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The growing threat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Africa

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The growing threat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Africa

From the Sahel to Mozambique, terror attacks by groups affiliated to ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been on the increase in recent years. Al Venter takes a detailed look what is happening in the terror hotspots and how African countries and their allies are responding to the problem

Colonel Alain Bayle, erstwhile French military attaché in London, with whom I shared a few confidences, intimated recently that it was whispered within the corridors of power in the Élysée Palace that Europe “faces a 400-year war against militant jihadists” in Africa. 

Bayle’s grim words may seen exaggerated but they reflect an even grimmer reality. What had started as a fairly limited upheaval in Mali in 2012 has bloomed into a major conflagration that is threatening to engulf not only the Sahelian states but much of West Africa as well.

Terror attacks in Mali have increased exponentially in the past two years. In 2019, a total of 268 attacks were recorded in that Sahelian state compared with 160 in 2018; fatalities rose from 310 in 2018 to 869 the following year.

It is much worse in Burkina Faso where there has been a 441.8% increase in fatalities between 2018 and 2019, coupled with double the number of attacks in the same period.

The total death toll over the past two or three years now stands at over 4,000 and counting. The UK’s Guardian newspaper says: “In the past year, attacks on civilians have surged, triggering a tenfold increase in displaced people, whose numbers rival those of Syrians from Idlib and Myanmar’s Rohingya. According to official records, nearly 800,000 Burkinabé people had fled their homes as of 29 February. But not all are being registered, and aid groups say the number is far greater.”

François Lecointre, head of the French Armed Forces, said that “if we allow chaos to take root, the [West African] Sahel nations will collapse on themselves, leaving a void for the Islamic State.”

To prevent this, the air forces of more than a dozen nations are now involved, making the Sahel one of the most militarily active regions on the planet. 

The number of daily strike and support missions out of cities like Bamako, N’Djamena, Niamey, Baledogle in Somalia and Bangui – as well as several forward airfields in Cameroon, the Central African Republic and elsewhere – now exceeds all of those taking place on a daily basis in Syria and Afghanistan combined.

The Sahel, the vast semi-desert region that stretches halfway across West Africa, is now home to numerous al-Qaeda (AQ) and ISIS aligned groups. 

In addition to seemingly random attacks on civilians, especially in Burkina Faso, there have been several strategically selected targets, for example La Terrasse Bar in Bamako, Mali on 7 March 2015, the Radisson Blu Hotel, also in Bamako, on 20 November 2015, and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on 15 January 2016, followed by assaults in Arlit and Agadez in Niger. 

Also notable – because it took place in a new and distant region from those that went before – was the bombing of tourist targets in Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand-Bassam, a seaside resort on the coast south of Abidjan in March 2016. East Africa – Kenya specifically – has also had its share of atrocities. 

One-eyed Nelson

What is significant is that in West Africa, each of these actions has a single thread in common: all were initiated by the same insurgent group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its local brigade al-Mourabitoune, led by one of the boldest and most remarkable revolutionaries of our times, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. 

Also known as the ‘One-eyed Nelson’ (he lost the other while handling explosives in the war with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, where he served with distinction) Belmokhtar has been convicted of fomenting revolution in several African states as well as smuggling weapons.

To give him his dues, this guerrilla leader is an astute and remarkably canny military tactician. He has survived many attempts on his life and often been declared killed in action, several times by French military intelligence. 

In Algeria, the country of his birth, he was twice convicted and sentenced to death under separate charges by Algerian courts, both times in absentia: in 2007 for terrorism and in 2008 for murder. 

Among contemporary revolutionaries active in Africa and the Middle East, Belmokhtar has arguably achieved more victories against what he refers to as ‘the Infidel’ than any of his peers. 

He not only plans every attack himself but has been personally involved in many of them. His role within AQIM is regarded as the high point of his career.

Belmokhtar started young. After fighting in Central Asia, he joined a new splinter group, the militant Islamist, Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), later renamed AQIM. 

In this he has been so successful that there are currently 55 nations battling this insurgency in West Africa, the majority, apart from France, under the auspices of the UN and with a total UN ‘Peacekeeping’ budget in excess of a billion dollars annually.

MINUSMA, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission, headquartered in Bamako, the capital of Mali, is at the core of such efforts. 

Established by a Security Council resolution in April 2013 to support political processes in that country, it handles a variety of security-related tasks, the majority of which have involved open warfare against Belmokhtar’s recruits, some of whom come from as far afield as Dagestan in Russia’s Caucasus, and Saudi Arabia.

