Al-Qaeda affiliates are threatening cities in Africa
DAKAR, Senegal — In a city where nightclubs and mosques coexist peacefully, Islamist violence long felt like a foreign problem — something residents watched on news clips from the Middle East or other parts of Africa.
“We just didn’t worry very much about it,” said Abdullaye Diene, the deputy imam of the country’s largest mosque. “Here you can spend your nights drinking at the disco and then shake the hand of the imam.”
But Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, a cafe and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity.
The attacks have occurred in countries that had been rebounding from political turbulence, such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Now fears of such bloodshed are growing in this pro-Western democracy, which serves as a regional hub for international organizations.
“It’s getting closer and closer to Senegal,” said Aminata Touré, the country’s former prime minister and an adviser to the current president.
The violence is a sign of the rapidly expanding reach of radical Islamist armed groups on the continent. In East Africa, al- Shabab militants with bases in Somalia have carried out massacres in neighboring Kenya, killing more than 200 people and devastating its tourism industry. Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants have moved into Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In North Africa, the Islamic State and its affiliates have seized territory in Libya and launched attacks in Tunisia and Egypt.
Senegal, a former French colony that has never suffered a major terrorist incident, is now taking unprecedented security measures. It recently hosted a U.S.-led training exercise for the third time in recent years; this time it had a special focus on counterterrorism. Authorities have called for a ban on the full-face Islamic veil, with President Macky Sall saying it raises concerns in instances when women cannot be identified. The garb is “not part of our culture,” he said.
For years, fighters with al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have lurked in the deserts of northern Mali and Algeria, part of an ungoverned swath of land in northwest Africa known as the Sahel. But AQIM and its affiliates appear to have shifted their strategy. Rather than simply fighting Malian, French or U.N. troops in northern Mali, they have launched attacks hundreds of miles from their power base, in some of the region’s most peaceful, religiously tolerant cities.
There is perhaps no better example of a peaceful, religiously tolerant West African city than Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The country has never had a coup. Its population of 14 million is about 90 percent Muslim, but Christians are widely accepted, hosting public Christmas celebrations. A recent week here saw an international arts festival and a series of public concerts; a flood of amateur surfers took to a local shore break.