Beating back terror in Africa

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
As of March 2018, nearly 200 of the original 276 kidnapped Chibok girls were still held by Boko Haram. The group also captured another 110 girls from Nigeria's northeast, but returned 106 of them. (Photo: CEE-HOPE NIGERIA)

As of March 2018, nearly 200 of the original 276 kidnapped Chibok girls were still held by Boko Haram. The group also captured another 110 girls from Nigeria’s northeast, but returned 106 of them. (Photo: CEE-HOPE NIGERIA)

Africans are containing terror and terrorists, but declaring victory against the forces of revolution and insurrection in 2018 is premature. It is still a massive work in progress. In addition to the swirl of repetitive civil conflict in such disparate African countries as Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Sudan, dangerous depredations of Islamist terror continue to convulse Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
In those long-running theatres of Islamist-inspired war, about 86,000 civilian lives have been lost since 2008, roughly 23,000 in Somalia and Kenya; 60,000 in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger; and 3,000 in Mali and Burkina Faso. Despite energetic local and international anti-terror operations, including active American, British and French intervening forces, victory in Africa’s own war on terror is still distant.
Each of the three terror movements — al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — is largely home grown, ostensibly, but no longer fervently fundamentalist and motivated in significant part by profits from various illicit smuggling operations. In many respects, these three smallish, but still greatly dangerous movements of terror resemble marauding bands of criminals more than they do religiously or ideologically inspired crusaders.
Originally, each of these movements of terror may have been captivated by Salafist and other conservative Islamic doctrines and clerics. But they quickly became mercenary endeavours that employ suicide bombers, trucks filled with explosives, raids on refugees and refugee camps and sorties against convoys and army patrols to protect their trading ambitions and extend their power. They intimidate civilians, bribe border guards and officials, purchase weapons from international purveyors of guns and ammunition (al-Shabaab has acquired small drones) and manage, for the most part, to thrive despite the anti-terror efforts of American, British and French special forces; the Nigerian army; and AMISOM (the Kenyan-led African Union Mission in Somalia).
In 2018, al-Shabaab is poised to continue bombing Mogadishu, Somalia’s beleaguered capital; Boko Haram is capable of resisting Nigerian security roundups; and AQIM (allied to the Islamic State) is capable of raiding even Bamako and Ouagadougou, the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, from distant bases on the edge of the Sahara. No easy end to these violent wars is at hand.

Parents of some of the victims of the 2014 Chibok kidnapping mourn their girls' disappearances. (Photo: Voice of America)

Parents of some of the victims of the 2014 Chibok kidnapping mourn their girls’ disappearances. (Photo: Voice of America)

Attacking al-Shabaab
The insurrectionists in central Somalia, and periodically in neighbouring Kenya, are known as al-Shabaab — “the youngsters.” Al-Shabaab emerged out of the defeated shell of Somalia’s Organisation of Islamic Courts (OIC), an umbrella grouping of a patchwork of local sharia courts that had sprung up sporadically in about 2004 in the absence of any national law-enforcing mechanisms. (Siad Barre, Somalia’s last dictator, lost his popular mandate in 1991, regional clan-based warlords creating what passed for governance in his stead.) When invading Ethiopian troops — funded, in part, by the United States — destroyed the vigilante troops of the OIC in 2006, the radicalized militant youth wing of the sharia movement gradually regrouped in southern Somalia. As al-Shabaab, it subsequently became a formidable and well-armed instrument of terror. It now has links to, and possibly some financing from, the Islamic State (ISIS), but its ambitions and leadership are local.
From 2008 to 2011, the youngsters of al-Shabaab terrorized much of central and southern Somalia from their major base in Kismayu, at the mouth of the Juba River. From this hub, they preyed on and exerted a type of quasi-sovereignty over the towns and countryside north to Mogadishu, the nominal country’s nominal capital. Al-Shabaab purchased its arms and fed its troops from the profits of a lucrative trade in charcoal exported to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It also sold hides and skins from sheep, goats and camels to the same recipients; raided neighbouring Kenya; and kidnapped and held for ransom relatively wealthy Somalis and Kenyans. But it exerted little influence over the contemporaneous Somali pirates, most of whom stemmed from the northern reaches of Somalia proper, and from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that al-Shabaab never governed. The pirates were ambushing ocean-going shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. (After Siad Barre’s fall, greater Somalia broke up into

