Posts Tagged ‘Nigeria’

It has been a quiet holiday period so far, though I kept busy catching up on work and doing a couple of solicited op-eds. This first one was in response to the British Defence Secretary’s announcement of the deployment of more British forces to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram for Newsweek. Another out later in the week on something else. Also, spoke to the Guardian about recent events in Afghanistan and a long ago interview with Washington Post finally emerged in this great overview of Chinese relations with Central Asia and what this means for the Sino-Russian relationship by Simon Denyer.

Britain’s Support Could Be Key To Beating Boko Haram

Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Nigeria’s then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari in London, England, May 23. The U.K. has promised to double its deployment of military personnel to Nigeria to help with the fight against Boko Haram. Neil Hall / Reuters


Back in March, Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The announcement was met with concern both in terms of what this meant about ISIS’ global spread, but also what it might mean for one of Africa’s most brutal terrorist groups. In reality, very little changed, with the exception that Boko’s media output professionalized somewhat. What the declaration highlighted, however, was the group’s persistence as a feature of the international terrorist landscape, and how clearly more needed to be done to counter the group.On December 21, the U.K. showed its commitment to this goal with the announcement that it would increase its deployment of soldiers to 300 to support Nigeria’s fight against the group. Taken against a backdrop of increasing deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria, the U.K. can appear to be spreading itself very thin, but in reality the approach being undertaken in Nigeria is likely the most sensible way for outside powers to play a role in countering regional terrorist groups.Boko Haram is unlikely to develop into a direct threat to the British mainland. It can never be discounted that individuals somehow linked to the group might end up becoming involved in plotting in the U.K., but the threat from the group is far more pronounced regionally. Born out of a longstanding tension between north and south Nigeria, blended with local tribal differences and with an overlay of violent international Islamist ideology, Boko Haram is a product of local history narratives being co-opted by adopting a global ideology.

Given the U.K.’s strong historical links to the region, it makes sense that Britain would see the fight against Boko Haram as an important foreign policy priority. The deployment of forces to act as trainers for the Nigerian authorities is the most logical contribution to make. Ultimately, the U.K. does not have the necessary forces to deploy in substantial numbers to operate on the ground and eradicate the group, and, in any case, it is not clear that this would be the most effective way to deal with the militants.International terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS have attempted to reach out to the group to support it, but have encountered problems in trying to operate in Nigeria. Notwithstanding this, Boko Haram has developed links with other regional terror organizations (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab), though this is usually instigated by the group seeking connections and training outside its borders. It has also increasingly demonstrated an interest in launching attacks across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. This is where the biggest threat from the group lies: What was at first a local northeastern Nigerian problem is slowly developing into a regional menace.

As with many conflicts dealing with groups that are born out of local problems with an international ideology overlaid on top, the reality is that the fundamental causes for the group’s existence are only ones that local forces and politicians will be able to properly deal with. An external force may be able to provide some support and play a role in eliminating key leaders or disrupting networks, but this is merely managing the problem.

To deal with the underlying issues that Boko Haram is able to feed off for its support, the Nigerian government will have to find ways of alleviating the gross inequalities that exist between the north and south of the country and the longstanding tensions that exist between different tribal communities in Nigeria. Additionally, it will now have to find ways of working with neighboring powers to ensure that the problem is one that is contained and eliminated, rather than simply displaced across borders.

None of this is something that an outside power like the U.K. will be able to undertake by itself. At best, the U.K. can play a supporting role to local efforts. And this is where the role of trainers is key. Whilst regionally the Nigerian Army has a fairly good reputation, it has faced capability problems—both in terms of funding and equipment, but also corruption and problems with alleged human-rights abuses. The contribution of some British trainers will help not only provide Nigerian forces with a higher degree of professionalism, but also act as a signal of support to the (relatively) new government of Muhammadu Buhari.

