Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Another piece with a RUSI colleague, this time Matthew Cadoux-Hudson, for our collective institutional home looking at Boko Haram in the wake of the Chibok girl’s kidnapping. It builds on bigger work that we are doing on this topic at the moment and I have at least another smaller piece coming out on this topic. I did some media work around the event, including an interview with NBC, on other topics, I spoke with the Independent about two Brits who were reported dead in Syria and spoke to the Telegraph about terrorism in China.

Nigeria’s Opaque Jihad: Insurgency in Africa’s Richest Nation

RUSI Analysis, 16 May 2014

The kidnapping of girls in Chibok by Boko Haram has increased the international spotlight on Nigeria. The dilemma for the international community at this point is to understand this complicated environment, but also to make sure the interest is not simply transitory.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Matthew Cadoux-Hudson

Boko Haram Leader

The world’s attention has been caught by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls brutally snatched from their schools in Chibok a month ago by Islamist fighters in northern Nigeria. In the sudden surge of attention, Boko Haram has been treated as though it is coherent with clear goals and aspirations. The reality is that the group is a largely nebulous entity that has been waging a brutal insurgency in northern Nigeria for almost five years with little international attention. The question is whether this burst of attention will be sustained beyond the current crisis.

Origins

It is important to understand the group a little better. The group does not, in fact, refer to itself as Boko Haram but rather (in the material that it releases) as ‘The Congregation of the People of the Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’ (Jamâ’at Ahl al-Sunnah li Da’wahwa-l-Jihâd). But focusing on this detail misses the fact that one of the underlying drivers of the group’s narrative is a historical one that draws on a long tradition of tensions between north and south Nigeria, and the perception of more Christian (and therefore Western) education being brought into the Muslim north. Boko Haram in many ways claims to be the heirs of past expressions of a regional ethnic and religious identity that previously bubbled up in the form of Usman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate from the early 1800s or more recently the Maitatsine riots that came to a head in 1980.

In that latter case, in much the same way as Mohammed Yusuf emerged in the northeastern provinces and established a utopian Muslim community in the early 2000s that clashed with the Nigerian state, Mohammed Marwan, or Maitatsine, was a Muslim preacher who established a community of followers around Kano and then began railing against endemic corruption within the Nigerian state. In both cases, the Nigerian government clamped down hard, leading to violent rioting, and in the more recent case, the brutal insurgency that continues to plague Nigeria and has now kidnapped the Chibok girls.

Current State

The current size of the group is not clear, though it has shown itself repeatedly capable of withstanding substantial losses whilst still launching large-scale attacks highlighting an ability to replenish their ranks. The structure of the group is also not entirely clear. Abubakar Shekau, who has become a household name in the wake of the current crisis, is clearly the leader of the organisation. There are a number of prominent individuals who operate under him,  but the degree to which he controls or directs them all is not clear.

The number of girls kidnapped in this particular instance is something new for the group. But kidnapping and targeting females is not.  The group has been kidnapping individuals, both young boys and girls, for over a year. Shekau spoke of the initial kidnappings being undertaken in retaliation for the imprisonment of the groups’ wives and children. In some cases it seems as though the group has targeted women in particular to act as cooks and support in their camps.

The group’s brutal notoriety did not traditionally focus on its penchant for kidnapping girls, but for butchering entire schools of male children. On 6 July 2013, the group launched an attack on a local secondary school in Mamudo killing forty-two students and staff. On 29 September 2013 in Gujba they launched an attack on the College of Agriculture killing fifty students. On 26 February 2014 in Buni Yadi the group attacked a remote boarding school killing at least twenty-nine students. And there have been numerous other similar incidents. In every case the local security response was parlous. While the first of these incidents attracted some attention, more recent ones have blended into the background of violence in northeastern Nigeria.

Taken against this backdrop, it is not entirely clear that the group would have therefore been expecting the response it got to this particular kidnapping. On the same day as the kidnapping took place, a bomb went off in a city on the outskirts of Abuja, killing at least seventy-five people. Shekau released a video almost the next day claiming the explosion. It was followed by another explosion a couple of weeks later. In contrast, the videos relating to the girls did not emerge for some weeks until the international media spotlight was brought to bear, suggesting the group was not necessarily expecting such attention.

