A feared al Qaeda-linked terror organisation stalks and kidnaps foreign nationals in Algeria. A group bent on creating chaos continues its deadly wave of attacks against churches in northern Nigeria. Violence from a Somali-based militant organisation now rears its ugly head in neighbouring Kenya. The bloodshed caused individually from these groups alone is harrowing enough; now imagine if all three teamed up. This a chilling thought to be sure, but it is exactly what the United States believes has already happened. According to a recent announcement from US General Carter Ham, the commander of the US military’s Africa Command, the extremist organisations in question are that of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Nigerian-based Boko Haram, and the Horn of Africa’s deadly militant group, al Shabaab. Ham and other American officials believe that these groups, whilst deadly in their own right, have now engaged in a worrying trend of sharing weapons, including high-grade explosives, and cash. Fears that the so-called “Big Three” African terrorist groups are all working together, however, are nothing new. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ominously warned as far back as August 2011, that al Shabaab was partnering with AQIM. On 23 January 2012, The Inkerman Group reported that Boko Haram had already linked up with AQIM and al Shabaab. Due to their shared Islamist-based militant believes, it was only a matter of time that all three organisations would at the very least, share weaponry and other tactics. But is this simply a case of US military paranoia? Or if it is true, who are these groups and what do they want?
Perhaps the most deadly of the “big three” is Boko Haram, an extremist group which US officials classified as a “foreign terrorist” organisation on 20 June 2012. Boko Haram, which means, “Western education is sinful” in Hausa, a language spoken in northern Nigeria, is a Taliban-inspired organisation that emerged in 2002. The group has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states and has been blamed for the deaths of more than 1,070 people since July 2009. Its increasingly changing tactics and weapons supplies first led US officials in November 2011 to report that the group may have been boosting its ties with AQIM and al Shabaab: “Such cross-pollination of weapons, tactics, and bomb-making expertise can quickly increase the capabilities of terrorist groups, as seen in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and may have been a contributing factor to Boko Haram’s advances”. The relationship between Boko Haram and AQIM, according to many US State Department officials, is even more pronounced. Khalid al Barnawi, who was recently given the moniker of “global terrorist” by the US on 28 June 2012, is thought to have run a training camp in Algeria alongside AQIM, and is additionally believed to have helped coordinate kidnappings of British and Italian nationals in Nigeria in 2011. Further evidence which indicates that Boko Haram may have been receiving money and tactical support from AQIM is its almost neverending supply of bomb-making materials. The group is also said to be equipped with better weaponry and has the ability to engage in more advanced fighting tactics than Nigeria’s national security forces. The group also has no problems recruiting militants, many of whom are simply fed up with the country’s growing income divide between the north and south. Nevertheless, according to many intelligence sources, Boko Haram may lack a straightforward organisational structure.
Like Boko Haram, AQIM was also borne out of desire to spread militant Islamist values. AQIM, which in recent years has extended its reach into Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, as well as Niger, Libya, Chad, Nigeria and Tunisia, emerged in Algeria after 1992, when the now banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) Party gained considerable support among the country’s citizens. As reported earlier by The Inkerman Group, following its arrival to the political scene in the early 1990s, AQIM seemed to support a variety of goals. Besides supporting the overthrow of the Algerian Government, AQIM has since declared its intention of establishing an Islamic caliphate. AQIM engages in a variety of tactics, but in recent times has become most notable for orchestrating kidnaps for ransom, which it uses as a means to finance the Islamic terror group, whose traditional sources of funding have dried up. Kidnaps of this kind have been rampant in Algeria, particularly in the Kabylie region, but have also been conducted in Mali. Aside from kidnapping, AQIM also engages in guerrilla warfare against military officials, drug trafficking, and has been known to employ car bomb attacks, using make-shift explosive devices. Additionally, there are reports which suggest that AQIM may be allied with the Polisario Front, and organisation based out of Algeria which seeks independence of the Western Sahara, suggesting the potential for a quadruple-linked terror threat.
Elsewhere in the Horn Africa resides the feared al Shabaab aka “The Youth”, a Somali-based militant organisation which first emerged in 1990s. According to the UN, al Shabaab earns roughly US$ 70 – 100 million a year from its operations around Somalia and Kenya, which include smuggling, piracy and kidnapping. Since 2007, al Shabaab militants have claimed to have a working relationship with al Qaeda. Although Western officials doubted these claims initially, in the years since it has emerged that the organisation has indeed recruited members from far away is Yemen, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, underscoring its increasingly transnational capability. Furthermore, since Kenya began its offensive against al Shabaab in October 2011, the group has been able to attract Kenyan converts, with reports indicating that at least 10% of al Shabaab is now made up of fighters from around Nairobi. This is particularly dangerous, as it allows some members of al Shabaab to carry out attacks undetected in Kenya. The US has been particularly concerned with the increasing transnational nature of the group, having announced on 07 June 2012, that it would offer informers US$33 million in return for intelligence on the location of al Shabaab leaders. Although the bounty scheme was met with laughter from many senior militants, the US hopes that the rewards, which include US$7 million for information on al Shabaab founder Ahmed Abdi aw Mohamed, also known as Godane, will encourage Somalis to help take down the Islamist militant menace. US officials are banking on the increasing polarisation within the group’s ranks as intelligence sources have indicated that al Shabaab may have actually split into two separate factions: the so-called “foreign legion” led by Godane, and the “national legion”, which is headed up by the group’s co-founder, Hassan Dahir Aweys. Whilst the foreign legion appears to be a loose group of al Shabaab militants that focus most of their attention on neighbouring Kenya, the national legion is a coalition of smaller al Shabaab-linked groups which target Somali facilities. Additionally, despite recent high-profile attacks, analysts believe that al Shabaab’s influence has widely diminished in the past year due to suffering a number of strategic setbacks. Al Shabaab has lost a significant amount of its territory in Somalia to the East African-dominated military coalition that includes forces from Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia as well as Somalia, and is likely to lose even more land: Kenyan Army officials announced that they believe they seize the al Shabaab-controlled port of Kismayo by August 2012.
Towards a Triangle of Terror?
It should come as no surprise that these three groups are looking to team up with each other, if they have not yet already. Given their shared basic beliefs, including a desire to implement hard-line Sharia or establish an Islamic Caliphate, as well as their emergence from poverty-stricken areas, it is conceivable that members from Boko Haram, AQIM and al Shabaab have been coordinating in at least some areas. Nevertheless, the full extent to which the groups actually share their weapons, tactics and other information is still unknown. It is likely that certain individuals may be in contact with members from other groups, however, a serious triangular partnership is unlikely. Complicating this matter, is the idea that some such groups may not “actually exist”. Whilst this may sound complicated, the truth is that many of these attacks, particularly those that reportedly stem from Boko Haram, may actually be conducted by separate gangs with no affiliation to the group and are simply committing acts of terror under the banner of organisations such as Boko Haram. Furthermore, as indicated by rumours of factions within al Shabaab and Boko Haram, if the groups individually are unable to coordinate their efforts, the likelihood that they can conduct an efficient “triangle of terror” remains to be seen.