More broadly, it is also increasingly the manner in which Western countries will find themselves trying to fight terrorist groups around the world. Rather than sending in ground forces to take and hold territory as an outside force, the effort will be focused on growing a local capability to deal with their own domestic problems. Local forces are more likely to be accepted by the local populations, and will have a more attuned sense of on-the-ground dynamics. This is the approach that has been tried in Afghanistan and is very much the focus of efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Building up local capacity to deal with local problems is the heart of the West’s response to foreign terrorist organizations. But at the same time, as has been seen in Afghanistan recently, it is also not clear that this is always the most effective solution or the degree to which local forces are able to overcome historical tensions to deal with longstanding problems. Whether it proves to be the answer for Nigeria will take time to tell, but by deploying more forces in a training capacity, the U.K. is demonstrating that London thinks it is the best approach.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a U.K.-based defense thinktank. He tweets @raffpantucci


And another long ago written piece, that has only emerged now, this time an Occasional Paper for my home institution RUSI looking at Boko Haram and the evolution of Nigerian jihad. This was something that I did a little while back when Ansaru were a more prominent threat, and was when I was doing more direct work on the organization. This might revitalize soon given the election and the subsequent push against the group. Thanks to colleague Sasha for her help in completing it out the door, and to Sofia for helping pull it together in the first place! Somewhat related a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to NBC news on the anniversary of the Chibok girls kidnapping.

From Boko Haram to Ansaru: The Evolution of Nigerian Jihad


As the 2015 general elections in Nigeria neared, the security situation in the country’s northeastern region became a political pawn to boost the respective party platforms. The candidates praised and criticised the national response to the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which has grown to a transnational threat with a reputation for brutal militancy.

Download the occasional paper here (PDF)

Its orchestration of several major incidents – including the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok in Borno State – has sparked national, regional and international responses. The character of these counter-operations, however, has relied overwhelmingly on a military approach unable to defeat a resilient Boko Haram. Nigeria’s forceful approach reflects rash decision-making founded neither on a considered strategy nor a thorough understanding of the target group.

Drawing on the wide-ranging body of existing literature, this report examines the evolution of Boko Haram from its inception to its modern iteration, deconstructing its supposed cohesive ideology and chain of command. Rather than a single unit, Boko Haram is best considered as falling along a spectrum, with an ideology as fluid and flexible as its relationships with similar jihadist groups, including Ansaru – a breakaway faction with perhaps a close relationship to the core. The report examines how the ideological narratives championed by the key leaders of Boko Haram have shaped the group’s present-day structure and tactics and a military approach alone is insufficient to defeat the group. With a newly-elected government, Nigeria has the opportunity to address the Boko Haram threat effectively, but true success will rely on a solid understanding and appreciation of this elusive and resilient opponent.

Another piece on Boko, this one that I had been working on with Sofia long before the Chibok girls kidnapping, but lands now for my Institute’s magazine publication RUSI Newsbrief. For those eager to see me talking about foreign fighters, I participated in a debate on BBC’s Newsnight last night that can be found here (though only for 6 more days from May 20 2014) and separately I did an interview with the Press Association around the anniversary of the Woolwich attack last year.

The ‘Franchising’ of Boko Haram

RUSI Newsbrief, 19 May 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci

On 14 April, a bomb went off at a bus station on the outskirts of Abuja, reportedly killing seventy-five. On the same day, more than 200 girls were abducted from a school in Borno State. Both acts were claimed by Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror network that has become a household name around the world. Yet whilst the kidnap of the girls in particular has served to enhance the group’s notoriety, the nature of its structure and membership – as well as the extent to which acts attributed to it are directed by the central command – is increasingly opaque. For foreign observers concerned about the rise of Salafi-jihadism (a short-hand term to characterise extreme Islamist-inspired violence) in West Africa, the issue is important in determining what kind of threat the group may pose in the future.

During a press briefing in the wake of the girls’ kidnap, spokesperson of the Nigerian State Security Service Marilyn Ogar characterised Boko Haram as ‘a franchise’, which ‘anybody can assume and lay claim to.’ This is a useful means of conceptualising the group, with some cells clearly connected to the leadership, others seeming to act more autonomously and others carrying out criminal activity while masquerading as (or being mistaken for) Boko Haram. Indeed, the term ‘franchise’ may help to explain the many faces of violence in northern Nigeria, and to demonstrate the lack of clarity around the nature of the current organisation. Today’s Boko Haram – although still representative of the ideology forged by founder Mohammed Yusuf – has become a multifaceted, cellular group, seemingly encompassing terrorists, insurgents and criminals, in a manner that is hard to understand or contain.

