Failed State,Terrorism and Transnational Dangers

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power, for 20 years, a foreign affairs columnist for the
International Herald Tribune; column distributed around the world




President Barack Obama and the White House believe that there are in the world two major fault lines, one in the Middle East and the other in the so called Failed States. From Africa to Central Asia to the Pacific Rim nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse, Obama has said. These failed states are the perfect incubators for extremism and terror, Obama says.

But is this true? Evidence suggests it is not.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which has more than its fair share of very weak states, by and large has not been the focus of outside extremists and terrorists. Despite its many conflict zones, ungoverned spaces, porous borders, refugees, and large-scale corruption most of Africa has not been infected by jihadists. Even those countries such as Tanzania and Senegal which have majority Muslims populations and plenty of poverty have not.

In the last couple of years there has been some jihad activity in northern Nigeria with perhaps indirect support from Al Qaeda. Recently in Mali Al Qaeda has been reinforcing the Tuareg rebels. In Somalia, a country with no proper government, Africa’s only truly failed state, Al Qaeda-supported militants have sought to gain control but they have been beaten back. The poorest countries of all, namely Chad, Niger and Mauritania, have not been infected. Neither has the Congo despite its never ending civil wars.

The countries that generally harbor Al Qaeda are much wealthier- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Algeria, Morocco, Germany and Indonesia. One scholar estimated that 87% of Al-Qaeda members live or have lived in Western Europe.

Why do transnational terrorist organizations prefer well off, more stable, states? It is obvious that where anarchy is rampant, terrorists must spend precious resources ensuring their own safety and security. Besides, terrorists need access to modern communications, transport and financial infrastructure.

The arguments are not dissimilar when it comes to the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A terrorist group just like a government, needs high level expertise and modern infrastructures that will not be found in failed or poverty ridden states. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq spent $10 billion over a decade trying to build nuclear weapons and failed, yet it had far more resources than weak states or terrorist groups.

Well, there is the issue of theft or illegal possession of nuclear materials. Russia and Pakistan, which are not failed states, have been cause for concern, about the security of their nuclear weapons. In the case of Pakistan, Islamist infiltration and extremism have been a source for worry. But Russia of late however, has greatly strengthened its security. As for Pakistan, the Americans have lent their expertise to secure that country’s nuclear arsenal, although some doubt must remain.

Some say weak states are good smuggling routes for nuclear materials, especially when they border nuclear states or states in possession of biological weapons. Radioactive materials have been detected on trains leaving Kyrgyzstan, one of which was bound for Iran. Bribery can get a smuggler a long way. However in recent years smugglers of such weapons have had scant success. Many arrests have been made and convictions secured. Policing has grown much more sophisticated.

Al Qaeda from its Afghani redoubt did attempt to make chemical and nuclear weapons and did recruit some Pakistanis with nuclear expertise. It did not make serious progress. Al Qaeda also supported the Sudanese attempt to manufacture chemical weapons. But these are exceptions. The likelihood of other failed states doing the same is almost non-existent. The case of rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr A.Q. Khan revealed that the countries that he linked up with were those in the middle income band

For those concerned about the threat of cross boarder terrorism and transnational dangers, today’s list of troublesome states is brief indeed: North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Syria; no more. All on this list can be accused of being weak states but none is a failed state.

The link between state fragility and cross boarder threats is overblown. There are a number of countries that should worry us because of their serious economic and social weaknesses, and because of the fragility of their political structures. But they are in no way a threat: Kenya, Sudan, Yemen, Congo, Mali, Somalia, the Philippines, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

It is a convenient for some institutions, like the Pentagon, and some foreign aid advocates, to play up the issue of the danger of failed states, and to use the false argument about the likelihood of terror and the proliferation of arms of mass destruction as a way to win financial and political support. When what is needed is a calm approach; this goes as well for President Obama and the White House.