On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Mali: Jihadist Wives

Read the news out of Mali and you will hear almost exclusively about men. That’s one reason I was struck by this (ultimately somewhat thin) article from France 24. Another is the issue of how Islamist groups interacted with local communities in northern Mali. An excerpt:

FRANCE 24 met with the wife of a jihadist leader from the Gao region.

Mariam moved back to her mother’s house in this peaceful village near Gao, in northern Mali, when her husband left the area.

She won’t say her husband’s name, but everyone in town knows he is Abu Dardar, one of the most brutal and feared jihadist leaders in the region.

He saw Mariam in the market one day and decided he was going to marry her. He liked the way she was dressed. He hated women who wore shirts or dresses but she was veiled and already a devout Muslim. Mariam had become a radical when she married her first husband, whom she had three children with, before he abandoned her.

Slippery terms like “radical” hinder analysis more than they help in this case – what does it mean that she “became a radical”? – but the story gives a glimpse into how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali was partly localized.

I do not have much on Abu (also spelled Abou) Dardar. One Malian source (French) states that he is Algerian, as many senior leaders in the Islamist coalition are/were. After the Islamist coalition – Ansar al Din, Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – gained control of northern Mali in the spring of last year, Abou Dardar appeared frequently in the press as a spokesman. Usually news sources identified him as a MUJWA leader, but sometimes as a leader of one of the other groups (this trend, which has appeared with press coverage of other leaders, suggests either fluidity of membership between these groups, or confusion in the media, or both). We find Abou Dardar speaking to the press after reported clashes between MUJWA and the separatist northern group the MNLA in November, after Islamists’ destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in December, after the French intervention began in January, and during continued combat in the far north in February.

If Abou Dardar is indeed Algerian, his marriage to this Malian woman may fit part of a broader pattern mentioned in sources like this 2010 analysis (French) by Le Figaro of how AQIM developed local ties in northern Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former AQIM commander reportedly killed this month, was one AQIM leader who allegedly married a Malian woman (from Timbuktu, in this case). A Malian source quoted by Le Figaro called such marriages “a true social intermingling [which] offers real protection.”

The marriages also make defining “local” difficult in the context of the crisis in northern Mali. Some observers are quick to depict AQIM and MUJWA as “foreign” to Mali. But the ties these groups have developed in northern Malian communities, and the fact that some members of these groups are Malian nationals, points to a more complicated reality.

Mali: Guerrilla Attacks and the Possibility of Pockets of Support for Islamists [Updated]

Since being displaced from northern Malian cities by French and Malian troops, Islamist fighters have turned to guerrilla tactics. At least three tactics have emerged so far: (attempted) suicide bombings, raids, and landmines.

In Gao, this weekend saw two suicide bombings (one Friday and one Saturday) followed by what might be called a raid on Sunday:

In the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) attacked Malian troops in the streets of central Gao, sending residents running for cover as Kalashnikov bullets and 14.5-millimetre rounds pierced the air.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and fire from heavy machine guns and light weapons resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.

A French Tiger attack helicopter was circulating over the neighbourhood around the governor’s offices and the central police station, the focal points of the attack.

A Chadian source (French) with which I am unfamiliar, meanwhile, reports that another raid or ambush occurred around February 5, north of Kidal, in which gunmen attacked a Chadian contingent and killed twenty-four soldiers. I have not seen confirmation of this story elsewhere – the Chadian source says “this information has been carefully kept secret by Chadian and French authorities.” We’ll see if more details on this emerge. UPDATE: Commenters Andy Morgan and itsme_leclerc offer evidence suggesting strongly that the story is false.

Regarding landmines, fatal incidents have reportedly occurred in (1) Gossi (January 30, four Malian soldiers killed and five wounded), (2) along the road linking Kidal, Anefis and North Darane (around February 4, two civilians killed), and (3) between Douentza and Gao (February 6, four civilians killed). There may have been other incidents involving landmines too.