At the same time, northern Nigeria has long been a dangerous part of the world beset by ethnic violence, criminality, draconian government responses, and longstanding tension with the south. The ‘franchising’ framework offers analysts a means of defining an increasingly nebulous organisation and region – helping in turn to identify ways of dealing with the various factions. It also highlights how the ambiguous nature of Boko Haram makes it an increasingly dangerous organisation.

The confusion surrounding Boko Haram relates to a range of factors. First, there is an absence of accurate and reliable information about incidents; the challenges faced by external actors in gaining access to the area make it difficult to independently verify reports. Given that reporting is often fragmentary or contradictory, it is very difficult to know whether violent incidents are being properly attributed and which sources are credible.

This relates to a second point, which is that it is not always clear where the line of responsibility for these incidents can actually be drawn. For example, the regular tempo of inter-ethnic violence in the region is sometimes wrongly attributed to Boko Haram. In March, journalists wrongly blamed an attack in Katsina State on Boko Haram that was actually carried out by Fulani herdsmen (a Muslim ethnic community resident in the north).

Likewise, criminal acts – such as kidnappings and bank robberies – are commonplace in the north, and the extent to which Boko Haram is connected to such incidents is often unclear. Boko Haram has relied on criminal activity to raise money in the past – a bank robbery in Yobe attributed to the group in April 2013 resulted in currency worth over $50,000 being stolen and twenty-five being killed. Yet, to paraphrase the viewpoint of SOAS Nigeria expert Bala Liman, it is not uncommon for people to rob a bank and come out shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’), prompting witnesses to report the incident as connected to Boko Haram based on little evidence beyond this.

Northern Nigeria is also afflicted by violence apparently linked to local ruling elites. Some of this can be attributed to such power-brokers’ support – for personal or ideological reasons – for Boko Haram, but much of it is simply a reflection of local politics. The spikes in violence during election campaigns, for example, are linked in part to groups like Boko Haram, but also to people settling political scores and hiding it in the chaos.

The final element in this violent picture concerns events that are actually claimed by Boko Haram. Yet even these claims often prove difficult to assess due to the opaque structure of the organisation and the indistinct nature of its affiliates and splinter groups. Mohammed Yusuf’s deputy – Abubakar Shekau – succeeded Yusuf as leader after his death in August 2009. His position as head of the organisation is well known and accepted, yet numerous others have posed as leaders and spokesmen in recent years. Mallam Sanni Umaru emerged immediately after Yusuf’s death, issuing a written statement to the Nigerian press describing himself as ‘acting leader’ and outlining the group’s cause, mission and targets. However, nothing has been heard from him since.

Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz then emerged in late 2012, declaring himself Shekau’s direct spokesman. In an interview with The Guardian, he claimed that the group was in peace discussions with the government. Speaking to the press in English rather than Hausa, however, served to raise doubts, and with peace not achieved, Abdulaziz’s involvement with the group seems as ambiguous as his comments, with local people with inside information also discounting this link.

A similar figure was Mohammed Marwan, who claimed to be second-in-command to Shekau. In April 2013, he declared that the group was becoming more moderate (in stark contrast to its activity). Even though Nigeria’s Minister of Special Duties Kabiru Turaki confirmed that Marwan was his main interlocutor, hopes of an accord were dashed in July 2013, when Shekau released a video reassuring his supporters that ‘we will not enter into any truce with these infidels’. Shekau underscored this by claiming responsibility for recent, brutal attacks on secondary schools in Mamudo (where, on 6 July, militants had butchered forty-two children and their teachers) and in Damaturu (where, on 16 June, Boko Haram members opened fire, killing thirteen). As Shekau put it, ‘we … warned that we are going to burn all schools. They are schools purposely built to fight Islam.’ Indeed, the group has specialised in these grim school massacres, seemingly living up to the loose translation of its name, ‘Western education is forbidden’. This approach, and the emergence of questionable interlocutors, is now playing out again with the kidnap of the girls in Borno, where it is unclear whether those offering themselves up as negotiators actually have any link to the group itself.

