Additional information on the origin, history, ideology, and organizational facts on Al Shabaab is provided by Daniel Agbiboa.
Writing from his position with the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, Mr. Agbiboa presented a paper titled “Ties that Bind: The Evolution and Links of Al-Shabaab” (2014). In this article, he breaks down Al Shabaab’s leadership style and group formation. He also provides some information on how and where Al Shabaab generates its funding. Agbiboa explains the organization’s “effective guerrilla-style operational strategy” (2017, 588) and their improving alliance with Al Qaeda (AQ). He points out that one of the effects of these strengthening relationships with AQ is the shift Al Shabaab has made from conventional guerrilla attacks to more suicide attacks and bombings in northern Somalia and Mogadishu. Al Shabaab has also proven itself very media capable. They have used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread propaganda and reach a global audience (Agbiboa, 2017). This FTO has also started attacking Western targets.
In an attack showing Al Shabaab’s improved capabilities in transnational violence, in February 2016, Al Shabaab concealed a bomb in a laptop computer and successfully bypassed security at the airport. The laptop bomb was detonated on a Somali plane by a suicide bomber onboard. In a statement from Al Shabaab, they claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed to “continue targeting ‘Western intelligence teams’ …in Somalia” (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). In this same CNN report, it is pointed out that there is a possibility Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) may have shared technology with Al Shabaab. This developing link between Al Shabaab and AQAP may answer how the bomber knew where to sit on the plane and how to place the device so it was most effective (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). It was fortunate that “It detonated before the plane reached cruising altitude and thus did not destroy the aircraft” (Humud, 2016, 10). In the same referenced CRS report, Humud also provides some insight on AQIM.
The AQIM has been assessed by U.S. military leaders in the region as being “primarily focused on local and Western targets within North and West Africa, including U.S. interests and personnel” (Humud, 2016, 8). AQIM is a Salafist Group aligned with Al Qaeda demonstrating extremist terrorist activities in Mali, Libya, Tunisia, and the Sahel region of Africa. Additional supporting information on AQIM is provided by Alexis Arieff in an article presented by the CRS titled “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Related Groups” (2017). AQIM activities are primarily driven by local issues and the desire to put an Islamic regime in control of Algeria and the neighboring nations. The U.S. DOS recognized AQIM as an FTO on March 27, 2002 (DOS, 2018). This violent FTO does pose a current and future threat to U.S. interests in the region where they are active (Arieff, 2017). AQIM is reported to have ties with the militants who attacked U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
It has been reported in Janes World Insurgency and Terrorism that AQIM was founded in Algeria, but it operates across “North Africa, including the Sahel” (Janes, 2018). AQIM’s ongoing guerrilla insurgency includes mass casualty attacks, Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) and Suicide-VBIED (SVBIED). An example of this type of SVBIED attack was conducted by an AQIM affiliate on January 18, 2017 in Mali. This attack killed 77 people (Janes, 2018). This FTO funds its operations through several revenue streams. Kidnapping-for ransom brought in over $120 million in eight years. Additional funds are made through other criminal activities, including smuggling stolen goods, drugs, and cigarettes. Janes reports that AQIM also have strong propaganda productions “through the group’s al-Andalus media wing…through mediums as Telegram and pro-militant websites” (Janes, 2018). As Islamic extremism grows in North Africa, so do the linkages between some of the FTOs in the region. AQIM is known to have supported Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria and have offered training to Boko Haram (Janes, 2018).
The lateral support from AQIM to Boko Haram is an interest to some because of Boko Haram’s pledged allegiance to the Daesh (aka IS). Tom Peters provides a “Backgrounder: Boko Haram in Nigeria” in CRITICAL THREATS presented by American Enterprise Institute. Peters opens with, “Boko Haram is a Salafi-jihadi militant organization waging an insurgency against the state in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region” (2017, 1). In this article, Boko Haram’s history and current operations are detailed. Boko Haram changed from a violent religious movement to an insurgency in 2009. Between 2009 and 2012, Boko Haram developed a relationship with the AQ network and bolstered their ties with AQIM (Peters, 2017). The U.S. DOS officially recognized Boko Haram as an FTO on November 14, 2013 (DOS, 2018). It has been reported from multiple sources that Boko Haram has a history with AQ affiliates, but its future may be more closely tied with the Daesh. In a CRS report titled “Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Frequently Asked Questions” (2016), a Specialist in African Affairs, Lauren Ploch Blanchard reveals the increasing violence being conducted by Boko Haram. It is estimated that Boko Haram has between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. Also, since 2011, their TTPs have evolved to include the use of IEDs, VBIEDs, and suicide attacks, in addition to the effective use of small arms to inflict heavy death tolls (Blanchard, 2016). Amnesty International has accused Boko Haram of “committing war crimes on a huge scale”, and between April and September of 2017 a surge in Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria claimed the lives of nearly 400 people (ALJAZEERA, 2017).
Boko Haram’s relationships with AQ and the Daesh pose an increased threat to the U.S. and western interests in the region. It is believed that “there are elements of Boko Haram that aspire to a broader regional level of attacks, to include not just Africa, but Europe and aspirationally to the United States” (Blanchard, 2016, 6). These high and increasing death tolls, combined with Boko Haram’s March 2015 pledge of allegiance to the Daesh, is a concern for U.S. leaders (Blanchard, 2016). It is reported by Blanchard and Adam Withnall that Boko Haram has renamed itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Withnall, writing for INDEPENDENT, a news organization based in the United Kingdom, informs that Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, pledged allegiance to ISIS. Propaganda messages from IS refer to Boko Haram using the new name of ISWAP (Withnall, 2015). To date, many news and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) reports still refer to this group as Boko Haram. However, this link from Boko Haram to the Daesh demonstrates how the Daesh is a growing U.S. concern in North Africa.
As given in testimony by Nathan A. Sales, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on December 6, 2017, ISIS has been given a huge setback in Iraq and Syria. As this happens, “ISIS maintains networks in North Africa that seek to conduct or inspire attacks on the continent, in Europe, and against U.S. interests” (Sales, 2017). Ambassador Sales’ comments and concerns are echoed by Kersten Knipp in an article titled “‘Islamic State’ Seeks new foothold in Africa” published by DEUTSCHE WELLE in January 2018. Knipp quotes U.S. General Joseph Dunford as saying the IS “has aspirations to establish a larger presence” in Africa (2018). This is due to the recent losses of large areas of control by the so-called IS in Iraq and Syria. The Daesh are looking to establish new controls in new areas. In this same report, U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was more direct. He stated, “The war is morphing. We’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less.” (Knipp, 2018). The increasing presence of the Daesh in North Africa is a key reason for this.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq) is how the U.S. DOS recognizes the IS. As Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL was recognized by the U.S. DOS as an FTO on December 17, 2004. After its original name of AQI, the FTO was known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and from there, in 2013, it was renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (HISTORY, 2018). The U.S. engaged in a war with the Daesh in 2014 and it continues to this day.
The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point addressed related concerns in the CTC SENTINEL in January 2017. In this publication, Jason Warner looks at three new IS affiliates in Africa: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISSKTU). Another IS affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s Branch in Libya (ISIL-Libya) was recognized by the U.S. DOS as an FTO in May of 2016 (DOS, 2018). ISIL-Libya is also known as the Islamic State in Libya (ISL). The formation of ISL was the result of Libya being a fallback point for the Daesh as “they continue to lose ground in Syria and Iraq” (Hodges, 2016, 2). Libya is in a state of infighting and chaos, as pointed out in an article in the Small Wars Journal titled “Now is the Time to Stop the Spread of the Islamic State in Libya”. This presents a perfect location for FTOs like the Daesh to set new roots. The Daesh look at locations in North Africa, including Libya “… as a new frontier and as a route to spread its caliphate into North Africa” (Hodges, 2016, 7). Aaron Zelin covered some of these same concerns about FTOs in Libya in his work “The Others- Foreign Fighters in Libya” published in POLICY NOTES, 2018. Libya needs attention not only because of the jihad of the recent past, but also because “it offers a potential future jihadist hub given the collapse in 2017 of IS centers in Iraq and Syria” (Zelin, 2018). The key point of these new IS organizations is the fact that the Daesh sees Africa as an area where it can reestablish its prominence. The ISL, ISGS and ISS have already grabbed a hold on territory and claimed attacks in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa (Warner, 2017).
The Growing Terrorist Threat in North Africa
The Ambassador-at-Large, Nathan Sales, noted in his testimony before the Senate Committee (2017) that both IS and Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa are reasons for concern for the U.S. The U.S.’s need to counter this growing threat in North Africa is recognized by some key security leaders and African Affairs Specialists in the U.S. In an article “The Islamic State Woos Jihadists in Africa but Faces Competition” published in CRS INSIGHT, April 2016, Lauren Ploch Blanchard’s comments link Ambassador Sales testimony to concerns related to several of the FTOs that are the focus of this paper. In this short writing, Blanchard hits on several key notes of interest related to the growing terrorists concerns in North Africa. Boko Haram is aligning itself with IS. There is a bit of uncertainty of how ISL and AQIM will operate in North Africa. The “competition for influence among African Salafi-jihadists is evident...” in the region she refers to as East Africa (Blanchard, 2016). The type of terrorist attacks and operations in North Africa are becoming more complex.
As counterterrorism (CT) operations have had limited success across North Africa, some of the FTOs have shifted their operations to include suicide bombings. Some of the suicide operations can be identified as a “complex coordinated terrorist attack”. As defined by the Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshop Series (JCTAWS), 2016, p1., a complex coordinated terrorist attack (CCTA) is “a coordinated assault on one or more locations in close succession, initiated after little or no warning, employing one or more of the following: firearms, explosives, and arson” (Elliott, 2017, 6). These suicide CCTA operations are becoming more frequent. In Somalia, suicide operations have reached a higher level of coordination and impact. It is also pointed out that Al Shabaab has direct ties to AQAP and remains the prominent threat in the Horn of Africa (Blanchard, 2016). The links between AQAP and Al Shabaab are of interest for security and intelligence professionals when considering the recent attacks on passenger aircraft.