Exploiting the Attention

However, now that it has the world’s attention, it is going to try to get as much as it can. The group has form in resolving kidnappings with exchanges of money, and has in the past bargained with the Nigerian government to have the imprisoned wives and children of group members released for kidnapped women and children. While on the one hand it is unlikely that the group controls or has all of the girls (reports indicate some may have already died, while others are likely to have been sold off), now it has initiated a process it seems likely at least some will be released through negotiation.

The bigger issue is what happens after that. The world has largely sat by while Boko Haram and its many off-shoots and franchises have wreaked havoc. This has left the Nigerian government responding to the threat in a manner which is not getting rid of the group beyond containing it in the northeastern provinces.

Even this does not seem to be working with two bombings near Abuja in the past month. France has now taken the lead in agreeing to host a regional summit on Boko Haram in Paris on 17 May, bringing together leaders from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin as well as senior figures from the UK, US and EU. The hope has to be that this is the beginning of a more concerted effort to deal with a group that has been steadily growing in violence since the early 2000s.

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My contribution about the Westgate attack for my home institution RUSI. Tries to put the incident within the bigger context of trends we are seeing within al Qaeda and terrorism internationally. I did quite a bit of media around the Nairobi attack, a lot of questions about the mythical ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite: the New York Times, ABC, NBCNew Statesman, Guardian, Daily Beast, Sky News, BBC, Times, as well as others I cannot find and a video for RUSI.

The Westgate Nairobi Attack: A Sign of the Diversified Threat from Al-Qa’ida

RUSI Analysis, 4 Oct 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

The locus of countering Al-Qa’ida style terrorism has now shifted overseas, with Western governments facing a new and complex set of issues that have been brought into particular focus by recent events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Westgate Terror attacks Kenya Nairobi

Al-Shabaab’s audacious attack in central Nairobi came in the wake of Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message entitled ‘General Guidelines for Jihad.’ His communication laid out an attack plan for his global movement which focused on two main themes: the growing geographical diversity of the struggle that he is trying to lead and the need to be more careful in targeting. Neither is a particularly new. But the message seems all the more salient following a year that so far has seen large-scale operations at In Amenas in Algeria, a scare against Western targets in Yemen, a brutal massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and all alongside a constant patter of death in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan

The threat from international terrorism is one that has become more diverse and complicated, posing Western security officials with a growing array of risks and dangers across a wider geographical space. Complicated terrorist plots no longer solely emanate from Pakistan’s badlands targeting Europe or the United States.

Regional Al-Qa’ida affiliates instead seek Western targets near their home bases, focusing on the subsequent media attention. Places such as In Amenas, Western Embassies in Yemen or the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the future of terrorism. For Western security officials, the problem is to develop strategies to protect, prepare and prevent terrorist attacks that are targeting nationals and interests abroad.  They will have to deal with a complicated basket of issues that will require developing local capacity and ability, as well as improving regional and international coordination, in particular within the European Union. The locus of countering terrorism has now shifted overseas and developing capacity to address this new and complicated threat will be the focus for the medium term future.

Al Qa’ida Diversifying

As is his wont, Zawahiri talked at length about the confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ the United States, but also focused in some detail on the numerous live jihadi battlefields where his group has some connection. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria and ‘the environs of Jerusalem’ – an interesting allusion to one of the most active Sinai based groups that has been responsible for the attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in Cairo on 5 September 2013. He also voiced sympathy for ‘brothers’ in Kashmir, Xinjiang, the Philippines and Burma, where al-Zawahiri sees potential supporters, but no specific allied groups and so restricts himself to simply calling for support for these people in their struggle against their oppressors.

The signal is that Al-Qa’ida is diversifying its branches and regions of influence. Since the Arab Spring, Al-Qa’ida core has found itself preoccupied less on the West and more on the Muslim world, where there seems to be more room for rallying support and potential inflection points for social change. Whether this is a sign of the movement’s weakness in the West, or an inability of the centre to control its branches, the strengthened development of its networks and ideas in an increasingly diverse geographical space presents a clear and present danger to Western interests in the regions.

From being a relatively monolithic beast, Al-Qa’ida has evolved into a complicated beast with branches, affiliates and sympathisers around the globe. From a counter-terrorism perspective, this presents a more dangerous creation in many ways, though one that seems to have less ability to reach directly into Western capitals except through the tool of uncontrolled ‘lone actor’ terrorists. The threat to Western capitals continues to exist in Al-Qa’ida rhetoric and aspiration, but in practice they find it easier to hit targets full of Westerners closer to home.

