The countries that have suffered most from the blight of terrorism are struggling to rid themselves of terrorist groups fostered and supported by a number of nations, foremost among which are Turkey, Qatar and Iran which utilise terrorist groups and illegal militias to secure footholds and carry out their agendas in countries plagued by social and political upheaval. Those agendas are driven by various motives: vengefulness against countries opposed to their agendas, the desire to expand their influence and territorial control beyond their borders by threatening the national security of neighbouring countries and, of course, the thirst for natural resources and expanding markets in target countries.
Last week, we referred to a report on the National Interest website describing Turkey and Qatar as “brothers in arms” involved in illicit finance, promoting extremist ideologies and providing safe havens to terrorists and terror financiers in glaring violation of US and UN sanctions. The report urged Washington to take action to compel Ankara and Doha to curb their “malign conduct”. Last week’s article focused on Turkish and Qatari designs in Libya and Sudan. Today, we will see how their malign conduct has targeted Somalia, the Sahel region and Nigeria, spreading upheaval and bolstering terrorist groups.
ERDOGAN’S CLAWS IN SOMALIA: Ankara’s announcement of its intention to accept a Somali “invitation” to drill for oil in Somalia’s regional waters set off alarm bells in the Arab region because of the implications concerning the mounting Turkish threat to Arab national security in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. As the US-based export.gov website points out, Turkey is poor in energy resources. It imports 99 per cent of its natural gas and 93 per cent of its oil, mostly from Iraq, Iran and Russia with which Ankara has fluctuating relations. As the Erdogan regime’s Ottoman revivalist ambitions need energy resources to fuel them, it set its sights on the vast oil and gas reserves that experts believe lie beneath Somalia’s territorial waters.
Turkey has inserted itself into many vital Somali sectors, from healthcare and education to the military sector. It set up schools and Turkish language and culture centres; it initiated a $70 million educational grant programme that gave scholarships to 1,200 Somali students at universities in Turkey; and it funnelled more than $400 million into various relief and development programmes. According to observers, large numbers of Turkish citizens have been brought into Somalia as employees for companies working at ports, in construction, and in agriculture and fishing. The Turkish conglomerate Albayrak won a license to manage the Port of Mogadishu for a 20-year period and Turkish fishing vessels have been awarded fishing rights in Somali waters.
Ankara kicked off its drive to win Mogadishu’s heart in 2008 with a $70 million aid package. In 2011, Erdogan and family members paid a high-profile visit to Mogadishu, ostensibly to draw international attention to the extreme drought and consequent famine in Somalia. In October 2017, Turkey announced plans to build military base 50 kilometres south of Mogadishu on the Gulf of Aden. The base, which cost $50 million, houses training facilities and weapons storehouses. Turkish newspapers at the time boasted that it could serve as a hub for marketing Turkish-made weapons.
After Aden governorate, in southern Yemen, was liberated from Houthi rebels in October 2015, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni franchise moved to create a zone of influence stretching from the port of Aden through Bab Al-Mandeb to the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, to enable Turkey and Iran, with Qatari assistance, to secure control over the Horn of Africa, the southwest Arabian Peninsula and the southern entrance to the Red Sea. To round out the plan, Erdogan signed an agreement with former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir to build a military base and port facility on Suakin on the Red Sea. The Sudanese revolution that over threw Al-Bashir’s regime delivered a major setback to Erdogan’s designs.
The Somali political analyst Abdel- Rahman Abdi believes that Turkey wants to use its base south of Mogadishu in order to control the Somali coast and furnish military support to Turkish forces that could be sent to the region at some point in the future. He noted how conveniently close the military facility was to Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu, which is also operated by a Turkish firm.
As Somali journalist Mohamed Othman put it, “Turkish support for Somalia is not a gift. Turkey, through its military base, will search for African markets for its military exports.”
“The Turkish base is part of Turkey’s growing military expansion into Africa in the framework of the mounting international competition over the continent,” adds Shafi Abtidon, a researcher on East African affairs.