As referenced earlier in an article written by Kriel and Capelouto in 2016, and Humud in her article the same year, Al Shabaab is believed to have worked with AQAP in the laptop bombing of a passenger aircraft that took off from Somalia. Many times, the Daesh, AQ, and other FTOs have stated their goal of bringing down a passenger aircraft. Ideally, they want to bring down a plane headed to the U.S. As stated by the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Representative Michael McCaul “…the terror group’s efforts to target airlines are among the ‘most disturbing’ and pressing national security threats facing the country…”. This was reported by Travis Tritten in the WASHINGTON EXAMINER, in an article named “Threat of ISIS bombing a passenger jet is ‘worse than I thought,’ House chairman says” (Tritten, 2018). If there is any doubt that Islamic terrorists are still targeting passenger aircraft, one need only look at Australia in July of 2017. Terrorists plotted to place an IED constructed of high-end explosives packed into a meat grinder onto a flight taking off from Sydney and headed to Abu Dhabi (THE AUSTRALIAN, 2017). The transnational terror threat to airlines has been pursued by the Daesh and AQ. As these FTOs move into the less regulated lands and airports in North Africa, the threat to the U.S. air industry in the region and the U.S. homeland only broadens. Another method used by Islamic terrorists to continue striking at the U.S. homeland is online media propaganda.
The use of social media to spread anti-U.S. messages and call for attacks in the U.S. has become a prevailing means to reach out to possible HVE in the U.S. homeland. Reported in NEWSWEEK by Conor Gaffey, Al Shabaab recently used a video featuring President Trump after his proposal to limit Muslims entering the country, telling “American Muslims that their country would eventually turn on them” (Gaffey, 2016). Al Shabaab has a capable propaganda effort, but it pales in comparison to that of the Daesh/IS. Most recently, the Daesh launched a video that called for followers of Islam to “kill them all” (O’Connor, 2018). Tom O’Connor covered the bloody new video in NEWSWEEK in January 2018, posted on Twitter, where Daesh recorded songs in English calling out to those that may listen, “Go and answer the call, don’t spare none, kill them all…slit their throats, watch them die,…” (2018). As Daesh spreads into North Africa, the strong IS media wing called Al-Hayat can be expected to expand and include affiliate organizations like ISL, ISWAP, and ISGS in their recruiting, radicalization, and mobilization propagandizing campaigns.
Starting in 2015, it was believed by some analysts that the IS were also assisting Boko Haram with their propaganda efforts. In March 2015, reported by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, through NPR in a report from the conflict zone, “Boko Haram Takes a Page from ISIS Propaganda Playbook” it was noticed that grainy videos had been replaced with slick productions that were “apparently inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.” The analyst interviewed in this article believes that Boko Haram was using the “new ISIS-inspired media arm” to target Niger, Chad and Cameroon (Quist-Arcton, 2015).
This was the same year Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, pledged allegiance to IS and Baghdadi in March of 2015 (Peters, 2017). The most recent use of propaganda by Boko Haram was on February 7, 2018. Abubakar Shekau recorded a video message stating that despite claims from Nigeria, Boko Haram has “vowed to keep fighting against Nigeria and western education” (ENCA.com, 2018). Nigeria has claimed to have defeated Boko Haram several times. Shekau declares that “Boko Haram will exist in Nigeria in the future” (Peters, 2017).
Many of the jihadi propaganda operatives have started using a new app named Telegram. This is an encrypted app developed by ISIS and designed to allow encrypted communications. This app was developed to circumvent the problems experienced as online social media networks like Facebook and Twitter caused problems for the ISIS propaganda operatives (The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2018). Looking at the transnational threat picture, many of the videos and other propaganda efforts employed by these Islamic terrorists are created and targeted to reach American Muslims in an effort to radicalize them into becoming HVEs against America.
Evaluating these terrorist threats, Ambassador-at-Large Sales goes on, with his previously referenced testimony, showing how the U.S. has worked with some governments in North Africa and have had some successes. Sales points out that tools and resources will be needed in the region and the U.S. will have to work closely with the governments there. Some of the key points of effort will be prosecuting terrorists and protecting borders. A starting point for how the U.S. has and will continue to engage on the CT front in North Africa is the U.S.’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The most current version of this is dated June 2011 and was signed by President Obama. This high-level strategic document deliberately took the approach that the “…paramount terrorist threat we have faced --al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents--has also continued to evolve…” (The White House, 2011, 1). This document goes on to state that the United States is “…at war with a specific organization – al-Qa’ida” (The White House, 2011, 2). This strategic-level document goes on to provide definitions for AQ affiliates and adherents.
While looking in the rear-view mirror, this may seem to have missed the target on the evolution of global terrorism, concerns with AQ’s spread into “East Africa, the Maghreb, and Sahel regions of northwest Africa” (The White House, 2011, 4) were touched on. The four core principles that were used to guide CT efforts seem to be a solid and supportable direction of effort. These principles are: Adhering to U.S. Core Values, Building Security Partnerships, Applying CT Tools and Capabilities Appropriately, and Building a Culture of Resilience (The White House, 2011, 4). The strategies presented included CT efforts toward Al Shabaab, and AQIM. These FTOs are touched on in the document as they were directly linked to counter-AQ efforts. In a much more detailed CRS paper, also a few years old, written by Lauren Ploch (2010) “Countering Terrorism in East Africa: The U.S Response” a deep dive analysis on the threats and CT efforts needed in the country is provided. Ploch gives a hard look at Al Shabaab, their tactics, and how the U.S. should respond. “The geographic diversity of the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda and those who share its violent extremist ideology confronts U.S. and allied policymakers with a complex set of challenges.” (Ploch, 2010)
In a more current overview on the CT strategy needed by the U.S., a paper written by the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul titled “A National Strategy to Win the War Against Islamist Terror” (2016). Chairman McCaul states early in his document that “we have lost touch with the core principles needed to prevail in this fight, which is why this strategy aims to outline a path to victory in the war against Islamist terror” (2016, 4). A key position taken by McCaul is that terrorism has been defined as a “violence designed to coerce people and their governments”, but today it “comes primarily from Islamist terrorists, fanatics who have distorted a major religion into a repressive political ideology” (2016, 5). This paper presents some key points on how the U.S. should respond to the terrorism in North Africa and what success should look like. In addition to working with partner nations to reduce the threat in North Africa, some of the actions needing to be taken include better control of the U.S. borders and efforts to reduce radicalization and mobilization at home.
Security on the homeland, in many cases, starts on distant shores. It will take more than dynamic attacks against the Islamic terrorist in North Africa to improve the security of the U.S. and its interests in the region. Actions that will bolster security include improved clearance efforts at foreign points of departure before ships and aircraft arrive at U.S. ports of entry. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should expand programs like PreClearance, conducting inspections of passengers on foreign soil, before they arrive in the U.S. (McCaul, 2016). Security offices must also look at how terrorists use social media to radicalize and mobilize HVE. It is vital to the security of the U.S. homeland that steps are taken, and partnerships are developed ensuring this growing threat in North Africa is confronted. “The United States uses a range of tools and resources and works closely with the governments of North Africa and other partners to comprehensively address terrorism” (Sales, 2017).
The U.S. intelligence community and counterterrorism (CT) professionals have identified the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in North Africa. The increasing terrorist threats to the U.S. interests in the regions where these FTOs operate is supported in articles written by Humud (2016) and Arieff (2017). It has also been predicted that the strong Islamic terrorist organizations of Daesh and AQ will continue their movements into North Africa, building allegiances with the regional Islamic FTOs operating in the area. AQAP has already shared technology and information with Al Shabaab that was used to detonate a bomb on a passenger airplane (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). This qualitative article engages to support the current assessment of a growing threat to U.S. interests in North Africa. This article will also explore the author’s concerns that some analysts in the U.S. intelligence community may be overlooking the increased threat to the U.S. homeland introduced by the developing terrorist’s allegiances in North Africa. There are examples of information sharing and training from the Daesh and AQ to Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. Boko Haram has openly stated its desire to achieve transnational attacks against Europe and the U.S. (Blanchard, 2016). Recognizing this evolving threat from the FTOs in North Africa and setting a way ahead to counter it are critical elements for ensuring the security of the U.S. homeland. Some of the variables that may impact this study and the future of terrorism in North Africa include: 1) The Daesh’s and AQ’s commitment to continue to move into North Africa and gain strength. 2) AQIM’s, Al Shabaab’s, and Boko Haram’s desire to foster stronger allegiances with the Daesh and AQ. 3) The successes and effectiveness of North African countries’ governmental CT efforts. The outcome of these independent variables will directly impact the dependent variables that threaten the U.S. Those variables are the complex coordinated attacks on the U.S. and U.S. interests and the use of social media to radicalize and mobilize HVEs in the U.S. The United States can counter the growing transnational threats presented by the evolving Islamic terrorist organizations in North Africa, however, it will require a dedicated push within the U.S. and a combined diplomatic, military, informational, and financial approach engaging with the ruling governments in key partner nations.
While it is understood that the U.S. can work with the national leaders in North Africa to develop a CT Coalition, the underlying theories for the continued radicalization must be understood. While these Islamic terrorist organizations have origins directly linked to religion, this is not the only reason for continued radicalization and recruitment. One of the key principles of religion, sports teams, gangs, and terrorism, is the desire to be liked and to part of a larger group. This has been referred to as the association theory. If a person can surround him or herself with other superior and successful people, they will feel connected and have a feeling of increased worth or prestige (Cialdini, 2008). Another theory that impacts the actions and decisions of people around the globe, including North Africa and the U.S., is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s motivational theory has five tiers. The two most basic needs that must be filled before others are physiological and safety. Only after these are met can belonging or association be dealt with. The most basic needs for physical survival take priority (McLeod, 2017). People make decisions based on security and safety. Many people in Africa are making life and death decisions every day. The ability of the national governments to protect its population is vital to the continued governance in that nation. Weak or unstable governments will continue to be targets of these Islamic FTOs. The formation of a CT coalition can provide strength and stability for the governments, security for the populations, and a nation the people can be proud of and honored to call home.