Battle lines

But compounding the issue is the fact that AQ and ISIS are not the only jihadist organisations currently active in West Africa. The most prominent are:

  1. Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – an alliance of jihadist groups, active throughout the Sahel region
  2. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – affiliated to Islamic State and active in north-eastern Mali
  3. Ansarul Islam – deployed in northern Burkina Faso but with links to both AQIM and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
  4. Boko Haram – present in north-eastern Nigeria, Niger, Chad and northern Cameroon
  5. According to Judd Devermont, director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), each one of these groupings is extraordinarily adept at exploiting regional government mistakes, including human rights abuses and a failure to invest in communities that are clearly vulnerable.

Ranged against them are a number of foreign interests that have entered the fray, some from halfway across the globe from where the action is taking place. Just about every major power in Europe is contributing towards air assets – the majority, like Germany, Sweden, Britain, the United States and others in support roles. 

The French Air Force remains the most active, operating its fighter jets out of its headquarters at N’Djamena in Chad. Britain, Canada and others are also participating with Chinook CH-47s ‘heavies’ in providing front-line support out of Operation Barkhane’s main operational base at Gao in northern Mali. 

Curiously, even the United Arab Emirates has become involved, setting up a veritable air bridge early in 2020 to deliver 30 Streit armoured troop transport vehicles to the Malian Armed Forces in Bamako. The German Streit Group is the world’s largest armoured vehicle manufacturer.

By donating these vehicles, Abu Dhabi is attempting to limit Qatar’s influence over Mali, since it is also providing Streit with sales opportunities among member countries of the French-led G5 Sahel joint military force, which, apart from Mali, includes Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger. 

Other governments now involved include Cameroon, attempting to cope (not always successfully) with a double-headed insurgency by combating Nigeria-based Boko Haram along its north-western frontier and trying to halt infiltration of the Central African Republic from Sudan, and Chad in the north-east. It resists as best it can with the Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) – created several years ago by former Israeli officers – taking the lead. 

Well-trained and coordinated, its troops are deployed along the country’s frontiers, but have not been permitted follow-up rights by the Abuja government, except over short distances during combined operations with Nigerian ground and air forces. 

Thanks to images transmitted by portable drones and sometimes, following information provided by Nigerian soldiers, Cameroonian artillery is now able to fire on terrorist groups. Its French-built 155mm guns have several times struck at Boko Haram camps some 10km from the border.

While the Middle East has been the traditional epicentre of jihadist extremism, in recent years, it has become clear that the pendulum has swung to Africa.

As things stand, much of Somalia remains ungovernable and Boko Haram’s attacks extend well beyond Nigeria into the Niger Republic and Chad, aside from Cameroon. 

Enter Moscow

Concurrently, sporadic al-Shabaab-linked attacks continue in Mozambique. There, rebels in the Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region have terrorised villagers in remote communities for several years. 

To support Mozambique’s beleaguered military, Maputo sought the help of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with promises of rich gas concessions in the region as recompense. As a result, the Russian private military organisation, the Wagner Group, was deployed in October last year. 

It dispatched a 200-man force to Cabo Delgado province – a region which borders Tanzania and is dominantly Muslim. Backed by several Hind helicopter gunships as well as a number of Mi-17s, these mercenaries first started operating along the Mozambique-Tanzania border itself and only later moved into the interior. 

Air and ground forces were designated to operate in close co-operation with the Mozambique army (Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique: FADM).

But that relationship soon turned sour; the Russians accused government forces of a lack of discipline (which, according to a London Timesreport in November 2019, led to at least one ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a Wagner member was wounded) as well as the inability to maintain any kind of sustained offensive against the rebels.

But what is not generally known is that following the arrival of the Russians, ISIS quickly reinforced its units in Mozambique by rushing in ‘volunteers’ from other East African countries, Somalia especially. This soon led to an intensified series of guerrilla onslaughts. 

Since then, having sustained an unknown number of casualties – including the deaths of about a dozen Russians (some decapitated) and almost 40 wounded in attacks in October and November 2019 – the Wagner Group has pulled its men and resources back to its main base at Nacala, almost 400km by road to the south. 

At this stage it is not clear whether the move is permanent or whether the Russians retreated to reassess their options.

If Wagner’s presence is to continue, professional military contractor Neall Ellis told New African, “They have a real need to become better acquainted with the obstacles that face them, including one of the most formidable jungle terrains in Africa, which has effectively become the insurgents’ backyard.”