The emerging guerrilla war raises a number of questions, one of them being what support Islamist fighters have among northern communities. Al Akhbar (Arabic) mentions the hypothesis that yesterday’s raid on Gao may have involved “the entrance of some Islamists into the city by way of the river, with the help of some local residents.” One Malian commentator (French) writes, meanwhile, “In reality, in certain northern localities, one doesn’t know what support or what rejection these combatants might enjoy.” American analysts sometimes underestimate the support that Islamists possess on the ground in places like Mali, and images of celebration from liberated areas can give the impression that Malian populations unanimously delighted in the ouster of the Islamists. But the guerrilla phase of the conflict, assuming it continues, may hint at lingering pockets of support in Gao and elsewhere.

Basic Reported Information on French Operations in Mali

This post attempts to sketch out basic information about the ongoing French military intervention in Mali. The rapid pace of events, starting with an attempt by the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali to capture strategic areas in the Mopti region, has left observers struggling to distinguish between fact, spin, and falsehood. So some “facts” rest on shaky foundations. But here is what international and local media are saying:

French aircraft have reportedly bombarded at least five towns (map below) These include:

  1. Konna, a town in the Mopti region which Islamists reportedly took from Malian soldiers on January 10. By Saturday, Malian forces stated they had retaken the town.
  2. Lere, a town near the Mauritanian border which the Islamist group Ansar al Din captured from the ostensibly secular, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) in late November (more here), and which may have been the site of a training camp (French);
  3. Douentza, which the Movement for Unity/Monotheism/Tawhid and Jihad (MUJWA) took in September from a local militia;
  4. Agharous Kayoune, about which I could find basically no information; and
  5. Gao, a MUJWA stronghold and one of three northern provincial capitals.

USA Today reports that over 400 French troops are in Mali. Britain and the United States are providing equipment and logistical support. The Washington Post puts the numbers at over 400 in Bamako, and some 150 in the Mopti region. That article adds, “Mirage aircraft currently involved in the operation have been flying from nearby French bases, including one in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but some helicopters and other aircraft have been flying from a Malian air base at Sevare.”

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland took questions on Mali on Friday, and the British Foreign Office posted a roundup of official statements yesterday.

Different sources have also analyzed the perspectives of regional actors such as Algeria (French). Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady wrote yesterday, “The view in Mauritania seems to be: ‘Dear France, good luck in Mali, keep us out of this mess. Thank you.”

Finally, here is a map showing four of the five towns reportedly bombed by French aircraft:

 

What is your perspective on all this?

Africa News Roundup: Burkina Faso Election Results, MUJWA Terrorist Designation, Eastleigh Bombing, and More

I wrote recently about elections in Burkina Faso and Somaliland. Here are legislative and municipal election results from Burkina Faso:

[President Blaise] Compaore’s CDP party secured 58 seats while allies in the broader coalition secured a further 22 seats in the December 2 vote, according to results for 102 constituencies announced late on Thursday.

The results for a further 25 seats have not yet been announced but Compaore’s majority has been secured despite the opposition UPC party winning 15 seats, a record for the opposition in the poor, land-locked nation.

I have not found full results for Somaliland, but preliminary results were released Thursday, causing protests in Hargeisa.

IRIN:

The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) 2009, also known as the Kampala Convention, came into force on 6 December; it is the world’s first legally binding instrument to cater specifically to people displaced within their own countries.

Adopted at an AU summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the Convention required ratification by 15 member countries before it could enter into force; Swaziland became the 15th country to do so on 12 November, joining Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda and Zambia. At least 37 AU members have also signed the Convention but have yet to ratify it.

The Committee to Protect Journalists on the shooting of a South Sudanese columnist, the detention of two Al Jazeera employees in Mali, and the convictions of three Cameroonian journalists.

Nigeria’s Guardian on recent attacks by Boko Haram, including the destruction of twenty-seven schools in Borno and Yobe States.

A bombing claimed three lives in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya yesterday.

McClatchy: “Visit to Kismayo, Somalia, Shows al Shabab Militants Still Roam Countryside.”

Yesterday, the US State Department labeled the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of the Islamist coalition in northern Mali, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

What else is happening?

Map of Recent Islamist Coalition Aggressions in Mali

Plans for an external military intervention in Mali are moving forward. Negotiations between regional mediators and the northern Islamist faction Ansar al Din continue. At the same time, the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali – which includes Ansar al Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – has continued aggressive actions.

