DUSSELDORF, Germany, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- During the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, Africa seemed to have become what some observers have called "the forgotten continent." After Sept. 11, 2001, international attention focused on the Middle East as a main hotspot of new conflicts. For a moment though, there seemed to be a window of opportunity, a chance that Africa might surface on the international agenda again. Gen. Tommy Franks argued in a dialogue with former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL): "We can finish the job in Afghanistan if we are allowed to do so. And there are a set of terrorist targets after Afghanistan. My first priority would be Somalia. There is no effective government to control the large number of terrorist cells."
One of the reasons why Africa deserves international attention is actually the war on terror. For international terrorist networks Africa is a main target; it serves as a safe haven and provides an effective financial basis with its large networks of informal economies.
Africa has furthermore slowly emerged as one of the key strategic fields of international resources. The oil in the Gulf of Guinea is of major interest to the United States and Europe alike. The U.S. currently imports some 16 percent of its total oil imports from the African continent, Nigeria being one of its five most important oil suppliers. During the next four or five years these figures will rise substantially to some 25 percent.
It is not only oil that is driving the interests of nations and corporations, it is also other raw materials like coltan for relatively new industrial products, like mobile phones. The rising importance of African resources for the United States and Europe is particularly worrying as Africa had become what some have called the "underbelly for transnational terrorism".
Largely unnoticed, major parts of Africa have been the scene for Islamization since the late 1970s. It is this mixture of strategic resources, Islamization, and state weakness that makes Africa so an inviting target for terrorism and terrorist networks.
The fact that terrorism has emerged as one of the most dangerous threats to the West was by no means a surprise. Back in 1995 the NATO Secretary General Willy Claes warned: "The threat by fundamental Islam in Africa has to be taken seriously. Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western Security."
In sub-Saharan Africa Islam has advanced significantly in the last couple of years. Some analysts fear that Niger may break up; into a Muslim dominated North and a Christian dominated South. Ethiopia, Nigeria and Senegal also have strong Muslim minorities.
Some analysts go as far as claiming that there are already centers of Islam in Africa, considering the tropical zone along the Gulf of Guinea, the Sudanese Nile region and the East African coastal strip as such centers of Islam.
There are strong Muslim minorities in Mozambique, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Burkina, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire. In some other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa Islam is already a majority religion: Djibouti, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia.
In Nigeria for instance some 12 provinces introduced the Shari'a as basic law and Osama bin Laden called it one of the countries he wanted to "liberate". Somalia serves a safe haven for terrorist groups like al-Itihaad al-Islamyia, which is linked to al-Qaida. This particular terrorist cell is held responsible for the attacks on U.S. soldiers during the U.N. mission Restore Hope, which left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and about 75 wounded.
Islam is one index of identity, alongside ethnicity and regional loyalties and so far African Islam has been relatively moderate. But as David McCormack recently pointed out, African Islam is slowly turning into Islamism in Africa. In West Africa one of the major reasons for the instability of the coastal strip and its countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Liberia is the division into a Christian dominated South and a Muslim dominated North.
More aggressive interpretations of Islam are promoted by Saudi Arabia and Iran, through building of mosques, financial support for the haj and the provision of education. The presence of the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youths in East Africa has had a radicalizing influence on the local population. The threat by fundamentalist Islam in Africa has to be taken seriously.
Three years before Sept. 11, 2001, Africa was targeted by al-Qaida. The attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi caused 224 casualties, including 12 Americans. Since 1996 the number of international terrorist incidents in Africa increased dramatically. While in 1996 eleven incidents had been reported, the number exploded to 55 incidents in 2000.
Although Africa is comparatively less effected by international terrorism (although it experienced some of the bloodiest attacks) that does not indicate that it deserves less attention. Quite on the contrary, it should be one of the major focuses in the struggle against terrorism. The core problems the international community has to face on the African continent are:
-- ungoverned parts of Africa, especially in failed states, which often serve as safe haven for terrorists and other states that serve as transit hubs to the Middle East, like Kenya;
-- conditions of conflict that may lead to more alienation from traditional identities and thus providing breeding ground for more radical forms of Islam;
-- that nearly 40 percent of Africa's total population are already Muslim, while a more fundamentalist version of Islam is promoted with financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Iran;
-- that widespread guerilla warfare might turn into urban terrorism;
-- that informal economic structures might serve as an ideal environment to money laundering;
-- and finally that non-governmental organizations, donors, and other Western institutions might provide an easy and inviting target for international terrorism.
(Dustin Dehez is a research fellow at the Dusseldorf Institute for Foreign and Security Policy. This article is reprinted by permission of the World Security Network)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)