The world is mourning for the lives lost this past week in Paris. The attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a local Kosher grocery store have transfixed our attention yet again on terrorism…at least for the moment. World media would have you believe that this was a surprise and is focusing on the cold-blooded barbarity of those following al Qaeda in Yemen or ISIS in Syria/Iraq, while questioning whether the attacks highlight some deficiency in preparedness on behalf of Western governments. The media fixates on what this all means. Does this indicate the activation of other terrorist cells? What countries are under the most threat? What about terrorists entering the United States? What about the dreaded “lone wolf?” How could this have happened?
U. S. officials continue to look at these incidents as crimes. They do not want to acknowledge that we are at war; after all, this President campaigned on getting us out of war. Moreover, they do not want to say who we are at war with…or most certainly who is at war with us. Our government continues to talk about how we have degraded “core” al Qaeda, statements are made in terms of “destroying” ISIS, and it seems as though we think these are all small splinter or fringe groups that are more annoyance than real threat. We consistently react to each crisis, rather than taking serious steps to prevent them. Most recently, no senior U.S. official thought it necessary, or even smart, to attend a Paris rally with several other world leaders, including the heads of Israel and the Palestine Authority, making us seem out of touch with what is happening in the world. In speeches over the past couple of years, former House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Mike Rogers, would recall a statement that he saw scribbled on a wall at a forward operating base in Afghanistan: “America is not at war; America is at the mall.”
We rally around Charlie Hebdo for three basic reasons. First, the attacks were on a European ally’s soil, and if it can happen there, it could happen here. Second, we have labeled this as terrorism, and we are now sensitized to this term to the point that many believe that we are at war with terrorism, forgetting that terrorism is a tactic, not an organization. The third reason is because we see the attacks as a direct affront to a cherished Western democratic value: freedom of speech and expression. Whether we agree with the satirical handling of issues by the Hebdo cartoonists, it is their basic right to express themselves, as it is ours to agree or disagree. And so, we sit in somber outrage, waiting on another world leaders’ conference, which President Obama has called for in mid-February.
At the same time as the attacks in Paris occurred, we learned that hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered in Baga, Nigeria, by Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist organization. This is the latest in a growing abundance of brutality and barbarity that is of equal or greater scale to the incidents associated with ISIS or al Qaeda in Yemen. Yet, as usual, our attention is not drawn to these incidents as they are to Europe or the Middle East; they are in Africa, you see, and they are Africans killing Africans. We have a very hard time understanding Africa, that it is a continent of fifty-plus countries, not one country itself, and that these attacks are every much an affront to democracy, free speech, and human rights as is the attack on Charlie Hebdo. We cannot yet see that their problems become our problems within the next decade.
The fact is that the two incidents — the attacks in Paris and those in Nigeria — are inextricably linked. They are linked by the growing influence of fundamentalism; Salafi Islam, a radical version of Islam. This version of Islam does not take its main tenets from the Quran, but from hadiths that are particularly skewed toward a strict adherence to Sharia law and a violent approach to non-believers, including Muslims who do not subscribe to the strict tenets of Sharia law. Aided by sophisticated mechanisms of financing (including drug trafficking, human trafficking, and money laundering), an adept use of social media to spin their message and recruit others to their cause, and a passive, non-vocal majority of Muslims who are both confused and fearful of speaking out against any part of Islam, they have gained organization, weapons and finances that have allowed them to consistently expand their following. Their goals are debasement and elimination of secular states, the establishment of Islamic states (regional — not on arbitrary colonial boundaries — and based on Sharia law), and either the conversion of all people to Islam or the elimination of non-believers. Their targets are Western values and governments as well as anyone who is not Muslim (by their strict definition). They seek “safe havens” from which to organize and operate; typically found in fragile or failing states like Afghanistan in the early-to-mid 1990s.
More importantly, however, is their potential for targeting of the next generation of Muslims for indoctrination into this form of fundamentalism. It is a consistent and relentless process that starts in mosques and extends into academic institutions from elementary school through colleges and universities. This is a world-wide effort that starts innocently enough (the funding and building of mosques from outside sources), but ends with indoctrination of the next generation of radical Islamists. These efforts especially target those who are disenfranchised from society or have little clear path to a future; they have often lost hope.
The sad reality is that, as we focus on the Middle East, Northern Africa has become a new area of expansion for Islamic fundamentalism. West and East Africa are now becoming ripe for recruitment by Islamic fundamentalists. Put simply, if we do not take strategic actions that create an alternative environment now, we will likely be involved in a battlefront as active and as deadly in Africa within the next decade as we have in the Middle East today. The rationale for these statements is fairly straightforward. First, we are already seeing the rise of various factions of al Qaeda in Africa and just like the rise of al Qaeda in Yemen, fundamentalist will be looking for their next “safe haven.” Second, although there have been significant improvements over the past two decades in African governments’ stability and effectiveness, many remain tarnished with corruption and there is often a significant gap between the realities of the capitol and those at the grass roots. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is an overabundance of barely employed or unemployed youth at the grass roots level, who have little hope and see little purpose or future. They are easily swayed by both money and a cause (having a purpose). And although today they are not anti-government, they are also not beholden to it. Just recently, a group of Ghanian youth “volunteered” to be trained by Boko Haram. Ghana, which has been relatively peaceful for over a decade, is one of the more advanced and promising countries in Africa. To see youth gaining interest in Boko Haram is a harbinger of things to come. Most recently and on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, new threats to France were issued by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It’s location? Africa!
As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:33: Do not be misled. Bad company corrupts good character.
Today, as Americans, we have a choice. We can act now and help create a reality that is advantageous to maintaining the good character of these African youth, and, thus, to African countries, to Western values, and to our own national security. Or we can ignore the path of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and debate the effectiveness of our military presence in Africa within the next 10 years. We have the opportunity to prevent a violent outcome, or at least to dampen its effect by educating youth, especially the next generation of leaders, on alternatives to violence and on the peaceful fundamentals of all religions. Moreover, we can address the issue of unemployed youth at the grass roots level by giving them training, and options from employment to owning their own business. By doing so, these youth become invested in the peaceful environment in which their businesses and jobs operate, and are much less likely to be swayed by a promise of money, a gun, and a purpose that is both violent and not in our best interest (nor theirs).
This is why we created 72 Africa. We take a three-pillar approach of conflict transformation, research and education, and creation of economic stability opportunities at the grass roots level, in order to create the types of environment that build peace and hope, especially for African youth. Other organizations may provide one of these services, and several organizations will supply aid. We have found, however, that most Africans, especially at the grass roots level, want to help themselves. They are less interested in aid. They are more interested in learning how to help themselves, with opportunities to create a future, something not done well by governments. At 72 Africa, we are focused on creating these environments and working to prevent conflict as well as youth radicalization.
You have an opportunity to be part of the solution to safeguard our national security by donating to our mission. By donating today, you can support our immediate engagement with African youth to provide education as well as near-term skills that will give them hope. We also have two immediate opportunities to supply micro-funding for new businesses that will begin to create the economic environment that will keep youth interested and employed. The sooner we start, with your help, the sooner we can influence the direction of hundreds of youth who might otherwise be tempted by radicalization. As we say, “our sandals in the soil now can prevent boots on the ground later.”