On the upsurge of Jihadist militant activities in Africa
The attack this week on a luxury hotel in Tripoli by gunmen from Islamic State who killed at least nine people signalled the growing reach of jihadist activities in Africa. The problem of Islamic terrorism for the continent is rising as Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in Nigeria, while Al-Shabaab is creating mayhem in East Africa.
Mali is not yet free from the threat posed by the Islamists who moved into the country in 2012 after grabbing weapons abandoned in the wake of the removal from power of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011.
It has been reported that Islamic State fighters have been lurking in the Sahel region, posing a great threat to West Africa. Indeed, security experts believe that the heightened attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon have been emboldened by the links between the group and Islamic State, which has been reported to be providing sophisticated weapons for Boko Haram.
The problem here is that the Sahel has been an ungoverned space for more than 20 years. During this period terrorists, kidnappers, criminals and other brigands have used this freedom to hone their skills in carrying out terrorist activities. Now they seem to be getting the upper hand in West Africa.
In Nigeria, the army is hard-pressed in its fight against Boko Haram, which has taken a greater international dimension. The Islamists, who have openly supported Islamic State and would like to see a caliphate declared in Northern Nigeria, have taken their terrorist activities to Cameroon and have also attracted Chadian forces to the bloody conflict.
The matter has been complicated further, as things come to a standstill in government because of next month’s Nigerian presidential and legislative elections.
Al-Shabaab is also bent on establishing a caliphate in parts of East Africa, according to President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya whose country has suffered the brunt of the group’s campaign of terror in the region. In a two-week period at the end of last year Al-Shabaab carried out a spate of terrorist attacks in the northern region of Kenya that left 64 people dead.
In 2013, Al-Shabaab assaulted the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring 240, according to Kenyan government figures
Mr Kenyatta said last month: “After decades of horror, fear, outrage and frustration, we resolved as a nation to protect our sovereignty by pursuing our enemies beyond our borders into Somalia.
By mid-2011, it had become abundantly clear that our long border with an ungoverned territory teeming with violent criminals was a threat to our national stability.
“Joining military efforts to bring peace to Somalia was the inevitable answer to our terror and security threats.
“In October, 2011, the government authorised the KDF [Kenya Defence Force] to pursue the Al-Shabaab militia into Somalia.
“This decision was right then, and remains so today,” Mr Kenyatta added.
In all this, there are the strong arguments inside and outside Africa on how to deal with the growing Islamist threat on the continent. The US, which has been searching for a long time to base its Africa Command (AFRICOM) on the continent, appears to be winning the hearts and minds of African civil society activists who have long opposed an AFRICOM base in Africa.
“The change of heart towards AFRICOM being based in Africa, I believe, came after the Westgate attack, which was played out on a global stage through television coverage,” a security expert in London told the GNA.
“Suddenly, Africans were able to see for themselves the destructive nature of Islamic terrorism.
“This has not been lost on the Americans who are now playing an increasing role in aiding countries like Kenya and Nigeria to tackle the Islamic threat.”
He added: “I know that the Americans have been in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa for some time in the fight not only against Al-Shabaab but also against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.”
The experts went on to say that what the Americans needed were reliable partners in Africa to take on the Islamic scourge.
This is a crucial point because human rights activists have been complaining that some African leaders are beginning to use the fight against terrorism in Africa to squeeze political opponents or rehabilitate themselves after years of despotic rule.
For instance, according to African Arguments, a multi-blogging website based in London, Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram “has contributed to the re-legitimisation of President Paul Biya on the international scene; helping him to mount pressure on the opposition and civil society in the country”.
In the case of President Idriss Deby of Chad, African Arguments, which is dedicated to informed and rigorous debate on the issues that have an impact on Africa, noted: “Deby has also been able to take advantage of the fight against terrorism to strengthen his regional leadership.
“Within the Lake Chad Basin Commission, Chad has assumed a regional leadership role in the fight against Boko Haram, ahead of Cameroon and Nigeria which are nevertheless the most significant economic powers in the area and most affected by Boko Haram.
“This leadership is reflected in the prominent role played by Chad in negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, and the fact that the country has been chosen to host the Intelligence Fusion Centre.
“In the security partnership with France, Chad is hosting in Ndjamena the command centre and the air force of the Barkhane operation for the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region. At Faya-Largeau, the country is hosting three advanced operational bases of the Barkhane force,” African Arguments added.
The Nigerians, for their part, are having a thorny relationship with the Americans, according to The New York Times.
The newspaper reported: “Relations between American military trainers and specialists advising the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram are so strained that the Pentagon often bypasses the Nigerians altogether, choosing to work instead with security officials in the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, according to defence officials and diplomats.”
A senior AFRICOM official told the paper: “We want a relationship based on trust, but you have to be able to see yourself. And they’re in denial.”
This appears to be the same problem the US is facing in Djibouti, where it has Special Forces members under its Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to counter the increased activities of al-Shabaab and AQAP based just across the Red Sea in Yemen.
President Ismail Omar Guelleh has been accused of using the importance of his country to America’s fight against terrorism to his advantage – suppressing political dissent.
Recently, his government applied to the Commercial Court, a sub-division of the Queen’s Bench of the High Court of Justice in London for a worldwide freeze of the assets of one of his main opponents, Abdourahman Boreh.
He and his followers were found guilty by a court in Djibouti of being involved in a grenade attack in the country, which prompted the application. But this conviction was eventually discredited in court in London at the end of last year and Mr. Boreh was allowed to challenge the injunction.
“The stability of the leadership in Djibouti is now an increasing concern to the US, which needs Djibouti to be a reliable partner providing secure bases to fight terrorism in Somalia and beyond,” a Nairobi analyst told the GNA last October.
So, despite the growing threat of militant Islam in Africa, activists have accused leaders like Presidents Guelleh, Deby and Biya of using the fight against terrorism for political purposes and legitimising their positions instead of dealing with the problem head on.
By Desmond Davies