African leaders wary of evolving US definition of 'terrorist'

Allied warships are patrolling the Horn of Africa to intercept terrorists seeking refuge.

As the US-led war on terrorism draws surveillance warships and aircraft to Somalia, African nations are growing nervous that the emerging US definition of "terrorist" could put them on the wrong team in the new world order.

To many Africans, the US appears fickle in its notion of what constitutes terrorism. And as US warplanes conduct surveillance over Somalia, and German warships deploy off the Horn of Africa, African leaders point at what they call a US double standard.

"We are with the United States in that what happened on Sept. 11 was an act of horror and brutal destruction of life. But because it happened in the US, it has come to overshadow all other viewpoints and considerations," says Theo-Ben Gurirab, Namibia's foreign minister and a leader of the African Union who attended a recent summit of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Coolum, Australia.

The US is concerned that Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991, could provide a haven for Al Qaeda fighters leaving Afghanistan. But Dr. Gurirab says the US must provide concrete proof that Somalia is sheltering Islamic terrorists before the African Union – currently chaired by America's old adversary, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi – could support any military strike.

"There are accusations, but evidence is still in short supply that there are Al Qaeda members who are continuing what [Osama] bin Laden had started,'' he says. "If this is the case, the African Union would like to be informed and receive evidence, so we can talk to Somalia and tell them they would be contributing to their own destruction if they harbor known terrorists."

African leaders at the summit are also rankled at attempts by the US and Britain to define terrorists. During their own liberation struggles, many Africans, including South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, appeared on State Department terrorist lists, but are now considered allies, even friends. "We are part of the international coalition," says Gurirab, "but at the same time we think the very narrow definition of terrorism is built around only enemies of the US and the West."

The US supported rebel groups in Angola and Mozambique, as well as oppressive white-minority regimes in South Africa and Zimbabwe. With US help, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi not only tried to topple the Angolan government during the 1980s, but throughout the 1990s he armed rebels who undermined the newly democratic Namibia.

"They did this against our Constitution," says Gurirab, who for 27 years fought South African rule of the country now called Namibia, with the South West African People's Organiztion (SWAPO). "They were attempting to dismember our country by violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Namibia.

"At the same time as we were called terrorists," he adds, "these major Western powers provided economic and trade support to the apartheid system, assisted them militarily, and helped the regime in Pretoria to develop nuclear weapons against us."

Tom Lansner, an Africa analyst with the Ford Foundation in New York, concedes that some African liberation movements used tactics that could be considered terrorist, such as blowing up a restaurant in Durban, South Africa, in the mid-1980s. But he argues that most of their targets were assets such as electrical transmission lines and bridges, which had military value to the regimes they were fighting.

The US and Britain will only win African support of any offensives on the continent by sharing intelligence material with leaders they once distrusted, says Martin Schonteich, a researcher with the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

"If it was a very targeted attack, if [the coalition] shared what they know with African leaders, then I think it would be accepted," Mr. Schonteich says. "But if there is so-called collateral damage or attacks on state institutions, then very quickly you will see a backlash," Schonteich says.

Schonteich and Lansner agree that resistance to the US campaign is already apparent among much of the African population. Even stable countries with sizable Muslim populations – such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and increasingly, South Africa – are witnessing a stirring on the street. "In a lot of these places, you'll find real sympathy for the Islamic-fundamentalist position," Lansner says.

Schonteich warns that some African governments may even use the war on terrorism to crack down on their Muslim minorities. "In Uganda, you already have non-Muslims exploiting the war to make accusations against Muslim communities in the hope they will get some aid from the West," he says. "They will certainly try."

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