The bottom line, he declared, was that this eastern European force really does not understand either basic African conditions or its people and their multifarious cultures.

General Keita takes control in CAR

Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic (CAR), a collection of Islamist rebel groups known as Séléka recently forced the Portuguese army’s crack Rapid Reaction Force, headquartered in Bangui, into a five-hour battle. The rebels were eventually dispersed following the deployment of the unit’s armoured group. 

It is notable that the rebels were strongly established behind static defences and armed with 12.7 mm and 14.5mm heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks (‘technicals’).

Hostilities in the CAR originally started in 2012, with a mainly Islamic rebel force calling itself Séléka (Coalition), which invaded the country through its two northern neighbours, Sudan and Chad. 

The insurgents began by slaughtering all those in the Christian communities they encountered in their push southwards towards Bangui, which they took two years later, forcing the President, François Bozizé, to flee. 

The country’s Muslim community is modest compared to the bulk of the population, which has historically been Christian or animist. Once the killings had started, non-Muslims rallied under the banner of a movement known as Anti-Balaka (‘machete-proof’). 

In the process more than a million people – in a nation of barely five times that number – fled their homes. The death toll remains uncertain, but casualties are thought to be well into six figures, the majority being of Islamic persuasion.

A lot changed after the UN took matters in hand in 2014. Initially under French control, it established a multidimensional United Nations peacekeeping operation (MINUSCA), which remains, like the small French security force, headquartered in Bangui. 

At its head (until his surprise resignation last month when he was replaced by Lieutenant General Daniel Sidiki Traoré of Burkina Faso) was General Balla Keita, a Senegalese former commando officer in overall control of all UN military matters in the country. Under Keita’s command, which included all UN fixed-wing aircraft, there was also a helicopter air wing, consisting of two Pakistan Air Force Mi-17s and, until recently, a pair of Senegalese Mi-24 Hinds, one of which was lost during ongoing actions against armed groups while I was in the country. 

A devout Muslim himself, and not afraid to tackle problems at source, General Keita rarely hesitated to take military action in a civil war in which Islamic radicals are pitted against a majority of Christians and animists.

It is worth mentioning that his main combat force, the Portuguese RRF, has distinguished itself in several dozen contacts over almost three years against what is clearly a resilient and mobile enemy. In this time the unit has not suffered a single fatality, with only a handful of its members having been wounded, none critically. 

Asked how he was dealing with local politicians, Keita was disarmingly candid: “I do not trust them… How can I when most have already moved their money and their families to Europe? These are not the sort of people who have the interests of the people of the CAR at heart.”

Also noteworthy is the fact Keita tended to tackle ongoing issues at their root, including dispatching his troops to subdue some of the jihadist armed groups still fomenting revolution in the interior. 

There are 14 such hostile armed groups still active in the CAR, though some have accepted amnesty from the government. Almost all have Russian Wagner Group military contractors serving within their ranks, usually billeted in their own camps adjacent to the main concentrations of fighters. 

For their part, the Russians have repeatedly stated that their nationals attached to armed groups in the CAR have no military role, but are there in a ‘strictly advisory’ capacity. 

Brigadier General Eric Peltier, the French head of the multinational European Training Mission (EUTM) at Camp Moana in Bangui, declared that any Russians attached to still-hostile armed groups are regarded as mercenaries. “They maintain close links with Moscow and their numbers range from perhaps five or eight to several dozen men per combat unit,” he told me. 

“Some officers of what is now a series of irregular squads totalling several hundred men have made approaches to talk to me,” Peltier confided, “but I will not deal with mercenaries… which is why I spoke to the Russian ambassador here in Bangui about the matter and a liaison officer has since been appointed at the [Russian] embassy to deal with these issues.” 

It also emerged during that discussion that state-of-the-art weapons being clandestinely supplied to these hostile armed groups are almost all new, supplied either by Russia or China. Most had been smuggled into the CAR in container convoys, customarily routed through either Sudan or Chad.

The number of Russian mercenaries involved with armed groups in the country is currently said to be well into the hundreds, although communications with the interior are patchy and exact figures difficult to verify.

What also emerged during discussions with Brig. Gen. Peltier, is that the Russians embedded with some of the rebel armed groups are utterly despised by those under their charge because of brutalities meted out to trainees who ‘make mistakes’. 

