Tag Archives: Islamic State (IS)

A Sinkhole Sucking in Failed States: jihad in Africa

Collapse formed by rainwater leaking through pavement and carrying soil into a ruptured sewer pipe. Image from wikipedia

The number of violent incidents involving jihadist groups in Africa has increased by more than 300% between 2010 and 2017… Many Western officers are despondent. Without more troops “there is no question we will lose”, says a senior French officer.

In the potpourri of jihadist groups, many pledge their loyalties to al-Qaeda or IS. They include al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram and its factions in Nigeria, and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali. In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East

The most important of the battles is Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram. ..A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: “If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.” Nigeria’s difficulties, moreover, offer sobering lessons to many other African countries, and their Western allies.

Maiduguri (Nigeria) was the birthplace of Boko Haram, whose factions make up the world’s deadliest terrorist group. It is so extreme that it sickens even IS and al-Qaeda. The group was founded by the followers of a charismatic Islamic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who had started a religious school and mosque in Maiduguri in 2002… Among his demands was a ban on secular schooling (the group’s name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa).

The Nigerian police arrested and then killed Yusuf in front of a crowd outside the police headquarters in Maiduguri (the government insisted he was shot while trying to escape). Yusuf’s followers went into hiding before emerging under the command of Abubakar Shekau. In 2011 they blew up the headquarters of the Nigerian police and a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. By the end of 2014 they had overrun large parts of three states in north-eastern Nigeria, gained international notoriety after kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok and were fighting their way into Maiduguri. Nigeria’s army, hollowed out by corruption, was in disarray. Units were filled by ghost soldiers whose pay was being pocketed by their commanders. One Western officer recalls how a company that should have had 100-150 soldiers consisted of just 20 men.

Boko Haram did not at first try to govern…. It preferred chaos. It bombed mosques and markets, massacred villagers and abducted women and children. Some girls were enslaved and sold. Others were pressed into being human bombs. A study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a military academy, found that more than half of 434 such human bombs the group used between April 2011 and June 2017 were female.UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, says that last year Boko Haram strapped bombs to at least 135 children.

Mr Shekau’s brutality proved too much even for IS, to which he had sworn allegiance in 2015, changing Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In 2016 IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi the leader of ISWAP, splintering the group into two factions.  Meanwhile, thousands of villagers and residents of Maiduguri took up machetes or handmade muskets and joined a self-defence militia, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), that held the gates of the city. The new president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and former military dictator, ordered his generals to move their headquarters to Maiduguri. Neighbouring states such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon contributed troops to a multinational force. Within months the army had recaptured most big towns, pushing the insurgents into forests or Lake Chad, a mass of swamps where the borders of four countries meet.

Since then, though, stalemate has set in…The ISWAP has learned how to make roadside bombs and has become more skilled in conducting attacks.  …It levies “taxes” on locals and erects roadblocks to extort money from passing traffic… It is building a proto-caliphate. 

Nigeria’s generals talk about “winning hearts and minds” but they are doing the opposite. The army has systematically cleared people from the countryside, burning their villages and packing them into squalid camps in Maiduguri and other “garrison towns”. In all, some 2.4m people have been displaced by the fighting in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. T  Most observers think that indiscriminate killings by the army and the forcing of people into garrison towns are fuelling the insurgency. There are almost no jobs in the camps. Access is through checkpoints manned by the army and CJTF, who demand bribes. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says many women and girls have been raped in the camps and that hundreds if not thousands of people confined in them have died of starvation or a lack of medical care. … “It is like a factory for jihadis.”

The Nigerian state’s failure extends far beyond the camps. In  In effect, Nigeria’s north-east is a failed state within a dysfunctional one.

Excerpts from Jihad’s Next Battleground,  Economist, July 14, 2018, at 41

A Strategy of Fear: boko haram

Bpko Haram

In July 2011, the Nigerian government unveiled plans to make telecommunications companies dedicate toll-free phone lines so civilians could report Boko Haram activity. Months later, insurgent spokesman Abu Qaqa threatened to attack service providers and Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) offices.

Eight months later, Boko Haram made good on Qaqa’s threat. The militant group launched a two-day attack on telecommunications towers belonging to several providers in five cities: Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, Maiduguri and Potiskum…. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Omar S. Mahmood told ADF …’it’s a pretty powerful message if Boko Haram comes out and says, ‘I’m going to attack X because of this,’ and then they go out and they do it,” Mahmood said. “It just serves to make their next warning even more intimidating and effective.”

