Why the Resilience of Islamist Militants Will Threaten Security Across Africa in 2017

The violence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates threatens to spread far beyond Nigeria and Somalia.

On December 23 the Nigerian army achieved a significant milestone in its long war against Boko Haram, capturing what was described as the Islamist militant group’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa Forest in the country’s northeast near the border with Cameroon. On Christmas Eve, President Muhammadu Buhari triumphantly tweeted that it was the “final crushing of the Boko Haram terrorists” who were “on the run and no longer have a place to hide.” The remarkable turnaround of the conflict in less than two years deserves to be applauded, but the latest victory is unlikely to put an end to terrorist attacks in Africa’s most populous country, much less extinguish the flame of militancy and violence that presents one of the biggest obstacles to the otherwise the buoyant economic prospects for the continent, with 2016’s moderate average growth expected to accelerate to 4.5 percent in 2017. Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram illustrates both the resilience of the threat and what might be done to counter it.

After years of ceding ground to Boko Haram, so much so that by 2014 the group had consolidated its hold over a territory larger than Belgium and proclaimed a self-styled “emirate,” the Nigerian armed forces adopted a new strategy and began fighting back. While the counterattack began in the waning days of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, things began to change after Buhari, a retired major-general, won a historic (and decisive) election victory over the incumbent in March 2015, in part by promising to defeat the militants.

Cashiering his predecessor’s military chiefs shortly after taking office, Buhari installed new commanders, including a chief of army staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, who is a native of Borno, the epicenter of the insurgency. He also moved command headquarters close to the fighting. Since then, in concert with a multinational force from neighboring countries, the Nigerian military has pursued an aggressive strategy, combining an intensive air campaign with a surge of troops on the ground, gradually pushing Boko Haram out of the towns it occupied and, increasingly, in remote hideouts like “Camp Zero,” the base that fell on December 23.

Along the way, as I had the opportunity to witness firsthand in November when I toured the battlefront, the Nigerian army also took on the task of not only providing security to the populations it liberated, but also, until aid groups and development organizations returned, providing humanitarian relief, medical assistance, and even education and livelihood training. For example, the civil-military operations carried out by the battalion I spent time with in Pulka, just a few kilometers from what were at the time Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa Forest, were critical to the wellbeing of the community and served to rally the population to support the government’s push against the militant group.

Notwithstanding the success of the military operations, Boko Haram remains a force to be reckoned with. In response to defeats, the militants shifted tactics, expanding their use of suicide bombings, most of which have targeted the civilian population. Just days before the capture of its forest bastion, Boko Haram staged a pair of attacks on a busy market in the town of Madagali that left 56 people dead and more than 120 wounded. Nor does its most recent setback seem to be having much effect on the terrorists’ operational tempo: two suicide bombers struck in northern Cameroon on Christmas Day and another attacked a busy cattle market in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, the next day. Moreover, Boko Haram’s elusive longtime leader Abubakar Shekau surfaced this week in a new video in which he claimed that he and his followers were “safe” and would continue their fight “to establish an Islamic Caliphate” separate from Nigeria. Alongside the strengths of Boko Haram, the Nigerian military faced its own frustration in its attempts to purchase aircraft and other military platforms from the United States; it recently turned to Russia and Pakistan to obtain warplanes after a proposal to buy American-made A-29 Super Tucano attack planes stalled.

Meanwhile, the schism within Boko Haram may be contributing to the intensification, rather than diminution, of violence as both factions try to outdo each other in staging attacks. In early 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and formally rebranded itself as the “Islamic State West Africa Province;” however, the group split between those loyal to Shekau and those now following Abu Musab al-Barnawi, whom ISIS appointed as the new “governor” (wali) of its “province” in August. Even if the group was weakened in Nigeria, militants still spilled into neighboring countries, causing Cameroon and Niger, for example, to rise in the 2016 edition of the Global Terrorism Index to 13th place and 16th place, respectively.

Resilience is a characteristic shared not only by ISIS-aligned groups in Africa like Boko Haram, but also al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Despite being mauled by the French-led intervention in Mali in 2013, AQIM has bounced back to stage a series of deadly attacks in 2016, including hits on luxury hotels in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, countries that had not previously not been hit by terrorism.

In Somalia, despite punishing U.S. airstrikes, al-Shabab appears far from finished. Notwithstanding the presence of a 20,000-strong African Union force in the country to prop up the weak but internationally backed government, al-Shabab continues to be able to regularly seize control of towns like Mahadaay, a strategic crossroads the militants took over on December 19 after driving out regime soldiers. This came just days after the militants briefly overran El Wak, a town near the border with Kenya, a country that has repeatedly suffered attacks by al-Shabab in the last year.

The continuing threat posed by these varied militant groups is the result of their exploitation of local conflicts and social, economic, and political marginalization, as well as the fragile condition of many of the states affected. This weakness often manifests in a low capacity to resist militants overall and a tendency towards ham-fisted responses that aggravate grievances. In some cases, defeat spurs the extremists to adapt new strategies that result in renewed vigor—an example is the fragmentation of AQIM’s organization in the Sahel in the wake of the Mali intervention. The multiplication of factions along ethnic lines facilitated both the members’ blending into local populations and their making inroads among them; one splinter group, the ethnic-Fulani jihadist Macina Liberation Front, freed 93 suspected militants in a jailbreak in early December.

In other instances, the manifest failure to achieve political settlements propels the resurgence of otherwise weakened militant groups—in Somalia, the utter fiasco of the process for selecting a new government in Somalia, including the sale of electoral seats for up to $1.3 million and the recent postponement for the fourth time of the presidential vote, serves as an example. New instability, such as the crisis now underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo thanks to President Joseph Kabila’s decision to hold on to power despite his term of office expiring on December 19, presents armed movements with additional opportunities, underscored by the recent massacre of civilians in the country’s east.

Even where they do not pose an existential threat to the states affected, the various militant jihadists currently active across Africa can have a disproportionate impact on their fortunes. Counterinsurgency campaigns are expensive affairs that divert resources from the investments in infrastructure, education, and health, which Africa’s emerging economies need to make if they are position themselves to take advantage of the current growth opportunities. Ivory Coast may be Africa’s new economic powerhouse, with a diversified economy and growth in 2016 expected to hit 8.5 percent, the second-highest in the world, but more attacks such as the one in March by AQIM can still scare off foreign investors who are just beginning to discover its potential. The stakes are even higher for country like Nigeria: Africa’s biggest economy slipped into recession this year and continued insecurity—not just from Boko Haram, but also militant groups in the oil-producing southeast such as the Niger Delta Avengers —doesn’t help.

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Why the Resilience of Islamist Militants Will Threaten Security Across Africa in 2017

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