The alarm bells are ringing again to the effect that West African countries combating transnational terrorism face a terrorism threat unique to the region in contrast to other parts of the world. The uniqueness of the threat has been located in the coming together of Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates and instrumentalising ethnic ties in the Sahel.
Nigeria is not a formal member of the G-5 countries of the Sahel, (Niger Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) but it is, indeed, a member by virtue of contiguity and cultural, linguistic, religious and trade practices connecting it to that space.
Although such claims may not be unproblematic hints, this is the second time the alarm bell specifically on this is coming. Last December, French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, spoke of an emerging “arc of terrorist groups” stretching West Africa to the Middle East and in which both sub-Saharan African and French security is at stake, according to him. Some analysts think that he meant instability from Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic could translate to turmoil in France and Europe generally. He was speaking in the aftermath of the killing of over 70 French troops in Niger Republic by terrorists of the Islamic State.
Now, the Associated Press is quoting the US Air Force Brig Gen Dagvin Anderson, the leader of US Special Operations Command Africa as saying that there is something dangerous in the coming together in that it could blossom into a threat to the West and the United States.
Brigadier Anderson does not have an immediate magic wand to wave at the threat. Rather, he says the strategy for countering the growing threat from the extremist groups is far more complex than just military action or an easy answer and that the problem is compounded by the impoverished material crisis in the region, alienating many young men isolated from the governments and drawn in by extremists’ promises of employment and purpose. Additionally, said Anderson, there is the Al Qaeda factor which he sees in how “Al Qaeda, whether we agree with it or not, brings some level of justice to many of these areas, and some level of services that aren’t provided by central governments” In his own words, “they provide some representation to minority groups that don’t feel part of the larger community, such as the Fulani or the Tuareg”.
As things are, the counter-terrorism effort in the Sahel is led by outside forces made up mainly of 5,000 French soldiers and 1400 US soldiers. This is in spite of rising anti-French sentiments in the Sahel, a paradox Alexandra Reza, for instance, spoke to in a recent opinion piece in the UK’s The Guardian, (Why are French soldiers in the Sahel? Protesters have an answer). He suggests that France is still in the Sahel even when French soldiers are being killed because France has interests to protect. Correct as that must be, others would draw attention to how France cannot be in the Sahel for one reason. Other reasons must be brought in. It is often forgotten that the US National Intelligence Council, (NIC) wrote in one of its many global scenario sketching that Africa will be a theatre of multiple conflicts around this time.
The danger in all these is that Nigeria which should have been the decisive actor in the politics of insecurity is too fragmented and disabled to lead the way. Instead, it is experiencing untold incoherence never seen before. Did someone write the current script long before now? Is there any chance of Nigeria suddenly becoming clear eyed? Is there any hope of such a dramatic reversal of fortune, either from the government in power or the informal council of the elders and the wise or the assemblage of retirees who appear to be either too divided too or deliberately keeping mum or the civil society?
Meanwhile, according to Brig Anderson, the cooperation is alarming although he still maintained the position that it is not yet a direct threat to the United States which is, interestingly, considering drawing down on America’s military presence in Africa.
AP quotes Brig Anderson who was speaking at the US military’s annual counter-terrorism exercise in West Africa as saying that “Whereas in other parts of the world they have different objectives and a different point of view that tends to bring ISIS and Al Qaeda into conflict, here they’re able to overcome that and work for a common purpose,”. The threat in that is how that allows the extremist groups to appeal to a wider audience in a largely rural region where government presence is sparse and frustration with unemployment is high.
The US security operative puts Al Qaeda as the bigger threat in West Africa/Sahel and globally. Contrasting one to the other, Brig Anderson said ISIS only appears to be a great threat because it is much more aggressive and blunt but that, in truth, it is Al Qaeda which has continued to expand quietly. It is for this reason he calls Al Qaeda the “longer strategic concern” them in the US.
He was not reported saying anything categorical in terms of how the leaders of the Sahel rate the two but the news agency reported how successfully Al Qaeda has been at consolidating in northern Mali and moving south into more populated areas, quoting Anderson as saying Al Qaeda has been “taking various groups and galvanising them together into a coherent movement”. The most prominent of those affiliates is a coalition of Al Qaeda-linked groups known as Jamaat Nasr Al Islam wal Muslimin, with about 2,000 fighters in the region, a statement attributed to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, (CSIS), the Washington based think tank.
Brig Anderson’s analysis is that Al Qaeda affiliates visit local areas in advance to “engage with key leaders in key locations to recruit early” with others moving in later. He puts their key motivation to search for gold, funding themselves through kidnapping for ransom as they try to control access to markets through taxes. “I believe they’d be happy to be able to control some of the artisanal mines and other mines in the area, especially the gold and other precious metals that are easily transportable,” AP reports Brig Anderson as saying.
The ISIS, on the other hand, has the ‘IS in the Greater Sahara’, its largest affiliate in the region whose grand essence is to destabilise local government, control territory and rally people to its cause.