One of the major cornerstones of NATO’s new mandate since the end of the Cold War has been cooperative security. It involves establishing relationships with not only other regional organizations, but also security partnerships with individual states. However, with this expanded mandate come new challenges that NATO has had to contend with in order to stay relevant. The primary challenge was and still remains the terrorist threat, posed mainly by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Prior to September 11th 2001, NATO’s anti-terrorism policy could only be described as lukewarm, but after the attacks, the reality of the terrorist threat dawned on NATO. Since then, it has strengthened its efforts to combat terrorism not only as it affects members directly, but also to combat terrorism around the world as much as it can- hence its involvement in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
NATO and western response to the terrorist threat has also sparked a reaction from al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has broadened its geographical scope to make western detection more difficult. Africa has been the primary target of this new expansion, especially in North Africa, where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) acts as the primary instrument of expansion in the region. However, if the recent events at the Westgate mall in Kenya, AQIM’s foray into Mali, and Boko Haram terrorizing Northern Nigeria are anything to go by, the growth and spread of terrorism into sub-Saharan Africa threatens to wipe out any hopes NATO might have of establishing a strong defence against terrorism in the region.
Why should NATO be concerned?
There is the increasingly popular notion that NATO unconsciously played a role in the rapid growth and strengthening of terrorist activities in the region. While NATO’s intervention in the Libyan Civil War might have been noble in principle and might have had majority backing in the international community, it ended up contributing to the very situation it was trying to prevent in the first place- the growth of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa. With Muammar Gaddafi’s fall and NATO withdrawing so soon after, what was left was a chaotic, fragmented Libya characterized by fundamentalist hotbeds and a very weak central government.
The result was a Libya with porous borders facilitating the flow of weapons and aid to other fundamentalist factions not only in North Africa and the Middle East but also into neighbouring West Africa and East Africa. Of the many fundamentalist factions in Libya during the civil war, the standout faction was the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) led at the time by Abdulhakim Behaldj and notorious for its links to al-Qaeda.
NATO, in keeping with its promise not to use any NATO ground troops during the Civil War, worked with the Libyan rebels, some of which were LIFG members, in order to overthrow Gaddafi. The result was an improved post-civil war partnership with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group central to the terrorist rampage in Northern Mali some months ago. Further confirming past suspicions, BBC reporter Mark Doyle discovered that AQIM was also cooperating with smaller terrorist factions Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya.
This means that al-Qaeda now has a network extending from the Middle East to as far as Nigeria and Kenya. There is little doubt that this new influx of arms and aid ensured that these terrorist groups were better equipped to carry out attacks like the Westgate Mall attack that al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for and the Boko Haram massacre of up to 50 students at the College of Agriculture in Yobe, Northern Nigeria a month ago.
Apart from the obvious danger to lives and property and the danger to governments in the region, this new terrorist growth in the region is also threatening to destroy any hopes of a “Mediterranean Dialogue” style partnership in the region. The terrorist activities could add to changing public perception of NATO in the region that will associate NATO with contributing to the growing terrorist threat in the region. It could also help to reinforce pre-existing notions of NATO being exclusively an American foreign policy instrument and it is not difficult to see why.
While most of sub-Saharan Africa was fully behind UN Resolution 1973 that called for the establishment of a “no fly” zone in Libya during the Civil War, they did not like the fact that airstrikes were carried out that risked the lives of many innocent civilians in the conflict. They saw it as taking sides in the conflict when the “no fly” zone was supposed to be a neutral venture.
Whether these perceptions line up with reality is not primarily important. What matters is whether the African people think it is true or not and this is why it is critical that NATO be heavily involved in efforts to eliminate the terrorist threat.