Posts Tagged ‘great power conflict’

My latest column for the Financial Times on Russia’s purported ‘counter-terrorism’ activity in Africa. Not so much CT as counter-influence operations really, none of which bodes well for the underlying problems.

Russian proxies seize the advantage in Africa’s Islamist insurgencies

As western counter-terrorism efforts flounder, Kremlin-backed militias are offering support in Mali and Burkina Faso

Supporters of Ibrahim Traoré after the coup in Burkina Faso. Russian flags were on display when the leader took over the capital Ouagadougou © Issouf Sanago/AFP/Getty Images

When Russia was widely condemned for its illegal referendums in the Donbas at a vote of the UN General Assembly last month, it was notable that a clutch of African countries chose to abstain or stay away. Many of these had benefited from Russian counter-terrorism support; Burkina Faso – still reeling from a coup sparked by the government’s failure to stem an ongoing Islamist insurgency – might be about to ask for it. As al-Qaeda affiliates and Isis representatives converge in the Sahel region and across the continent, Moscow is increasingly bending terrorism to its advantage in the pursuit of political influence.

The terrorist threat picture across Africa has always been a messy one. Most groups are active locally, and the aspiration or capability to launch attacks beyond the continent’s borders tends to be confined to Isis networks in Libya or Egypt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorist groups across the region target foreigners, with mixed motives: attacking the Westgate Mall or DusitD2 Complex in Kenya, or the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria attracts attention; kidnapping can often be as much about profit as terror.

The situation is even more complex when groups without clear affiliations declare Isis as their inspiration. Almost half the deaths attributed to Isis worldwide in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. But it can be hard to distinguish between Islamist violence and longstanding regional conflicts. The jihadifuelled insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado appears to have some international links but draws on a long history of local disenfranchisement.

Counter-terrorism support from the west has a chequered history. Former regional colonial powers like the UK and France have played a significant role in countries such as Mali, while the US has funded or trained special forces to varyincreased, degrees across the Sahel to help combat threats. Non-military aid in the region has been targeted at the underlying causes of instability.

Yet none of this has done much to suppress the overall threat and may even have been counter-productive. In September 2021, Guinean forces left their training with the US Green Berets to join the military takeover of Conakry. The 2020 coup in Mali, which led to the eventual breakdown in relations between Paris and Bamako, was led by forces built up by the French army over the previous seven years under Opération Barkhane. This project – established by the French after the near takeover of Mali by Islamist militants in 2013 – was undermined by loosely defined goals. As tensions with Bamako the Élysée finally announced in February a withdrawal of troops.

The result has been a turn by Malian authorities towards mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Russian GRU intelligence agency. This is not unique to Mali: Wagner forces have also appeared in Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Mozambique. In Bamako, members of this Russian proxy militia are celebrated in the streets. In exchange for their services, Wagner appears to be receiving access to minerals while Moscow wins strategic allies, as evident in UN voting patterns.

But the signature of Wagner deployments tends to be a focus on subduing civilian populations and harshly suppressing insurgencies. While the western approach may have not been as effective as intended, it at least avoids the indiscriminate brutality exercised by Russian-backed forces.

In Burkina Faso, the latest coup leader Ibrahim Traoré seems to be playing both sides: he reportedly told US diplomats that he did not intend to call on Wagner forces, but some of his local suping porters have called for a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and Russian flags were prominently on display as he took over the capital Ouagadougou. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin also posted his support for the takeover on Telegram, saying soldiers had done what was necessary.

Given the failure of many western counter-terrorism efforts, it is hard to see how this battle for influence can be resolved. Moscow is acting both to frustrate the west and benefit itself. It is imperative that the US, UK, France and their allies find ways to continue engaging with Sahelian countries and working to alleviate the disenfranchisement that is often a touchpaper for insurgency.

Security engagement around specific terrorist groups must continue, with better safeguards to prevent it backfiring. And crucially, these efforts must be disentangled from the wider geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain a region ripe for manipulation.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

A short piece for the Financial Times looking forwards on how terrorism might evolve and melt into the wider greater great power conflict that currently consumes international affairs.

Terrorism fused with great power conflict may be the west’s next challenge

Some countries such as Iran persist in using armed proxies to advance their goals

Veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.

As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.

The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.

In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.

Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in

Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and sufunderlying fered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.

The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counterterrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.

Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France – a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support – of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.

According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.

The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.

The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.

Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.