Al-Zawahiri’s missive also emphasised the need for caution in the Jihadi struggle, reflecting a broader ongoing internal debate within Al-Qa’ida. Ever since the debacle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq and the public backlash this led to in the mid-2000s, al-Zawahiri has sought to rein in more savage acts. This particular aspect was seen on display in both the In Amenas and Westgate attacks where the groups made efforts to avoid killing Muslims. These may have been more demonstrative than practical (and Muslims perished in both incidents), but at the same time, some effort was made and this was publicised, with the affiliates responsible for those attacks keen on overtly implying that they seem to have learned some lessons from others experiences.

Drawing on lessons learned during the grim struggle in Algeria during the 1990s, al-Zawahiri realises that in order to be an effective vanguard you need to have a potential pool of support behind you. A message he further hammered home in his emphasis on the importance of educating and creating awareness within the masses, and of conducting ‘dawa’ (preaching) and spreading their message throughout Muslim lands and beyond. He emphasises a basic principle: ‘to avoid entering in any conflict with them [so-called proxies of America], except in countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.’

The New Locus of Threat

It is within this context that Western counter-terrorism officials will see recent events in Nairobi and what this means for the threat from international terrorism. No longer are Al-Qa’ida or its affiliates targeting the West, but rather they are pursuing Western interests in their near neighbourhoods.

The centre of gravity as fragmented away from the West itself. Regional groups like al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Boko Haram now seek to attack Western interests in their immediate surrounding.  Hence, the choice of attacking a Western company site in Algeria, the Westgate Mall, Western embassies or kidnapping individuals in the broader Sahel. In all of these instances, Westerners were part of the thinking in target choice, but the action was carried out abroad. It remains attractive to attack Westerners given the international focus and attention that it brings and westerners can increasingly be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is worth highlighting that these target choices are not that new, but increasingly they seem the focus.

The dilemma is two-fold: how far can Western security forces push the boundaries of the security umbrella under which nationals can operate? And on the assumption that it cannot extend universally, what can be done to either strengthen locals to respond to the threat or to work with locals to eradicate the underlying problems that provide a fertile ground for extremist ideas to grow. In other words, how do we develop and successfully implement counter-terrorism strategies across the board far from national borders?

At one level, the response to this can be found by forging stronger local relationships between relevant security officials. This needs to be through training in response, but also in the preventative aspect of counter-terrorism. Fostering a culture of observance to questions of justice and human rights can be just as important as strengthening technical capability to respond to an incident. Furthermore, encouraging greater cooperation at an international level with European or other international partners to coordinate local efforts, while at the same time fostering regional cooperation (for example through AMISOM in Somalia or the African Union effort in Mali) are all going to be key in controlling the threat.

Learning Lessons?

Perhaps Al-Zawahiri’s approach in diversifying Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to vulnerable geographies and proceeding cautiously and with due regard for local issues should be mirrored by the West.  The complexity of Islamist extremist networks and their ability to draw on local issues to strengthen their narrative makes them difficult to understand and counter. The circumstances under which they manage to thrive are different. A one-size-fits-all approach to countering them is headed for failure.

At the same time, international cooperation to counter the development of these terrorist networks overseas requires caution as it is linked to issues of sovereignty, human rights and local legitimacy, to name a few. Unintended consequences such as the strengthening of resentment against the West is a constant concern, as many counter-terrorism efforts are still deemed to be a form of imperialism rather than a genuine effort to improving human and community security and justice.

In that sense, a partnership with legitimate local actors is a requirement for success, but identifying the correct ones and finding effective ways to working with them presents difficulties for policymakers. An additional layer of complexity is that assessing ‘illegitimate’ local actors and their intent is also problematic: the number of worldwide groups and individuals affiliated with or potentially influenced by Al-Qa’ida is vast. Some may be more proximate to thresholds of legitimacy than others.  New movements and mergers within Syria as well as so-called lone wolves who might emerge present a further challenge.

How an adequate response to the transnational influence of this group can be formulated is an on-going debate. The trend towards transnationalism, ‘globalised’ local partnerships and disaggregation is something that al-Zawahiri has recognised and is eager to harness. It remains uncertain that he has been successful in this.  But in countering this strategy, tackling the feeling of local anger that the Al-Qa’ida’s narrative continues to be able to tap into remains a challenge for more nuanced and sophisticated counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism work.  Managing this work across broad geographies presents as complex a management challenge as al-Zawahiri faces.

