Terror in the backyard …West Africa’s security headaches (1)

 The 9/11 terror attacks in the United States of America (USA) in 2001, and the fallouts from the global war on terror have had a profound influence on the global security landscape. The dislocation and relocation of terrorist cells and training camps; the declared intention by terrorist organisations to strike targets that represent the interests of Western countries and their allies; the emergence of new terrorist groups; alliances formed by various global terrorist franchises and the increasing incidence of terrorist attacks, have altogether redefined the global security terrain profoundly.

Terms such as ‘jihadism’, ‘extrem­ism’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘fundamental­ism’ have rampantly found expres­sion in the deliberate targeting and mass murder of defenceless popula­tions through armed violence, thus becoming the new face of public insecurity on both the domestic and international arena.

Apart from the fallouts from the global war on terror, the Arab Spring has also had a significant influence on the emergence of violent extremism particularly in West Africa. The top­pling of the Libyan leader Muam­mar Ghaddafi in particular, and the resultant governance vacuum in that country facilitated the proliferation of weapons on a massive scale from Libya into other parts of the West African sub-region.

The Libyan situation also served as a boost for North African-based ter­rorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whose activities have witnessed a surge, spilling over into Mali and other neighbouring states.

The culmination of these dynam­ics, coupled with the sub-region’s peculiar security challenges, has given rise to the chilling reality of terror and the growing number of terrorist attacks in countries including Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali.

The latest major attack occurred at Salhan village in northern Burki­na Faso along the border with Mali and Niger on June 5, 2021, claiming the lives of 132 innocent civilians, including children. Each successful terrorist attack in spite of existing local security safeguards hitherto considered as adequate, goes to underscore the vulnerabilities in the

 security architecture of not only the countries under attack, but the sub-region in its entirety.

Vulnerabilities of States

The vulnerabilities alluded to here include, among other things, porous frontiers that make illegal cross-border movements easy, large expanse of ungoverned spaces within the sub-region that provide habitat for fugitives, and even legitimate cross-border movements such as those guaran­teed under the ECOWAS Protocol which, to a large extent, render mobility and infiltration easy for terrorist groups.

Byman (2005) dilates more on this point when he asserts that the most important form of assistance a state can offer a terrorist group is a safe haven. The existence of safe havens allow for easy recruit­ment, training and indoctrination of radicals.

When granted a safe haven in which they are free to operate, ter­rorist organisations become as po­tent as guerrilla groups. The large ungoverned space in Northern Mali provided a sanctuary that en­abled AQIM to grow and become bold/militarised to launch assaults openly against the Government in that country.

 Other enabling factors are the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, large numbers of unskilled/unemployed youth, and the absence of regional mecha­nisms and systems for effective in­formation sharing on the activities of criminal gangs.

Security experts observe that the terrorists’ mode of operation seems to follow a similar pattern wherever they strike. In most in­stances they target Western estab­lishments as well as countries that are considered sympathetic to, or supportive of the West, and places frequented by Western nationals.

They go in for ‘soft targets’ including hotels, restaurants, beach resorts and shopping centres. Hav­ing chosen a target location, the terrorists would plant their men there prior to the attack.

The bigger picture in the Sahel is a multiplicity of terrorist groups and affiliates across the region, from Algeria and Libya in north to Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Nigeria downwards. Mention can be made of Al Mulathamum Battalion (AMB), Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Macina Liberation Front (MLF), Boko Haram, Is­lamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a regional affiliate of the terror group Islamic State (IS), and

 of course AQIM, among others. These groups and their inter­national franchise organisations support each other in the form of funds, weapons and other essential logistics.

Therefore, rather than just one simple situation, the jihadist threat in the region is a hy­dra-headed problem shrouded in complexity.

Having made that clarification, however, it is also important to register that the most active terrorist organisations that have gained prominence in the West African sub-region currently are Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot, MUJAO.

‘Boko Haram’ (translated simply as ‘Western education is forbidden’) came into existence in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in 2002, launching at­tacks initially on Western interests in neighbouring states around the Lake Chad Basin.

The death of its leader, Mo­hammed Yusuf in police custody in 2009 saw the group becoming more radical and extending its attacks to Islamic institutions and moderate Muslims, including those in the group’s home- coun­try Nigeria. The kidnapping of 276 female students from the

 Government Girls Secondary School at Chibok in Borno State in April 2014, is one of Boko Haram’s highprofile exploits. In 2015, the group formally pledged allegiance to the global terrorist organisation Islamic State in the Levant (ISL) and assumed the title Islamic State in West Africa Prov­ince (ISWAP).

For its part, Al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb (AQIM), originally known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), splintered in 1998 from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a key architect in the Algerian Civil War. In 2006, GSPC formally merged with global Al-Qaeda and assumed the name Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Following persistent counter-ter­rorism crackdowns by the Algerian state, the group scattered and established cells in some locations abroad including West Africa’s Sahel region.

One of the group’s initial exploits was an operation carried out in Northern Mali in April 2003, during which it abducted 32 Europeans. The hostages were eventually ransomed for a total of US$6 million. TO BE CONTINUED


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