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UK terrorism strategy fails to take comprehensive approach to threat from Yemen and Somalia

UK terrorism strategy fails to take comprehensive approach to threat from Yemen and Somalia. Spike in Haiti cholera cases. New constitution approved by electorate in Niger heralds return to civilian rule. Kenya denies entry to Somali refugees. All this and more in today’s security briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
4 November 2010

One of the biggest threats to UK national security now comes from a network of al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, rather than al-Qaeda operating in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, according to Theresa May, who yesterday made her first speech on terrorism since becoming home secretary.

May’s statement encapsulates a shift in perspective on threats to UK which began in Christmas 2009, when an al-Qaeda militant trained in Yemen attempted to blow up a passenger plane in the United States. This failed attack brought the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to the fore, where media attention had previously focused almost exclusively on al-Qaeda’s activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her comments follow on from a warning from the director-general of Britain’s security service last month about the growing threat to the UK from terrorist plots developed in Somalia or Yemen.

While May emphasised that Pakistan remained the UK’s greatest security concern, she also suggested that al-Qaeda was “not the organisation it once was.” Instead, she emphasised that al-Qaeda-allied organisations working in Yemen, Somalia and across the Maghreb demonstrate the diversity of the Islamist terrorist threat to Britain.The discovery last weekend of explosive devices on a cargo planes in the East Midlands and Dubai, believed to have been sent by AQAP, underlines the threat from the region.   

Highlighting the established link between AQAP and affiliates in Somalia, May also warned that attacks from al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group that controls large parts of the country and is active in other parts of east Africa, were also “highly likely” in the UK. She went on to describe the threat of “British extremists, trained and hardened on the streets of Mogadishu, returning to the UK and seeking to commit mass murder on the streets of London.”

The openSecurity verdict: Last week’s attempted cargo plane bombings, widely believed to be the handiwork of AQAP, have focused analyst attention anew on the Islamist terrorist threat emanating from Yemen – and with this focus, links between terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Somalia and other parts of Africa have come under renewed scrutiny.

The link between Islamist outfits in Yemen and Somalia is not a new one – indeed, al-Shabaab has long made its allegiance with al-Qaeda publicly known. The parallel political situations in these two states have been much commented on of late: both are impoverished states with massive economic difficulties, in which central governments have little or no control over large parts of the country and are battling diverse insurgencies and Islamist groups bent on seizing control.

There is also a parallel in the response of European and American states to these threats. Yemen and Somalia are broadly conceived as safe havens, or ‘ungoverned spaces,’ from which devastating terrorist attacks can be plotted and launched; or training grounds for radicalised foreign nationals who will one day return to their home countries to carry out attacks themselves. London and Washington are still scrambling to find an effective solution to this problem, especially in the face of doubts about the ability of the governments in question to address Islamist organisations on their own territory.

The home secretary’s speech rightly draws attention to a security threat that is only sporadically on the radars of most non-experts. However, the speech is most notable for its lack of discussion about strategies for tackling the problem of terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This may well reflect the fact that UK, and US, strategy to date has been proved to be ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst.

May’s speech demonstrates a characteristic interpretation of the terrorist problem in Yemen and Somalia, which sees that threat solely in terms of its likely impact on the UK, the US or their allies. This focus has, in turn, led to a state-building response, as a recent report by Chatham House points out. While the rhetoric has been full of ideas about bolstering governments and developing their capacity to govern, whilst beefing up security forces, the reality has been an almost single-minded focus on the latter.

In Somalia this involves supporting AMISOM; whilst in Yemen it involves high profile cooperation between US, UK and Yemeni governments, with extensive training and financial assistance provided for Yemeni security forces. Security sector assistance has been counter-productive, especially in the context of Islamist insurgencies that draw on anti-westernism. In both Yemen and Somalia, already weak central governments have seen their credibility and legitimacy further undermined by cooperation with American and British allies.

What’s more, stabilisation in either country will not be achieved simply through interventions that focus on security forces. Indeed, little progress will be possible until the UK and the US take a more holistic view of the problem of Islamist terrorist groups in this region. These are not simply anti-western organisations, bent on bombing London or New York, although clearly these ideas do feature in their ideologies and tactics. Born of the poverty, conflict and humanitarian crises that both countries have endured for decades, extremist groups such as al-Shabaab and AQAP will not be beaten until the causes of the dire situations in both countries are addressed. Simply building the capacity of security forces, pouring money, arms and technology into government hands will not be enough.

A recent report by conflict reporter the Small Arms Survey details one of the biggest – and least reported – security threats facing Yemen: scarcity of water and land. The security strategies of the UK and the US do not in any way speak to this issue of resource scarcity, which is a key driver of conflict in both Somalia and Yemen. Neither do analysts seem to give much consideration to the link between social violence caused by this scarcity, and the purchase of Islamist extremism in both countries.

