NAIROBI, Kenya — The killing of Osama bin Laden by United Sates special forces in Pakistan sends shockwaves through all the Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and Islamist extremists that have proliferated across Africa in recent years.
Several African groups have been inspired by bin Laden’s Al Qaeda including Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, which operates in the deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, as well as radical Islamist groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Tanzania’s Ansar Sunnah.
Bin Laden’s death is a blow to those groups but he exerted neither command nor control over Africa’s Al Qaeda franchises, which operate autonomously in plotting attacks, raising funds and recruiting foot soldiers. Their activities are unlikely to be affected.
The roots of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s involvement in Africa are deep and spread wide. The dual bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998 killed hundreds of people announcing Al Qaeda’s existence in bloody style to an unsuspecting world.
On Monday, as news filtered out of bin Laden’s death, a crowd began to gather at the former embassy site in downtown Nairobi. Kenya’s Prime Minister was among the first world leaders to welcome the killing.
"Kenyans are happy and thank the U.S. people, the Pakistani people and everybody else who managed to kill Osama,” Raila Odinga told the Reuters news agency.
President Mwai Kibaki called bin Laden’s death, “an act of justice to those Kenyans who lost their lives and the many more who suffered injuries.”
After the embassy bombings in 1998, Al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden killing 17 American sailors in October 2000. These early suicide attacks presaged those of September 11, 2001, in New York.
After 9/11 Al Qaeda once again struck in Kenya in November 2002 with the suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan tourist city of Mombasa that killed 15. At the same time there was a botched attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet in Mombasa.
Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s activities in the Horn of Africa may extend as far back as 1993, his interest beginning in 1991 soon after he moved to Khartoum, Sudan, where President Omar al-Bashir offered him protection, according to a cache of intelligence documents declassified as part of the Harmony Project, an anti-terrorism research initiative at West Point military academy.
Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, currently regarded as East Africa’s Al Qaeda head following the assassination of Saleh Ali Nabhan in September 2009, was reportedly operating in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993 in which 18 U.S. Army Rangers died.
Fazul is now believed to be the top commander in Al Shabaab, training suicide bombers like the ones who blew themselves up in Kampala, Uganda, in July last year killing more than 70 football fans who were watching the World Cup Finals.
The Kampala bombings were Al Shabaab’s first strike outside Somalia. Kenyan security services are now concerned the group might launch new attacks in revenge for bin Laden’s death.
Washington designated Al Shabaab a terrorist organization in February 2008 and three months later a cruise missile strike killed its leader Aden Hashi Ayro, an influential ideologue and military tactician. He was quickly replaced by Ahmed Abdi Godane, who ordered a series of suicide bombings in Somaliland — his homeland — in October that year.
It was not until February last year that Al Shabaab officially declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda, joining the list of worldwide Al Qaeda affiliates.
With dozens of American citizens of Somali origin known to have travelled to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group remains a worrying threat to the U.S. and other western interests.