Long War Journal, April 29, 2015:
Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on the threat posed by jihadist groups in Africa.
In preparing today’s testimony, I reviewed the history of al Qaeda’s plotting against the West. A number of facts demonstrate that al Qaeda’s presence in Africa has been tied to these efforts. For instance, declassified documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that he ordered al Qaeda’s branches in Africa to select candidates capable of striking inside the U.S. Bin Laden also ordered al Qaeda’s African branches to coordinate their work with his “external operations” team, which was responsible for plotting attacks against Western interests. Some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders, including those who have overseen al Qaeda’s planned attacks in the West, have come from Africa. Senior al Qaeda leaders embedded in Shabaab have also trained operatives to attack in Europe. I discuss this evidence in detail in the final section of my written testimony.
Complex tribal, ethnic, and religious dynamics mean that any summary of the situation in Africa will be necessarily incomplete. However, I will attempt to distill some themes that are important for understanding the rising jihadist threat in the continent. While there are important differences between ISIS and al Qaeda, and the two are at odds with one another in a variety of ways, they are both inherently anti-American and anti-Western. Thus, they constitute a threat to our interests everywhere their jihadists fight.
Since the beginning of the year, the ISIS branch in Libya has repeatedly attacked foreign interests. The group has bombed and/or assaulted with small arms the Algerian, Moroccan, Iranian, South Korean and Spanish embassies in Tripoli. Fortunately, these attacks have caused only a few casualties, as foreign governments pulled most of their diplomatic personnel out of Libya months ago. But these incidents show the organization’s followers are deeply hostile to any foreign presence.
Other ISIS attacks on foreigners in Libya have been more lethal and at least two Americans have been killed by ISIS’ so-called “provinces.” In January, the group’s fighters launched a complex assault on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. Ten people, including David Berry, a former U.S. Marine serving as a security contractor, were killed. In August 2014, jihadists from the ISIS province in the Sinai killed William Henderson, an American petroleum worker.
Some of ISIS’ most gruesome acts in North Africa have come with pointed threats against the West. In February, the jihadists beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts. The propaganda video showing the murders was entitled, “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” ISIS explicitly threatened Italy in the video and also made it clear that they would target Christians simply for adhering to a different faith. Earlier this month, ISIS’ branch followed up by killing a large group of Ethiopian Christians.
In March, ISIS claimed responsibility for the massacre at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. More than 20 people were killed in the assault, which targeted foreign tourists. Citizens of Britain, France, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, and Spain were among the victims. Although ISIS was quick to lay claim to the museum slayings, the reality is more complicated. The Tunisian government has blamed the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, which is part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda. Based on publicly-available information, it appears that the attackers may have joined ISIS, but the operation itself was planned by the AQIM brigade’s leadership.
Al Qaeda’s international network continues to launch high-profile attacks across the continent. Some of these operations directly target foreigners. Earlier this month, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia, killed more than 140 people at the Garissa University College in Kenya. The gunmen reportedly separated out non-Muslims for killing, letting many Muslims go. This shows that the organization, like other parts of al Qaeda, is very concerned about the impact of its violence in the Muslim-majority world. In this respect and others, the Garissa attack was similar to Shabaab’s siege of the Westgate shopping mall in September 2013. More than 60 people were killed, with Shabaab’s gunmen singling out non-Muslims. Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya and other neighboring countries are part of what the UN has identified as the group’s “regional” strategy. Shabaab has undoubtedly suffered setbacks since the height of its power in East Africa, but it still operates a prolific insurgency inside Somalia, while also seeking to expand its capabilities in the surrounding countries. In fact, America’s counterterrorism efforts in East Africa seem to be principally aimed at the part of Shabaab tasked with exporting terrorism throughout the region.
As we’ve seen over the past several years, al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Africa will attack American and Western interests when the opportunity presents itself. The September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission and Annex in Benghazi and the raid on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis three days later were carried out by al Qaeda-linked groups. The Ansar al Sharia organizations in Libya and Tunisia, both of which are tied to AQIM, were involved in these assaults on America’s diplomatic presence in North Africa. In early 2013, terrorists commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar killed dozens of foreign workers during the siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Belmokhtar, who is openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri, claimed responsibility for operation on behalf of al Qaeda.
There is no doubt, therefore, that both ISIS and al Qaeda pose a threat to Western interests in Africa. Below, I explore current trends within both organizations, highlighting some ways these international networks may threaten Americans both home and abroad. But first, I briefly look at the different strategies ISIS and al Qaeda are employing to build up their networks.