Some Somali observers predict that Turkey will soon encounter a major challenge in Somalia due to the anticipated withdrawal of African Union forces from that country. Turkey will have to pay dearly in order to protect its facilities and other interests because the Somali army will not be able to fill the security gap. They also predict that the departure of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) will entice the Shabaab to increase their attacks against what the militants regard as foreign invaders. This includes Turkish citizens in Somalia, many of whom have, indeed, been killed in Shabaab attacks in recent weeks.
QATARI AMBITIONS IN SOMALIA: Qatar, like Turkey and Iran, does not hand out aid to Somalia altruistically. According to Somali affairs experts, the crisis between the central government in Mogadishu and the leaders of the Somali regions was precipitated by Qatari interventions in Somali domestic affairs in the pursuit of Doha’s agenda to recruit Somali youth into the Muslim Brotherhood and transform the country into a hub for Qatari-backed terrorists. In November 2018, Doha supported the Islamist extremist Mokhtar Robow — a former leader of Al-Qaeda affiliated Shabaab — in the presidential elections in the southwest region of Baidoa.
Qatar’s alliance with Turkey and Iran combined with the Turkish military base on the outskirts of Mogadishu has heightened fears that these countries will increase their support for local terrorist groups in order to advance their agendas. A New York Times article in July 2019 revealed evidence corroborating how Doha tried to bribe Somali officials in order to win lucrative contracts to operate the port facilities in Bosaso, which is run by a firm based in the UAE. The article published excerpts from an audio recording of a mobile phone conversation between the Qatari ambassador in Mogadishu and a businessman close to the Qatari emir in which they discussed a recent bomb attack in Bosaso. In the recording, the businessman referred to the people behind the attacks as “our friends” and said that the attacks were “intended to make Dubai people run away from there. Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.” No one in Qatar denied the authenticity of the recording in which the ambassador replied, “so that’s why they are having attacks there, to make [the Emiratis] run away.”
Such is Qatar’s conduct in Somalia, despite the good relations it claims to have with Mogadishu under President Abdullahi Farmaajo. Evidently, Doha thinks it expedient to play both sides of the fence in Somalia. No one has a problem with Qatar using Bosaso for commercial purposes. But there is genuine cause for concern that Qatar will use it to smuggle weapons and extremist operatives to the Shabaab or other terrorist groups, gravely jeopardising stability in the Horn of Africa and the safety of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. In July last year, Somali sources revealed evidence of such collaboration. According to reports, Doha was implicated in an operation involving smuggling uranium aboard Qatari civilian airplanes to Iran from areas in northwest Somalia controlled by the Shabaab.
THE QATARI-TURKISH PROJECT IN THE SAHEL: Qatar and Turkey have shown that they will stop at no lengths to penetrate Africa. In 2015, Erdogan undertook a marathon visit of more than 10 African countries while his Qatari partner Tamim Bin Hamad made a tour to six West African nations. Observers could not help but to notice how this Turkish-Qatari passion for Africa only acquired such ardour after Qatar’s neighbours decided they had had enough of Doha’s bids to destabilise the Gulf region in more direct ways.
In the five African Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) there has been a marked rise in Turkish-Qatari activity under the rubric of cooperation, support and humanitarian aid. This coincided with the emergence of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and the escalation of its activities. The MLF was closely linked to the jihadist groups responsible for the recent outbreak of violence and terrorism in Sahel and Sahara countries several years ago. The massacres and destruction they have caused in the region persist despite the efforts of international counterterrorism forces.