Research for this thesis examined mainly the Islamic State (aka IS or Daesh) and its sub-organizations in North Africa; Al Qaeda and its recognized affiliate in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Boko Haram, and Al Shabab, also affiliated with AQ. Archival research on the history, motivation, goals, leadership, and tactics, of these FTOs is essential to understanding how these Islamic extremist organizations have evolved. An understanding of this information will reinforce the current threats these extremists present to the U.S. Once this information base is established, the spread of AQ and Daesh will be added to the equations. This research will include reports on historical and recent attacks conducted by these four key Islamic FTOs in North Africa. This thesis will consider the question, how will the U.S. counter the evolving threats to the Homeland presented by globalization and the spread of Islamic Foreign Terrorist Organizations in North Africa? Most analysts believe the United States is capable of countering the growing transnational threats presented by Islamic extremists in North Africa. However, success in countering these threats will require an all-of-government approach by the U.S., using diplomatic, military, informational, and financial venues in collaboration with the ruling governments in the key partner nations.
Evolving Transnational Islamic Terrorism
Reports on recent terrorist attacks included in this thesis were selected to ensure this research documents the growing violence committed by these Islamic FTOs and their continued efforts to attack the U.S. and to radicalize and mobilize HVEs in the U.S. This includes the use of global air transportation to strike Kuffar around the globe, as well as using social media in attempts to radicalize new recruits on the U.S. homeland. Violent attacks from these FTOs in Africa have claimed the lives of tens of thousands. These Islamic terrorists claim all of the violence is needed to defend and support their religion. Research will migrate from government and news reports to peer-reviewed articles, journals and official governmental reports. All sources for this paper were based on publicly available information. This paper uses a qualitative instrumental approach addressing the growing transnational terrorist threat presented by these violent extremist organizations (VEO) to the U.S. and U.S. interests in the North Africa region and how the U.S. may engage in counterterrorism efforts to protect the homeland and U.S. interest in North Africa.
The qualitative “method delves into a particular situation to better understand a phenomenon within its natural context and the perspectives of the participants involved” (Bui, 2014, 290). After gathering and reviewing available data, it must be coded and categorized so that concepts that are presented can then be explained (Prunchkun, 2015). This thesis is used to present the information after it has been reviewed, assessed, and categorized based on information related to the Islamic terrorist organizations, the CT activities by the nations in North Africa, and CT actions to national security taken by the U.S. A qualitative comparative approach (QCA) will be taken to present the analysis of the information gathered. This QCA will show the increasing terrorist threats in North Africa presented by these four Islamic extremist organizations. It will also present concerns of an evolution related to transnational terrorism being a greater threat as some of these groups merger.
The variables identified will be evaluated based on the information presented in this research as collected from other studies. It is critical to understand the rise in Islamic terrorism in North Africa in recent years. The increasing number of deaths and attacks reflects the growing Islamic terrorism. The discussion will also evaluate the counterterrorism actions taken by local governments and assess the success or failures of these efforts. Similarly, an evaluation of the counterterrorism strategies taken by the U.S. and the UN against the Islamic FTOs in North Africa is presented. An assessment of the successes or failures of these actions, or lack of actions, will be key to understanding the type of future support needed by a multi-national counterterrorism coalition in North Africa.
This research provides information on the origin, history, motivation, goals, and leadership of the four FTOs that are the focus of this paper. Information and insight on the tactics and recent violent attacks conducted by these Islamic extremist organizations will establish an understanding of the current threat presented by them. Predicting the continued efforts by the transnational FTOs Al Qaeda and Daesh and how they are building alliances and allegiances with the known FTOs in North Africa (AQIM, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram) is vital to understanding the increasing threat to the U.S. and its interest in the region. The sharing of terroristic skills, knowledge, and training is directly linked to the growing threat to the national security of the U.S.
Analysis of the Threat and Variables
Some of the variables addressed in this paper include the possibility that Daesh and AQ will continue to look at expansion in North Africa and grow in the region. Al Shabaab’s, Boko Haram’s and AQIM’s desire to merge with the Daesh and AQ is also uncertain. Also, the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts in North Africa is ambiguous. The dependent variables are related to the transnational threat. If, in the year 2020, North Africa sees a merger of the FTOs in the region, the threat of complex coordinated attacks on the U.S. will increase. An alliance of this type will also result in an increase in the use of social media and propaganda to radicalize HVE in the U.S.
The expansion of the Daesh and AQ is expected and predicted by the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel R. Coats (2018). If expectations are correct, the evolution of Islamic terrorism in North Africa will boost the transnational capabilities and reach of these FTOs. The main threats from these smaller FTOs have previously been seen only as regional threats. One area that presents limitations related to this study is the lack of information available from analysts considering the transnational terrorist threat from the current FTOs in North Africa. Even though some of these FTOs have conducted attacks on international air transportation, there appears to be few counterterrorism experts that support a growing transnational threat. Most of the reports on these FTOs are limited to a recognition by analysts and government officials of a regional terrorist threat in North Africa. There are also reports that AQ and the Daesh are growing in North Africa. There appears to be a limitation or a bias in the assessments linking these two variables, an increase in the presence of the Daesh and AQ in North Africa and possible merger and sharing of information with the FTOs in North Africa, to an increase in the transnational asymmetric threat these FTOs may present in the very near future. The U.S. has several areas that will need to be considered if the U.S. is going to be successful in countering the increased terrorist threat to the homeland. These concerns include dynamic/energetic attacks as well as propaganda through social media.
The Daesh and AQ have well-developed multi-media wings within their organizations. Boko Haram and Al Shabaab have fledgling cyber-propaganda units that have effectively reached their targets in North Africa. Research in this area will present the historical and current threats presented by these propaganda wings. This paper will also research and present the future cyber threats expected by these FTOs as their transnational capabilities and goals expand. All of these Islamic terrorist organizations have stated their desire to radicalize and mobilize HVE in their homelands. This has occurred on the U.S. homeland and it is a continuing threat. Secondary research will be conducted by evaluating reports from organizations like the Homeland Security Committee and National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Homeland Security Committee, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) in West Point, and the National Counter Terrorism Center. START is a University of Maryland Center of Excellence Program supported by the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These organizations provide a multitude of graphs, tables, and maps based on qualitative and quantitative assessments to present supporting information directly linked to the violence and transnational threat from these Islamic terrorist organizations.
Continuing CT research efforts must focus on the strategy the U.S. should use to protect the homeland and counter the threats presented by terrorist organizations based in North Africa. A well-thought-out and properly-executed national counterterrorism strategy is needed; not only an all-of-government approach from the U.S., but a counterterrorism coalition built with partner nation governments. Research conducted through the U.S. Department of State web pages and CRS reports on the North African governments’ counterterrorism efforts provides a base of information. This has been collaborated and compared against peer-reviewed articles evaluating the security, political unrest, and strength of the recognized ruling governments. News reports from these nations have also provided information related to the governments CT efforts and the successes and failures that have been experienced. The U.S. may effectively work toward building an operative counterterrorism coalition, but first it must understand the capabilities and desires of the ruling governments’ counterterrorism programs.
Research shows that the U.S. government has had CT plans as far back as 1972. Archival research provides information on President Nixon’s efforts to launch a Counterterrorism Policy in 1972, in response to increasing violence and guerrilla tactics and the linkages to liberation movements in Palestine, Africa, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere (Gage, 2011). The Presidential Decision Directive (PDD)-39, U.S. Policy on Counterterrorism, dated June 21, 1995, was later signed by President Clinton. Continued research on governmental CT documents provided congressional reports written by the CRS as well as the current National Strategy for Counterterrorism dated June 2011. This national strategy document is from the U.S. Whitehouse and signed by President Obama. Migrating toward current assessments and reports on the U.S. counterterrorism presented quite a bit of information leading one to believe the U.S. has a counterterrorism strategy, but it may not meet the current transnational Islamic terrorist threat. The retrieved information used in this paper has provided a platform to present a new U.S. National Counterterrorism Strategy that will defuse the increasing threats from Islamic FTOs originating in North Africa. Recognized analysts and experts in African affairs have presented reports to congress and written articles supporting the need for an all-of-government approach by a counterterrorism coalition. This new North Africa Counterterrorism Coalition (NACTC) would require the U.S. and the UN to work with the true governments in North Africa to develop a response to the Islamic terrorism in this region.
Findings and Analysis
This paper emphasizes the current and evolving threat to the U.S. presented by four main Islamic FTOs based in North Africa. This includes the constant threats they pose to the people and the governments in the region, as well as the evolving threats to the U.S. Homeland and U.S. interests in North Africa. These threats not only include violent explosive and asymmetric attacks, but also the use of social media to radicalize and mobilize homegrown violent extremists (HVE). The organization, history, and goals of these Islamic extremist FTOs is covered in this research. Additionally, there is a look at the current attack capabilities of these organizations and desire to attack Western nations and the U.S. Al Shabaab is one the most active Islamic terrorist organization in North Africa, controlling much of Somalia.
The name Al Shabaab is translated to “the Youth”. Their ideology is a brand of Salafism and Wahhabism, which supports the excommunication of unbelievers. This FTO has stated many goals in the past, but Al Shabaab’s fundamental goal is “to create a fundamentalist Islamic State in the Horn of Africa that would include not only Somalia but also Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia” (CEP, 2017a, 3). Al Shabaab has links to terrorism and violence in Africa starting as early as 1996-1997. The terrorist organization, as it is organized now, formed in 2006 and by 2008 it had grown from a few hundred to thousands of fighters. The year 2008 was the same year that the U.S. DOS designated Al Shabaab, and the many names it was recognized by, as a FTO (DOS, 2008). Al Shabaab was formally recognized by Al Qaeda as their affiliate in East Africa after pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. This was after approximately four years of assistance and cooperation with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighting against the U.S. Al Shabaab leadership directly threatened the U.S. in 2009 after U.S. Special Forces killed Salehy Ali Saleeh Nebhan, believed to be the number one link between Al Shabaab and AQ in Pakistan. The open threat to America, as reported by Agence France Presse was: “The United States is Islam’s known enemy and we will never expect mercy from them, nor should they expect mercy from us” (Agbiboa, 2017, 590). Al Qaeda is reported to have an active role in the leadership of Al Shabaab (CEP, 2017a). Al Shabaab is led by a single commander or emir named Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah.
