Tackle militancy in Africa before it gets too late

Jihadi links could in time promote the coalescing of disparate elements into a 'global caliphate'.

By Talmiz Ahmad

Published: Tue 23 Jun 2015, 10:40 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

Boko Haram, Nigeria’s fierce jihadi organisation, already notorious for the abduction of 200 school girls last year, has been much in the news in June: its cadres crossed into neighbouring Niger and killed several dozen villagers; Chad then retaliated with airstrikes on its bases. Separately, some homemade bombs abandoned by the radicals killed 63 villagers in a remote corner of Nigeria. The newly-appointed President of Nigeria, Mohammedu Buhari has declared a war on Boko Haram and is mobilising a multistate regional task force to confront this scourge.

Boko Haram now controls over 20,000 sq. km. of Nigerian territory in the north, and is well financed through bank robberies, ransom payments, smuggling and theft of weapons across the region. Over 15,000 people have been killed in its violence, over 2000 girls and boys have been kidnapped, and 1.5 million people have been displaced. In March this year, its leader Abu Bakr Shekau swore an oath of allegiance to the leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Origins of jihad in Africa

The origins of the ‘’Africanisation” of jihad go back to Algeria where, from the early 1990s Al Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan fought in the ongoing civil war. Later, Al Qaeda personnel found their home in a new local group that in September 2006 merged with Al Qaeda to become Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM is internally divided, with one group active within Algeria itself, while the other group conducts its operations in southern Algeria and the Sahel region, covering Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Chad.

Northern Mali, with its forbidding terrain, porous borders and absence of governance, has emerged as the new regional base for radicalism, bringing together a loose coalition of diverse terror groups, where new fighters are recruited, weaponry is stocked, training is provided, personnel are shared and operations are coordinated; this is also where foreign fighters are flocking from different parts of Africa, the Arab world and even Europe.

Al Shabaab in Somalia

The Horn of Africa has also seen the emergence and consolidation of jihad. Somalia has been a failed state since 1991, when the country splintered along tribal, clan and sub-clan lines and at least 30 groups competed for power. Amidst this chaos, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized power in 2006, leading to an invasion from neighbouring Ethiopia. The youth wing of the ICU, calling itself Al Shabaab, led the fight against “foreign invasion” and then embarked on a series of deadly attacks in Somalia and neighbouring countries, including the Westgate Mall attack in September 2013 and the Garissa University massacre in April this year. Al Shabaab merged with Al Qaeda in 2012.

Al Shabaab has established mutually beneficial ties with pirates on the Somali coast, obtaining 20-25 per cent of the ransom money in return for giving the pirates a free hand in their operations. It has also reached across the African continent to provide training to Boko Haram.

Implications of the African Jihad

The most striking aspect about jihad in Africa is the rapid territorial spread of the groups over the last 10 years and the increasing interaction between them.

Second, with northern Mali as the centre of regional activity, the scourge of jihad has sucked in almost all the states of Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa, with regional states providing the recruits for jihad and the targets of jihadi attacks as well. Algeria is particularly vulnerable: it shares a porous border with Mali where training and logistical bases are located, but Niger, Chad and Mauretania are also not safe from this scourge.

Third, foreign military intervention has aggravated the problem. The use of African military forces in Somalia gave Al Shabaab the opportunity to pander to Somali sentiment and mobilise support across clan and tribal affinities against foreign “aggression”. The participation of Kenyan troops in the African Union Mission for Somalia has also made Kenya a legitimate target, as evidenced by the recent lethal assaults in the last two years.

Again, the West-led assault on the Gaddafi regime in 2011 created thousands of fighters, who, flush with zeal and weaponry, fanned across the Sahel. Later, French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 to halt the expansion of terrorists who were expanding across the country has led to increased reprisal attacks against French targets and nationals who number 30,000 in West Africa, besides radicalising North African-origin expatriates in France itself.

Finally, Boko Haram, with its oath of allegiance to Daesh, has given a specific territorial definition to the nascent caliphate, while encouraging the various jihadi groups to become part of one fraternity. Daesh already attracts numerous militants from North Africa, and has recently set up a base in Libya; in due course, operational cooperation between African jihadis and Daesh is a possibility. These fraternal links could in time promote the coalescing of disparate elements into a “global caliphate” that embraces radical elements from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and across North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

This prospect poses the most serious security challenge for the region and the international community.

The author is the former Indian ambassador to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

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