Whether these are instances of fracturing or merely reflective of a lack of clarity around the group is uncertain. Seemingly clearer, and of greater concern to Western strategists, was the formation of the group Ansaru in January 2012. Claiming to want to conduct more targeted attacks focused on figures of authority and international targets in line with globalist jihadist aims like those of Al-Qa’ida, rather than the wanton destruction directed by Shekau, Ansaru’s emergence has been interpreted in different ways. Age-old ethnic divisions between Fulani and Kanuri are one possible explanation, while others focus on the links between elements in Ansaru and Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the main Sahelian jihadist group. Indeed, aside from individual connections, Ansaru’s rhetorical preference for limiting Muslim casualties seems to resonate more with AQIM’s approach of trying to win over local populations than with Shekau’s brutal razed-earth approach. Ansaru’s kidnapping and killing of foreigners is also reminiscent of former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, famous for masterminding the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.

Having claimed responsibility for attacks in areas traditionally dominated by Boko Haram whilst operating under a different name and ideology, Ansaru has further complicated Western efforts to gain an insight into the psyche of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. Beyond this, the broader explosion in violent activity across northern Nigeria since 2012 reinforces the notion that Boko Haram has developed into a brand whose ‘franchise’ has been adopted by all sorts of other organisations. This makes an understanding of Boko Haram even more complicated, with the already opaque nature of the group lending itself well to an umbrella organisation to which anyone can attribute their actions.

Finally, while 2014 has seen extreme levels of violence claimed by the group, including the Abuja bombing and Borno kidnapping, these acts, while not too far from Boko Haram’s previous activity, do strike a new pattern. Previously, the group largely kept to launching attacks in the northeastern provinces, with earlier kidnap operations far more limited in scale. Yet the international coverage that this kidnap, in particular, has generated suggests a new, more ambitious tempo of activity that the group is likely to continue to pursue. This will further complicate attempts to predict the future actions of the group and its splinters.

For external observers, this is particularly worrying, suggesting that the grim bill of violence in northern Nigeria is unlikely to subside any time soon. Meanwhile, the fracturing and ‘franchising’ of Boko Haram complicates any attempt by the government to resolve the situation peacefully (or even to establish who to begin to talk to).

So far, the Nigerian government has taken a hard-line approach, with reports of mass detentions, collective punishments, torture and extra-judicial killing, which may serve to further alienate local populations. Some of these may ultimately take an anti-Western stand: although attacks on Western interests have so far been conducted primarily by Ansaru (with only the 2011 attack on the UN offices in Abuja claimed by Boko Haram), an increasingly fractured organisation may produce groups or cells seeking to distinguish themselves or connect with other African jihadist organisations such as AQIM or its many splinters.

Meanwhile, the concerns of the West, as well as those of the Nigerian government, are not limited to the security threat. The growing chaos caused by the proliferation of instability in Nigeria will only further undermine the country’s burgeoning (but still inefficient) economy. This will have substantial repercussions on external interests in West Africa, and on the continent as a whole.

Raffaello Pantucci and Sofia Patel

Senior Research Fellow and Research Assistant, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci, @laramimi

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.


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.

A longer piece that I wrote a little while ago that is testimony I offered to the British Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, but has only been published now. It explores the threat in relation to the UK and how British interests are affected by what is happening in the evolution of terrorism in North and West Africa. It may re-emerge in parts in a future RUSI piece I have been working on, but for the time being here we go. The title is not of my choosing, but was the one offered by the call for submissions.

The UK’s Response to Extremism and Political instability in North and West Africa

Written evidence from Raffaello Pantucci Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

1. The threat of North African terrorism to UK interests at home and overseas is not new to the British Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIA). Recent events, however, have highlighted how the threat has evolved and in particular how this threat might express itself back to the United Kingdom or as a threat to national interests abroad.

2. As the more general threat from Al-Qa’ida terrorism has disaggregated and diversified, the particular menace from North and West African has developed into a higher profile priority. All of this poses a problem for the SIA who have limited resources that had focused on other parts of the globe.

3. With North Africa in particular, the Prime Minister staked out a particular rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist incident at In Amenas when he told parliament ‘we face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life…. those extremists thrive when they have ungoverned spaces in which they can exist, build and plan.’ [1] But what exactly is the threat to the United Kingdom from networks in North Africa that have so far not presented a clear and present danger to British domestic interests? Moreover, how does this feed into the larger picture of the terrorist threat faced by the country?

The Threat Back Home

4. In the years immediately after 11 September 2001, British security forces were less concerned about the threat from South Asia than about Algerian terrorist networks operating or present in the UK in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham.

