U.S. News & World Report

The Black Swan Threat of al Qaeda in Africa

Former Senior Fellow

The front line of the clash between the violent Islamist groups and secular governments has been slowly moving from Central Asia to North Africa for a year now, but over the past month this slow movement has turned into a rapid escalation.

The advance of the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, forces in Mali over the past month south towards the capital; French military intervention announce by President François Hollande January 11 to push back the advance; the capture by AQIM-allied forces of the Amenas gas facility in Algeria in retaliation; and the intervention of the Algerian special forces to end the takeover (with 38 hostages dead) signal a new stage in the regional conflict.

Commentators have already begun to debate whether the Malian crisis is a localized tribal conflict (Tuaregs in the North are allied with AQIM) hijacked by a few Islamists which western countries should let the locals settle without outside involvement, or evidence of a larger existential battle now spreading into sub-Saharan Africa which western democracies should stop before it gets out of hand. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union would search local conflicts for leaders and movements they could co-opt as proxies to fight their ideological campaign to spread Marxism, and thus civil conflicts were usually a murky mix of local quarrels and Cold War politics. That same dynamic now manifests itself in North Africa and has led to some western critics suggesting a "hands off" policy, which is a recipe for defeat. The local dimension of these battles and the internal political dynamics and factional tensions within the AQIM movement itself will complicate any analysis. But this complexity does not mean that western leaders should simply observe events as inactive bystanders.

European, American, and African political leaders have been slow to acknowledge the brutality of AQIM when they seize power, the trans-ethnic, transnational movement AQIM has become, their ideology, and the weapons arsenal they have amassed. The official Algerian government statements indicate that the AQIM forces which took over the Amenas gas facility were from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt; they were not all home-grown Algerian Islamists left over from their own civil war of the 1990s in which tens of thousands died. The AQIM militia which took over Amenas was "very well armed." We will have to wait for analysis which affirms whether Libya was the source of these weapons, an assumption which many observers are already making. For a year U.S. and European leaders have been reluctant to focus attention on the threat though their military officers, diplomats, and intelligence arms have been privately warning of the implications AQIM rising influence in North Africa.

Western politicians were quick to react to 9/11 and change course because the events of that day were so dramatic, the casualty rates so high, and the news media so focused for so long that it did not require much political capital to convince the public of the need for action. Until now Western leaders have avoided action because they follow instead of lead their own voter, who are tired of foreign entanglements after a decade of wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Europe, the United States, Africa. and secular Arab states (which have not fallen to the Muslim Brotherhood) now face an ideological threat which may shortly manifest itself in increasingly frequent military attacks against air traffic, oil and gas facilities, and other urban infrastructure using the Libyan weapons arsenals to carry them out. The gravest threat may be to international commercial air traffic because of the extraordinary number of MANPADS how in the hands of AQIM and its affiliates. Robert Fowler, a senior Canadian civil servant who was kidnapped by AQIM and held captive for 130 days with a colleague while he was on assignment to the United Nations, reported after his negotiated release that the movement may have 20,000 MANPADS (probably an exaggeration meant to frighten the international community) in their arsenals. And this was before the downfall of Muamar Qadhafi which reportedly made another 2,000 available. MANPADS are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles five or six feet in length weighing under 40 pounds designed to be used against aircraft. A launch of several of them at an airport could take down a few large jets and cripple air traffic, paralyzing commerce and causing more damage to national economies still trying to recover from the recession and economic crisis in Europe. Libyan chemical and biological weapons may also have been taken by AQIM after Qadhafi's downfall, which makes tracking the threat even more complicated.

The Black Swan—a term for an unexpected history-changing event—that could make its appearance during the second term of the Obama administration may be an event triggered by the AQIM in North Africa and its arsenal of weapons. The fact that western leaders are only now reacting to the threat will make it all the more difficult to stop the Swan before it makes a command appearance.