The hierarchical organization under Abu Ubaidah is a group of regional commanders and an appointed Shura council of 10 members. This council oversees the regional commanders. The Shura council members are aided by junior leaders who are in charge of the media branch, law enforcement, and military branch operations. The leader of the military operations over sees two branches, the Jaysh Al-‘Usar (army of hardship) and the Jaysh Al-Hisbah (army of morality). The Jaysh Al-Hisbah is the religious police force, “enforcing sharia in areas of Al Shabaab’s control (CEP, 2017a). Al Shabaab’s media branch, al-Kataib (The Brigade) produces videos for distribution to international audiences supporting the FTO’s propaganda and recruitment goals. This FTO has proven itself to be very media savvy and has used websites such as Facebook and Twitter to disseminate propaganda and recruitment media to a targeted age bracket, hoping to gain empathy for their cause (Agbiboa, 2017). Al Shabaab is reported to have a very strong financial footing.
Including revenue from racketeering in the charcoal and sugar imports with Kenya and other nations, Al Shabaab also collects funds through voluntary support, extortion, and partnerships with businesses and non-governmental organizations in Somalia. As reported by the United Nation, Al Shabaab “has generated up to $100 million per year, from fees levied at ports of entry, taxes on goods, taxes on domestic produce, jihadist contributions, checkpoint fees, and extortion for payments of religious obligation” (CEP, 2017a, 4). Even with all of these revenue streams, Al Shabaab’s “main source of external funds come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states” (Agbiboa, 2017, 587). Funding shortages have not been an issue for Al Shabaab as they focus on their mission and terrorist operations.
Analysts understand Al Shabaab operates as a decentralized pyramidal, three layered structure providing “legitimate leadership structure and a predictable decision-making process” (Agbiboa, 2017, 587). There are reports showing that Al Shabaab has weakened over the years between 2011 and 2016. A RAND report using data from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the START database, Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism database, Hansen, 2013, AFRICOM, and the author’s estimates, show a reduction in the areas where Al Shabaab had a freedom of movement between these years. The authors of this RAND report also identify a reduction in the number of attacks and deaths between the years 2007 and 2015 (Jones, Liepman, and Chandler, 2016). This same report concluded that even with the loss of territory and leadership, Al Shabaab had increased its number of terrorist attacks showing a shift from an insurgent group to a terrorist organization. Information collected from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows Al Shabaab as the deadliest terror group in Africa. It overtook Boko Haram after it was reported to be responsible for more than 4,000 fatalities in 2016 (CEP, 2017a). There are some disagreements to ACLED’s evaluation as the deadliest terror group in Africa, but the violence conducted by Al Shabaab members and claimed by the extremist organization show a change in operational tactics and increasing terrorism.
Al Shabaab has shifted its type of violent attacks, combining “suicide bombers and suicide infantry” (CEP, 2017a) and developed what is recognized as a complex coordinated Terrorist Attack (CCTA) or hybrid terrorist attack. Changes like this are linked to the growing allegiances between Al Shabaab and AQ, changing Al Shabaab’s operational strategy, targets, and tactics. In 2008, conventional guerrilla tactics were the norm during attacks by Al Shabaab on Ethiopian forces. In 2010, this same Islamic terrorist organization executed a suicide bombing of two groups of fans while they watched the World Cup, killing more than 70 people (Agbiboa, 2017). Showing signs of escalating violence and an increased use of suicide bombs, in September 2017, Al Shabaab detonated a suicide car bomb and stormed the military base in Bala Hawo on the border between Somalia and Kenya. At least 10 soldiers were killed (CEP, 2017a).
The most recent attacks occurred while research was being conducted for this thesis. On February 24, 2018, Al Shabaab executed a double car bombing near the presidential palace in Somalia. The first detonation took place outside of the presidential palace. The second bomb wounded dozens as it exploded outside a nearby hotel. This elevated to a coordinated complex attack as militants followed the bomb attacks with a gun battle. This event was reported by BBC News and the attack was identified as the latest in a series of attacks attributed to Al Shabaab (BBC News, 2018). On March 22, 2018, “at least 14 people were killed in an explosion outside a busy hotel in Somalia’s capital,” Mogadishu. As with other CCTA, gunfire followed the explosion. Al Shabaab claimed the attack and the death of the soldiers and officers, although most of the killed and injured were civilians that happened to be in the area during the attack (REUTERS, 2018). Al Shabaab has also learned through training from other terrorist organizations on how to use “teams of linked suicide bombers”.
A linked team of suicide bombers are groups of two or more bombers sent on a mission to detonate their bombs in tandem. This is another evolution in CCTA designed to cause mass casualties and overload the local emergency response capabilities. Over 46 percent of Al Shabaab’s suicide bombing attacks were part of CCT attacks.
The constant terrorist threat in Somalia and the region, Al Shabaab continues to threaten AMISOM missions, the Somalia government, and the military. The group’s leader has threatened to attack the U.S. on the homeland and has made attacks on U.S. citizens and assets in Al Shabaab’s current area of operations. Al Shabaab may have shown their greatest international terrorist attempt to date with the February 2016 suicide bombing of a Somali passenger airliner.
Allegiances with AQAP has been identified as a possible venue on how Al Shabaab was provided the knowledge of how to construct the sophisticated explosive device in a laptop and inform the bomber where to sit and how to place the bomb (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). Al Shabaab remains a constant and evolving transnational Islamic terrorist organization capable of inflicting mass casualties. The group continues to threaten the U.S. and strives to reach out to the American homeland. This is not the only North African based FTO threatening the U.S. with allegiances to AQ.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a militant Islamic terrorist organization founded in Algeria, but it operates throughout Algeria, North Africa, and the Sahel region as AQ’s regional affiliate. This transnational FTO was previously known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et al Combat (GSPC) or the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. It is also known as the Al Qaeda organization in the Islamic Maghreb or Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (Janes, 2018). The U.S. designated AQIM as an FTO in March of 2002 (U.S. Department of State, 2017b). This occurred in the early years of the organization when it was known as the GSPC. In 2007 the GSPC released a statement on the internet and renamed itself AQIM (Janes, 2018). Through this thesis it will be referred to as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or, more regularly, AQIM. This extremist organization has roots tied to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) from the early 1990s but split over ideological differences and became the GSPC. In 2013, it became known as AQIM. In March 2017, AQIM merged with a smaller local Salafist groups to form Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) (CEP, 2017b). Although the name JNIM is seen in some news reporting, this organization and the leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, pledges allegiance to AQ, AQIM, and the AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud. Even with many of the recent attacks being claimed in the name of JNIM (Janes, 2018), the result of these allegiances, or bayat, is a shift from a collaboration of Islamic extremist terrorist organizations to a structured hierarchy and AQIM is at the top (CEP, 2017b).
AQIM is like other AQ related organizations, in that it has a distinct hierarchy and the ultimate leader of AQIM is Abdelmalouk Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) (Arieff, 2017). It also has a central decision-making council (Council of Notables), a media wing named Al-Andalus Media Productions, and a Sharia Council that oversees Islamic legal matters (CEP, 2017b). AQIM’s leadership trained alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviets. New recruits are trained in temporary bivouacs that are moved every few days. Reports from 2006 suggest that AQIM have sent men to Lebanon to train with Hezbollah. AQIM maintains the same primary goal from the time it was known as GSPC, that is to “replace the governments of Algeria and the neighboring states with Islamist regimes, and to counter Western influence, notably that of former colonial power France” (Arieff, 2017).
Actions taken by AQIM to achieve this goal include an expansion of operations through Algeria and the Sahel region of the Sahara Desert including Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Kidnapping of Western nationals in the region is a part of these operations (Janes, 2018). It has been reported by the Foundation for Defense and Democracies that AQIM has collected around $100 million through operations including kidnapping for “ransoms, drug smuggling, taxing locals and donations from around the world…” (David, 2017). The Counter Extremist Project identifies AQIM’s fund raising is accomplished through “protection rackets, robbery, people and arms trafficking, money laundering and smuggling and increasingly, the facilitation of drug trafficking from South America to Europe” (2017b, 3) Because of these fund-raising operations, AQIM is considered AQ’s wealthiest branch. Abducting foreigners and the related ransoms paid by Western countries are AQIM’s best source of funding. Illegal drug trade is becoming very important also (David, 2017). These lucrative operations have funded AQIM’s influence across the Sahel region of North Africa. This same report links AQIM’s ability to raise funds and finance their operations in North Africa as a representation of the resiliency of AQ’s global stamina (David, 2017).
AQIM has supported many of the Salafi terrorist and extremist groups in North Africa. Some reports include information that links AQIM to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other Americans were killed. Reuters reported that General Carter Ham, Commander of Africa Command (AFRICOM), commented that “very likely that some of the terrorists who participate in the attack in Benghazi have at least some linkages to AQIM…” (CEP, 2017b, 24). Not that AQIM organized or led the attack but it was connected to the attack. Current reports on attacks conducted by Islamic militant organizations in this region of North Africa include a combination of attacks claimed by AQIM and the newly formed JNIM. Data from FDD’s Long War Journal links AQ attacks launched in 2017 in Mali and the West Africa region to over 276 attacks (Weiss, 2018). Of these attacks, 71 were Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, 24 were mortar or rocket attacks on military bases in Mali, 11 kidnappings, two suicide bombings, and the rest were ambushes, assaults, or assassinations (Weiss, 2018). AQIM/JNIM have continued to be a very active Islamic terrorist group in this region of North Africa. Even with the counterterrorism efforts led by the French, this attack frequency is expected to remain through 2018 (Weiss, 2018).
Affiliations between AQIM and other Islamic terrorist organizations include direct ties to AQ, AQAP, Al-Mauraibtoun, and a controversial relationship to ISIS. AQIM leaders support the Daesh and the shared goals of an Islamic caliphate, but have pledged an official allegiance to AQ. There are many reports of AQIM collaborating with Boko Haram even though AQIM has not admitted to an open relationship with Boko Haram. It has been reported that AQIM has provided funds, training, and weapons to Boko Haram. A reporter with Al Jazeera points out that the ties between AQ and the FTO Boko Haram are too numerous to ignore (CEP, 2017b).