The mystery is why Nigeria's powerful military hasn't wiped out Boko Haram as President Muhammadu Buhari, shown here, has promised. (Photo: Chatham House)

The mystery is why Nigeria’s powerful military hasn’t wiped out Boko Haram as President Muhammadu Buhari, shown here, has promised. (Photo: Chatham House)

Somaliland, a largely democratic, northern former British colony; Puntland, which was once Italian-run; and Somalia, which was also under Italian colonial rule until the Second World War.)
In recent years, especially after losing Kismayu (and charcoal) to invading
Kenyans in 2011 and being displaced as the dominant military power within Somalia, al-Shabaab has turned to drug running for its major revenues. That means repacking shipments of heroin and raw opium of various kinds from Afghanistan and India for onward transfer to Europe via Kenya, Djibouti, the Sudan and Egypt. It also means trafficking in methamphetamines, or their precursor chemicals, for shipment to Nigeria and onward to Mexico and the United States. The profits from these and associated commodities are substantial and a driver of the relentless warfare that consumes Somalia. Indeed, if al-Shabaab’s opponents could cut off the narcotics it traffics and the arms it buys from shady merchants in Djibouti, Dubai, Yemen and, ultimately, China, Russia and North Korea, the war could be won.
Instead, the fight against al-Shabaab continues. The brunt of the military effort on the ground consists of an African Union-mandated operational force — AMISOM — led by a Kenyan general and consisting of troops mostly from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda. That force assists the still-embryonic and weakly directed Somali National Army, the security force of the government of Somalia, a largely unelected and somewhat ineffectual body run by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, an American passport holder with university degrees from two Buffalo, N.Y., universities.
Al-Shabaab mounts suicide and other bombing attacks on Mogadishu and the government in that city. It also sends suicide bombers against other targets south and west of Mogadishu from its movable bases in central Somalia. Western analysts believe that al-Shabaab’s remaining fighters probably number between 3,000 and 5,000 men. Their advantage is guerrilla stealth. Al-Shabaab also uses its small drones for reconnaissance.
In addition to AMISOM’s 12,000 troops and the federal army’s 22,000 are a very small contingent (400) of U.S. Special Forces, an even smaller battle group of Britons and a fleet of American drones. Since 2015, the drones have eliminated several al-Shabaab leaders and generally targeted critical groups of the armed “youngsters.” But despite Western firepower and surveillance from the skies, and despite the united stand of Kenya, Ethiopia and their neighbours against al-Shabaab, the war of terror continues. The Kenyan general who commands AMISOM told me recently that the war would not easily be won, largely because of poor integration of his multi-national fighting forces, their equipment deficiencies, morale problems and because of al-Shabaab’s shifting tactics.