Twelve years after Al-Qa’ida’s keynote attack on the West, the organisation continues to survive and, in some battlefields, thrive. Attacks like the incident in Nairobi highlight that often it is not the core that is the biggest threat, but the regional affiliates that might be discounted as simply local problems. No longer the monolith it once was, it has latched on to local narratives and anger on a global scale, initiating bottom up dynamics that are far beyond Al-Qa’ida core’s ability to control or even influence.  Al-Zawahiri’s message is a call for coherence. Coherence coupled with caution may also be what’s needed at the core of policymakers’ and practitioners’ approach to countering the Islamist extremist threat across the globe.

More on current events in North Africa, this time for the BBC. I owe Virginia a note of thanks for reviewing it – grazie! I was also quoted briefly in this Financial Times article on the British government’s response. (UPDATE: have briefly tweaked it to reflect a commenter’s correct catch)

Islamists in Africa emerge as threat to West

By Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

An Islamist rebel is pictured on April 24, 2012 near Timbuktu in northern Mali
Militant Islamists are operating across the vast Sahara Desert

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Islamist extremists in North Africa pose a “large and existential threat” – a comment he made following the siege of a gas facility in Algeria, where dozens of people, nearly all of them foreigners, were killed.

“It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” Mr Cameron said.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa.”

The group responsible for the incident in In Amenas in Algeria appears to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a local jihadist-criminal who had been a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He left or was asked to leave AQIM late last year. Branching out, he founded an independent faction called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion that seems to have operated out of territory controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s faction claims that the assault in Algeria was conducted to avenge the French decision to attack northern Mali.

But, with his organisation reportedly having agents within the compound, it seems likely that this was a longer-term plot that was brought forward in response to the French assault.

It was in fact Belmokhtar’s close companion, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in Mujao, who declared in response to the French intervention in Mali that France “has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.

That Belmokhtar’s faction would want to attack a Western target is not entirely surprising.

He has a long form of kidnapping foreigners and AQIM – to which he belonged until last year – has a long and bloody history.

Originally born as the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in the wake of the Algerian military annulling elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win Algeria in the early 1990s, the group evolved first into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), before adopting the al-Qaeda mantle in 2007 to become AQIM.

Militant Islamists Mukhtar Abu Mansur  and Omar Hammami (R) in Mogadishu, Somalia,  on 11 May 2011
American-Syrian Omar Hammami (R) joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011

The GIA, in particular, has been linked to attacks in the mid-1990s on the Paris metro system, the GSPC to plots in Europe and North America prior to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, and the groups across North Africa have historically felt particular enmity towards former regional colonial power France.

What is worrying about events in Africa, however, is that violent groups espousing similarly extreme rhetoric can be found in a number of countries.

In Mali alone, alongside AQIM, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.

Particularly worrying for Western security planners, many of these groups have attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters.
In al-Shabab, some, like Omar Hammami, the American-Syrian who rose up in the Somali group’s ranks before recently falling out of favour, have become minor celebrities in their own right.

AQIM’s networks are known to stretch into France, Spain, Italy and even the UK.

Mujao’s Omar Ould Hamaha claims to have spent some 40 days towards the end of 2000 in France on a Schengen visa, whilst there have been numerous reports of Westerners being spotted or arrested trying to join the jihadists in northern Mali.

And now in In Amenas it appears a Canadian citizen may have been one of the attackers.

Seen from Western Europe, a dangerous picture emerges, potentially leading back home through fundraising networks and recruits.

But the risk is to overstate the threat and focus on the whole rather than the individual parts.

While links can often be drawn between these groups – and they can maybe be described as “fellow travellers” ideologically – it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of one of the hostages killed during a hostage crisis in a gas plant at the hospital in In Amenas, 21 January 2013.
Western interests in Africa will be reassessed as potential targets

Often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organisation such as al-Qaeda.

And looking back historically, it has been a long time since AQIM-linked cells have been able to conduct or plot a major terrorist incident in Europe.

While a number of plots over the past few years have been connected to al-Shabab, so far there is little evidence that they have actually directed people to attack the West.

The bigger threat is to Western interests in Africa – sites such as In Amenas that will now be reassessed as potential targets for groups seeking international attention, or revenge for French-led efforts in Mali or Western efforts to counter groups elsewhere.