Mahmood, in his March 2017 paper for the ISS titled “More than propaganda: A review of Boko Haram’s public messages,” showed that a significant number of Boko Haram messages between 2010 and 2016 issued warnings and threatened violence. In fact, warnings and threats constitute the second-most-common theme of the group’s messaging out of the 145 messages studied…

Boko Haram demonstrated this tendency further in its threat against schools. In January 2012, Shekau complained publicly about alleged mistreatment of Islamic schools and students, and he threatened to launch attacks.  Again, Boko Haram followed through. From January to early March 2012, militants destroyed at least a dozen schools in the Maiduguri region of Borno State…

Ties between messaging and attacks also can be seen in Boko Haram’s assault on Nigerian media and the nation’s oil industry. As Qaqa complained that the media misrepresented Boko Haram, insurgents bombed This Daynewspaper offices in Abuja and Kaduna in April 2012…In June 2014, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb outside a Lagos oil refinery.

Boko Haram’s highest-profile action is the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. On April 14, militants attacked a boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, in the middle of the night. Insurgents raided dormitories, loaded girls into trucks and drove away. Some girls jumped into bushes as trucks rushed away, leaving 219 children held captive. The atrocity drew worldwide condemnation and parallels a long-standing grievance of Boko Haram: the desire for the release of incarcerated members.

In October 2016, after months of negotiations, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls in exchange for a monetary ransom, Daily Trust reported. In May 2017, insurgents swapped another 82 of the girls for five militant leaders.

The 2015 ISIS alignment was the beginning of big changes in messaging for Boko Haram…Boko Haram’s most powerful period was from 2013 to 2015, when it was capturing and holding territory, and dealing setbacks to military forces.   By late 2015 and through 2017, Nigerian and regional military assaults began to take their toll on Boko Haram…

In August 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions: One is led by pugnacious spokesman Shekau; the other by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISIS’ choice for leader….The split also has left al-Barnawi’s ISIS-aligned faction the clear winner in terms of potential longevity and lethality, Mahmood said. Shekau’s wing is just trying to survive, but it still uses ISIS logos in messages.

Excerpts from From Message to Mayhem, A Study of Boko Haram’s Public Communications Can Offer Hints About Its Strategy, Africa Defense Forum, Mar. 2018

Lernaean Hydra-cultivating the many Gaddafis

When Doundou Chefou first took up arms as a youth a decade ago, it was for the same reason as other ethnic Fulani herders along the Niger-Mali border: to protect his livestock.  He had nothing against the Republic of Niger, let alone the United States of America. His quarrel was with rival Tuareg cattle raiders.

Yet in October 2017 he led dozens of militants allied to Islamic State in a deadly assault against allied US-Niger forces, killing four soldiers from each nation and demonstrating how dangerous the West’s mission in the Sahel has become.

The transition of Chefou and men like him from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists capable of carrying out complex attacks is a story Western powers would do well to heed, as the pursuit of violent extremism in West Africa becomes ever more enmeshed in long-standing ethnic and clan conflicts.

For centuries Tuareg and Fulani lived as nomads herding animals and trading – Tuareg mostly across the dunes and oases of the Sahara and Fulani mostly in the Sahel, a vast band of semi-arid scrubland that stretches from Senegal to Sudan….Though they largely lived peacefully side-by-side, arguments occasionally flared, usually over scarce watering points. A steady increase in the availability of automatic weapons made the rivalry more deadly.

A turning point was the Western-backed ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. With his demise, many Tuareg who fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi returned home, bringing with them the contents of Libya’s looted armouries.  Some returnees launched a rebellion in Mali to create a breakaway Tuareg state in the desert north, a movement hijacked by al Qaeda-linked jihadists who had been operating in Mali for years. In 2012, they swept across northern Mali, seizing key towns and prompting a French intervention that pushed them back in 2013.

Amid the violence and chaos, some Tuareg turned their guns on rivals from other ethnic groups like the Fulani, who then went to the Islamists for arms and training.

“The Tuareg were armed and were pillaging the Fulani’s cattle,” Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters. “The Fulani felt obliged to arm themselves.”..

Tuareg in Mali and Niger dreamed of and sometimes fought for an independent state, Fulani generally been more pre-occupied by concerns over the security of their community and the herds they depend on. “For the Fulani, it was a sense of injustice, of exclusion, of discrimination and a need for self-defence,”  A militant who proved particularly good at tapping into this dissatisfaction was Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, an Arabic-speaking north African, several law enforcement sources said.  Al-Sahrawi recruited dozens of Fulani into the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), loosely allied to al Qaeda in the region and controlled Gao and the area to the Niger border in 2012.

Why pastoralists in Mali and Niger turned to jihad, Reuters, Nov. 13,  2017