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Growing threats of Islamic militancy in Africa

October 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, Bronwyn Bruton joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington to give us a closer look at the worrying evolution of Islamic militancy across the African continent.

HARI SREENIVASN: We are joined now from Washington by Bronwyn Bruton. She is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s  Africa Center.

So, I’ve got to ask how deep is the presence of Islamic militancy across Africa now?

BRONWYN BRUTON: Well, it’s a great question. Essentially the U.S. has for many, many years feared that Africa’s many small conflicts and many security vacuums would allow al-Qaida to find a safe haven on the continent and to eventually allow al-Qaida to embed itself in these local wars and use them as an excuse to target American interests. So far that mostly has not happened. But in recent years, particularly with the conflict in Somalia, it’s become more and more of a reality. And the Westgate attack, in which al-Qaida forces coordinated with the local rebel movement to strike foreign targets, indicates that the threat now may be very real.

HARI SREENIVASN: So are the moving out of Somalia and across to Libya and establishing footholds in other countries as well?

BRONWYN BRUTON: Well al-Shabab which is the Somali militant group that is believed to have perpetrated the Westgate attack is not known to have operational ties to any other militant groups in Africa. For example Boko Haram or any of the groups in Libya or Mali. It’s very likely that al-Qaida operatives working with al-Shabab have those contacts. But at this point you are looking at al-Shabab primarily being interested in attacking Uganda and Kenya and probably Ethiopia. That is to say the countries that have launched troops into Somalia, unfortunately as part of the war on terrorism.

HARI SREENIVASN: So if al-Qaida is sort of this central organizer or the person with the rolodex that touches on all these different organizations. Do these countries become our new frontlines for the war on terror?

BRONWYN BRUTON:  These countries are excuses, basically. These small conflicts that are taking place on the local level allow al-Qaida  to infiltrate countries. Because these local militants need training, they need funding, they need weapons; so they have pragmatic reasons work with al-Qaida operatives. Over the years al-Qaida is then able to develop contacts in other countries.  In the case of the Westgate attack the fact that Kenya had troops in Somalia was a reason for al-Qaida to persuade Somali members of the diaspora that Kenya was an enemy and deserving of attack.  So these local conflicts become a means to an end for al-Qaida. And the question for the United States is how successful will al-Qaida continue to be using at using Africa’s small wars to hurt U.S. interests.

HARI SREENIVASN: So what are the U.S. interests in going after someone in al-Shabab in  Somalia for example? What are our threats domestically?

BRONWYN BRUTON:  Well, domestically I think there is very little threat at this point.  Because approximately 50 Somalis who have U.S. passports have left the United States and traveled to Somalia presumably to fight withal-Shabab, there is a remote possible that they will come back and launch an attack. Primarily the U.S. is worried about al-Qaida operatives, people who links to al-Qaida core who are sheltering in Somalia and coordinating with the radicals.  The U.S. has very little reason to worry al-Shabab itself because it is a primarily a domestic insurgency and it doesn’t really affect what happens in the United States. The danger is though the U.S. will forget that and conflate al-Shabab with al-Qaida –  create a whole lot of extra enemies on the ground and then again start creating excuses for future Westgate attacks.

HARI SREENIVASN:  Bronwyn Bruton from The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center thanks so much.