West African “Terror Threat”: After Decades, Anarchy Hasn’t Arrived


While riddled with weak states, West Africa has not become the international terrorist playground some feared it would. That does not mean warnings about extremists should be overlooked however.

By Charlie Warren for ISN Security Watch

In 1994, journalist Robert Kaplan wrote a controversial¬†Atlantic¬†article, ‚ÄúThe Coming Anarchy,‚ÄĚ warning of West Africa‚Äôs ungoverned spaces, disease-ridden slums, weak borders, and impoverished masses. Kaplan declared that ‚Äúwe ignore this dying region at our own risk.‚ÄĚ In 2004, Douglas Farah and Richard Shultz published a¬†Washington Post¬†op-ed¬†that picked up the argument where Kaplan had left off. West Africa had become a terrorist sanctuary. Three years after the 9/11 attacks, the authors proclaimed, ‚Äúweak and corrupt governments, vast, virtually stateless stretches awash in weapons, and impoverished, largely Muslim populations make the region an ideal sanctuary…The now-identifiable presence of al Qaeda in other countries shows that these once-marginal wars and regions matter. We ignore the warnings at our peril.‚ÄĚ

2009 travel advisory raised the threat in and around Mali’s oft-quoted oasis town of Timbuktu to “high” Photo: REUTERS

History has not borne out this ‚Äúcoming anarchy‚ÄĚ of terrorism, and West Africa is not rife with international extremism. Alas, the region is not beyond terrorism‚Äôs grasp either. This means several longstanding arguments about extremism in West Africa need to be carefully revisited.

Global extremism versus local grievances

Conventional wisdom separates transnational, Salafist-inspired terrorists from local, politically marginal insurgents. However, the available evidence in West Africa suggests one ought to view things differently. Even the most well connected Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Sahel and West Africa, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), has a variety of influences. AQIM‚Äôs predecessor, the SalaÔ¨Āst Group for Preaching and Combat, wanted to depose the Algerian government. The group officially aligned itself with Osama bin Laden in 2006 and changed its name to AQIM in 2007.

Boko Haram, a Nigerian insurrection founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, has even more opaque influences. The group‚Äôs actual name provides one such example.Boko Haram¬†is Hausa for ‚ÄėWestern education is sinful,‚Äô yet the group‚Äôs members seldom, if ever, use it. Adherents instead prefer¬†Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad(‚ÄėPeople Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad‚Äô)‚ÄĒhardly a name conducive to the pithy labels preferred by governments or journalists alike. Northern Nigeria has also witnessed extremism in the recent past, so Boko Haram‚Äôs emergence is not groundbreaking either. During the early 1980s, millenarian¬†uprisings¬†led by Alhaji Muhammadu Marwa (also known as ‚ÄúMaitatsine‚ÄĚ) left over four thousand people dead and included some similarities to Boko Haram‚Äôs rhetoric related to wealth, Western education, and the alleged graft of other northern Nigerian Muslims. Not unlike Boko Haram, Maitatsine‚Äôs¬†revolts¬†appealed to the young, disenfranchised northern Nigerians in cities like Kano, Kaduna, and Gombe. Thirty years after those uprisings, Boko Haram has played upon distinctly local concerns‚ÄĒincluding corruption, political isolation, and northern Nigeria‚Äôs relative poverty‚ÄĒwith alarming success. While Boko Haram‚Äôs aims may be unique and ever evolving, its regional and religious contexts are not.

Since 2011, however, Boko Haram’s members have acquired some international practices: they recruit and deploy suicide bombers; they successfully bombed UN headquarters in Abuja; they carry out other mass casualty attacks; and they are alleged to have met with, and perhaps trained under, AQIM.

Analysts have spent a great deal of time attempting to draw the line between ‚ÄėBoko Haram the local insurrection‚Äô and ‚ÄėBoko Haram the global extremist group.‚Äô Splinters of Boko Haram may have contacted other terrorist organizations in an effort to engage in training, but it‚Äôs difficult to trace individual actions to truly coherent international ambitions. Worse still, it‚Äôs a distraction. Boko Haram is better understood as a¬†diffuse¬†group,¬†ill-suited¬†to international terrorist labels, including the US designation as an official¬†Foreign Terrorist Organization¬†. The false dichotomy surrounding Boko Haram not only narrows our definition of the violent extremist sect, but it also constrains our ability to find¬†measured, evidence-based solutions.