5. This concern was premised on an expectation that these networks were closely aligned to Al-Qa’ida ideologically and that individuals from these groups had formative experience and expertise from undertaking jihad in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. As such, British security services were monitoring a number of North Africans living in the UK, including Amar Makhlulif – also known as Abu Doha – Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre. Abu Doha was believed to be a key figure in a network of plots that stretched across Europe, North America and as far as the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. He was also connected to fellow Algerian Ahmed Ressam who was intercepted on 14 December 1999, headed from Canada to detonate a device at Los AngelesInternationalAirport to mark the millennium. Abu Doha also knew Rachid Ramda and Rabah Kadre, both of whom were extradited to France where they were convicted for their involvement in terror plots in France with links to Algerian networks. [2]

6. All of these men used to frequent the community established by Abu Hamza Al-Masri at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. This was a place where Al-Qa’ida-linked recruiters would operate and which Kamel Bourgass used as a postal address and photocopy shop for his poison recipes. Linked to a broader network of Algerians, Bourgass went on to murder DC Stephen Oake and was convicted of plotting to carry out a terrorist incident involving ricin. Whether he was directly connected to Al-Qa’ida remains unclear, though it is evident that he was involved in Algerian networks that had supported fighters from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) and the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). Whilst his ultimate targets and aims –and even, possibly, his name – have never been definitely clarified, the plot and the network around him seemed to indicate that the threat to the UK from Al-Qa’ida networks was most likely to emanate from the North African community that gravitated around Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque.

7. Beyond Algerians, post-2001 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), another North African group, were certainly part of the UK threat environment as were other Islamist organizations with their roots in Algeria and Tunisia (En Nada for example). However, threats did not appear to materialize from these groups in the same way as from the Algerian community.

8. This profile was turned on its head when just over a year after Stephen Oake’s murder, when a cell known by their police codename ‘Crevice’, was arrested as part of a plot within the UK. They hailed mostly (though not exclusively) from second-generation Southern Asian backgrounds, and had close connections to British extremist groups like Al-Muhajiroun, as well as to Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park Mosque. Operation Crevice and a number of cells connected to it highlighted the way in which elements mostly from Britain’s South Asian community had made connections directly to Al-Qa’ida. While the connection was not exclusively South Asian by any means, they constituted the largest group involved in the networks in the UK and the connection to Afghanistan and Pakistan became an intelligence focus.


9. As time has passed the threat has adapted. As Jonathan Evans, the director-general of the Security Service put it last June, ‘whereas a few years ago 75% of the priority casework addressed by my Service had some sort of Pakistan and/or Afghanistan dimension, thanks to our efforts and those of our international partners that figure has reduced and now stands at less than 50%. We appear to be moving from a period of deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider. Al-Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous as Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan has declined and we see increasing levels of co-operation between Al-Qa’ida groups in various parts of the world.’[3]

10. The nature of these foreign battlefields and their draw to Britons has also changed. The numbers may be small, but the flow of Western individuals drawn to participate in fighting abroad has continued unabated. In the case of North Africa and the Sahel in particular, it is not clear how many British citizens have traveled to the fight there. There is already one reported instance of a young Briton trying to walk across the Sahara from Mauritania to Mali, and it is unlikely that he is the only one. [4] In Libya, a number of British residents and nationals of Libyan descent returned to fight alongside the rebels, though most seemed drawn by a nationalist, rather than a jihadist, narrative. And it is likely that some vestige of the previous connection between Algeria and groups in the UK continues to exist. But so far, none of this has translated into a direct threat of terrorism in the UK.

11. The most prominent international terrorist network in North Africa, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has singled out the UK for direct punishment in its rhetoric only a few times. These threats have for the most part been connected to Abu Qatada – also known as Omar Mahmoud Othman – the radical cleric currently in British detention facing extradition to Jordan for his alleged role in terrorist plots in the country. [5] On 22 January 2009, for example, an AQIM cell snatched a group of tourists that included British national Edwin Dyer, and while Swiss and German nationals taken with Dyer were eventually released, Dyer was brutally executed in late May 2009 after the group made repeated statements demanding the British government pay a ransom and release Abu Qatada. In April 2012, the group repeated this request when they demanded Britain release the cleric and send him to an ‘Arab Spring’ country in exchange for Stephen Malcolm, a dual British-South African national who was snatched by the group in November 2011.

