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Jihadists are on the rise across Africa — The US and its allies must remain vigilant

People look at destroyed shops in Mogadishu’s Lido beach, Somalia, Saturday, April, 23, 2022, after a bomb blast by Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels hit a popular seaside restaurant killing at least six people. Ambulance service officials say the explosion occurred Friday evening when many patrons gathered for an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

A deadly assault on Mali’s largest military base. Suicide bombings in Somalia. A massive armed prison break in Nigeria. Though these events happened hundreds of miles apart from each other, they’re all related –– because they’re all part of the rising wave of Islamic extremism in Africa. 

The American public’s attention may have shifted away from radical Islamic terrorists, but that doesn’t mean jihadists have stopped sowing death and destruction. Nor did the recent death of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri end the terrorist threat. On the contrary, extremists continue to spread instability and chaos across the globe. 

Al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa’s Sahel region pose some of the greatest dangers. In the past 15 years, groups like Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have increased their attacks tenfold. Today they stand toe-to-toe with African military forces and are drawing ever closer to realizing their dreams of creating Islamic states rooted in Sharia law.  

Al-Qaeda affiliates are particularly gaining ground in Mali, especially as France withdraws its forces in response to the military coup in Bamako. The jihadists are already turning the country into a launching pad for attacks throughout the region, and Al-Qaeda’s leadership is thrilled at the prospect of additional victories. Before his death, al-Zawahiri praised African extremists for writing “an epic chapter in the war annals of Muslim history” and promoted them as an “example, worthy of emulation, for…Muslims the world over.” 

These groups’ goals aren’t limited to Africa. They are part of the same network responsible for killing thousands of Americans, in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in the attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998, in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and on 9/11. It is clear they intend to target the U.S. again — and with our southern border out of control due to the Biden administration’s failures, they have a ready way to infiltrate our country

That’s why we can’t afford to let Islamic extremists overtake Africa. Fortunately, Western forces are the most effective counter-terrorists on the continent. It was the U.S. military that removed Algerian Al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2015, and it was a French strike that killed AQIM emir Mohammad Droukdel in 2020. We must continue to replicate those efforts.  

In addition, the U.S. must address structural challenges and instabilities in Africa that breed extremism, including poverty and economic stagnation. Local governments also face a growing famine caused by Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, from which jihadists only stand to gain. Through effective and responsible foreign assistance, we can aid development and combat corruption that saps local governments’ ability to fight terrorists. 

Our European allies share the burden of threats from terrorism, and their robust involvement in countering those threats is critical. The U.S. should work closely with our European partners and encourage their further engagement. A united Western front will show resolve and increase our capacity to disrupt and defeat Al-Qaeda. It will also promote stability in Africa and reduce the risk of mass migration and refugee flows from the continent.

Further gains for African terrorists will mean terrible suffering for the people of Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, and more, and greater danger of attacks targeting the U.S. and our allies. The West must stay vigilant against this growing threat and work together to combat it. 

Rubio is the senior senator from Florida and vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Tags al-qaeda Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Ayman al-Zawahiri french troop withdrawal from mali jihadist sharia law

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