“Boko Haram is a Salafi-jihadist militant organization waging an insurgency against the state in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region” (Peters, 2017, 1). The founder of Boko Haram was Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf was raised in Maiduguri, Nigeria, under strict and fundamental Islamic teachings. Yusuf founded Jama’at Ahl as Sunna lil Da’wa wal Jihad (the group of the people of Sunna for preaching and jihad), the organizations became more commonly known as Boko Haram. The name roughly translates to “Western Education is forbidden” (Peters, 2017). In 2015, this transnational FTO tried to rename itself the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) after its long-time leader, Abubakar Shekou, pledged allegiance to the Daesh on behalf of the terrorist organization. Boko Haram has also been known as the Nigerian Taliban. The key goal of the organization is to establish an Islamic-ruled government in Nigeria that is based on Sharia law. Boko Haram’s ideology has a broad “world view that combines an exclusivist interpretation of Islam” (Blanchard, 2016, 3) and rejects Western influence as well as moderate forms of Islam. The U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram an FTO in November 2013. It also has named Abubakar Shekau as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (Blanchard, 2016). The founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and Boko Haram gained strength and followers by speaking against Western influence in the Middle East and the rampant corruption within the Nigerian government. In 2003 and 2004, Boko Haram launched several deadly attacks on police stations. The Nigerian government did nothing in response. In 2004, Boko Haram focused on recruiting and building resources in preparations for the long fight with Nigeria (Peters, 2017). “Boko Haram transformed from an often-violent religious movement into an insurgency in July 2009” (Peters, 2017, 2). This violent Islamic jihadist organization uses training camps in the Sahel and built a relationship with AQIM that included weapons and training. Since 2011, Boko Haram attacks have become combined coordinated actions included IEDs, VBIEDs, suicide attacks, and small arms. These continue to inflict heavy tolls on the targets of these attacks (Blanchard, 2016). It has been estimated that Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people, this includes over 6,000 in 2015. These numbers make Boko Haram one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations. This FTO has staged attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Like other Islamic terrorist organizations, Boko Haram is a decentralized organization that includes the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, and the councils that sits under him. The “Shura Council, is a 30-member decision-making body that commands the group’s regional cells” (CEP, 2017c). The cells differ by location and specialization ranging from explosive experts, combat troops, intelligence and surveillance, and medical committee. There is a broad range in the assessment of the number of fighters believed to be supporting Boko Haram. It is alleged that the hard-core fighters number in the low hundreds. Thousands of locals sympathize with the organization and will fight for the terrorist group. As of 2015, the U.S. State Department estimates thousands of troops are fighting for Boko Haram. The U.S. Africa Command evaluates the fighting force to be a “few thousand members” (CEP, 2017c). Amnesty estimates that Boko Haram has around 15,000 members (Withnall, 2015).
In the early 2000s, it was reported that Boko Haram was funded by Osama bin Laden. Today, there is a combination of funding streams that include lucrative criminal activities like bank robbery and kidnapping for ransom. There are also finances brought in through protection money from local governors as well as donations from foreign supporters. In the past it was reported that AQIM also provided funding to Boko Haram. With the 2015 pledged allegiance to ISIS, this source of revenue has probably dried up (CEP, 2017c). It is unclear if there is any impact on Boko Haram’s financing as a result of its allegiance to the Daesh (Blanchard, 2016). Recruits to support the Islamic extremist goals of the organization come from a few sources. Nigerians join in support of the group’s religious ideology or because of grievances with the local government associated with military service, unlawful arrests and torture, or the denial of basic needs and services. Boko Haram also forces conscripts into service. It is reported that between 2014 and 2016, the organization abducted 10,000 boys and trained them to be soldiers (CEP, 2017c). Boko Haram has not revealed reliable information on where it is training its soldiers. There are believed to be training camps in Nigeria and some additional training being done in Cameroon and Somalia (CEP, 2017c).
Boko Haram’s tactics have changed with time. The guerrilla style of asymmetric attacks once used were replaced in 2014 by a concerted effort to gain and hold land. By 2015 the organization held a swath of land about the size of Belgium (Peters, 2017). In 2016 and 2017, the organization has experienced some factures in the organizations and there are some rifts caused by hardline leaders and others put in place by the Daesh. This has not limited the number of attacks and the violence projected by this FTO. For example, during Ramadan 2017, Boko Haram launched 39 attacks in the region, including daily suicide bombings in Cameroon and a complex attack in Maiduguri city with suicide vehicle bomb attacks (Peters, 2017). It appears the Daesh have set goals for Boko Haram to attack Western targets in the Lake Chad region and in Nigeria. This includes a vision of more attacks on American targets. This is a growing threat to Americans living in North Africa (Peters, 2017). Boko Haram’s relationships with AQ and the Daesh poses an increased threat to the U.S. and western interests in the region. It is believed that “there are elements of Boko Haram that aspire to a broader regional level of attacks, to include not just Africa, but Europe and aspirationally to the United States” (Blanchard, 2016, 6). Boko Haram or ISWAP is not the only FTO in North Africa tied to ISIS/Daesh.
Daesh/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales has recognized the growing threat in North Africa from the well-known Islamic terrorist organization known as ISIS. In his testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on December 6, 2017, he recognized the successes that have been experienced in Iraq and Syria as Daesh has been given a huge setback. He also expressed concern for the future of terrorism in North Africa (Sales, 2017). The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq) is how the U.S. DOS recognizes the IS. As Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIL was recognized by the U.S. Department of State as an FTO on December 17, 2004. After its original name of AQI, the FTO was known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and from there in 2013, it was renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (HISTORY, 2018). In this thesis, the name Daesh will be used most of the time when referring to this FTO. Daesh is a loose acronym from Arabic (al-Dawia al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham) used by those who are hostile to the jihadist movement. It is commonly used by enemies of the FTO as it is considered defiant and disrespectful by members of the organization (Nasr, 2015). The U.S. engaged in a war with the Daesh in 2014 and this fight continues today, not only in Iraq and Syria but on multiple continents.
The Daesh is an extremist group formed in 2013 as an offshoot of AQ in Iraq. The ultimate goal of this Islamic extremist terrorist organization is to “unite the world under a single caliphate, and to that end, the group has begun to establish satellite operations in nine countries,” including the nations of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Nigeria (CEP, 2018). The Daesh has a Salafist world-view trying to revive takfirist practices. As discussed in this thesis, Salafi groups may see the enemies of Islam as anyone that does not believe in takfirist practices. These may be Muslims, and according to Daesh doctrine, all 200 million Shiite Muslims, nonbelievers, and apostates are deserving of death (CEP, 2018). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the emir and leader of this FTO. Under him are two chief deputies and his cabinet of advisors. This group comprises the Daesh executive branch called “Al Imara” or “The Emirate” (CEP, 2018). The Daesh also has a legislative council, and a Shura Council that is responsible for ensuring the group’s religious doctrine is followed. There is a Security Council, Intelligence Council and Media Council that operate and serve Baghdadi and the other governing bodies (CEP, 2018).
The Daesh has a very strong financial base with an estimated revenue of $2.4 billion in 2015. The organization derives income from oil, taxation, looting, and extortion. The term extortion in this case includes bank looting and kidnapping for ransom (CEP, 2018). From the beginning, the Daesh have had a strong media wing and Al-Hayat, the Media Center, is used to campaign, market, and recruit for the organization on an international stage (CEP, 2018). Training to become a fighter for the Daesh includes ideological, religious, and physical components. This provides a basic understanding of Islam and Sharia law as well as weapons training, live-fire exercise, and hand-to-hand combat training. This includes training of children at camps with names such as “Zarqawi Cubs Camps” as a tribute to the founder of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (CEP, 2018).
In support of its goals to spread the Islamic caliphate around the globe, this violent extremist organization has walayats or provinces in several nations. North Africa is one region of the world where the Daesh have established new Islamic extremist affiliates (walayats), due to the recent losses of large areas of control by the Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The Daesh are looking to establish new controls in new areas. Several well-known American leaders have recognized this changing threat in North Africa. The U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated, “The war is morphing. We’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less.” (Knipp, 2018) and U.S. General Joseph Dunford has been quoted as saying the Daesh “has aspirations to establish a larger presence” in Africa (Knipp, 2018).
There are several reports identifying new branches or affiliates of the Daesh in North Africa. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s Branch in Libya (ISIL-Libya) was recognized by the U.S. DOS as an FTO in May of 2016 (DOS, 2018). ISIL-Libya is also known as the Islamic State in Libya (ISL). The formation of ISL was the result of Libya being seen as a fallback point for the Daesh as “they continue to lose ground in Syria and Iraq” (Hodges, 2016, 2). The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point has identified three new IS/Daesh affiliates in Africa: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS aka ISIS-GS), the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISSKTU) (Warner, 2017). The ISGS, led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, pledged support to ISIS and it was accepted in October 2016. “On January 11, 2018, Sahrawi claimed the October 4, 2017 attack on American and Nigerien soldiers, killing four U.S. Special Forces and five Nigerien soldiers. Later, the extremist group released the video clip of the ambush (Counterterrorism Digest, 2018).
The leader of the Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sees Libya as a fallback headquarters, “as a new frontier and as a route to spread its caliphate into North Africa” (Hodges, 2016, 7). as this FTO continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria. Libya needs attention, not only because of the jihad of the recent past, but also because “it offers a potential future jihadist hub given the collapse in 2017 of IS centers in Iraq and Syria” (Zelin, 2018). Libya and many of the nations in North Africa are in a state of infighting and chaos. North Africa’s immediacy to the Middle East and its number of weak and failing states, poorly policed spaces, and wealth of natural resources, make it ideal for exploitation (Shillinger, 2005). This combination presents a perfect location for FTOs like the Daesh to set new roots. A key point of these new IS organizations is the fact that the Daesh sees Africa as an area where it can reestablish its prominence. The ISL, ISGS and ISS have already grabbed a hold on territory and claimed attacks in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa (Warner, 2017). The Daesh have a long history of extreme violence and continue to threaten the U.S. and Western nations.