12. In contrast, France has some fifteen nationals currently being held by various groups in the Sahel, [6] alongside an unspecified number of nationals or residents fighting alongside the various Islamist networks operating in the region. On 5 February, French security forces arrested four people on the outskirts of Paris for their association with a network sending fighters to join AQIM. The four were linked to Cedric Lobo, a twenty-seven-year old social worker arrested in Niamey, Niger for trying to join the fighters in Timbuktu. This was merely one in a number of investigations the French are undertaking as they try to get a handle on the connections between North African jihadists and other networks at home.

13. However, while there are networks in North Africa with tentacles back in Europe, it is not currently clear that these groups have either the capacity or intention to use them to launch attacks. In fact, the far more likely impact might continue to revolve around regional incidents in which foreigners are targeted as a means of gaining attention and as reprisals for Western involvement in northern Mali. These are not likely to be on the scale of In Amenas, but more along the lines of kidnappings or the targeting of Western corporate interests. Of particular concern in this regard are Mali’s neighbours Niger and Mauritania. Niger in particular appears to be in the cross-hairs with a number of alarming incidents of late, including the double suicide attack in late May in which bombers targeted a military base in Agadez and a French run (the company Areva) uranium mine in Arlit, killing 21 people. The attack was claimed by the potentially resurrected MokhtarBelmokhtar’s ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’ that was also responsible for the In Amenas incident. [7]

14. Moreover, following the 2011 intervention in Libya, a new area of instability has opened up with a growing menace also posed by training camps in the lawless southern parts of the country. A further threat is apparent in Benghazi, where Western interests have been repeatedly targeted, including the assault on the British ambassador in June 2012 and the death of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012. These particular dangers have resulted in the issuance of a number of alerts by the Foreign Office advising against travel to the city by British nationals.

15. But potential regional repercussions may stretch beyond the immediate borders of Mali and the Sahel. There have been reports of Nigerian extremists training at camps in Timbuktu, and Boko Haram leader, AbubakarShekaku, was believed to have been spotted in Gao in mid-January. Reflecting potential concern from this link, in January, France issued an alert to its citizens in northern Nigeria and those living around Abuja fearing potential reprisals for French action in Mali. Again, there is potential evidence that the Boko Haram link may have stretched into Niger with a recent incident at a prison in Niamey allegedly involving Boko Haram prisoners who were trying to escape and had managed to arm themselves with guns. [8]

16. Indeed, the connection between Nigerian Islamists and Sahel-based groups seems to be more than occasional, and in December 2011 a group calling itself ‘Al-Qa’ida in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ – a group that seems likely to have been a precursor of sorts of the Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru – claimed to be holding British national Chris McManus who had been snatched in Birnin-Kebbi, northwest Nigeria. In March 2012, British Special Forces mounted an assault to save Mr McManus and fellow hostage Italian national Franco Lamolinara, an incident that ended with the deaths of numerous captors including the two Europeans. This sort of kidnapping was repeated again in February 2013, when a group of British, Italian, Greek and Lebanese nationals were snatched from a construction site in northwestern Nigeria, and then soon after the seizing of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon. The first incident was believed to be linked to Ansaru, with the group claiming responsibility and who later executed the prisoners on the basis of a claimed visible British support for the government in Nigeria. Responsibility for the second incident remains unclear though appears to fall to elements close to Boko Haram, and the group was ultimately released unharmed in April 2013, two months after their abduction. The danger to such individuals and companies is clearly going to increase in the near future in the broader region, though again, this keeps the threat at a regional, rather than international level.

17. The resolution of these two kidnappings highlights the particular danger, however, from groups that are espousing a globalist jihadist rhetoric. While Boko Haram appears willing to have negotiated the release of the group, Ansaru chose instead to execute its hostages. This poses a serious consideration for governments and companies operating in the region. Hostage negotiations that can be concluded peacefully, involving exchanges of money or something else, are one issue. If on the other hand, as it increasingly seems likely with Ansaru, the group is seeking to make a point – then the insurance costs and willingness of individuals to work in areas where the group is active will increase. Fortunately, thus far incidents of kidnapping by such groups remain relatively few in number, however, this shift in methodology requires close attention given the potential implication to foreign interests investing money and materiel into the region.


