The arrest of a Nigerian national suspected of plotting to blow up a transatlantic plane is another worrying piece in the jigsaw of West African Islamic terrorism. Until a year or two ago, Al Qaeda’s presence in the region was more a rumour than a serious concern to Western governments. The group was thought to be involved in diamond smuggling during the Sierra Leonean civil war in the 1990s, and some observers believe it has profited from the heroin trade through the Gulf of Guinea.
But as recently as February this year, when I gave a talk to the UK’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, the British government did not believe Islamic extremism in West Africa would coalesce into a serious threat, especially outside the region itself. Although the FCO has placed half of Mali and Niger and all of Mauritania on its list of travel blackspots, their people still seemed unruffled when I talked to them about their West Africa strategy a couple of months back.
They may be sleeping less easily now. Although Al Qaeda’s infiltration of the region remains at a fledgling stage, the arrest of the Nigerian and the kidnappings of four Spaniards and two Italians – all in the past six weeks – are an indication of the potential dangers both within and without West Africa’s borders. And the pressure that is encouraging young Africans towards extremism – the great collision between demography and poverty that is taking place against a background of inept and venal governance – is intensifying by the day.
The authorities are doing what they can. Nigeria’s police cracked down violently on the Islamist Boko Haram movement back in August, and Mauritania’s police take copies of taxi drivers’ ID cards so that they can haul in their families if passengers disappear.
But without economic development the region’s governments will be fighting an impossible war. Al Qaeda’s wealth will buy off police and army as well as luring in new recruits. It is development that people need – relevant education and infrastructure investment provided by their own governments that are responsive to them and not to donors or other vested interests, and that provide a fair enabling environment for businesses large and small; assistance from the West by means of getting out of the way of trade and migration and forcing Western businesses to behave honestly; and they also need a large dose of luck: they need leaders to emerge who have the will and courage to stop the cycle of selfishness and corruption at all levels of government and to shed the burden of aid in favour of self-reliance; and they need their neighbours to remain stable and peaceful. Only West Africa itself has the power to stop extremist violence in the long-term. As many people I have spoken to in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau realise, the rest of us can help most by clearing their path.