Sahel-Sahara: The next IS stronghold

Attia Essawi , Friday 17 May 2019

Despite its resounding defeat in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, as well as its offshoots and competitors, is far from a spent force as it eyes Africa

Attack on a Catholic church in Dablo
Gunmen killed a priest and five churchgoers during mass last Sunday in an attack on a Catholic church in Dablo, northern Burkina Faso. The attackers set fire to the church, several shops and a small café before heading to the local health centre, which they looted and burnt the chief nurse’s vehicle

The vast Sahel-Sahara region, which spans Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, has become home to such terrorist organisations as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State group (or Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, ISGS) and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF).

These groups have close and extensive relations inside Libya which have enabled them to obtain material and financial support across Libya’s southern borders, an area that has become one of their preying grounds for abducting migrants, human trafficking and arms smuggling.

Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the rate of terrorist attacks launched from the Sahara has soared as a result of the tons of military equipment coming from Libya.

The spiralling terrorist activities have had a destabilising effect on neighbouring countries. In 2013, an international force led by France was forced to intervene to rescue Mali from partition and to eliminate the terrorist threat to the Sub-Saharan state.

The Great Sahara covers more than nine million km2 and stretches across many countries that lack the wherewithal to control this sparsely populated rugged area.

As a result, networks of gangs of drug smugglers, outlaws, rebels and terrorists prevail presenting a peril that threatens the countries in the region to varying degrees, though the most vulnerable areas are northern Mali, western Niger, northern Mauritania, parts of Burkina Faso and parts of Algeria.

The last Munich Security Report, released in February 2019, noted that a surge in the violence linked to extremist groups in the Sahel reflected these groups’ growing networking capacities.

It found that three-fourths of the conflicts with government forces in 2018 had been instigated by these groups and, citing data from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, that during 2018 the number of people killed due to the activities of extremist militias had doubled since 2017, reaching 1,082 deaths.

Observers believe that now that the US and its allies are rounding up their military operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, their attention is turning to Africa as a new focus in the war against terrorism.

Given the widespread poverty, ignorance and social injustice, the lack of horizons for youth, the lack of democracy and rampant corruption in most African states, Africa is becoming an environment conducive to the growth and spread of extremism and terrorism.

The observers cited a report by the US-based Strafor intelligence think tank warning of the looming danger to Africa signalled by a noticeable increase in the numbers of foreign fighters entering the continent in order to join militant groups working to establish Islamist statelets.

A study by the Future Centre for Advanced Research and Studies examined IS’s aims in shifting its focus to Africa following the recently released video in which Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced a new group he called the Central Africa Province and the pledge of allegiance from another group that operates in Burkina Faso and Mali.

Al-Baghdadi, in the video, suggested that such groups will play major role in IS’s operations in the coming period. According to the study, the group is establishing new franchises in Africa in order to compensate for its losses in Syria and Iraq and to stake out new areas that its operatives can use as staging posts to carry out attacks, taking advantage of the difficult and far flung terrain in the Sahel.

From its new locations in Africa, IS will certainly try to avenge itself against the international forces that took part in the military campaigns against it, especially France which contributed to the creation of a regional anti-terrorist coalition in West Africa and offered considerable support in the fight against terrorist groups there.

But in the process, it will also try to rival Al-Qaeda and its franchises in the region, expanding the scope of operations of the groups that pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi in order to rebuild IS’s power and prestige.

A report by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) on the global war against terrorism in Africa identifies four major theatres in this war: Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel (Central Mali and border areas) and Egypt.

It observed that the number of extremist groups that are active in these theatres had grown significantly in 2018 and that 13 African countries continued to face regular attacks by such groups.

As for IS activities, the study reported that incidents linked to the Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), which splintered off Boko Haram, more than tripled in 2018 (83 events versus 27 in 2017) and that fatalities linked to ISWA increased by almost 58 per cent.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates in the Sahel registered the largest escalation in terrorist attacks last year, according to the ACSS report: violent events related to them increased from 144 in 2017 to 322 in 2018 and the fatalities from such incidences rose from 366 in 2017 to 611 in 2018.

AQIM and its affiliates rapidly expanded the area of their operations during the same period and it now stretches from north and central Mali to parts of Burkina Faso and Niger.

Counterterrorist efforts led by the UN and the French army in the Sahel-Sahara region have suffered a major setback due to the escalation in militant attacks linked with Al-Qaeda and IS.

