The horrific attack by Islamist al-Shabab fighters on a college campus in Kenya this month that left 149 people dead and scores wounded was an awful reminder that sub-Saharan Africa has become a major battleground in the war on terror. Until recently, the focus of the U.S. and its allies has been mainly on terrorist networks in the Middle East and South Asia such as al-Qaida and its offshoots. But the tentacles of radical Islam now stretch far beyond Afghanistan and Iraq to threaten the African countries that are home to nearly a fifth of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Unless extremist groups like the Somalia-based al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Nigeria are defeated, a human rights catastrophe could overtake the continent.
For years, al-Shabab has sought to establish an Islamic-style "caliphate" in the power vacuum created by the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991. Most ethnic Somalis are Muslims who practice Sufi Islam, a less rigid and ideological form of the religion than the Wahhabi and Salafis strains championed by Shabab, whose militants seek a "purification" of Islam through a return to the "uncorrupted" form they believe was practiced in the time of the prophet Muhammad.
Shabab has vowed to unite Somalis living on both sides of the country's border with Kenya and seize those territories for a new Islamic republic. The attack on Garissa University in eastern Kenya was meant to drive out Christian students and faculty there in an act of ethnic cleansing and to retaliate for the Kenyan Air Force's attacks on Shabab's bases in Somalia.
Boko Haram, a ruthless terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida, first came to the world's attention last year when it abducted more than 200 female students from a girls school in Nigeria's Borno state; those girls have never been found. In January, Boko Haram leveled dozens of towns and villages in the country's impoverished northeast, leaving up to 2,000 people dead in the streets, and just this week its militants disguised as preachers lured dozens of people to a mosque for prayers, then opened fire on the crowd, killing 24. In not one of those cases were the bumbling, notoriously corrupt Nigerian security services able to mount an effective response.
Radical Islam has been able to gain a foothold in sub-Saharan Africa largely because of the weakness of African governments. Those limitations include the porousness of their countries' borders, a booming illegal arms trade and the internal fighting and corruption of autocratic regimes that make it easy for terrorists to move, plan, organize and attract new recruits. Shabab and Boko Haram thrive on the collapse of government authority in the regions where they operate because the more desperate people there become the more likely the Islamists are to emerge as the most powerful actors in the chaos that ensues.
The U.S. and its allies have a huge interest in seeing that doesn't happen for both economic and national security reasons. But defeating Islamic radicalism in Africa will require more than the counter-terrorism policies being implemented in the region now. A long-term solution to the problem must address the underlying conditions that make the region hospitable to extremist and terrorist groups and their ideologies.
For example, the U.S. and its allies could help African countries improve public administration and professionalize government services. African governments also need help gaining greater control of their borders and in deterring foreign Islamist organizations from funding radical groups on their territory. And Western nations ought to do whatever they can to spur economic growth on the continent while maintaining a robust military presence there for the foreseeable future.
There is no magic bullet that will completely remove the threat posed by radical Islam. But the effort must be made. An Islamic victory in just one or two key African countries, such as Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation, or Kenya, one of the best administered, potentially could affect hundreds of millions people. The overall aim of Western policy should be to build up government institutions and civil society wherever possible, and that in turn can only happen if military assistance and counter-terrorism are part of a broader strategy to promote political, social and economic stability throughout the region.