NEW YORK // US raids in Libya and Somalia have underscored the new Western focus on Africa as an emerging haven for Al Qaeda-affiliated militants. But such one-off operations will not address the conditions that have made the region a fertile ground for extremists, analysts cautioned.
Killing or capturing militant leaders “is not a silver bullet alone ... it offers a chance to kick them down, but not keep them down”, a foreign security official said.
Some militant groups have reportedly formed decentralised command structures that allows them to function despite the loss of senior commanders.
According to a UN report, the Somali Al Shabab group suspected of participating in the Nairobi mall attack has a secret service that operates in discrete cells “with the intention of surviving any kind of dissolution” of its parent organisation.
A much more difficult task than carrying out attacks on militants is helping weak governments address issues that drive people into militancy, said Thomas Sanderson, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Islamist militants have recently struck across Africa, from Nigeria in the west to Mali, Algeria and Libya in the north, and Somalia and Kenya in the east. They have targeted religious minorities and government and western interests.
Fuelling these groups’ rise has been the overthrow of autocratic, and staunchly anti-Islamist, rulers in the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and a shift in the centre of gravity of militancy from Afghanistan and Pakistan to unstable parts of the Middle East and Africa.
Radical Islamists have exploited poverty and growing resentment towards corrupt governments.
Commando raids and drone strikes are not sufficient, Mr Sanderson said. “We’re going to have problems if there isn’t a very comprehensive programme that seeks to undermine the sources of recruitment and frustration.”
In Libya, this challenge is particularly acute. The country has struggled to control a web of militias that fought against Muammar Qaddafi, helping unseat him in 2011. Many of the groups have kept their weapons and control large swathes of the country, including much of its oil resources.
The rendition of Nazih Al Ragye, better known as Abu Anas Al Libi, a Qaeda militant with alleged links to the US embassy bombings in East Africa 15 years ago, could destabilise the country’s weak government by sparking a violent reaction by radical Islamist militias.
Yesterday, the country demanded an explanation from Washington about what it described as the “kidnap” of a Libyan citizen. Mohamed Al Yassir, president of Libya’s National Security Commission, said Washington had not informed Tripoli about the raid.
That statement contradicted comments from US officials who were reported to have said that Libya played a role in the raid. Al Libi’s son, Abdullah Al Ragye, said the men who took his father looked Libyan and spoke in the Libyan dialect.
A former Islamist militant commander who now works with the Libyan security services, Abdul Bassit Haroun, warned that militants would strike back and that, “this won’t just pass”.
“There will be a strong reaction in order to take revenge because this is one of the most important Al Qaeda figures,” he told Reuters.
US officials have been pushing the Libyan transitional government to arrest suspects who US intelligence believes to be responsible for the September 2012 raid on Washington’s diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans including the ambassador.
Obama administration officials had been reluctant to launch a commando raid to apprehend the Benghazi suspects over fear a US military action could spark a backlash by radical Islamist militias.
Putting pressure on Libya’s growing militant groups may have been its aim in capturing the little known Al Libi. Whether or not he played a significant role in the operations of these groups, his capture may have little affect on their potency.
On Saturday, militants attacked a Libyan military checkpoint in Tripoli that killed 15 soldiers. It was unclear if the attack was in response to the US military raid.
Killing and capturing militant leaders, Mr Sanderson said, “is not a strategy, it is a tactic”.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse