Africa News Roundup: Fallout from Rebellion in North Mali, Campaigning in Senegal, Education in Ethiopia, Somalia’s al Shabab and Al Qaeda, and More

The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali has sent refugees into a number of nearby countries, including Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. UNHCR is attempting to increase its aid to refugees in all of these places.

For military news about the rebellion, check out Reuters’ piece “Arms and men out of Libya fortify Mali rebellion.” Another noteworthy item is that the rebellion has caused Washington to postpone a joint military exercise in Mali.

The above-listed countries are also facing severe food shortages. AFP reports on the World Food Programme’s forecast that “a food crisis in Mauritania as a result of drought is expected to be three times worse that in 2010, when the Sahel was crippled by food shortages.”

The World Bank will provide Niger with over $60 million to fight the effects of climate change.

Campaigning is underway in Senegal in advance of presidential elections to be held later this month. President Abdoulaye Wade’s convoy was recently stoned in the city of Thies (the home base of his rival Idrissa Seck), but Wade (audio) shows no signs of quitting.

VOA writes, “Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, is among the few on track to achieve the goal of universal primary education by 2015.  Our correspondent in Addis Ababa, reports on how, according to analysts, an otherwise repressive government is winning praise for its campaign to bring learning to the people.”

On Thursday, Somalia’s al Shabab formally joined Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile in Somaliland:

The breakaway territory of Somaliland is battling its own secessionists in a dispute that has raised tensions with neighbouring Puntland, in an area of Somalia usually more peaceful than the rest of the country.

The fighting first erupted in January after the leaders of the northern regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn decided to band together into a new state called Khaatumo and declared they wanted to be an independent region within Somalia.

Somaliland’s troops have since clashed with militia fighters loyal to Khaatumo, with reports of dozens of casualties. Puntland’s President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole stepped into the row on Wednesday, accusing Somaliland of creating chaos.

Finally, Nigeria’s Daily Trust looks at the possibility of renewed militancy in the Niger Delta.

Response to NYT Article on Boko Haram

The New York Times recently released an article on Boko Haram, Northeastern Nigeria’s Muslim rebel movement. The article’s main narrative, that Boko Haram has increasing links to Al Qaeda and that the Nigerian state is failing to deal with it, actually consists of three claims of varying strength:

  1. Boko Haram has ties to Al Qaeda, specifically the franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
  2. Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security forces
  3. The Nigerian state’s response to Boko Haram is failing

The first assertion relies heavily on the claims of officials and on circumstantial evidence, such as an increase in Boko Haram’s tactical sophistication. Hard evidence of a tie that goes beyond rhetoric and perhaps the exchange of a few personnel remains weak. (The evidence I mean would look something like arrests of AQIM personnel in Nigeria, or of Boko Haram members in Mali or Mauritania). Additionally, AQIM’s southernmost attack that I am aware of, January’s kidnapping in Niamey, Niger, of two Frenchmen, was still a good distance from Maiduguri. The distance between AQIM’s strongholds in the Sahara and Boko Haram’s strongholds in Northeastern Nigeria is considerable, which presents a logistical obstacle to the development of strong operational ties between the two movements. The possibility of such a tie is real, and perhaps growing, but the article frames the issue as though a strong tie (beyond just rhetoric) has been conclusively established.

The second claim is circumstantial as well, though the case here seems stronger. Boko Haram sometimes seems to know where police officers or soldiers will be. Perhaps that means it has supporters and informers within the rank and file of the military. But such links have not been proven, from what I know (and the article does not offer hard evidence), nor are there serious indications that the movement has subverted high-level commanders in the security forces.

As for the third claim, that the Nigerian government’s strategy is failing, that’s a subjective take, and one the article does not balance by even a mention of the dialogue efforts that the federal government and state politicians have pursued. That military operations have caused anger, even a backlash, in Maiduguri is indisputable. And dialogue could certainly fail. But the narrative that all the Nigerian state is doing is mounting a brutal and clumsy crackdown is too simple.

Finally, the notion that we should fear a scenario where “extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism” seems overblown to me. AQIM has suffered setbacks this summer in Mauritania and Mali (and it conducted fewer kidnappings in 2010 than in 2009), al Shabab recently abandoned Mogadishu, and Boko Haram’s primary goals remain oriented to altering Nigerian politics (spreading shari’a, removing hated leaders, etc.). The formation of a pan-African jihadist movement is, it seems to me, still a remote possibility.

If you read the story, let us know what your impressions are.

(Suspected) Al Shabab Raid on Kenyan Village

Somalia’s civil war involves Kenya in a number of ways. Kenyans fight in the conflict. Al Shabab has issued threats against Kenya and other countries in the region. Reportedly, militants cross from Somalia into Kenya to recruit youths. Fighting in towns like Dobley near the Kenyan border has alarmed Kenyan authorities. And in March, local sources reported that Kenyan troops had clashed with al Shabab fighters near the border.

Despite all that cross-involvement, it still worried me to read that al Shabab had committed an attack inside Kenyan territory:

Suspected Somali Islamist militia on Thursday attacked a Kenyan border village, opened fire on residents and wounded seven of them before driving back across the border, a Kenyan official said.

The raiders, suspected to be Shebab fighters, attacked Dadajabula village located fewer than 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Somali border.

“The incident is under investigation, but we have beefed up security along that border area to safeguard our country against such attacks,” North Eastern Provincial Commissioner James Ole Serian said.

“We do not know specifically which militia group it was because there are a lot of small groups of militias operating in Somalia, but we suspect it has something to do with Al Shebab,” he said.

Last week, Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage warned Kenya not to interfere in the Somali conflict.

Kenya’s Daily Nation has more, and they point out that this incident marks the fourth time Somali fighters have crossed into Kenya since 2007.

A similar incident happened in May 2008 when the same village was attacked by Al-Shabaab militants in an attempt to free three suspected members of Al-Qaeda who were being held by police.

In the incident, the attackers abducted a police officer and took off in a police vehicle.

In June 2007, two Kenyan policemen were kidnapped by Islamist fighters and were later found dead.

Maybe this will sound odd, but I found the fact that this had happened before somewhat reassuring. My logic goes that if this isn’t the first time, then it doesn’t represent a dramatic escalation of the conflict and will hopefully be just another periodic cross-border raid. Still, with threats flying it’s alarming to see words become deeds, and with tensions between the two countries regularly hitting highs in the last few months I think there is a possibility of escalation. If Kenya puts more troops on the border, and al Shabab tries more raids, the potential for sustained violence will rise. The worst case scenarios are a war between Kenya and al Shabab, or a major terrorist attack by al Shabab inside Kenya. So hopefully this spillover of Somalia’s civil war into northern Kenya is not part of a pattern, because a widening of the conflict is the last thing the region needs.

NTV Kenya has a video on the incident:

Morocco and Counterterrorism

Reading news of Morocco’s breakup of an Al Qaeda-linked cell made me wonder whether it makes sense to talk of Morocco “going it alone” on counterterrorism in the regional context. Certainly Morocco is a US ally and has a long-standing relationship with France and Europe, but as Saharan and Sahelian states pursue counterterrorism cooperation that excludes Morocco, does it already make sense to talk of a “Moroccan” vs. “Algerian/Sahelian” strategy?

More details on the arrests:

Security forces have arrested 24 people suspected of involvement with the network in recent days, the Moroccan interior ministry said on Monday.

The group “were preparing to carry out assassinations and acts of sabotage within the country, notably targeting the security services and foreign interests in Morocco”, the ministry said in a statement carried by the state news agency, Map.

The arrests came after some members of the alleged cell assaulted a police officer in the city of Casablanca, Morocco’s economic capital.

The suspects were found in possession of a pistol and ammunition that they had allegedly taken after attacking the officer, the ministry said.

The suspects are also accused of recruiting Moroccan citizens to send to conflicts in locations including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, the ministry said, citing details from an inquiry led by a prosecutor.

Other recruits were to join fighters in the Sahara and Sahel desert regions, where an al-Qaeda offshoot known as al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb has been increasingly active in recent months.

And with Moroccan groups potentially feeding recruits to AQIM, another question: can regional efforts at cooperation succeed if they exclude Morocco?

An AQAP Influx into Somalia?

Commanders of Al Shabab in Somalia and of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen have been talking about exchanging fighters for months now, but for the most part it seemed like just talk. This week I started hearing rumors about actual movement of AQAP personnel from Yemen to Somalia (first on Twitter from a private account, so no link), then in outlets like the Saudi Gazette. Now the story is hitting major US and international news outlets.

At least 12 al Qaeda members have crossed from Yemen into Somalia in the last two weeks, bringing money and military expertise to Somali rebels battling the Western-backed government, a senior Somali official said.

[...]

A smaller group — Hizbul Islam — which has an alliance with al Shabaab in Mogadishu, expressed its loyalty to al Qaeda on Wednesday for the first time and invited Osama bin Laden to Somalia.

“Our intelligence shows 12 senior al Qaeda officials came into Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks,” said Treasury Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, adding that he had been briefed by Somalia’s intelligence agencies.

“They were sent off to assess the situation to see if al Qaeda may move its biggest military bases to southern Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday.

Osman did not say who the al Qaeda members were nor their positions in the organisation.

[...]“They brought money to al Shabaab which had been facing difficulties to recruit more fighters because of cash shortages,” Osman said.

Some of the foreign commanders had landed in airstrips in the south disguised as humanitarian workers and two were in Mogadishu, he said.

Hizbul Islam’s invitation to bin Laden is a non-story in my eyes. It may tell us something about Hizbul Islam’s rhetorical tactics for claiming the mantle of hardline Islam, and it may tell us something about the rhetoric of Islamist politics in Somalia in general, but jihadi groups around the world would all love to have bin Laden join them. I don’t think he’ll be showing up in southern Somalia any time soon, so it’s just talk too.

The reports of exchanges between AQAP and al Shabab have more meat to them. The story still needs further corroboration in my eyes, and the cynical might say that Somali government officials are seizing an opportunity to tout their anti-terrorism credentials, but if the story is true then it means the links between al Shabab and al Qaeda are getting a significant boost right now. The prospect of collaboration between militants on either side of the Gulf of Aden is unsettling, though AQAP seems to be largely on the defensive now, and al Shabab has not been able to make substantial headway against its foes in the last few months.

This movement between Yemen and Somalia also raises questions about the wisdom of Washington’s strategy in the “Global War on Terror”: what is the point of pushing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, out of South Asia into the Gulf, and out of the Gulf into the Horn of Africa? These guys will always go somewhere, no matter how much force the US directs at them. That doesn’t mean the US should give up and let Al Qaeda do whatever it wants, but it does say to me that what the US is doing is simply shifting militants around the globe, killing some of them (as well as scores of civilians), but not really solving problems.

Here’s a video from NTV Kenya on the current situation in southern Somalia. It will say little that is news for people who follow the conflict closely, but it gives a nice overview of some of the aspects of the crisis:

Somalia and US Non-Interventionism

Does the ongoing debate about American military support for Somalia’s government signal a small but significant step toward non-interventionism among US elites?

Isolationist sentiment in America hit a new high in 2009, according to Pew (h/t Preeti Aroon): “For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should ‘mind its own business internationally’ and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

Interventionism often seems like the dominant foreign policy orientation among American elites, from the center-left to the neocons to much of the right. Whether it’s bipartisan support for the war in Afghanistan (and for a long time, bipartisan support for the war in Iraq), or Democrats and Republicans threatening military action in Iran, or a more general outlook that nearly any crisis abroad can and should evoke political and military intervention by the United States, interventionism often acts as a default – even a hegemonic – political stance.

Growing isolationist sentiment at the popular level, though, may be finding an echo in elite foreign policy debates. In the summer of 2009, with the American right demanding “action” in Iran during its “Green Revolution,” President Obama initially refused to intervene with more than expressions of concern. That decision provoked outcry in some quarters, but received support and approval in others.

Now, as the US-funded Transitional Federal Government of Somalia prepares for an assault on the Islamist rebel group al Shabab, another crisis for US foreign policy has appeared. Reports of US military involvement in the TFG’s campaign elicited a response from Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, who said, “The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives. Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia.”

Before and after Carson’s statement, however, a substantial debate emerged about US military policy in Somalia and Africa more broadly. This debate has real potential to shake up assumptions about America’s role in the post-9/11 world.

A surprisingly broad range of voices, from anti-war activists to Dan Simpson, a former ambassador to Somalia, to an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, are arguing from a non-interventionist perspective. Non-interventionism isn’t necessarily isolationism, but it does question the premise that intervention represents the best policy.

Ambassador Simpson lays out his perspective starkly:

When I left the issue in 1995 I was persuaded that the best thing for Somalia — and therefore for America and the rest of the world — was to leave the Somalis to sort out their problems. Given what has happened since, and what is likely to happen now with the new U.S. military effort, I still think so. Why not let the Shabab take the place and then do business with them?

Bronwyn Bruton of CFR offers a similar perspective in her report Somalia: A New Approach:

Bruton advances a strategy of “constructive disengagement.” Notably, this calls for the United States to signal that it will accept an Islamist authority in Somalia—including the Shabaab—as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from both regional aggression and support for international jihad. As regards terrorism, the report recommends continued airstrikes to target al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists while taking care to minimize civilian casualties.

Bruton may support airstrikes, but the language of “constructive disengagement,” like Simpson’s talk of leaving “the Somalis to solve their own problems,” sounds almost radical in a policy environment where the question policymakers so often ask is, “How should we intervene?” and not “Should we intervene?”

With a plurality of Americans tilting toward isolationism, and examples of failed American interventions staring us in the face, more American elites may embrace non-interventionism. In a way, this is nothing new: isolationism has a long history in the United States, and isolationist arguments helped propel America’s exit from Somalia in the 1990s. But since September 11th and the launch of the Global War on Terror (and, arguably, since World War II), the dominant perspective in foreign policy has argued that America must act abroad to stay safe at home. If elites are recommending “constructive disengagement,” even in a zone where Al Qaeda affiliates stand to take over a stateless nation, that could signal that the interventionist dominance is cracking.

Saturday Links: Niger Coup, Yemen and Somalia, Chad and the UN, Sudan Elections

The big news in the Sahel this week was the coup in Niger. I should probably revise some of my speculations from yesterday; perhaps a bloodless return to civilian rule is likely. A knowledgeable acquaintance of mine pointed out that several major figures in this coup also took part in the 1999 coup that resulted in a swift transition to elections. Here’s some other valuable perspectives:

Turning to Somalia, VOA passes on some confusingly contradictory reports about fighting between al Shabab and Hizbul Islam in the town of Dobley. And while al Shabab struggles to fend off challenges from other Islamists, their enemies are teaming up: the Ahlu Sunna movement and the Transitional Federal Government are apparently reaching an agreement that will further solidify their alliance and set the stage for a joint effort against al Shabab.

In other Somalia news, I originally missed this article from earlier this month but thought I should link to it since it’s still relevant: “Yemen Getting Tougher with Somalis on Qaeda Fears.”

The UN wants its peacekeepers to stay in Chad. The government of Chad wants them to go. Here’s my take from a month back, though it’s potentially dated now.

Sudanese election officials call on politicians not to stoke tensions in the country while campaigning.

I have little knowledge of Cote d’Ivoire, but political tensions there will have repercussions for all of West Africa.

Finally, the New York Times has a profile of Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

What are you reading?