Specifically:

In the case of both conquests, Islamists were driving back forces from the ostensibly secular, Tuareg-led Movement for the National Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA launched the northern rebellion in January, but lost control of the uprising during the spring.

The northern provincial capitals of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao have been the strongholds of the Islamist coalition – with MUJWA having a strong presence in Gao, while Ansar al Din has a strong presence in the other two cities. A leader from Ansar al Din, which has demanded the implementation of shari’a across Mali, recently even stated in preliminary talks in Burkina Faso that “we are waiving the application of sharia law across the entire Malian territory except in our region of Kidal where sharia will be applied.”

The Islamist coalition, however, has not confined its activities to these three capitals. In September, MUJWA fighters took Douentza from a local militia, and now there are the recent conquests. I would not say that there has been a steady geographic expansion by the Islamists, but they have shown an ability to periodically project their presence into new towns. The kidnapping, finally, is not unprecedented for that region – an Italian couple was kidnapped on the Mauritania side of the border near Diema in 2009 – but in the context of the war in northern Mali, MUJWA’s capacity to carry out a kidnapping in southwestern Mali has raised eyebrows.

With the thought that visualizing all of these developments can help make sense of them, I’ve made a rudimentary map showing Menaka, Douentza, Lere, and Diema. I’ve used red for MUJWA, and yellow for Ansar al Din.

Africa News Roundup: Mali Kidnapping, Abdel Aziz’s Expected Return to Mauritania, Boko Haram, Eskinder Nega, and More

First, most readers have likely heard that the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA/MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, Kayes, southwestern Mali (map – other versions have the kidnapping taking place in Nioro). The Kayes region is not part of the territory held by the Islamist coalition. The kidnapping, it seems to me, will ratchet up security concerns in southern Mali and increase the perceived threat to Western interests posed by the Islamists.

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was shot on October 13 and spent the last weeks recovering in France, was reportedly expected to return to Mauritania today. Yesterday he gave an interview (French) to RFI and Le Monde on Mauritania and Mali.

AFP: “Suspected French jihadist Arrested in Mauritania.”

Reuters: “Sudan’s information minister had one clear message after security agents moved in to arrest their former spy chief – that a plot had been uncovered, the culprits caught and the situation in the country was now ‘totally stable.’ Khartoum did appear quiet a day later on Friday – but on the desert city’s dusty streets the detention amplified a debate about the future of the country’s leader, and posed new questions about who might one day unseat him.”

Two items on Boko Haram:

  • Al Jazeera: Nigerian “security services have released a list of Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ men. The list is published with corresponding bounties on offer for the capture of the men, and appeals to members of the public who wish to come forward with information leading to the arrest of the wanted men, to do so…First on the ‘Most Wanted’ list is Abubukar Shekau, the self-styled leader of the group…The other 18 men on the Boko Haram’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, who have bounties ranging from $155,000 dollars down to a more meagre $60,000 dollars upon their heads, names and faces are hardly known to the public or the media. This may make their capture much more difficult.”
  • This Day: “Boko Haram kingpin arrested in Adamawa, Bomb Factory Closed.”

VOA: “Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court has postponed hearing an appeal of the conviction of prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage.  But the court gave its first indication Thursday that charges brought by prosecutors under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation may not be that strong by demanding that prosecutors justify the June convictions.”

IRIN on reintegrating returned refugees in Senegal.

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria’s Oil Export Problems, Somalia’s New Cabinet, Karim Wade Questioned in Senegal, and More

BBC (video): “Nigerian Military Chief Sets Out Mali Plan.”

Jeune Afrique (French): “The MNLA Launches an Offensive against MUJWA in Gao.”

Reuters:

Nigerian crude oil export delays have lengthened, traders said on Friday, a sign that a raft of recent output problems caused by oil theft and flooding are increasingly holding back supplies from Africa’s biggest producer.

BBC:

Nigeria’s military has killed a top commander of militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, an army spokesman has said. Ibn Saleh Ibrahim was killed in an exchange of fire with six of his lieutenants.

