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

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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, “The Coming Anarchy,” warning of West Africa’s ungoverned spaces, disease-ridden slums, weak borders, and impoverished masses. Kaplan declared that “we ignore this dying region at our own risk.” 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, “weak 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.”

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 “coming anarchy” of terrorism, and West Africa is not rife with international extremism. Alas, the region is not beyond terrorism’s 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’s predecessor, the Salafist 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’s actual name provides one such example.Boko Haram is Hausa for ‘Western education is sinful,’ yet the group’s members seldom, if ever, use it. Adherents instead prefer Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad(‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’)—hardly 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’s emergence is not groundbreaking either. During the early 1980s, millenarian uprisings led by Alhaji Muhammadu Marwa (also known as “Maitatsine”) left over four thousand people dead and included some similarities to Boko Haram’s rhetoric related to wealth, Western education, and the alleged graft of other northern Nigerian Muslims. Not unlike Boko Haram, Maitatsine’s 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—including corruption, political isolation, and northern Nigeria’s relative poverty—with alarming success. While Boko Haram’s 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 ‘Boko Haram the local insurrection’ and ‘Boko Haram the global extremist group.’ Splinters of Boko Haram may have contacted other terrorist organizations in an effort to engage in training, but it’s difficult to trace individual actions to truly coherent international ambitions. Worse still, it’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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—electoral violence—are 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’s 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’état and terrorism may have some connections. Recent anecdotal evidence from Mali and Guinea-Bissau suggest that coups can help terrorists. Mali’s March 22 overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government was not a one-off event but rather the culmination of a northern Tuareg rebellion. (The coup’s 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’s 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 “eliminate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” Regional groups include the West African Police Chiefs Corporation, the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, and ECOWAS’ 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’ brutality may anger the same extremists that they seek to stop. More broadly, international support creates what one analyst described presciently in 2004 as “rent seeking” for counterterrorism funding: Countries depict themselves as victims of transnational extremism—not local terrorism—with 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—terrorist groups have diverse influences, weak borders are never totally porous, political instability may influence terrorism in complex ways, and security solutions can backfire—elements of Kaplan’s argument persist. In March 2012, New York Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman wrote a book review entitled “Africa’s Dirty Wars.” Gettleman described most African rebels as “thugs” but positioned Boko Haram as a global threat. He further cautioned that “some of the most organized, disciplined, and ideologically sophisticated rebels are the Islamist extremists.” However, after decades of similar warnings, the “coming anarchy” of international terrorism has yet to arrive in West Africa. There is good reason to believe that it never will.

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Lebanon – Israel – Nigeria – Iran News you may have missed

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By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |

Fayez Karam

►►Lebanese ex-general gets prison sentence for spying for Israel. Last Tuesday’s sentence of former Brigadeer General Fayez Karam (pictured) means he will spend six more months in jail. He has been in prison since mid-2009, said the officials on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Karam, who in the late 1980s led Lebanon’s counterespionage unit, ran for a parliament seat in 2009 as a senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun.
►►US may share intelligence with Nigeria. Nigeria and the United States plan to “explore the development of intelligence fusion capability”. This statement was contained in a joint communiqué issued at the end of a two day inauguration of a regional security cooperation working group held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja, Nigeria. The two countries will be collaborating “on training, logistics intelligence sharing, modernization of the security services and other requirements”.

[me: US wants to get a handle on the BokoHaram situation]

►►Afghan jailed for 16 years for spying for Iran. An Afghan man, named only as Mahmmood, has been jailed for 16 years for spying for neighboring Iran. He was allegedly found in possession of photographs of foreign and Afghan military installations in western Herat province, and had Iranian intelligence officials’ phone numbers in his notebook.

via News you may have missed.

9 Jan 2012 World News Digest #Iran #Yemen #Syria

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Börzen Zeitung reports Germany and France kick-off high-level discussions in Berlin today aimed at laying the groundwork for a crunch EU summit on the eurozone debt crisis at the end of the month. It is the first in a series of monthly mini-summits between Merkel and Sarkozy, who want toughen up the rules governing countries which use the single currency. The draft pact, which has been obtained by Sky News, proposes using the European Court of Justice to ensure eurozone countries keep their national debt and budget deficits within agreed limits. The mini-summit will also examine the introduction of a financial transaction tax, which Britain also strongly opposes.