In addition to killing hundreds of civilians, the violence jeopardises the educational future of children. UNICEF reported that in the central Mopti region in Mali, nearly a third of all schools have been closed due to insecurity, compromising the right to education of over 157,000 children out of a total of 260,000 children affected by school closures in Mali and that by the end of March 2019 some 525 schools were closed in Mopti out of 866 schools closed in the country.

As national armies in the region, special forces from Western nations and a 15,000-member UN mission fight an uphill battle to control the situation, violence and unrest continues to wreak destabilising effects.

More worrisome yet is that many of the 1,000 North African extremists who had gone off to fight with IS in Syria have returned to their countries and are bent on targeting the countries in the region and European and US interests at a time when the governments of the Sahel-Sahara are still unable to control their borders and curb the ability of militant groups that move back and forth across them.

In mid-April this year, Boko Haram carried out an attack in Chad killing seven Chadian soldiers and wounding 15 others. This came shortly on the heels of another attack in which 23 soldiers were killed.

Described as the deadliest attack against the Chadian army, it was carried out by the splinter faction of Boko Haram affiliated with IS whose operatives managed to flee, carrying military equipment with them.

In February, Amnesty International reported that Boko Haram militants killed at least 60 people in an assault on the northeast Nigerian town of Rann, in one of the deadliest attacks by the terrorist group in a decade.

The assailants also drove out the Nigerian forces stationed there, demonstrating their ability to seize military positions. More 27,000 people have been killed and more than two million people have been driven from their homes since the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency began in 2009.

It is noteworthy that Boko Haram terrorists have gone on record as using drones to spy on the Nigerian army’s troop movements before that Nigerian army, itself, thought to use them.

As of 2019, the Boko Haram splinter group, Ansaru, under the command of Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, emerged as more dangerous than the mother faction led by Abubakar Shekau.

Ansaru now controls a vast area equivalent to the size of Belgium and it has claimed responsibility for many of the deadliest attacks in north and northeast Nigeria, including attacks against three military posts and the abovementioned attack against Rann which displaced 40,000 of whom 30,000 fled to Cameroon.

It has also taken on governmental functions in the areas it controls: collecting taxes, supervising trade and managing natural resources.

Because of its control over the material and human resources in that area, its ability to stock its arsenals from the black market or by raiding military bases, and its ability to capitalise on the spread of Salafi jihadist ideology in parts of West Africa, its drive to establish a caliphate state in that region has a large base of popular support.

In Burkina Faso, 62 people were killed in a terrorist attack in the northern town of Arbinda near the border with Mali, triggering ethnic clashes there. According to the minister of local government, the terrorists drove people from their homes, committed massacres and kidnapped nine people in order to sow ethnic strife.

The Arbinda attack occurred several days after the massacre of around 160 Fulani civilians in Mali, during which pregnant women and children were burned alive in their homes. The massacres in the Fulani villages of Ogossagou and Welingara were carried out by gunmen wearing the traditional dress of Dogon tribesmen.

In January, a gang of terrorists stormed the village of Sikire in northern Burkina Faso, indiscriminately gunning down people, setting fire to stores and stealing motorcycles. Ten villagers were killed in the attack. Two weeks before this a similar attack was carried out in Gasseliki, a village 30 kilometres south of Arbinda, killing 12.

More than 200 people have been killed in the many terrorist incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015. Ouagadougou, itself, has seen three attacks claiming 60 lives, the most recent occurring in March 2018 targeting the military command headquarters in the centre of the capital.

During the same period, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Gamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the attack on the international peacekeeping force in Mali, stating that it was in response to Chadian President Idriss Déby’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Israel.

Ten Chadian soldiers were killed and 25 others were wounded when gunmen stormed the UN camp at Aguelhok, Mali, despite the fact that 15,000 UN troops were stationed there.

Large parts of Mali remain outside the control of the central government in Bamako which announced that 450 civilians and 150 Malian and foreign soldiers had been killed in the first three months of this year.

In an attempt to form a collective response to this danger, the five Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) created a joint counterterrorist military force in 2015, although the force continues to suffer funding and training problems.

The French have also reinforced their military presence in the region, especially in Mali where they have begun to build a new military base near the border with Burkina Faso where IS fighters are active.