The Daesh has been hit hard in Iraq and Syria, but the Islamic extremist terrorist organization is far from defeated. As it loses control in one area, it can be expected that its leadership will try to gain a better footing in other regions of the world. As the original caliphate experiences its hard defeat in Iraq and is driven underground in Syria, the Daesh will become an insurgency that must be dealt with. It will also look to build affiliates in other nations. North Africa is a hot bed of disrupted governments and unsatisfied people that may be willingly recruited to join and fight for this terrorist organization. Some organizations, like Boko Haram, are already established in the region. Boko Haram, also known as ISWAP, is a FTO in North Africa willing to pledge their allegiances to the Daesh and operate as a province in the areas where they already conduct violent and deadly terrorist operations. The result is a greater threat to the U.S. interests in the region and an increasing threat to the U.S. homeland and its national security.
Violence from FTOs in North Africa
It is critical to understand that the Islamic jihadist terrorist groups are constantly learning and ever evolving. Organizations that are focused on counterterrorism must embrace this lesson and strive to evolve with or ahead of the FTOs in their area of operations. As demonstrated by Al Qaeda with the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, transnational terrorist organizations continue to develop new and unimaginable way and means to attack their enemies. For these transnational Islamic FTOs in North Africa, they have clearly stated their goals of attacking the West and specifically the U.S. The leaders of Al Shabaab have directly threatened to attack the U.S. and Americans in the region where they operate (Humud, 2016). This includes the laptop suicide bombing on a Somali airliner in February of 2016, said to have been carrying Western intelligence officials. The statement from Al Shabaab “called the bombing ‘retribution for the crimes committed by the coalition of Western crusaders and intelligence agencies against the Muslims of Somalia.’ It also said the attack was intended to staunch ‘the flow of Western crusaders into this Muslim land’” (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016). It is believed that AQAP provided the bomb-making technology used in this advanced IED. This evolution in bomb-making skills was employed by an FTO known for some of the worst violence in years in Somalia; Al Shabaab (Kreil and Capelouto, 2016). What started as mortar attacks on airfields developed into smuggling a laptop bomb onto an aircraft; Al Shabaab is evolving. From aircraft bombings, to attacks on tourists at beachside restaurants and hotels, to CCTAs using VBIEDs followed by militants with assault rifles, Al Shabaab has demonstrated its ability to adjust and evolve. This is not the only FTO in North Africa that has demonstrated this ability.
AQIM is another Sunni Islamic FTO that continues to gain strength and become a more significant threat to the region and to the U.S. This was admitted by the AFRICOM Commander, General Waldhauser, when he stated that AQIM and its affiliates “have the capability and intent to conduct attacks on western targets and post a significant threat to U.S./western interests and regional stability” (Humud, 2016, 8). AQIM have also shifted their tactics using asymmetric attacks and they have expanded into new areas of operation. AQIM has operated in Algeria, the Sahel region, Mali, and even Tunisia and Libya. AQIM is known to present a threat to U.S. interests where they operate and are mainly a locally-driven Islamic extremist organization. This FTO has developed tactics that have resulted in notable mass-casualty attacks that targeted Westerners. These types of attacks include a 2013 attack at a gas plant in Algeria where 39 civilians were killed and over 800 were taken hostage. Three Americans were killed and seven escaped (Arieff, 2017). The AQIM also launched several mass shootings at restaurants and hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivore (Areiff, 2017). At least six Americans have been killed during AQIM-linked attacks. French military counterterrorism operations have had some success and have driven some of AQIM’s leaders underground. This terrorist organization shifts and evolves and continues to commit asymmetric attacks in their region and against U.S. interests in the area. Reportedly, AQIM has also supported other FTOs.
Before pledging its allegiance to the Daesh and attempting to change its name to ISWAP, Boko Haram is believed to accepted financial support, training, and weapons from AQIM. Boko Haram is one of the world’s most violent and deadliest terrorist organizations. Part of this Islamic terrorist organization’s evolution has been the ever-increasing number of casualties attributed to them. Boko Haram killed over 6,500 people in 2015 (Blanchard, 2016). The FTO’s attacks started by targeting federal assets like police stations. The attacks have shifted to civilian schools, churches, markets, bars, mosques, and villages. “The group has assassinated local political leaders and moderate Muslim clerics” (Blanchard, 2016, 5). In a massacre attack near Lake Chad in January 2015, as many as 2,000 people may have been killed (Blanchard, 2016). These high-profile attacks have made Boko Haram a growing concern by U.S. national security officials. As ties between the Daesh and Boko Haram strengthen and this FTO builds linkages with ISL in Libya, concern continues to grow.
The U.S. military has suggested that “there are elements of Boko Haram that aspire to a broader regional level of attacks, to include not just Africa, but Europe and aspirationally to the United States” (Blanchard, 2016, 6). However, the AFRICOM Commander described Boko Haram as primarily “a local effort” (Blanchard, 2016). Boko Haram’s terroristic evolution has not been limited to mass murders, school burnings, and kidnapping of young girls; it has also started to use suicide bombers. Jihadist terrorist organizations are known to adapt to the offensive and defensive actions that may be used against them. As Nigerian forces learned to detect the FTOs suicide bomber, the organization started using women and children as suicide bombers. This shift in tactics and disregard for life gave the element of surprise back to the attackers (Gartenstein-Ross, 2018). Boko Haram has also developed an alliance with the Daesh and has been declared a caliphate for the IS in West Africa. The affiliate’s name, the Islamic State’s West African Provence (ISAWP), demonstrates how the Daesh are evolving, adapting, and surviving.
The Daesh quickly became known globally as one of the most violent Islamic extremist organizations. In August of 2014, the Daesh beheaded the U.S. journalist named James Foley. This action was followed with a YouTube posting of a video of the execution. A month later the same actions were taken by Daesh militants when they beheaded another U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff. The FTO followed these actions in February 2015 as they posted a video of Moath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian air force pilot, being caged and burned alive (History, 2018). The Daesh had established, to the world, how brutal and violent they could be. They then proved their transnational reach through several terrorist attacks in the West and on American soil. A list of these attacks includes: Paris attacks in 2015, killing 130 people; San Bernardino, California, December 2015, killing 14 people; March 2016, Brussels Airport and Metro bombings killed 32; Pulse Night Club shooting in Florida killed 49; 2016 Nice attack killed 86; Manchester, UK, in May 2017, a suicide bomber killed 22, including children (History, 2018). The Daesh committed or claimed all of these horrendous attacks. As long as this violent extremist organization has existed, it has demonstrated its ability to commit incredibly heinous acts.
This violence and terror committed by the Daesh is still being reported. The SITE Intelligence Group reports from December 27, 2017 to January 8, 2018, the Daesh have claimed attacks in North Africa in the countries of Egypt, Nigeria, and Somalia. One of the attacks was on St Mina Coptic Church in Egypt. (inSITE, 2018). On January 1, 2018, ISWAP (aka Boko Haram) attacked a Nigerian army barracks in northeastern Nigeria, killing nine soldiers. Daesh have recognized that they have lost much ground in Iraq and Syria. They are looking to a fallback position in Africa. Libya is one nation where the Daesh have established forces under the name Islamic State-Libya (ISL) (Hodges, 2016). While they once held oil fields and a base of operations in Sirte, in 2016 the Daesh were attacked and pushed out to the borders with Algeria. This has not stopped their attacks or their evolution toward maintaining a transnational terrorist threat. Daesh jihadists remain a current terror threat in central and southern Libya. On February 23, 2018, the Daesh claimed a suicide VBIED attack in central Libya (News24, 2018). Other signs of Daesh operations include the continuing battle to regain control of Libya’s Oil Crescent, the area known as Libya’s oil heartland. An official spokesperson for AFRICOM, Robyn Mack, was quoted, “At the moment, we believe that the organization (ISIS-L) is likely to give priority to the restructuring of security forces and infrastructure, and launch strikes, which may include targets in the Libyan oil crescent” (Slav, 2018).
The FTO known as ISL (aka ISIS-L) is not the only Sunni Islamic terrorist organization pledging allegiance to Baghdadi and the Daesh. Other organizations under the name IS have risen across North Africa: ISGS, ISS, ISSKTU, and ISWAP are the most well known and most active. Boko Haram is also known by ISWAP and depending on the faction operating within the organization, terror attacks are being conducted under both names. The Daesh continue to support ISS, its affiliate in Somalia. This newly organized affiliate faces a herculean challenge by the well-established Al Qaeda partner, Al Shabaab. It is well understood by the leaders of all these FTOs, if a terrorist organization is going to survive it must be able to reach out to the people and it must evolve and adapt quickly, or they will not endure.
Expansion of Daesh and Al Qaeda in North Africa
The future of the Daesh and Al Qaeda in North Africa may depend on the location where the FTOs are trying to establish their encampments. The Horn of Africa, including Somalia and its bordering nations, is controlled by the Al Qaeda associated FTO, Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has little patience for members that defect to the pro-Daesh side of Islamic extremism. They are known to have attacked and killed members that left Al Shabaab to follow ISS. It is very unlikely that Al Shabaab will change its pattern to start supporting the Daesh (Warner, 2017). Al Shabaab, through its leader Abu Ubaidah, has restated its commitment to AQ. However, Al Shabaab also wants to be a player on the global terrorism stage.