Al Ahram reports that Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo have demanded that the Syrian government cease its bloody crackdown on protesters but affirmed its commitment to monitoring the situation in the country, despite criticism that monitors have been ineffectual at stopping violence. The move defied opposition politicians and activists who want to halt the mission and refer the issue to the UN Security Council. Many of them are calling for international military intervention.

Sanaa Radio announces that Yemen’s cabinet has approved a draft law which grants President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from prosecution as part of a Gulf-brokered transition deal. The law is still to be approved by the country’s parliament. On Friday, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay criticised the deal, saying those who committed abuses during a crackdown on the civil unrest unrest must face justice.

Akhbar Al Youm reports aid groups were mounting a “major emergency operation” in rural South Sudan after tribe-on-tribe violence sent tens of thousands fleeing and killed an unknown number of people. The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, Lise Grande, said aid groups were responding to a call for help from South Sudan’s central government after a column of 6,000 armed men from the Lou Nuer ethnic group marched into Pibor in Jonglei state to target the Murle community in late December and early January.

Manila Times quotes President Benigno Aquino of the Philippine warnng of a possible terrorist attack during today’s annual procession of a centuries-old image of Jesus Christ known as the Black Nazarene. Aquino said several terrorists planning to disrupt the religious procession, that may draw more than a million devotees, had been sighted in the capital. He asked devotees not to take mobile phones or weapons to the event.
Abrar quotes Iran’s top nuclear official announcing that the country was on the verge of starting production at its second major uranium enrichment site – the Fordo plant, near the city of Qum. The new facility, buried deep underground on a well-defended military site, is considered far more resistant to airstrikes than the existing enrichment site at Natanz, limiting what Israeli officials, in particular, consider an important deterrent to Iran’s nuclear aims.

Raw Story reports US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has confirmed that Iran is not developing its nuclear programme to make weapons.

News also from Iran today that former US Marine Amir Hekmati has been sentenced to death on charges of espionage. He has 20 days to appeal.

US Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has come under fire from fellow contenders ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote in the state of New Hampshire. At a nationally televised NBC debate, the former Massachusetts governor’s economic programme was called “timid” and his conservative credentials were also questioned.
New Straits Times reports Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been acquitted of sodomy after a two-year trial. Anwar, 64, had consistently denied the charges and called them a government bid to cripple his political ambitions and influence. He was jailed for sodomy in 1999 but the conviction was overturned. He had faced up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Jerusalem Post says The Bill to Prevent Infiltration, a central tenet of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new policy on illegal immigration, is expected to pass its second and third (final) readings in the Knesset late Monday night. The new law could mean indefinite detention for refugees.

Japan camera maker Olympus is suing it’s president Shuichi Takayama and other senior executives for concealing details of $1.7billion of fraudulent deals over a period of 13 years. The former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford was fired from his post after confronting Takayama.

Voice of Nigeria quotes President Goodluck Jonathan admitting for the first time that sympathisers of the Islamist Boko Haram group were in his government and security agencies. His comments come amid a wave of violence blamed on Boko Haram which has left dozens of people dead in the north, most of them Christians. Boko Haram, wants to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state, has warned southerners, who are mostly Christian and animist, to leave the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria. A senior Christian cleric has warned that the country is sliding towards civil war.

SwissInfo reports the new Libyan government decided on Sunday to lift sanctions against Switzerland and Lebanon, which Moammar Gaddafi had enacted several years ago.

Times of Malta reports that Police in Norway cut in half a traffic fine for a Swedish trucker on the grounds that Swedes earn less than Norwegians. Oslo newspaper VG reports that Ulf Ander Andersson, 61, was driving a lorry for his Norwegian employer in March when he was stopped by police, who found his brakes were not in order. He was fined £857 ($1,323) but last month got a letter saying the sum had been reduced due to his nationality. Mr Andersson told VG he was grateful, though he found it “very strange”.