Extremism Spreads Throughout West Africa

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Although the intensity of terrorist incidents seems to be declining globally, there has been a surge of violent Islamist activity across West Africa, where both new and established armed groups are destabilising fragile states and creating a regional security threat. While the problem remains local for the moment, the international community is keen to avoid any regional safe havens from becoming springboards for terrorist activities further afield. But instead of intervening directly, it is focusing on supporting African forces on the ground, calculating that 'African solutions to African problems' should be the most effective and lasting.

The most recent statistics on global terrorist incidents, produced by the United States National Counterterrorism Center, paint a broadly encouraging picture. In 2011 the number of terrorist attacks across the globe fell to a five-year low. Osama bin Laden's vision of global jihad has been rejected by mainstream Islamic opinion and al-Qaeda, which he led until his death in 2011, is in disarray. But these headline figures hide significant regional discrepancies: violent incidents in Africa and Latin America have reached a five-year high.

In Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria, Islamist militants have filled power vacuums created by ineffectual national governments, and have tapped into religious and socio-economic grievances. Militants' activities that begin in one country spill over into neighbouring states, destabilising the entire Sahel. Helping to foment regional violence has been the influx of weapons and mercenaries from Libya following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011. There is an abundance of unemployed yet well-armed and military-trained men at risk of joining militias or turning to crime.

Common denominator
Islamist groups currently operating in West Africa and the Sahel all seem to share a link with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), it had earlier split off from Algeria's Armed Islamic Group and re-branded itself in 2006. Each group's degree of engagement with AQIM is different. Though many are broadly Salafist in ideology, their specific goals may vary. Calling for a return to the original ways of Islam, Salafism is an ultra-conservative school of thought of which Algerian Salafism remains the most dominant branch in Africa; it is often used as a doctrine by violent jihadi groups but it does not promote jihadism or violence itself.

Although AQIM seems to act as a sponsor, providing weapons, training, funding and ideological guidance, it has itself benefited from the regional proliferation of Salafist movements. As the erstwhile GSPC, Algerian and American counter-terrorism efforts had greatly diminished its ability to conduct attacks and had forced it to relocate to more remote parts of the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Niger. In order to survive, it has relied increasingly on the proceeds from criminal activities, such as trafficking and kidnappings for ransom - activities that run counter to al-Qaeda's ideology. Thus, the emergence of groups sharing a similar ideological drive - that are prepared to spread jihadist propaganda and fight abroad - helps AQIM by reinforcing its message and standing.

Boko Haram's violence
Having emerged in the early 2000s as a Salafist group seeking to impose sharia law and eliminate Western influence in Nigeria, Boko Haram is perhaps the most active group in the region, claiming responsibility for numerous killings and other violent attacks. It has consistently made headlines since 2011 due to its near-daily attacks in northern and central Nigeria, of which a car-bomb attack on the United Nations (UN) building in Abuja in August 2011 and the Christmas Day 2011 church bombings are the most notorious. Around 700 people are thought to have been killed in attacks orchestrated by the group so far this year.

While Boko Haram's founders and original members came initially from upper- and middle-class backgrounds, new recruits now come most commonly from the ranks of northern Nigeria's disenfranchised, unemployed youth. Aside from its religious message, the group has tapped into the grievances of the majority-Muslim population in the north, who feel marginalised by the Christian-dominated government from the south and that they are victims of social inequality and economic underdevelopment.


There is growing evidence that Boko Haram members have received training and weapons from Islamist groups such as AQIM and Somalia's al-Shabaab. This has prompted alarmist statements by both regional and American officials depicting it as the latest addition to the al-Qaeda franchise. However, this claim remains debatable: Boko Haram has not been recognised by the al-Qaeda core, and any cooperation with al-Qaeda-related groups seems to have been tactical rather than ideological.

Although primarily nationally focused, Boko Haram recruits members from neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and takes advantage of border areas to seek refuge. Although it has not shown an ambition to expand its terrorist activities abroad, it has had a substantial ideological impact in Cameroon, and to a lesser extent Niger and Chad. The similarities between the Muslim communities of Nigeria and Cameroon, where there is a comparable north-south divide, have facilitated the infiltration of Nigerian Islamic extremists into mosques in Cameroon. It has also been reported thatBoko Haram operatives from Nigeria and Niger have fought alongside other jihadist groups in northern Mali and were behind an attack on the Algerian consulate in Gao in April 2012.

Mali's instability
Further west, political instability in Mali has been exploited by a number of emerging groups, as well as more established ones. An uprising by the Tuareg, a nomadic people with a presence in several countries of the Sahara, erupted in January 2012. They used a series of assaults to take control of the northern half of the country and declared their intention to create an independent state of Azawad there. During the colonial era the Tuareg had fought against French colonisers but were subdued, and had to sign peace treaties in Mali and Niger. In Algeria and Morocco, the fighting was even more fierce, but ended with similar results. In post-colonial times, a wave of Tuareg irredentism swept across the Sahel region, leading to uprisings in the 1960s and 1990s, and sporadic fighting in the early 2000s. In 2009 Mali and Niger declared the movement defeated, but failed to integrate fighters into their armies. Instead, these fighters joined government militias in Libya.

