Is­lamists gain ground in Africa

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

DAKAR — In a 2013 speech claim­ing vic­tory over ji­hadists in Mali who had seized the north a year ear­lier, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande said that if it had not been for his na­tion’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, “to­day we would have ter­ror­ists here in Ba­mako”.

Two years on, a rhetor­i­cal flour­ish meant to evoke a fear­ful but un­think­able sce­nario has come true as ji­hadists seek­ing new hide­outs and big­ger tar­gets have spread south from Sa­ha­ran bases into for­merly sta­ble cap­i­tal cities.

Since Novem­ber, al Qaeda fight­ers have twice stormed ho­tels in the Malian and Burk­ina cap­i­tals, killing dozens of Westerners in mir­ror im­age at­tacks dis­tin­guished chiefly by greater so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

As­sailants in Oua­gadougou planted ex­plo­sives to slow res­cuers and sent an ap­par­ently live au­dio mes­sage from the scene en­ti­tled: “Mes­sage Signed with Blood and Body Parts”.

The re­mote deserts and sa­van­nahs of French-speak­ing West and Cen­tral Africa, once a play­ground for hik­ers, mo­torists and lion hun­ters, have been ef­fec­tively out of bounds for Westerners for years due to kid­nap­ping risks.

But plush ho­tels in big cities were thought to be safe havens.

Of­ten they lodge the very peo­ple who are try­ing to fix the prob­lems of the Sa­hel — a frag­ile, poverty-racked re­gion on the fringes of the Sa­hara where gov­ern­ments are strug­gling to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for a boom­ing youth pop­u­la­tion.burk­ina’s Splen­did Ho­tel is pop­u­lar with French troops while Mali’s Radis­son Blu was host­ing a team try­ing to im­ple­ment a flag­ging U.n.-bro­kered peace deal in Mali when it was at­tacked.

But de­spite bil­lions of Western dol­lars spent on aid, peace­keep­ing and coun­tert­er­ror­ism, the red no-go zones on French con­sular maps have bled south­wards from a strong­hold in north Mali and into Burk­ina­a­lysts warn that weak bor­der con­trol and a fail­ure to ad­dress some of the root causes that al­low such groups to re­cruit and thrive mean that more strikes should be ex- pected.

“There’s no rea­son to think Burk­ina Faso should be the last coun­try hit,” said Cyn­thia Ohayon, West Africa an­a­lyst at In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group by phone from Oua­gadougu.

“If you strike the cap­i­tal, you are seen to be strik­ing harder and the threat is there for other cities like Dakar and Abid­jan,” she said, re­fer­ring to Sene­gal and Ivory Coast.

France says its 3,500-strong Barkhane Force which su­per­seded the 2013 Ser­val op­er­a­tion in Mali and has a broader re­gional man­date has made progress, con­duct­ing 150 op­er­a­tions last year.

But Ohayon says France may ac­tu­ally have con­trib­uted to the spread of ji­hadists by driv­ing them out of their for­mer heart­land in Mali’s desert north and into Burk­ina, which is seek­ing to re­cover from in­sta­bil­ity fol­low­ing the oust­ing of long-rul­ing leader Blaise Com­paore in 2014.

In a sign of their ex­pand­ing reach, France has warned of kid­nap threats in a pop­u­lar na­tional park strad­dling Burk­ina Faso, Benin and Niger which is more than 600 kilo­me­tres east of the Malian bor­der. Two Aus­tralians were also kid­napped in north­ern Burk­ina Faso on Satur­day just a week af­ter a Swiss ci­ti­zen was seized in Mali’s north­ern city of Tim­buktu.

Se­cu­rity sources say the rise in Western ab­duc­tions af­ter a pe­riod of rel­a­tive calm may rep­re­sent a bid by al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb (AQIM) to re­plen­ish cof­fers with ran­som money. The also say ji­hadists are prof­it­ing from a grow­ing re­gional ivory trade.

Mali has called for a rapid in­ter­ven­tion force to fight mil­i­tants and For­eign Min­is­ter Ab­doulaye Diop warned this week that the re­gion could be “en­gulfed due to con­nec­tions or even a link-up be­tween ter­ror­ist groups in the Sa­hel,” re­fer­ring to Is­lamic State in Libya to the north and Boko Haram to the east.

Tie-ups are al­ready hap­pen­ing on a lim­ited scale. AQIM has said in re­cent videos as part of an ex­panded me­dia cam­paign that it has joined forces with al Moura­bitoun, led by Al­ge­rian ji­hadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Thomas Miles, an in­de­pen­dent scholar and Sa­hel ex­pert, says there is lit­tle sign that re­cruit­ment in re­mote ar­eas has ended since the French op­er­a­tion of 2013, al­though it may have slowed.

“The real arm that AQIM has stock­piled over re­cent years is not the bul­lets and the weapons but th­ese baby-faced young men who are vir­tu­ally raised in th­ese cells and are will­ing to die,” said Miles, who is writ­ing a book on the re­gion.

Wit­nesses de­scribed one of the Oua­gadougou at­tack­ers as a young, black African and both Ba­mako gun­men were also young. They have not been for­mally iden­ti­fied.the Malian army com­plains that a fail­ure to im­ple­ment a peace deal be­tween the govern­ment and sec­u­lar armed groups signed six months ago has made it harder to fight ji­hadists since they can­not dis­tin­guish be­tween fight­ers.

The lack of progress has also fa­cil­i­tated the for­ma­tion of new lo­cal ji­hadist groups such as Mali’s Massina Lib­er­a­tion Front in a coun­try where many are des­per­ate and 60 per­cent of un­der 35s are un­em­ployed.

Other groups could be form­ing else­where in the Sa­hel.

“They won’t be huge mili­tias but so long as they can prom­ise a way out of poverty and weapons they will find re­cruits among peo­ple who don’t feel they have much to live for,” said Miles. — Reuters

IS­LAMIST fight­ers have be­come more dar­ing in re­cent months.

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