Battling Boko Haram
Boko Haram began as a backward-looking opponent of Western, or modern, education, and as a nihilistic critic of virtually all other conventional secular practices in the Muslim states of northern Nigeria. In its heyday — roughly 2012 and 2013 — Boko Haram controlled much of Borno State, Nigeria’s northeastern-most redoubt, encircled Maiduguri, that state’s capital, and raided as far as the cities of Kano and Abuja. It reinforced its ranks by kidnapping children as “wives,” sex slaves and combatants. Its youthful brigades specialized in suicide bombing attacks on schools, mosques and markets. Although it began as a backward-looking ideological movement to cleanse Muslim Nigeria of “Western” learning, and thus to purify Muslims, by 2013 and now in 2018, Boko Haram is almost entirely a murderous movement of marauders.
The mystery is why the very large and powerful Nigerian military has not long ago — as President Muhammadu Buhari promised — “wiped out” Boko Haram. Boko Haram, on the run from the Nigerian army, has now expanded its zone of discontent to include those parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger that neighbour Borno. The Nigerian army has also been aided by formidable fighting forces from Chad and patrols from Cameroon and Niger. American surveillance and intelligence have also helped the Nigerians, as have British reconnaissance missions. But, as the Americans and Britons have often indicated, the Nigerian military effort has periodically been weakened by endemic corruption — padding military ranks, pilfering supplies and stealing funds meant for the war effort. For those reasons, and also because Boko Haram has managed to retreat, guerrilla-fashion, into hard-to-penetrate forests, the remnants of the insurgent force remain at large, capable — as is al-Shabaab — of raiding encampments and sending lone girl suicide bombers to blow themselves up in front of mosques. As of late February 2018, nearly 200 of the original 276 kidnapped Chibok girls were still held by Boko Haram when the group captured another 110 from a school in the northeast of Nigeria. In late March, however, the group released 106 of the young women.
Combating al-Qaeda in the Maghreb
French legionnaires and paratroopers had to intervene in 2012 when Tuareg and Algerian Islamists, using pilfered Libyan surplus weapons, captured Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and other northern Malian cities and towns, declaring a republic in the sub-Saharan Sahel. When French forces pushed back these self-declared revolutionaries, the remaining factions (not those led by Tuareg tribesmen) affiliated themselves with AQIM and subsequently with ISIS. Today it derives at least some of its financial backing and “legitimacy” from central al-Qaeda and sometimes joins ISIS for tactical reasons, but its inspiration is trans-Saharan and its methods mostly home-grown.
In recent years, AQIM has become a persistent low-level threat to northern Mali, northern Burkina Faso and northwestern Niger, especially west of Agadez. American and French patrols have been attacked and much of that sub-Saharan region subjected to episodes of violent terror.
To curtail AQIM, the United States is constructing a large drone aerodrome near Agadez and sending small numbers of special forces to help the Nigeriens strengthen their ability to pursue AQIM operatives. Meanwhile, the French help the Malian army curtail depredations north of Timbuktu and keep close eyes on AQIM facilities in the Algerian Sahara. Ultimately, a conclusive victory in this war of terror, as well as in the others, depends on preventing AQIM from continuing to profit from transporting cocaine (from Peru and Colombia, via Ghana, Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau) and other smuggled contraband such as cigarettes, across the Sahara to Algiers and Tunis, and thence to Europe. AQIM also has made millions of dollars from kidnapping prominent foreigners (including Canadians) and demanding large ransoms. Only by drying up AQIM’s real reason for existence — revenue from drug smuggling, weapons trafficking and ransom for kidnapped Westerners and Africans — can this insidious branch of Salafist-inspired mayhem be eliminated.

Winning the war
Because African governments, even Nigeria’s, are unable to win the war on terror on their own, and because the efforts of France and the U.S. are purely military exercises that depend on drone firepower, too little attention is being paid to curtailing these movements’ access to global financial markets, to the sources of their illicit supplies, or to preventing narcotics from being trafficked successfully to Europe. Instead, the war on terror has become one of sneak attack or suicide bombing, retaliation, regrouping and manoeuvres by enemy and ally.
This description, however, does too little justice to the scale of some attacks still being perpetrated in late 2017 and early 2018 by al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and AQIM. Two separate bombings blew up 376 and 196 Somali in Mogadishu; Boko Haram exploded suicide vests outside a mosque and a market, killing 80; AQIM managed to shoot up a hotel in Ouagadougou.
In order finally to defeat the terrorists, renewed vigilance, better searches of potential young bombers in Nigeria and Somalia and redoubled patrols in the vast desert wastes of Mali and its neighbours are essential. So is enhanced drone surveillance by the U.S. and, later this year, upgrading the lethal firepower of the drones based near Agadez. Following the money and making insurgency unprofitable and difficult is crucial. Even so, terror will continue to be a way of life for a small subset of miscreants. There is nothing noble or religious in their pursuit of drug profits, or of their criminal enterprises generally.

Robert I. Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s program in intrastate conflict, president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation,and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts And Sciences. His latest book is The Corruption Cure (Princeton, 2017)

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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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