Remarks by Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre: ‘Radical Islamism in and from the North of Africa and the Horn of Africa’

Remarks by Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre: ‘Radical Islamism in and from the North of Africa and the Horn of Africa’

On behalf of the United States Government, I welcome you to this conference on Islamic radicalism in and from North Africa and the Horn of Africa, and its implications for European and transnational counterterrorism. Thank you for the opportunity to give the opening remarks at this event, which brings together so many experts from around the region and the United States.

Global Partnerships and Cooperation

The global effects of violent radicalisation serve as a reminder that although we have individual national interests and different social and political environments, we all share common concerns. We need to continue communicating, cooperating and moving forward in the fight against global terrorism. During this first decade of the new millennium each of the nations represented here has faced the reality that no country is immune to terrorism.

Terrorists have struck around the world –in Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere– and killed indiscriminately. Terrorism demands concerted action to defeat it and one of the US National Security Strategy’s main goals is to strengthen alliances to prevent terrorist attacks and, ultimately, to defeat global terrorism.

North Africa

The Maghreb region and North African communities in Europe warrant our attention because many of the security concerns facing European and US interests emanate from that region and those communities. Recent developments highlight the persistent threat of radical Islamism in North Africa:

  • Deadly suicide attacks in Algeria
  • Arrest of radical Islamist cells in Morocco
  • Kidnapping of Austrian tourists in Tunisia
  • Discovery of a substantial number of Libyan fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq
  • The formation of al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

More daunting, perhaps, is the insidious radicalisation of immigrants and citizens of North African origins in the heart of Europe. While their numbers are limited, the Madrid attacks of 11 March 2004 demonstrate the destructive power of few terrorists with modest capabilities inspired by a radical ideology and deep hate for their host society.

A significant number of Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans and Tunisians have been arrested since 9/11 on terrorism-related charges in a several European countries. Some died as suicide bombers in Iraq. To the surprise of many, those who were arrested or ended their lives on suicide missions had been residing in Europe for many years as first-generation immigrants or second-generation citizens. Dealing with the radicalisation of these young men and their communities must be a top priority for counterterrorism.

The roots of North African Islamist militancy run deep. Five major milestones, in particular, underpin the current threat.

In the Post-colonial era that began in the 1950s, North Africa developed secular states that relegated religion to the private and symbolic spheres. Religious movements were relatively weak or suppressed. The spirit of socialism, Third-World liberation and Arab nationalism overshadowed the primordial sentiment of Islamic unity and identity. Several developments, however, gave rise to an Islamic awakening in the 1970s:

  • First, the uneven record of secular regimes in achieving their stated objectives of development, good governance and liberty created the ideological space necessary for radical Islamism to emerge as the alternative solution to the worldly problems of North Africa’s citizens.
  • Second, the Iranian revolution of 1979 inspired disenchanted North Africans –as it did other Muslims around the world– to consider seriously Islamism as an alternative ideology for society and politics.
  • Third, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 created opportunities for North African volunteers to put their new-found faith in Islamism to the test. Hundreds went to aid the Afghan Mujahidin and, in the process, acquired linkages with radical Islamists from around the world. In doing so, they set the stage for future cooperation between al-Qaeda and North African militant groups like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
  • The fourth development, and one of the most consequential for the growth of North African radicalism today, was the imminent electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front –the FIS– in Algeria’s local and national elections in the early 1990s. The end of the electoral process in 1992 and subsequent civil war unleashed several terrorist groups and created opportunities for deepening cooperation between Algeria’s radical Islamist movement and the emerging al-Qaeda international terrorist network.
  • The fifth major milestone relates to radical North African networks in Europe. Europe’s relatively liberal asylum laws enabled radical dissidents to seek a haven in its territories. Paradoxically, these dissidents exploited European freedoms to promote anti-enlightenment extremist movements in their home countries. These radical networks in Europe gave political, financial and other material support to their fighting ‘brothers’ back in North Africa.

Just as important, they became conveyor belts for new recruits who were sent to Afghanistan’s training camps and the conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya during the 1990s. One of their goals was to produce a new generation of ideologically conscious and militarily experienced jihadists that would ultimately wage a revolutionary struggle against their own regimes.

While some of these factors have receded into history, others have emerged to make the threat of radicalisation in and from North Africa ever present. These include:

  • The persistent feelings of alienation and marginalisation by a great number of North African youth in Europe and the Maghreb countries.
  • The resurgence of the al-Qaeda organisation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
  • The spread of radical Islamist ideology on the Internet.
  • The potential return of jihadists from Iraq.
  • The resurgence of radical Islamist groups in the form of AQIM.

The threat from North African networks will undoubtedly grow if we do not take seriously the immensity of the threats and deepen our cooperation with our partners in Europe and the Maghreb region.

Horn of Africa

Let me say a few words about the Horn of Africa. The roots of radicalisation and terrorism in this region are not a mystery. They include:

  • Political marginalisation of Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim states.
  • Spread of radical fundamentalist doctrines from the Middle East.
  • High levels of poverty, corruption and poor governance.
  • Social, ethnic and political instability in places like Darfur and Somalia.
  • Limited state capacity to monitor porous borders.
  • Ubiquity of arms dealing.

As long as these conditions persist, local violence will emerge and international terrorists will be attracted to the Horn of Africa.

The solutions to these problems are complex and cannot be carried out by African states alone. Combating terrorism in Africa entails building and improving economic capacity and infrastructure, promoting good governance, rolling back warlords, providing good-will assistance, disseminating moderation through education and local media, and improving intelligence on groups and emerging alliances between local groups and transnational terrorists.

Al-Qaeda has a limited presence in the Horn of Africa today, but it could exploit the region’s many vulnerabilities to create an operational platform through which to recruit, train and form local jihadist groups. As is the case with North Africa, we must reach out to our allies in the spirit of cooperation and capacity-building to ensure that al-Qaeda’s presence in the Horn of Africa remains limited.


Despite recent successes, the threat from Islamic radicals and terrorists has not been fully eliminated. In certain aspects, this threat may prove greater and more difficult to detect and defeat. It is imperative that the struggle against violent radicalisation continues.

Over the next two days, as you address questions regarding violent Islamic radicalisation, I must reiterate that the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe, Africa and elsewhere have no radical agenda. Unfortunately, the hateful actions of violent extremists who constitute a tiny minority in the Muslim community sometimes may cause some to overlook this reality.

In conclusion, I want to thank you for this opportunity to address you today. Over the next two days, you will be discussing one of the most important subjects of our generation. While recognising our successes, we also recognise that challenges remain, I thank you all for coming together in effort to take on these challenges and I wish you a successful conference.