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Counterterrorism in African Failed States

The US Army's Strategic Studies Institute has published a new monograph by Colonel Thomas Dempsey that is well worth your time: Counterterrorism in African Failed States: Challenges and Potential Solutions. The monograph focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa, principally the failed states of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia.

Al Qaeda established terrorist hubs in Liberia and Sierra Leone to exploit the illegal diamond trade, laundering money, and building connections with organized crime and the illegal arms trade. In Somalia, Al Qaeda and Al Ittihad Al Islami established terrorist hubs that supported terrorist operations throughout East Africa. A new organization led by Aden Hashi ’Ayro recruited terrorist nodes that executed a series of attacks on Western nongovernment organization (NGO) employees and journalists within Somalia.

Analysis of these groups suggests that while the terrorist nodes in failed states pose little threat to the interests of the United States or its GWOT partners, terrorist hubs operating in the same states may be highly dangerous. The hubs observed in these three failed states were able to operate without attracting the attention or effective sanction of the United States or its allies. They funneled substantial financial resources, as well as sophisticated weaponry, to terrorist nodes operating outside the failed states in which the hubs were located. The threat posed by these hubs to U.S. national interests and to the interests of its partners is significant, and is made much more immediate by the growing risk that nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) will fall into terrorist hands.

The burgeoning proliferation of nuclear weapons and the poor security of some existing nuclear stockpiles make it more likely that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda will gain access to nuclear weapons. The accelerating Iranian covert nuclear weapons program, estimated to produce a nuclear capability within as little as one year, is especially disturbing in this context. A failed state terrorist hub that secures access to a nuclear weapon could very conceivably place that weapon in the hands of a terrorist node in a position to threaten vital American national interests.

Dempsey brings into the fold the loss of control over WMD assets in the former Soviet Union and the employment of their WMD scientists abroad in states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

More recent reporting on the situation is hardly more encouraging. A survey in 2002 of 602 Russian scientists working in the Russian WMD sector revealed that roughly 20 percent of the Russian scientists interviewed expressed a willingness to work for nations identified as WMD proliferators: Iran, North Korea or Syria. Most recently, Busch and Holmes have catalogued the efforts of rogue states and of Al Qaeda to acquire nuclear weapons capability from the inadequately controlled Russian nuclear sector, and have identified the human element of that sector as being especially vulnerable. When viewed in combination with the growing influence and reach of Russian organized crime, the lack of security in the Russian weaponized nuclear technology sector represents a significant risk of nuclear capability finding its way into the hands of terrorist hubs. Exacerbating this risk are the efforts of non-nuclear states that are seeking to develop a nuclear strike capability.

An excellent monograph and a pretty good primer on what may become the next major visible theater in the GWoT.