The Horn of Africa is becoming a major recruiting ground for al Qaeda and other terrorists as a result of oppressive governments and regional civil strife, a panel of experts told Congress on Thursday.
The United States has good ties with most governments in the region but “the problem is that those governments are in fact enemies of large sections of their populations,” Kenneth John Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College, said during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and global health.
“Recruitment by al Qaeda or other radical groups is going to be in ideal conditions, where people are angry with repressive, predatory governments that are supported by the United States,” Mr. Menkhaus said.
Some analysts link the growth of terrorist groups such as the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab that operates in Somalia to U.S. support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006.
Ted Dagne, an African affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said the ouster of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia at that time created a security vacuum that was quickly filled by radical Islamists.
“Al Qaeda and its allies are much stronger today than they were a few years ago,” Mr. Dagne said.
Sadia Ali Aden, a human rights advocate, described U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion as “ill-advised” and said it had created more radicals in Somalia.
U.S. intelligence officials have expressed growing worries about the terrorist threat posed by the Horn of Africa.
“Terrorism on the Horn of Africa has become a growing concern over the past few years, due in large part to al-Shabaab,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters.
“Unfortunately, this group of brutal extremists can operate relatively freely in parts of Somalia, and that’s obviously problematic. It’s something a lot of people in our government and elsewhere are paying close attention to,” the official said.
Mr. Menkhaus told lawmakers that al-Shabaab’s influence is growing because it is seen by the local population as a viable alternative to a government in disarray, notorious for corruption and whose security forces are a law unto themselves.
“Al-Shabaab is not strong, it has numerous internal divisions, but it is the only player on the playing field and so it is strong mainly as a function of the [government’s] weakness,” he said.
The Horn of Africa faced civil war, internal political turmoil, interstate war, famine and manmade humanitarian crises for decades. The region also is highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
In Sudan, the government’s active support for terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s increased the problem. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden found safe haven in Sudan where he developed the initial idea of al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base.”
Al Qaeda terrorists attacked U.S. embassies in Africa - Kenya and Tanzania - in 1998.
U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa have produced some results.
In September, U.S. forces in southern Somalia killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al Qaeda leader in Kenya described by Western intelligence as one of three people involved in planning the attacks on the U.S. embassies.
In Ethiopia, an authoritarian government tightened its grip on the country after an election in May. In the months leading up to the vote, opposition candidates were harassed, tortured and in some cases killed.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party and its allies won more than 99 percent of the parliamentary seats.
Leslie Lefkow, a senior researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, testified that the election was a “milestone in the broader agenda and strategy of consolidating control.”
Ms. Lefkow said the strong statements issued by the U.S. and United Nations Security Council after the elections were welcome. But, she added, “We need to see words matched by action.”
The panelists testified they are concerned about “crimes against humanity” carried out by Ethiopia’s military in the Ogaden region. Hundreds of thousands of civilians from the region fled to refugee camps in Kenya.
On Sudan, Pagan Amum Okiech, secretary-general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, told the hearing that the United States should support full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan. The pact calls for a January 2011 referendum on the south’s future. Mr. Okiech said the Obama administration must ensure that this referendum is not delayed.
The United States must support the choice of the people of Sudan in the interest of peace, Mr. Okiech said. This choice, he said, “will most likely be independence, secession of southern Sudan given the fact that unity has not been made [an] attractive” option.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday met former South African President Thabo Mbeki, chairman of the African Union high-level implementation panel on Sudan, and Haile Menkerios, the United Nations special representative for the secretary-general to Sudan, to discuss the status of the CPA, including preparations for the southern Sudan referendum in January.