Until a more comprehensive view of these conflicts is adopted, the UK and the US can be assured that the risk of terrorist attacks on their territory emanating from Yemen, Somalia or any other ‘failing’ state will not decrease.

Spike in Haiti cholera cases

Health officials are reporting a sharp increase in the number of confirmed deaths from a cholera outbreak in Haiti, as meteorologists confirm that tropical storm Tomas is on course to hit the island tomorrow. According to the Haitian Health Ministry,  there has been a 40% spike in the number of new cholera cases reported in Haiti’s first epidemic for fifty years, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 6, 742. This diarrhoeal disease, spread through contaminated food and water, has so far claimed 442 lives.

Many fear that the torrential rain and high winds associated with Tomas may wreak further havoc on this Caribbean island, which is still recovering from January’s devastating earthquake. Tomas’s winds were recorded at 75kph last night, and the storm is expected to dump nearly 40cm of rain on Haiti over the weekend. These heavy rains may flood sanitary installations and contaminate drinking water, causing the disease to spread uncontrollably in crowded urban areas.  

Poor sanitation in the makeshift camps which house 1.3 million people in and around Port-au-Prince has created an environment ripe for the spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Aid agencies have long feared the spread of disease to these camps, which may lead to “catastrophic consequences,” according to Anne-Kristin Sydnes, a director at Norwegian Church Aid, a relief agency currently working in Haiti.  

Earlier this week United States’ officials confirmed that the strain of cholera affecting Haiti is one common to South Asia, leading to suspicions that United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal may have sparked the epidemic.

New constitution approved by electorate in Niger heralds return to civilian rule

A new constitution was approved by over 90% of voters in Niger in a referendum last Sunday, raising hopes of a smooth transition to civilian rule after a coup in February. Preliminary results released on Tuesday by the country’s national electoral commission indicate that 90.18% of voters backed the proposed constitution, based on a 52% turnout.

The new constitution was drawn up by the junta led by General Salou Djibo, which seized power on 18 February 2010. It reduces presidential power and establishes a timetable for a transition to civilian rule, with elections scheduled for January and a formal handover in April. Once the new constitution is signed into law by Djibo, it will be Niger’s seventh since independence from France in 1960.

The former president Mamadou Tandja was ousted earlier this year by army officers, after changing the constitution to allow himself to remain in power for a third term. Tandja, elected as president in 1999 and 2004, was an initially popular leader who attracted increasing criticism over the last few years for his increasingly autocratic behaviour. The months before he was removed from power earlier this year were marked by widespread protests and unrest on the streets of Niamey.

Analysts report that Salou’s junta “has been good at manoeuvring,” reaching a compromise between supporters of the former president, who back a strong presidency, and his opponents. As well as limited presidential terms, the proposed constitution bars army officers from running for office. Religious leaders, however, called for a boycott of the referendum because it establishes an entirely secular state in a 99% Muslim country.

The African Union described the vote’s outcome as “an important step toward the return to constitutional rule” in a statement earlier this week.

Kenya denies entry to Somali refugees

Kenyan officials are denying entry to approximately 8, 300 Somali refugees stranded at the Kenyan border, in violation of international law, according to a statement released by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees yesterday.

Thousands of civilians fleeing the conflict which has destabilised Somalia since 1991 are camped out just 500 metres from the border with Kenya, awaiting permission to enter the country. Some, mainly women, children and elderly people, have already begun crossing the frontier into the no-man’s land between Kenya and Somalia, according to the UNHCR. The UNHCR has called on the Kenyan government “to urgently halt further returns and allow those in no-man’s land to come back.”

Kenya is obliged under the Geneva Conventions to give sanctuary to people fleeing in fear of their lives. However, earlier this week a government official said that the thousands of refugees at Kenya’s border would not be moved into camps because they had not expressed any fear of being attacked.

Kenya is struggling under the strain of 280,000 Somali refugees, currently housed in what is now the world’s largest refugee camp, in north-eastern Dadaab. Although the Dadaab camps were originally designed to accommodate 90,000, with the arrival of over 4,000 new refugees each month the strain on Kenya’s resources is not likely to abate any time soon. Concern is also mounting about the activities of Somali militants in Kenya, who enter the country as refugees.

Since August this year, 51,000 people have been forced out of their homes in Mogadishu, suggesting that the flood of refugees is not likely to slow down. The Federal Transitional Government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed controls little of the capital beyond a few strategic blocks as it battles Islamist groups who aim to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.

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