The violent siege of a gas facility in Algeria last week by followers of al-Qaeda-affiliated Mokhtar Belmokhtar served as a stark reminder that while al-Qaeda in the Middle East may be defanged, terrorism is still rampant in other parts of the world.
Terrorists reportedly targeted the gas plant in retribution for the French invasion of Mali, a country that has been steadily overrun by Islamic militants over the past few months. The attackers were from seven different countries, a striking illustration of the increasingly widespread nature of anti-Western sentiment in North Africa.
UK Prime Minster David Cameron, speaking after the gas plant siege, said “”What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa.”
Cameron’s remarks highlight the frequently overlooked fact that terrorism is a thoroughly global endeavor. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the organization’s North African branch, is still going strong despite US strikes on al-Qaeda in the Middle East. North Africa is home to a startling number of terrorist groups that may be smaller in their reach but are nevertheless potentially just as dangerous, both for the region itself and for the West.
While some argue that the North African threat is overrated because AQIM largely seeks to focus on the “near enemy” of secularism, such a position overlooks the potential for AQIM and other terrorist groups in the region to set down roots in countries like Mali and form connections with one another. North Africa could form the new base of operations for a bigger, unified AQIM. According to The Telegraph, “Gen Carter Ham, commander of US Africa Command, says: ‘What I worry about more than anything, rather than each of these individual organizations, is a growing linkage, network collaboration, organization and synchronization amongst them, which poses the greatest threat to regional stability and ultimately to Europe.’” Such linkages indeed carry the potential of an al-Qaeda style organization that carries out similarly large-scale attacks on Western countries.
AQIM has been steadily gaining strength over the last few years thanks to its tactic of ransoming kidnapped Westerners, with the average ransom payout around $5 million. If the West wants to avoid the rise of another cohesive, far-reaching, well-funded terrorist organization, it is necessary to ensure that AQIM cannot gain a foothold in any one country, as al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan. Should AQIM or another North African terror organization grow in influence and coherence, the possibility of the group planning a strike on the US or another Western country to further expand its influence and prestige grows exponentially. France’s invasion of Mali to stop Islamic extremists from overrunning the government is one step in the right direction.
For the last decade, the US has focused on routing terrorism in the Middle East. While it is undeniable that this was a necessary task in the wake of 9/11, it is time to cast a wider net in the fight against those who could not only potentially harm the US or Americans abroad. The Algerian attack should remind us that while the fight in the Middle East may be winding down, the fight against terrorism in its many permutations is still ongoing. It is time to pivot the focus of our anti-terror operations to reflect the fact that North Africa may be home to our next enemies.