To make itself more of a global threat, Al Shabaab may have to strengthen its linkages with AQIM, ISWAP/Boko Haram, and the Daesh (CEP, 2017a). This evolution within the Al Shabaab organization cannot be completely ruled out. The claiming of territory and the unwillingness to collaborate between AQ and Daesh FTOs does not appear to be an issue in the Sahel and Greater Sahara regions of North Africa. The AQ-aligned groups seem to be less likely to attack the Daesh organizations that are being formed in the region. This may be due to the larger land mass in this region or the willingness of organizations like Boko Haram to accept training, and support from AQ- and Daesh-affiliated groups. It was suggested by John Brennan, Director of the CIA, as extremist members of the FTOs move from Iraq and Syria, the collaboration of the AQ-affiliated with the Daesh-affiliated groups in this region may be more likely (Warner, 2017). It is an uncertain future, but it can be expected that the Daesh will grow in presence in the short term in North Africa. “Since 9/11, our struggle with jihadism has been largely focused in the Middle East. But while large and looming threats remain ever present in that region, jihadist forces have been rising on the continent of Africa. Al Qaeda and ISIS have spawned such groups as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab that are spreading their influence across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and beyond.” (The LWJ Editors, 2018)
As highlighted by May, Gartenstein-Ross, and other terrorism analysts, the Daesh and AQ have experienced setbacks in the Mideast. The result is an expansion of operations in North Africa, where many of the fighters in Syria came from. It is estimated that Tunisia alone had over 6,500 foreign fighters who joined the AQ and the Daesh in Syria and Iraq (Wirtschafter and Gadiaga, 2017). It is likely these fighters will return to Africa and join the expanding Islamic extremist organizations linked to AQ and the Daesh. A terrorism analyst working at Future Advanced Research, Ali Bakr has stated, “[t]he region is likely to be hit by a severe wave of returning Islamic State fighters while al-Qaeda expands into other states such as Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.” He went on to say, “Niger has become a new source for recruits…” (Wirtschafter and Gadiaga, 2017). The Islamic extremist FTOs in North Africa operating in Sahel and Sahara regions are getting stronger and larger with a longer reach. While the Daesh have experienced troubles in Iraq and Syria, AQ have looked for a shift in their operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The instability across North Africa was commented on by Yonah Alexander, a senior fellow at Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, in his annual report on terrorism in North Africa. He wrote about the instability across Africa’s Sahel, it “has opened a path for al-Qaeda to shift its center of gravity from Afghanistan and Pakistan to a new sanctuary…much closer to US and European shores,” (Clements Worldwide, 2018). The “arc of instability” has been recognized by several analysts. It stretches across North Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and is directly in line with the focus on Islamic terrorism. There is a combination of reasons for the instability in this region. There is an anti-government or anti-establishment feeling from the youth as they feel the official governments have failed them. This fuels the desire for a change or revolution for improvements in the future.
There are also concerns by the youth because of the poor economy and the appearance of no chance for improvements in the future. In nations like Libya, the fragmented government and the struggle for power by separate militias create an opportunity for recruitment and expansion for any Islamic extremist terror organization (International Crisis Group, 2016). Many of these factors seem to explain why the Daesh are looking at North Africa as a fallback area of operations and why AQ sees it as a place to expand operations and get closer to Europe and the U.S.
Increasing Threats to U.S. National Security
The violent Islamic terrorist organization in North Africa are a growing threat to the U.S. within their areas of operation and on the U.S. homeland. Many analysts and terrorism specialists who are watching North Africa, state how the Islamic threat across North Africa is an evolving concern. The U.S. General leading AFRICOM has stated that the Daesh aspires for a larger presence in Africa. Senator Lindsey Graham was straight forward with his comments, “The war is morphing. We’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less” (Knipp, 2018). Recognizing the increasing threat around the world and to the U.S. homeland, the DNI, Daniel Coates wrote, “Sunni violent extremists--most notably ISIS and al-Qa’ida--pose continuing terrorist threat to US interests and partners worldwide, while US-based HVEs will remain the most prevalent Sunni violent extremist threat in the United States” (Coates, 2018, 7). The Daesh will remain a threat as they try to recover from the losses they experienced in Iraq and Syria. This will include a continued focus on transnational terrorism and the ultimate goal of attacking Americans on their own lands. The Daesh’s resiliency will be tied to the creation and support of branches like the ones recently created in North Africa; ISWAP, ISS, ISL, ISGS, and ISSKTL. Similarly, AQ will continue to push resources to its affiliates in North Africa, AQIM (aka JNIM) and Al Shabaab, while supporting other Sunni VEOs in the region.
These FTOs will not back down from their goals of attacking their greatest enemy, America. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (2018) identified the evolving threat succinctly with his comments, “In addition to the sheer number of terrorist attacks in Africa increasing, the attacks have also grown more sophisticated as jihadist groups adapted to countermeasures employed against them.” These comments were tied to the increased use of CCTA as previously explained. These CCTA operations are becoming more frequently used by FTOs in North Africa. In Somalia, suicide operations have gone to an even higher level of coordination and impact. Al Shabaab’s linkages to AQAP in Yemen provide training and skills that otherwise may take years to develop. As a result, Al Shabaab is the prominent threat in the Horn of Africa (Blanchard, 2016). In addition to these CCTAs in the region threatening the U.S., there are complementary threats to the U.S. homeland from these Islamic terrorist organizations. These Islamic extremists strive to radicalize and mobilize HVEs on the U.S. homeland through cyber and media messages. These FTOs also maintain the great desire to attack U.S. and Western aircraft operations around the globe. As written in the ISIS Dabiq magazine, “The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate, [a]nd so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.” (Schram and Rosenbaum, 2015).
An apparent loop hole in security at Sharm el-Sheik International Airport on October 31, 2015, allowed VOEs tied to the Daesh an opportunity to down a passenger aircraft while in flight, killing all 224 on board. Egyptian security officials deny any lapse in security, but Russian and Western intelligence agencies confirmed the “plane was blown up after takeoff” (Schram and Rosenbaum, 2015). The Daesh used their magazine, Dabiq, to publish a photo of what they claim is the bomb used in the attack. U.S. Representative Michael McCaul recognized Daesh’s desire to target aircraft with his statements, “The crown jewel is aviation and they are still seeking to blow up airplanes…” He went on to say, “We know they’re intent on making these bombs. The threat is actually worse than I thought” (Tritten, 2018). If there is any doubt that Islamic terrorists are still targeting Western passenger aircraft, look at the recent events in Somalia in February 2016 and in Australia in July 2017. The AQ affiliate, Al Shabaab claimed the laptop bomb attack on a Somali passenger aircraft. They claimed to be targeting Western crusaders and intelligence forces on the flight (Kriel and Capelouto, 2016).
In Australia, terrorists plotted to place an IED constructed of high-end explosives packed into a meat grinder onto a flight taking off from Sydney and headed to Abu Dhabi (THE AUSTRALIAN, 2017). The transnational terror threat to airlines has been pursued by the Daesh and AQ. As these FTOs build alliances with Islamic extremist organizations in North Africa and move into an area with less regulated international airports, the threat to the U.S. air industry and the U.S. homeland only broadens. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, Mike Pompeo stated in October 2017 that terrorist organizations are “intent upon using commercial aviation as their vector to present a threat to the West” (Daniels, 2017). Well-known analysis Bruce Hoffman was asked, “What is it about attacks on commercial aviation that is appealing to these groups?” His reply was, “First, it’s that you can kill a sizable number of people in one operation, at one time, and in one place, especially given the size of airliners these days” (Hoffman, 2017). Another method constantly used by Islamic terrorists threatening the U.S. homeland is online propaganda and social media.
The use of social media as a means to spread anti-American messages and call for attacks in the U.S. has become a prevailing means to reach out to possible HVEs in the U.S. homeland. These radicalizing messages originate from the Daesh and AQ, as well as their affiliates in North Africa. Their information is current, and the quality of their products keep improving as support from the more well established FTOs is solidified. As an example, Al Shabaab recently used a video featuring President Trump after his proposal to limit Muslims entering the country. The message from Al Shabaab was designed to make them question U.S. leaders, telling the “American Muslims that their country would eventually turn on them” (Gaffey, 2016). This latest product was much better than the videos seen in 2015. However, the targets of the propaganda are no different. Al Shabaab is trying to recruit from the youth in East Africa and they are also targeting the West with compelling images of safaris and successful combat operations (Kriel and Walker, 2015). Al Shabaab maintains a capable propaganda effort, and it can be expected that it will only improve as more support from AQ and AQAP arrives in North Africa. Currently, Al Shabaab’s media arm has a long way to go before it can compare to the products released by Al-Hayat, the Daesh’s media wing.
Recently the Daesh launched a video calling for followers of Islam to “kill them all” (O’Connor, 2018). The bloody new video was posted on Twitter in early 2018. In the high-quality video targeting the U.S. and the West, the Daesh recorded songs in English calling out to those that may listen, “Go and answer the call, don’t spare none, kill them all…slit their throats, watch them die,” (O’Connor, 2018). As Daesh spreads into North Africa, their strong media wing can be expected to expand and include support for their affiliate organizations like ISL, ISWAP, and ISGS in their recruiting, radicalization, and mobilization propagandizing campaigns. The same must be considered as the expected way ahead for AQ and their support to AQIM and Al Shabaab.
Starting in 2015, it was believed by some analysts that the Daesh were assisting Boko Haram with their propaganda efforts. As Boko Haram becomes more recognized as ISWAP, propaganda and social media support from the Daesh can be expected to increase. In March 2015, NPR reported in an article titled, “Boko Haram Takes a Page from ISIS Propaganda Playbook” it was noticed that grainy videos previously released by Boko Haram had been replaced with professional glossy creations that seemed to be inspired by the Daesh. The analyst interviewed in this article believes that Boko Haram was using the “new ISIS-inspired media arm” to target Niger, Chad and Cameroon (Quist-Arcton, 2015). Boko Haram’s media group is called Al-Urwah al-Wuthqa. As soon as it was launched in 2015, it promoted the Daesh. The stream of propaganda it released included videos with both Arabic and English subtitles. There is also a Twitter account that has “honed its social media exploitation over the past year” (BBC News, 2015). ISWAP/Boko Haram uses this online propaganda to show its successful attacks, to remind supporters it holds territory, reinforce its ideology, and to radicalize and recruit young people that may be looking to challenge the status quo or to be part of something greater.
The Islamic extremist organizations are constantly looking for improved ways to spread their ideology and propaganda, as well as means to communicate without being monitored. Many of the jihadi propaganda operatives have started using a new app named Telegram. This is an encrypted app developed by ISIS and designed to allow continued communications. This app was developed to circumvent the problems experienced as online social media networks like Facebook and Twitter caused problems for the ISIS propaganda operatives (The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2018). The key point for all of these types of media is to spread propaganda messages, recruit new fighting forces, and to radicalize and mobilize HVE globally. The targets of this propaganda include individuals in the U.S.
The Homegrown Violent Extremist (HVE) continues to be one of the main terrorist threats to the U.S. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) provides this definition: “HVEs are individuals inspired—as opposed to directed—by a foreign terrorist organization and radicalized in the countries in which they are born, raised, or reside” (NJOHSP, 2018). In understanding the threat of HVEs, it is important to understand why these individuals may be radicalized and motivated to carry out attacks, as well as how this radicalization and mobilization occurs.