A military coup in March 2012, sparked partly by the army's frustration at the government's weak handling of the northern rebellion, caused political chaos. Among those taking advantage was Ansar al-Din, which seeks to spread sharia law in Mali. The group appears to be linked to AQIM: its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly is reported to be a cousin of Abdel Krim, an AQIM commander. It is believed to have a strong Tuareg component - Ag Ghaly is a veteran of the Tuareg insurgency - but also attracts members from Algeria, Mali and Nigeria. The coup presented the ideal opportunity for Ansar al-Din to join forces with the Tuareg Movement for the National Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) - reinforced by the flow of returnees from Libya - to promote its own agenda.

The partnership between MNLA and Ansar al-Din was, however, short-lived: the MNLA feared that closer interaction with the Salafists would translate into 'Arabisation' of the Tuareg way of life, which is based on secular, rather than religious, values.

Tensions between the two groups led to a battle for Gao in June 2012. The battle was fought between MNLA and an alliance of Ansar al-Din and another new group, the Movement for Jihad and Oneness in West Africa (MOJWA), an AQIM splinter group that emerged in mid-2011 in protest against the perceived domination of Arabs (Algerians) over the AQIM leadership. The battle resulted in Ansar al-Din and MOJWA gaining control over the key northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

Aiming to spread Salafist doctrine throughout West Africa, MOJWA has recruited hundreds of youths, some younger than 15, from across the region for religious and military training, and is responsible for a number of kidnappings. Boko Haram, as well as Pakistani and Afghan jihadists, are also thought to be involved. Although it share's AQIM's goal of jihad, MOJWA also claims to be ideologically inspired by historical figures in West African Islam, rather than from present-day Islamists.

A considerable amount of MOJWA's activities have focused on Mauritania, which has provided an ideal location to hide kidnap victims. Since the early 2000s, and particularly in response to former President Maaouya Ould Taya's anti-Islamism programmes, young Mauritanians have been drawn to the ranks of AQIM in significant numbers, with several of them ascending to the ranks of its leadership. Today they are among the fighters operating in northern Mali.

Wider implications
Though the activities of AQIM have long since spread across Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the proliferation of additional groups indicates that extremist and militant views are gaining a stronger hold across the region. A growing number of areas are no longer under government control.

In the case of Mali, Ansar al-Din has used its hold on power to implement a strict version of sharia law which includes 'hudud' punishments for adulterous couples or suspected thieves - such as stoning and amputations of the hands - and destroyed Sufi shrines and mosques in Timbuktu, because these were deemed un-Islamic. Once regarded as a stable democracy, Mali's sudden collapse has worrying implications for other states in the region with weak governance and institutions.

States that have just recovered from recent crises risk reverting to instability. An unreleased report by a panel of United Nations experts recently pointed to possible interaction between allies of Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president who was forced from office in April 2011, and members of Ansar al-Din (as well as the leaders of Mali's March military coup in the capital, Bamako) with the purpose of recruiting support for Gbagbo's return to power. While those involved deny the allegations, the report appears to be based on reliable evidence.

A further effect of the activities of Islamist groups has been to drive local populations from their homes. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 393,000 people have been displaced from northern Mali since January 2012. While 30% of these have relocated elsewhere within the country, the majority have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. This phenomenon, exacerbated by a Sahel-wide food crisis (18 million people face severe hunger), poses a threat to receiving countries, namely Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, as newcomers compete for limited resources. Furthermore, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has warned, Malian refugees in places like Burkina Faso endure very poor living conditions, and could become easy targets for Islamist recruitment.

How to intervene?
Deriving primarily from local issues, the dangers created by the spread of such groups are not necessarily of global concern for now. The international community's focus so far has been on encouraging regional states to tackle the problem directly, as is being done in Somalia with apparent success.

On 12 October, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution, drafted by France, requesting a detailed intervention plan for northern Mali be submitted by ECOWAS, the regional grouping of 15 West African countries, together with the African Union and other partners, within 45 days. The operation is expected to comprise 3,000-3,300 troops from member states deployed alongside a 3,000-strong Malian contingent. Bamako has already seen protests against the possible deployment of foreign troops, but in any case, no Western nation is willing to provide troops on the ground in Mali. France has offered intelligence and logistics support to a possible ECOWAS deployment, and the European Union has promised military training for Mali's army.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that West Africa could become a springboard for attacks against targets further afield, and in this scenario the international community's calculus could change.

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