The new base is the latest such facility in the framework of Operation Barkhane, a counterterrorist operation in the Sahel made up of a 4,500-strong force and that is headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.

Libya has become notorious for the proliferation of terrorist groups. The gravity of the threat has led the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to launch a campaign to gain control over Libya’s southern border with Algeria and to eliminate the organised crime gangs and terrorist groups operating there.

After securing control over the southern area, the LNA turned northward towards the capital, Tripoli, in order to free it from the grip of the terrorist groups and militias based in the north.

Securing control over Libya’s borders with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan is a crucial step in the drive to stop terrorist and criminal activities, illegal migration and cross border smuggling in Africa.

The French minister of defence once described southern Libya as a snake pit. He also said that Libya has the largest unsecured weapons depot in the world and that it contains 3,000 to 8,000 rocket launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and missile systems capable of downing civilian and military aircraft.

In addition, there are 200,000 gunmen, some nominally subordinate to the government while others worked for extremist and terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda. Eyewitnesses report that firearms, from guns to Kalashnikovs, are sold openly on the pavement.

The foreign fighters who went to Libya from neighbouring African countries and that are active in the central southern area have renewed concerns that the Libyan government will lose control over that area.

Local inhabitants complain of a heavy presence of armed gangs affiliated with the Chadian opposition, such as the Rally for Change, the United Front for Change and the Military Council to Save the Republic.

These and other opposition groups have thousands of members, including officers and soldiers who defected from the Idriss Déby regime. Opposition groups from Sudan also operate out of southern Libya.

The best known is the Sudanese insurgent group, the Justice and Equality Movement, whose members were hired as mercenaries by some of Libya’s warring tribes and factions. Before long, the armed groups from Africa were fighting between themselves over control over mines, smuggling routes and spheres of influence.

IS also operates in that area. In January, Libyan security forces unearthed a huge and complete explosives factory for manufacturing bombs, explosive belts and other explosive devices. It belonged to IS and was located outside the town of Ghadduwa, about 80 kilometres south of Sabha.

IS has become increasingly active in southern Libya where it has staged several armed raids in several areas in recent months, against police stations and other security targets. The attackers killed soldiers and civilians and abducted and imprisoned many others.

Observers have noted that the attacks seemed more systematic, powerful and more closely spaced, suggesting that IS now intends to strengthen its presence in the south where the most important oil fields are located. Earlier, IS had lost its footing in the northeast after it was driven out of Sirte and other cities in that area in late 2016.

The far-flung terrain, the absence of government control, the poor security coverage in the south and the ease of communicating with other extremist groups across Libya’s porous borders with Chad, Sudan and Niger are among the factors that entice IS and other terrorist groups to entrench themselves in that area.

Moreover, recent actions indicate that IS plans to establish another state entity there. In the early hours of 2019, two suicide bombers attacked Ghadduwa, killing three LNA soldiers and wounding another.

The previous day, the LNA had killed several IS operatives in an operation that succeeded in freeing 22 individuals that IS had held captive.

Similar attacks were carried out in Tazirbu in southeast Libya, in which nine policemen were killed and 11 civilians were abducted, and in Fuqaha in the central Jufra district, in which four police were killed and several police and civilians were abducted.

On the other hand, the LNA has succeeded in eliminating three prominent IS commanders: Al-Mahdi Dangu who had orchestrated the massacre of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya in Sirte in 2015, as well as Abu Talha Al-Libi and the Egyptian terrorist Abdallah Al-Desouki.

In a report published in 2018, the National Committee for Human Rights in Libya warned that after the liberation of Benghazi, members of IS, Ansar Al-Shariah and Al-Qaeda would form new cells in other parts of the country, particularly in the southwest.

The report documented the flight of dozens of such jihadist militants from Benghazi, Sirte, Derna and Sabrata towards the south following clashes with the LNA during which the terrorist groups’ lost control of these cities.

The report cautioned that the militants who relocated into that expansive southern area would be able to communicate easily with other terrorist organisations in the vicinity, such as Boko Haram, AQIM and MUJWA.

From a more global and historical perspective, a report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) observed that there were 270 per cent more Salafi jihadist fighters in 2018 than in 2001.

In 2018, there were 67 Salafi jihadist groups across the globe, up 180 per cent from its 2001 level. Currently there are around 280,000 terrorists worldwide, the highest level in 40 years.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Sahel-Sahara: The next IS stronghold

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