Think-tanks label al-Shabab a “terror threat” but they are doggedly domestic. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

Borders and illicit Flows

At least four cross-border flows facilitate terrorism in the region. Weapons of varying types pervade West Africa, making the tools of violent extremism readily available. Semtex explosives can be purchased, and Nigerien authorities recently seized 1,420 pounds of the material and 445 detonators. As many as 15,000 of Muammar Gaddhafi’s stock of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) are unaccounted for; some speculate that AQIM possesses stockpiles. Although MANPADS have brought down at least eight passenger planes in Africa, small arms have led to far more casualties. Perhaps millions of Kalashnikovs flooded gun markets following the Cold War, and Boko Haram has become yet another group to use them during its hundreds of deadly attacks since 2010.

Illicit transfers of money via remittances and cash happen, and there is little capacity to monitor all transactions in largely unbanked countries. With mobile money transfers, cell phones could also send and receive illicit funds, but the services are not yetwidespread.

West Africa‚Äôs drug smuggling routes provide opportunities for terrorist organizations to generate revenues. At least fifty tons of cocaine (worth $2 billion in Europe)¬†travels¬†through West Africa per year, with over one ton heading through the ‘narco-state’ of Guinea-Bissau every night. Colombia‚Äôs FARC and AQIM already¬†traffic¬†drugs across the Sahel and into Europe.

People also move across borders. Militants have fled Libya for the Sahel in large numbers. Kidnapping has proven to be a lucrative funding stream for AQIM, and they have made a business of capturing Westerners. AQIM has fetched ransoms as high as $6 million in one instance and acquired tens of millions of dollars in kidnapping fees since 2006.

Although weak borders may aid terrorists, two distinctions are essential. Smuggling and banditry are hardly new to the region: for years illegal goods have traveled over the Nigeria-Cameroon border and similar flows cross the Nigeria-Benin border. International boundaries are not completely leaky either. West African states may not exercise a uniform rule of law along their boundaries, but they do have an intricate web of roadblocks, some physical and others more bureaucratic. Analysts should not overstate Africa’s porous boundaries.

Political instability and terrorism

West Africa‚Äôs poverty and crime have preoccupied policymakers concerned with terrorism, but few have examined the role of political instability. The relationships between terrorism and a more common scourge in the region‚ÄĒelectoral violence‚ÄĒare not well known. However, one can reason that prolonged election conflicts could create space for terrorist groups in more stable countries or, at the very least, distract politicians and security services. Nigeria‚Äôs tragic post-election¬†violence¬†of April 2011 provides one possible example. The strife thankfully stopped short of prolonged conflict, but it did sidetrack diplomatic approaches to handling Boko Haram.

Although scholars have not tested the relationship between electoral strife and terrorism,¬†coups¬†d’√©tat and terrorism may have some connections. Recent anecdotal evidence from Mali and Guinea-Bissau suggest that coups can help terrorists. Mali‚Äôs March 22 overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Tour√©‚Äôs government was not a one-off event but rather the culmination of a northern Tuareg rebellion. (The coup‚Äôs leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, received military¬†training¬†in the United States.) Evolving power struggles among the FLNA, MNLA, Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJWA make Mali‚Äôs future uncertain. Moreover, the coup set back counterterrorism efforts in the country, not to mention precipitated a democracy and human rights rollback. AQIM may have more¬†control¬†than ever before.

Meanwhile, Guinea-Bissau’s April 12 coup has worsened the security situation and diverted attention away from efforts to stem a growing drug trade. (In almost 40 years since independence, no president of Guinea-Bissau has finished a continuous term in office.) While it is difficult to predict the country’s future, its counternarcotics efforts show no signs of improvement in the near term.

However, if one overemphasizes the impact of recent government overthrows in West Africa, one ignores an important trend. Coups have declined steadily for decades. According to the Center for Systemic Peace’s dataset, there were twelve successful coups in West Africa from 1980 to 1990, ten from 1990 to 2000, and six from 2000 to 2010. Africa’s civil wars are also declining, and the region is not predisposed to conflict.