18. While the prime minister may have struck a dramatic tone when he spoke of ‘existential’ and ‘generational’ struggle, the underlying problems have long tails. A pragmatic British counter-terrorism response needs to focus on a number of aspects that strike the balance between protecting national interest and political realities at home. The British public – and most other Western publics and governments – will no longer support long-term heavy military engagement in foreign nations from where the direct threat to their country seems opaque. The result must be a light-footprint approach focused on training to develop local capacity and on understanding how the threat is set to develop. In the longer term, this would involve a clear focused on stabilization and development that will help resolve age-old regional disputes, and in turn reduce the space available for Islamist groups to move in. [9]

19. More practically and immediately, such an approach should seek to:

Strengthen and Develop Local Links

The Prime Minister’s visit to Algeria and Libya is an example of how this approach should work in practice: developing strong links to local security forces and bolstering their capacity to address domestic issues through the provision of training and equipment. Going forwards, training future leadership cadres in regional militaries will have the added bonus of allowing for the early development of strong local contacts.

20. Help Foster Stronger Regional Connections and Develop Border Security

The lessons of In Amenas and the subsequent incidents that have been seen across the region is that terrorist networks in this region are highly mobile and adaptable, and are able to slip back and forth across porous borders. Helping foster greater regional co-operation and interaction is therefore essential in countering these groups’ ability to act. Developing regional confidence-building measures and brokering regular interactions between regional security forces will help cross-border governmental relationships develop into effective counter-terrorist tools.

21. Improve British Regional Intelligence Capacity

British foreign intelligence capacity, and in particular defence intelligence, has been shrunk in recent years. This poses a problem when the armed forces are asked to deploy in previously uncovered parts of the world. Developing and maintaining this capacity across the board in at-risk regions will be crucial in identifying future threats, as well as understanding them better when incidents occur. How DIS and other SIA collaborate in sharing intelligence and pre-empting threats is also a point to consider

22. Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Threat These Groups Pose and How They Connect Together

International terrorism is no longer the monolith it was in the period immediately after 11 September 2001. In order to continue to counter it, it is crucial that we understand the various groups and sub-groups involved, their nature and aims, their complexity and how they relate to, and communicate with, each other. By better understanding these relationships, it will also be easier to develop counter-strategies that focus on identifying fissures between groups and ways of pulling them apart.

23. Recognising the role of local communities

The growing priority and focus placed upon North and West Africa in counter-terrorism terms requires a parallel push in Prevent terms. Prevent – the forward looking aspect of counter-terrorism that seeks to stop people from adopting radical narratives – policy will play a key role in ensuring that Britain’s North and West African communities understand British foreign policy in the region and feel that their views in turn are being heard and understood. If engaged with positively, they can play a key role in protecting Britain’s interests. Without robust counter-narrative work and effective CT-informed community policing, there is a risk that the issue of the ‘home grown’ South Asian terrorism of 2005 onwards will be witnessed again in the North and West African community.

24. Yet all of this presents a further potential long-term problem: that of how the UK should balance a strategy of encouraging local people to deal with local problems whilst guaranteeing that human rights and due process are observed (support for which governments might undermine efforts at engaging with local communities in the UK). The foreign secretary highlighted this problem during a speech at RUSI on 14 February 2013, observing that alliances of convenience based on a common threat perception can lead to political backlash that can also inflame the very narrative they seek to address. The answer to this is unclear, and is likely to be found in a pragmatic approach that ensures that certain red lines are not crossed by British authorities, while also recognising that allies using methods that Britain may disapprove of may end up turning up information that helps to address the threat. As such, efforts should be made to train local authorities in improving their methods and agencies should be proactive in advancing this perspective; simply cutting off contact is not a workable response.


25. The time in which threats abroad could be seen as detached from threats at home has passed. Terrorist networks in North Africa may have difficulty reaching Britain’s streets, but the potential for such groups to threaten British nationals and interests overseas is high, and the intent to strike in the UK continues to lurk in the background of their rhetoric. The region is rich in energy and other commodities that make it a key target for a range of groups. Regional instability is set to result in upward pressure on energy prices and other commodities sourced from the region, something that will have a direct economic impact on the UK.