The enemy’s backyard

As well as the Portuguese, the French have been exceedingly active in tackling the Islamist threat on the continent and continue to be. Air strikes involving French Air Force Mirage and Rafale jets against rebels are an almost daily event out of Paris’s main air base in N’Djamena in Chad. Some involve mid-air refuelling, such as those that struck at armed groups in the CAR.

In Mali, security forces have since been joined by squads of British Special Forces. It is important to understand what these troops are up against since France has lost 41 of its soldiers since the start, in 2013, of Operation Serval (now superseded by Operation Barkhane; see box).

Though fighting in Africa has been sporadic after the first AQIM thrusts, controlling the insurgency has been difficult from the start. The regions adjoining the Sahara Desert where the groups operate cover several countries and, taken together, are almost as big as Western Europe, with most of the rebel weapons originally being ferried across the Sahara from an embattled Libya. 

Although the French military effort (now substantially aided by countries that include the US, Germany, Holland, Italy, several Scandinavian countries, Canada, the UK and others) was efficient, mobile and had lots of armour and helicopter gunships, the terrain continued to present serious challenges.

“That is as it has always been since the beginning of time – the desert remained the enemy’s ‘backyard’ and his biggest ally,” commented Colonel Alain Bayle when we discussed these issues during his time serving at the French Embassy in London.

“The enemy is elusive, clever and remarkably well-trained, considering that these are people of the Sahel who have made an art of slipping in and out of their mountain hideaways with the kind of ease that comes with experience; and worse, in the beginning, they always seemed to be one step ahead of our security forces.” 

Moreover, the Algerian border is close and porous enough to keep supplies of food, diesel and ammunition flowing in – as long as corrupt local officials can be bribed or forced to turn a blind eye.

A new Afghanistan?

It is quite ironic that France, which is the principle foreign military force in the Sahel, had for decades refused to get involved in African coups, revolutions, civil wars or anything of a military nature, which might have suggested that Paris was trying again to spread its colonial/imperial roots. 

Two incidents were to change all this. First was the AQIM terror attack on Tiguentourine gas plant in the Algerian Sahara, in which 40 workers including expats died. It had been planned and executed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in a brilliant operation that went a long way to establishing him as a real and tangible threat to French interests in Africa. 

The second was AQIM’s role in the March 2012 coup in Mali. With AQIM barely a day’s march north of Bamako, Paris saw its interests in Africa severely threatened. If Mali fell to a jihadist army, then, it was argued (quite logically), Niger could follow. And so could Burkina Faso – and ultimately Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Remember, the Abidjan government had just recently emerged from its own north/south civil war so the analogy made good sense.  

When the French went into Mali in January 2013, they encountered numerous foreign fighters (mainly Arabic, some from Saudi and also, a handful from Chechnya). They were mostly eradicated, but with Islamic State taking heavy knocks east of Suez, a lot of those combatants were sent to Africa; indeed, the rebels have quite a few foreign jihadists in their ranks today.  

As French forces had moved further north, towards the mountains, solid evidence of foreign jihadists fighting with mainly Tuareg rebels (an indigenous ethnic group that were initially nomadic) emerged. This included squads of children, some not yet into their teens, who had been trained and armed with automatic weapons.

To be clear, the motivations of these groups are not always militarily orientated. Recruitment and jihadist indoctrination has been a significant part of the process – as is brutally-efficient intimidation, which, in plain language, boils down to “join our ranks or you’re dead”.

On the other hand, although AQIM’s attempted insurrection initially involved comparatively few combatants – people of Moorish, Arab and some of Tuareg extraction – it did occur in the wake of a military coup. There were also quite a few disaffected soldiers from the regular Mali Army within their ranks.

These men had thrown in their lot with the revolutionaries because, to many of them, it seemed that AQIM offered real hope and a way of countering a government that was cripplingly corrupt.

Colonel Bayle recognised this reality. He stressed that “This was not a (series of wars) only against (jihadists) but rather, against people having various interests in challenging the established order.”

Whatever the motivations of those involved in the Mali insurgency, they have collectively shaken France into action. There are those who fear the Sahel will turn into France’s Afghanistan – an unwinnable war. Yet, for the sake of West Africa, this is one war that must be won.

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Written by Al Venter

Al Venter, a specialist in guerrilla and unconventional conflicts, has been a contributor to the publications of Britain’s Jane’s Information Group for almost 40 years. He regards current insurgencies in Africa as arguably the most serious threat to the continent since the end of World War 2. He has written more than 50 books, many dealing with insurgencies in Africa.

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