Efforts to combat terrorism in West Africa

Many analysts perpetuate the image of West Africa as a blank slate for counterterrorism experiments. Yet efforts have been ongoing for decades, and international, regional, and local frameworks already exist. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) established the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in an effort to stop terrorism in all of its forms. UN Security Council Resolution 1624 (2005) is designed to improve border security and encourage member countries to submit updates to the CTC. Unfortunately, West African countries provided irregular reports to CTC and even fewer reports per UNSCR 1624.

Other policies to stop terrorism predate the UN resolutions but have proven equally ineffective. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) first addressed terrorism in its 1992 Dakar declaration, and its 1999 Algiers¬†agreement¬†determined to ‚Äúeliminate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.‚ÄĚ Regional groups include the West African Police Chiefs Corporation, the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, and¬†ECOWAS‚Äô Inter-Governmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa as well as its Committee of Chiefs of Security Service. Numerous¬†challenges¬†confront counterterrorism teams in West Africa, ranging from poor coordination among different bureaucracies, to limited access to INTERPOL records, to regional language barriers, to the failure to incorporate international terrorist financing regulations into local laws.

Understandably, many countries have volunteered to train West Africa’s police and security services. The US-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) provides military assistance while the African Union’s Defense and Security Division undertakes some technical evaluations; special forces from Canada and other countries [AH: Libya, France,  Spain] have trained Malian security services in the past.

Although developing capacity among local forces may be necessary, many West Africa security services have human rights records ranging from inconsistent to abysmal. In some egregious¬†cases¬†of extra-judicial violence, security services‚Äô brutality may anger the same extremists that they seek to stop. More broadly, international support creates what¬†one analyst¬†described presciently in 2004 as ‚Äúrent seeking‚ÄĚ for counterterrorism funding: Countries depict themselves as victims of transnational extremism‚ÄĒnot local terrorism‚ÄĒwith the hope of receiving increased aid flows in return. When the Nigerian government depicts Boko Haram as an ‘international‘ terrorist organization in letters to foreign governments, it really seeks security aid and counterterrorism funding.

Despite reasonable evidence to the contrary‚ÄĒterrorist groups have diverse influences, weak borders are never totally porous, political instability may influence terrorism in complex ways, and security solutions can backfire‚ÄĒelements of Kaplan‚Äôs argument persist. In March 2012,¬†New York Times¬†Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman wrote a book review entitled ‚ÄúAfrica‚Äôs Dirty Wars.‚ÄĚ Gettleman described most African rebels as ‚Äúthugs‚ÄĚ but positioned Boko Haram as a global threat. He further cautioned that ‚Äúsome of the most organized, disciplined, and ideologically sophisticated rebels are the Islamist extremists.‚ÄĚ However, after decades of similar warnings, the ‚Äúcoming anarchy‚ÄĚ of international terrorism has yet to arrive in West Africa. There is good reason to believe that it never will.

#Guinea-Bissau Factions Seek Post-Coup Unity Government

AP: Military soldiers of Guinea-Bissau leave a building on April 13, 2012 after a meeting in Bissau

Military soldiers of Guinea-Bissau leave a building on April 13, 2012 after a meeting in Bissau

Guinea-Bissau’s political parties are meeting in an attempt to agree on a unity government, following the coup on Thursday that disrupted an unfinished presidential vote and threw the West African nation into renewed turmoil.¬†

In a statement, the self-styled Military Command ordered political meetings to begin and said the resulting unity government would be a transitional administration.  

The coup leaders said they overthrew the civilian government because an alleged secret agreement between Guinea-Bissau and Angola authorizing authorities in Luanda to take action against Guinea-Bissau’s military forces. There was no explanation or confirmation of the supposed agreement with Angola.¬†

The streets of the capital, Bissau, were quiet and soldiers guarded public buildings on Saturday. Local radio broadcasts were suspended, and there was little information about two top political figures detained at the beginning of the coup Рformer prime minister and presidential frontrunner Carlos Gomes Junior and interim president Raimundo Pereira. 

The two were the only candidates in a presidential runoff election that had been set for April 29.  A military spokesman reported both men are well but still in custody. 

Delegates from Portuguese-speaking countries have been gathering in Lisbon to discuss what to do about the upheaval in Guinea-Bissau.  At the United Nations, the Security Council condemned the coup and said a civilian government must be returned to power. U.S. officials have delivered the same message.