26. The British government’s current response focuses on intelligence co-operation and local capacity-building as a means of countering the threat posed by such groups. However, countries in the region have very different abilities to address such problems at present. The reality is that groups like AQIM, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Signed in Blood Battalion,Ansaru and Boko Haram operate in a territory that is almost the size of Europe. Groups in northern Mali in particular have strong smuggling and nomadic traditions, making them adept at slipping back and forth across porous desert borders. None of this is new to foreign security services, which have increasingly come to view AQIM as a criminal-terrorist network focused on drugs and smuggling rather than on perpetrating international terrorist attacks.

27. Furthermore, nations in the Sahel in particular lack the capacity to implement long-term strategies to counter the underlying issues that facilitate recruitment into terrorist groups. Establishing ‘Prevent’ and ‘Combating Violent Extremism’-style programmes in these countries will be important, but is something that is currently hard to envisage. The focus at present is on countering immediate threats, and clamping down on emerging crises, rather than on a long-term vision for dealing with national issues whose roots are deep.

28. The threat to the UK remains offshore. However, it is not impossible, for example, to imagine a group or individual deciding, without direction, to launch an attack within British borders, or elsewhere within Europe with links to the region. Fed off a diet of grim images from Mali, radical messages online and a perception that the British government is complicit in the deaths of Muslims abroad, a group or individual might decide to launch a lone actor-style operation. But there are many potential sources of motivation for such an incident, and this would not necessarily have to be linked to North Africa.

29. Additional to this, the danger exists that British jihadists may start to see the region as an alternate battlefield where they can receive training. There is already some evidence of this shift at least in notional terms. In a plot disrupted in April 2012 in Luton – a group who later pled guilty to plotting to carry out a terrorist attack and training – spoke in January 2011 of potentially going to join al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as an alternative to going to Pakistan. The group were ultimately able to make some connections in Pakistan, but had they not, the Sahel may have been an alternative for them. While Syria currently offers a more tempting and active battlefield for aspirant British jihadists, given the ongoing British connections to Libya and opportunities offered in the broader Sahel, it is possible that more individuals may choose this path.

30. It is also possible that groups in North Africa decide to launch an incident themselves, or that their networks come to be directed by individuals with a more aggressively anti-Western agenda. Again, both scenarios are possible, but the absence, so far, of any evidence of plotting, or indeed of anything more than rhetorical intent against the West, suggests that, at present, this threat seems distant. This might abruptly change in the future, but the tipping point is hard to judge in every case.

31. If the dynamics of conflict and instability continues, flow of refugees from the area also may provide AQIM or other groups with an opportunity to send operatives to Europe and the UK.

32. More likely, trouble will continue to brew in North Africa, with the periodic targeting of foreign interests continuing to be used as a means to attract attention, as well as to punish the West for its involvement in Mali and elsewhere. That the problem remains regional does not preclude the need for a response, however, as simply ignoring it will not make it go away and indeed will simply store up problems that will need to be confronted later. The current impasse faced by Europe is the direct result both of years of neglect of the problem, and of the fall of a number of authoritarian regimes in North Africa. To step back from North and West Africa now could provide an opportunity for Al-Qa’ida affiliates to establish themselves in a region closer to Europe than ever before.


[1] David Cameron to parliament, 18 January 2013, < >, accessed 26 February 2013.

[2] These men were not the only ones; others included DjamelBeghal and KamelDaoudi , a pair who belonged to London’s Algerian community before they were extradited to France (from Dubai and London respectively), where they were convicted for their roles in planning an attack on the American Embassy in Paris.

[3] Jonathan Evans, Address at the Lord Mayor’s Annual Defence and Security Lecture, Mansion House, City of London , 25 June 2012.


[5] Within this context it is worth noting that Abu Qatada used to boast to British intelligence services of his hold over Britain ’s radical Algerian community. He claimed to be able to rein in any potentially negative repercussions that might occur as a result of the extradition of Rashid Ramda . See Special Immigration Appeals Commission, AQ v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Open judgment before the Honorable Mr Justice Collins, [2004] UKSIAC 15/2002, 8 March 2004.

[6] Lori Hinnant , ‘Why Are So Many French Held by al- Qaida?’ , Associated Press , 21 February 2013.



[9] This is apart from the Prime Minister’s recent statements about increasing the volume of DfID’s budget that is used for peace and stability operations.