Qatari assistance to philanthropic NGOs operating in the areas controlled by these groups and their supporters bolstered the MLF, which emerged from Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. The latter has been ranked as the most-deadly terrorist organisation in the region, responsible for bloody attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
Qatari and Turkish activities in the region prompted Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to accuse the two countries of acts of subversion in the pursuit of a Muslim Brotherhood agenda to gain control of Africa. About three years ago, the French press published French military intelligence reports confirming that some jihadist movements in Mali were benefiting from Qatari logistical and financial support disguised as contributions to humanitarian societies. The press cited the then mayor of Gao in northern Mali accusing the emir of Qatar of directly funding and financing militants under the guise of aid transported to them, delivered to the airports in Gao and Timbuktu. One of the main recipients he mentioned was Al-Tawhed wa'l Jihad movement in West Africa, a branch of the MLF.
IRANIAN SLEEPING CELLS IN SAHARA COUNTRIES
Iran, too, is playing a subversive role in Sub-Saharan Africa. Investigative reports have shown that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has sleeping cells across the region ready for Tehran to activate against Western interests and to transform the area into a theatre of war against Iran’s regional and international enemies. Beneath the heading, “Tehran sets up terror cells in Africa as Western sanctions bite,” The Telegraph in June 2019 writes that their aim is “to target US and other Western military bases on the continent, as well as embassies and officials... The operation is being organised by Unit 400, a highly specialised section of the Quds Force.”
In like manner, Al-Arabiya TV reported that British officials unearthed a Revolutionary Guards network covering Chad and the Central Africa Republic whose members received training in Iranian-run training camps. Before this, in 2015, a cell consisting of two Iranians and two others was discovered in Kenya where they had been planning to carry out bombings in Nairobi.
In August, the Nigerian government officially banned the pro-Iranian Shia Islamic Movement, declaring it an “enemy of the state”. The ban was motivated by fears that Nigeria could become an arena of Sunni-Shia conflict. The office of President Muhammadu Buhari released a statement saying that the movement had been “taken over by extremists who didn’t believe in peaceful protests and instead employed violence”. After the ban, the Nigerian police chief at the time told senior officers, “any person engaged or associating, in any manner that could advance the activities of the proscribed Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) shall be treated as a terrorist, enemy of the state, and a subversive element and shall be brought to justice,” the BBC reported in August 2019.
The movement, which was founded about four decades ago, advocates the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria modelled on the Iranian system. Its members swear allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini and then to their leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaki. The movement refuses to recognise the central government and regards government officials, whether Muslim or Christian, as corrupt and illegitimate. The BBC cites Jacob Zenn, a US-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation think tank, as saying that the movement maintains a lightly armed “Hizbullah-like” guard corps, produces a newspaper, and uses pro-Khomeini imagery on its website and at demonstrations. Estimates of the numbers of Shia in Nigeria vary between five and 17 per cent of the country’s predominantly Sunni population.
AL-SISI DEALS FIRMLY WITH SPONSORS OF TERRORISM: In stark contrast with the disruptive and destabilising role in Africa of Turkey, Qatar and Iran, Egypt took the initiative to host and pay for the construction of the regional counter-terrorism centre for the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD). Launched in 1998, CEN-SAD includes, in addition to Egypt, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Niger, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Senegal, Gambia, Djibouti, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, Somalia, Togo and Benin.
In his address to the Peace Forum in Africa, which convened in Aswan in December, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi underscored the need for a firm and collective response to state sponsors of terrorism. “We will only be able to confront terrorism by means of collective action,” he said. “We must deal resolutely with the states that support and sponsor terrorism because terrorist groups will be powerless unless they obtain material, military and moral support.”
As an important dimension of such action, Arab countries should accelerate the provision of economic and humanitarian aid to African nations and strengthen their relations with African governments. This will alleviate the economic pressures that render African societies vulnerable to the designs of state sponsors of terrorism such as Turkey and Qatar, which use humanitarian NGOs as fronts in order to funnel support to terrorist groups.
Arab countries have already been active in curbing Iranian influence in African countries. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have taken the lead in this regard and, for example, were instrumental in bringing about the closure of the Iranian Cultural Centre in Sudan, which had been actively proselytising to spread the Shia sect, as was the case with the Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.