Terrorist organizations may encourage and or facilitate some of these individuals, however, in many cases, something within the person has made them vulnerable to the propaganda. They may have personal grievances, feel they have been overlooked by society, see no improved quality of life or meaning in the future. The targets of the propaganda from these Islamic extremists may be looking for change or they may be looking for a sense of being part of a larger movement. This desire or need for a sense of association may make them more vulnerable to the violent messages released by these Islamic extremists. Social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Telegram are merely the tools used to encourage or motivate the HVEs in the West to mobilize and attack their homeland or support the FTOs on foreign soil. The greatest threats from the Islamic terrorist organizations in North Africa impacting U.S. National Security include HVEs, the airline industry, and U.S. interests in North Africa. All three of these areas must be addressed when the U.S. is looking to ensure a strong National Security program.
U.S. and Global Response to the Increasing Terrorist Threat in North Africa
Many security professionals and terrorism analysts have stated the greatest threats to U.S. assets in North Africa are presented by the evolving Islamic extremist organizations in the region. However, many of the counterterrorism specialists looking at North Africa do not admit to the growing threat on the U.S. homeland. It is concerning that some analysts in the intelligence community may be overlooking the increased threat to the U.S. homeland introduced by the developing terrorist’s allegiances in North Africa. As Islamic extremism spreads through North Africa, the sharing of information, training, and attack techniques and procedures will only crossbreed, forming more capable FTOs looking to improve their brand and recognition. There are examples of information sharing and combined training operations from the Daesh and AQ to Boko Haram, AQIM, and Al Shabaab. Boko Haram has openly stated its desire to achieve transnational attacks against Europe and the U.S. (Blanchard, 2016). After the failed laptop bomb in Somalia, Al Shabaab threatened to continue to attack Western intelligence. If an FTO like Al Shabaab can manage to smuggle a bomb through airport security, there is nothing preventing them from targeting a U.S. passenger airline. Islamic extremist propaganda is reaching possible HVEs within the U.S., making these HVEs one of the most serious threats to Americans and to U.S. National Security. Recognizing these evolving threats from the FTOs in North Africa and setting a way ahead to counter it are critical elements for ensuring the security of the U.S. homeland.
Actions must be taken to better secure airlines and air travel to the U.S. Steps must be taken to limit or remove the extremist propaganda that reaches the U.S. population through social media. Also, counterterrorism efforts in North Africa must be bolstered with an all-of-government approach with a collaboration of effort between the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), the U.S. and the recognized governments in these nations in North Africa. Only after achieving success in these three key areas can the U.S. consider its CT efforts a success. Some of these points are similar to recommendations made by Chairman Michael McCaul, House Homeland Security Committee in his paper (2016). To improve the security of U.S. air transportation, the key is to start on foreign soil. The U.S.’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is part of the DHS and is responsible for the safety and security of air, land, and sea transportation. The TSA needs to ensure that the levels of security for passenger and luggage clearance at all overseas Last Point of Departure (LPD) airports meet the same security standards as required on the U.S. homeland. As pointed out by terrorist events in Egypt, Somalia, and Australia, international passenger airlines are a very attractive target for FTOs. The U.S. must demand that all LPD airports meet a set of minimum standards or the airline will not be allowed to touch down within the U.S. Passengers must meet clearance requirements as well as screening standards at the LPD. Luggage, both carry-on and checked baggage, must be screened for explosive threats. This may require the DHS to supply the equipment, training, and personnel to ensure these new safety and security standards are met.
The DHS is also the key in limiting the amount of extremist propaganda that reaches susceptible Americans that may be radicalized in becoming HVEs. The DHS should develop a Counter Terrorism Propaganda Message Program (CT-PMP) designed to work collaboratively with the U.S. social media companies to stop radicalization and develop a counter message. Congress should work with DHS and the media industry to draft legislation designed to prohibit the spreading extremist ideology. Concurrently, the social media companies must work on their own to fight terrorist organizations’ recruiting and radicalization efforts. These companies should develop technology that automatically flags questionable content (McCaul, 2016). With the U.S. government working together with the social media industry, a serious reduction in propaganda that reaches Americans is a possibility.
It must not be overlooked that the U.S. is fighting a violent extremist threat in North Africa and this fight will need to be taken to the terrorists on their breeding grounds. The U.S., EU, AU, and the governments in the nations across North Africa have had some success in recent years fighting these FTO. In Libya, ISL has been driven out of Sirte where they had a stronghold. This was done with the support from U.S. airpower (DOS, 2017). In fighting against Boko Haram/ISWAP, the Multinational Joint Task Force in the region limited the number of terrorist attacks two years in a row. Due to military operations conducted by the nations in the Maghreb, AQIM shifted their operations from holding territory to CCTAs against the government and civilians (DOS, 2017). The U.S., France, the EU, UN, and other nations have participated in the annual meetings of the International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa, which has a strong focus on terrorism (DOS, 2017). This type of international collaboration providing financial support, training, equipment, and manpower is essential for CT efforts in North Africa. Nations suffering from strong terrorist activity and attacks, like Somalia has experienced with the actions of Al Shabaab, must work to join these collaborative efforts and the transnational joint CT operations. The U.S. must continue to reach out to these national governments offering military support and CT training. The U.S. hopes to enhance the military capabilities of the partner nations in North Africa. By assisting and working in co-operation with Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Niger, and Algeria, the U.S. has supported national CT operations while limiting the U.S. footprint in North Africa (Emerson, 2014). The U.S. is engaged in a war of attrition against some of the most hard-core FTOs across North Africa using drone strikes and airpower to support CT operations. There is more to an all-of-government approach than dynamic airpower.
The terms support and collaboration are very important when considering the CT efforts used by the U.S. in North Africa. The U.S. must ensure it does not appear as though the Americans are invading North Africa. This will only feed the propaganda messages from the Islamic terrorist organizations. The U.S. will again be seen as the Crusaders trying to conquer Islam. The U.S. must let the African governments lead the fight against Islamic extremist terrorism and only act as a force multiplier, supporting CT operations in the region. The war on terror in North Africa is similar to the CT fight globally. This is a fight to win the hearts and minds of the people in North Africa. U.S. objectives must be aligned with those of the North African governments. A use of military force is not all that is needed in North Africa. The cooperative endeavor by the U.S. in Africa includes building partnership capacity, enhanced economic development, and humanitarian assistance to undermine “factors fueling terrorism across the continent” (Emerson, 2014, 46).
The terrorist threat from Islamic FTOs based in North Africa is a mounting concern for the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests in the region. While looking at the organization and history of the Islamic extremist FTOs the Daesh, AQIM, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram, it is quickly understood these FTOs are setting their way ahead to include a transnational threat. This transnational threat has existed on the African continent for years. Now, the once regional threats from AQIM, Al Shabaab, and others are expanding. These violent extremist organizations have all been recognized as FTOs threatening terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other nations. They have repeatedly stated their desire to attack Western nations and the U.S. Al Shabaab has demonstrated its ability to attack the airline industry and defeat security programs at international airports. It is believed they gained this knowledge and capability through their evolving support from AQAP. AQ and AQAP are also supporting their affiliate in the Maghreb, AQIM. By providing training, equipment, and weapons to AQIM, the AQ has improved their global reach and supported their version of Sunni Islamic extremism in North Africa. Boko Haram has improved it ties with the Daesh and it has a history of accepting support from both AQ and the Daesh. With the current name change from Boko Haram to ISWAP, it appears that this FTO has become directly aligned with the Daesh.
While these FTOs are seen more as regional threats, the international community must not overlook their budding transnational capabilities. With support from AQ and the Daesh, transnational terrorist attacks should not be considered outside of their capabilities. Across North Africa, from the Western Sahel, the Sahara region, through the Maghreb, and to the Horn of Africa (HOA), there is an arch of instability these Islamic extremist organizations are using to their advantage. As their organizations get stronger, they will share the same goals as their counterparts in the Middle East. They look to attack the West and the U.S. Homeland in a fight against the Kuffar around the globe. The Daesh are getting stronger in North Africa and the they are intent on blowing up a passenger aircraft (Tritten, 2018). Boko Haram is currently rebranding itself as an IS wing, ISWAP. This FTO has stated its desire to strike the U.S. (Blanchard, 2016). The U.S. must be aware of these constantly evolving threats from the Islamic FTOs in North Africa. A well-rounded U.S. National Security policy will include an all-of-government approach addressing the terrorist threat from North Africa.
The greatest threats from terrorism in North Africa are to U.S. interests in the region, efforts to attack the passenger airline industry, and the radicalization of HVEs on the U.S. homeland. The United States has used its military might to support counterterrorism actions led by the North African nations. This has had limited success, but more than putting bombs on targets will be needed to defeat these Islamic extremists. The U.S must continue to support combined operations led by host nations. Other key areas within North Africa include a cooperative endeavor to build partnership capacity, economic development, and humanitarian assistance. U.S. border security must be improved through improved passenger processing at the LPD on foreign soil. All nations wishing to have international passenger air travel to the U.S. must be required to meet clearance requirements set by the U.S. DHS and TSA. Efforts to counter the radicalization and mobilization of HVEs is another area that must be addressed. This will take a combined effort including social media platforms, the DHS, and Congress. There must be legislation put in place and actions taken limiting the Islamic extremist propaganda that reaches the American public. Now is the time to take action; limiting propaganda, securing air travel, and improving CT collaboration efforts in North Africa. The U.S. must engage now so Americans never have to look back post-attack and admit something should have been done.
There is an evolving and improving transnational terrorist threat originating in North Africa and being presented by once-regional violent Islamic extremists. The threats to the U.S. will be in the form of dynamic asymmetric violent attacks on the U.S. homeland and its interests in North Africa. Threats will also come from an increase in the use of social media and propaganda radicalizing and mobilizing HVEs in the U.S. The U.S. is engaged with CT efforts in North Africa. The U.S. can counter this terrorist threat while assisting host nations in North Africa. It will take an all-of-government approach, working with partner nations. The creation of a North Africa Counterterrorism Coalition (NACTC) developed by the AU, UN, and the U.S. may be a development toward a safer North Africa in 2020. Islamic transnational terrorism is mounting in North Africa and the U.S. must use its might and diplomacy to defeat this threat while improving security on the U.S. homeland.
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