When security officials asked to inspect a chartered Boeing 727 parked at the end of a runway in Harare, Simon Mann, a former SAS and ex-military services contractor, offered them a $10,000 gift instead.
No. They wanted a look at the plane. Barging onboard, they found a small company of rough-looking men, a cache of weapons, additional military equipment and bags of cash -- all the makings of first-class coup.
The Zimbabwe bust disrupted the Wonga Coup, a scheme to overthrow the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. A group of British financiers had targeted the postage stamp-size sub-Saharan nation, planning to overthrow the government in exchange for preferential oil deals.
The aborted 2004 plot was emblematic of the troubles that have plagued Africa for decades -- corrupt officials, shadowy contractors, violent political change and a scramble for the continent's resources.
Of late, things have changed. But as we saw last week with the murder of American diplomats in Libya and assaults on Western embassies from Tunisia to Sudan, that change has not been for the better. Today, Islamist-inspired terrorist networks foment violence in many corners of the continent. Add in shaky governments that can't deliver political, religious and economic freedoms -- or even provide security -- and you've got problems far bigger than a handful of guns for hire straight out of "The Dogs of War."
Terrorist groups in North Africa and the Sahel (a band of territory in sub-Saharan Africa running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea) see themselves in common cause. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, have varying capabilities and goals -- but they are all up to no good.
And things are getting worse. At the time of the Wonga Coup, for example, terrorist incidents in sub-Saharan Africa numbered about 70 per year, according to the database maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. By 2010, they had climbed to 450.
That is not to say that everything is going the terrorists' way. AMISON, a regional peacekeeping force sponsored by the African Union, has been pushing al Shabaab out of communities in Somalia and setting up local governance.
Likewise, Boko Haram's reach seems limited to the Muslim-dominated northern half of Nigeria. West Point's Combating Terrorism Center reports that "Boko Haram's attempt to strike the [mostly Christian] south will likely remain isolated, infrequent, and ineffectual."
But terrorism remains on the march. AQIM, until recently the least successful of these groups, has been quite effective in helping Islamist groups wrest control of northern Mali.
The United States has every reason to be concerned. All these groups are affiliated with al Qaeda. All have sworn "death to America." Al Shabaab has recruited "fighters" in the United States for operations overseas. The last thing we need is another Afghanistan popping up in Africa.
What we do need is a smart strategy that treads between indifference and bogging America down in African affairs. Sadly, that's not what we got in the White House strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, released this summer. That plan is simply to heap more foreign assistance on governments of questionable competency. That tack dovetails with the recent State Department "fact" sheet lavishing praise on the importance of aid. (Indeed, it laments that "the United States provides no foreign assistance to Canada.")
A serious, proactive U.S. agenda in Africa would press for political, religious and economic freedom, while offering appropriate security assistance that involves more than just whacking terrorist operatives with drone strikes.
And, as the unsettling scenes at U.S. embassies have made tragically clear, we need to get serious. Now.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.