Africa Diary - Jihadist Threat in North and West Africa


In addition to the current headline-grabbing advances by jihadists in Iraq and Syria, North and West Africa is a new frontline in the West’s existential struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism. Though the West can help, ultimately the rebuilding of states, the construction of nations and the diminution of existential threats can only be accomplished by coordinated actions of millions of citizens working together to achieve a better tomorrow, insists Jeffrey Haynes

A January 2013 attack by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group on Algeria’s Ain Aminas energy facility resulted in the death of 39 foreign workers. The atrocity brought international attention to the presence of jihadist groups in North Africa. A few days later, France sent 2,500 troops to northern Mali after Islamist and Tuareg militants threatened to overrun the capital, Bamako, following a military coup d’état. The French action in Mali was pivotal in breaking the grip of the jihadists, enabling government control to be re-established. Overall, jihadist attacks in Algeria and Mali highlighted how several governments in North and West Africa are challenged by jihadist groups.

Jihadist Groups in the Region

Regional jihadist groups, however, are not all the same; there are both locally-focussed and internationally-orientated groups. North and West Africa is characterised by international frontiers which exist more in name than in reality, as well as containing very large areas with few people. Such terrain is proving to be a fertile territory for jihadist militants who coalesce, organise, plan and plot without much fear of state encroachment. This situation provides jihadists, notably Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with much freedom of action. In addition, other regional rebellious and combative groups, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram or the (non-Islamist, non-jihadist) Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, are supported or encouraged by local politicians for their own ends: to achieve power from the chaos unleashed by the activities of militants.

Although AQIM is often thought of as a single entity, it is, in fact, a bifurcated group operating in parallel in two distinct areas. The first is the mountainous and inaccessible Kabylie region of north-eastern Algeria. Here, the focus of AQIM’s activities is the Algerian state; AQIM seeks to bring down the ‘apostate’ government and replace it with an authentically Islamist alternative. A second focal point for AQIM is a large area of the Sahel: a vast, mainly desert area, covering large areas of Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

During 2012, the Sahel ‘branch’ of AQIM was successful in securing control – and global headlines – when it briefly took charge in northern Mali. Like Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria today, AQIM sought control of territory in Mali and establishment of a state in order to execute regional, cross-border attacks on enemy – that is, non-Islamist – armies and governments. AQIM in Mali alarmed the French government to such an extent that it dispatched thousands of troops to engage AQIM, seeing the latter’s activities as an existential threat to France itself. The French operation was, however, rather ad hoc and tentative and over time the French government came to the realisation that permanently stationed military personnel in the Sahel region, acting with local troops, were necessary to quell the AQIM threat. To complicate matters, in Mali, as well as in Niger, Tuareg tribal militias fight the government for both political rights and representation. While not jihadists or a transnational threat, the Tuareg sometimes work with AQIM, sharing manpower, military materiel and tactics.

Sustained and Active Jihadist Threat

Two other Sahel countries also face threats from Islamist militants. Morocco is confronted by Ansar al-Shariah. So far, however, the Moroccan government has shown itself capable of dealing with the threat via effective use of its pervasive internal security service, effectively breaking up jihadist cells and thus diminishing the immediate jihadist threat. In order to protect the country from transnational jihadist threats, Rabat closed Morocco’s international borders with Algeria to the east and with Mauritania to the southeast.

Morocco’s neighbour, Libya, faces several armed jihadist groups. Following the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, Tripoli tried – albeit without much success – to incorporate into the national army several such groups, including: the Benghazi-based Rafallah al-Sahati and the militants of the Libyan Shield. In late August 2014, Islamist militants from the Libyan Dawn coalition seized Tripoli’s main airport after more than a month of fighting with nationalist forces. Mali, Morocco, and Libya share characteristics which undermine security in the face of a continuing – and growing – jihadist threat: each country is geographically huge, with relatively small population and often a weak state presence. Add to this, porous borders, not consistently overseen by security forces, as well as often weak intelligence and an active transnational supply of weapons, and we have all the ingredients for a sustained and active jihadist threat to incumbent governments.

France’s New Military Operations in the Sahel

This is the background to the recent deployment by the French government of a large military presence in the Sahel region. The plan was for France to withdraw its troops from Mali, but it was cancelled following new clashes in 2014 between jihadists and the army in the northern Mali town of Kidal. With a brief to stop local and transnational jihadist groups, the new French initiative – known as Operation Barkhane – involves around 3,000 French troops. The soldiers are supported by six fighter jets, 20 helicopters and three drones. About 1,000 French troops are based in northern Mali. The remaining 2,000 are deployed in four other regional countries and work closely with the military of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Based in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, Operation Barkhane has the brief to operate across international borders when necessary to deal with transnational jihadist threats, including counter-terrorist operations.

Long Term Solutions

Although unconnected, the January 2013 jihadist attacks in Algeria and Mali were pivotal in underlining to Western governments the vulnerability of North and West Africa to extremist Islamist operations. More recently, developments in Iraq and Syria, which saw massive and continuing territorial gains by jihadist forces, served to underline the looming existential threat from militant jihadists, whether in the Middle East or North and West Africa and, by extension, to Europe itself. As British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said in January 2013: “Those who believe that there is a terrorist, extremist Al Qaeda problem in parts of North Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. This is a problem for those places and for us.”1

The British government considered jihadist extremism in Africa’s western Sahel-Sahara region, publishing a report in March 2014 entitled, ‘The UK’s response to extremism and instability in North and West Africa.’ The report considered three case studies – the French intervention in Mali, the Ain Aminas gas facility attack in Algeria, and the emergence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. The report emphasises that ‘African crises’ – for example, in Mali, Algeria, Nigeria, or Libya – seem to Westerners, far away issues about which they know little or nothing and do not have to be concerned.

The point, however, is that the situation in both North and West Africa continues to be very serious. The jihadists are not defeated or deflected from the purpose: overthrow of incumbent, secular governments – entities which are much more likely to be Western allies than alternative jihadist states. In other words, in addition to the current headline-grabbing advances by jihadists in Iraq and Syria, North and West Africa is a new front line in the West’s existential struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism. While the threat must be addressed for the West’s security, African governments are rarely competent to deal with such threats on their own. They need the West’s help, militarily, financially and diplomatically. Some aver that Africa already has its own ‘fixer’ organisation, the African Union. Yet, this relatively new body has not managed clearly to work out what its security brief is – or should be – and how it can be implemented in the context of continuing jihadist threats.

The Way Forward

The West cannot afford to be complacent about the jihadist threat in North and West Africa. Events since early 2013 highlighted the potential speed of events; things can change very swiftly, both in terms of events and emergence and demise of key players on the ground. In 2012-13, the United Nations reported a 60 percent increase in terrorist acts in the Sahel and the Maghreb, the region’s highest annual total since 2001, the year of the Al Qaeda attacks on the US with the loss of more than 3,000 lives. While North and West Africa have long been focal points of local ethnic rivalries and inter-state conflicts, recent times have seen new developments: jihadists and drug smugglers, sometimes the same people, take advantage of under-populated, under-governed territories, capitalising on economic wretchedness, protracted unemployment, frail state security and widespread perception by ordinary people of being ruled by corrupt and self-interested governments.

Actions like Operation Barkhane can potentially help defuse the jihadist threat, at least for a limited time and in partial ways. What is needed to cement progress is genuinely progressive and productive governments whose work enhances the lives of all their citizens, not only a few. The West can help, but ultimately the rebuilding of states, the construction of nations and the diminution of existential threats can only be accomplished by coordinated actions of millions of citizens working together to achieve a better tomorrow.

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