On Tuesday, Somalia’s Federal Parliament approved the new cabinet.

VOA: “In Somalia, Political Battle Over Newly Liberated Regions.”

The Economist: “The question of what to do with the charcoal, perhaps worth $40m, could affect the fate of Somalia’s new government.”

Senegalese police summoned Karim Wade, a former cabinet minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, for questioning on Thursday, and have forbade him to leave the country.

BBC (video): “Is Biofuel a Solution for Burkina Faso?”

Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, wounded in a shooting on October 13, continues to convalesce in France.

What else is going on?

Mali’s Islamist Coalition Responds to External Intervention Discussions

Plans for an external military intervention in war-torn Mali are gathering momentum. Mali’s interim government has agreed to allow the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to base a 3,000-strong force in Bamako. The European Union is “considering requests to support West African-led military intervention in Mali and to restructure the country’s beleaguered army.” France and the United States have urged the United Nations Security Council to approve ECOWAS’ plans, and France and the African Union have said they will support ECOWAS logistically. Even Algeria “may have to accept the deployment of West African troops in its crisis-hit neighbour Mali contrary to its traditional stance against foreign intervention and focus on internal security, analysts say.”

As Reuters points out, uncertainty about who really rules in Bamako – coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, civilian President Dioncounda Traore, or Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra – could efforts to retake Mali’s Islamist-held north. But many powerful actors are pushing for a military campaign of some kind.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in the north. The Malian press has transcribed a phone interview with Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander within the Islamist coalition that rules northern Mali. I have not been able to find an in-depth profile on Hamaha, but this comment on him from AFP is notable:

Malian national Omar Hamaha, one of the main Islamist commanders in the north, is a case study in the bridges between [Ansar al Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the main players in the Islamist coalition].

He is known as the second-in-command to the AQIM boss in charge of Gao. But during the seizure of Timbuktu in April, he referred to himself as the chief-of-staff of Ansar Dine, and now says he holds the same position in MUJAO.

“Remember, we are all mujahedeen. Whether a fighter is from MUJAO, Ansar Dine or AQIM, it’s the same thing,” he told AFP.

“We have the same ambition, the application of sharia. Whenever there’s an attack on one of us, it’s an attack on everyone.”

Hamaha is frequently quoted as a spokesman for the coalition in local and international media (see here, for example), where his rhetoric often emphasizes the coalition’s embrace of violence in the service of its determination to impose shari’a across Mali. In the aftermath of the Malian army’s killing of sixteen Muslim preachers earlier this month, Hamaha expressed the Islamist coalition’s rejection of mediation efforts and its objective of capturing Bamako:

He warned that the Islamists would one day attack the south. ‘‘We will plant the black flag of the Islamists at Koulouba,’’ he said, naming the hill on which Mali’s presidential palace sits.

Hamaha reiterated these messages in his recent phone interview (French), in which he expresses defiance regarding the possibility of an external intervention. My translation:

I was contacted last Saturday by the Minister of Defense for discussions. I told him that we are open to dialogue if the government is ready to submit itself to the shari’a. Plainly speaking, if the authorities are ready to apply the sharia. I was surprised that the Minister of Defense spoke to me of secularism (laicite). That impedes all dialogue with them. We are jihadists…We are ready to take the lead and to defeat all armies by the sword, whether they be from ECOWAS or even NATO…Nothing will be able to stop our advance on Bamako and the rest of Mali because we have chosen to die for the religion.

More remarks from Hamaha here (French).

The statement leaves me wondering how seriously to take the threat of the Islamist coalition’s southern advance. The Islamists’ capture of the town of Douentza (map) on September 1 certainly raised some eyebrows, and their repeated references to a southern advance indicates that the threat is not just an offhand comment. On the other hand, advancing into southern areas could stretch the Islamists thin, exacerbate the political backlash they sometimes face, and hand them military defeats. Whatever happens, ECOWAS and other external forces can expect stiff resistance from the Islamist coalition, and external forces may even find themselves initially working not just to retake territory, but to repel new attacks.

Mali: Repercussions of a Small-Town Shooting

Yet another setback for Mali’s government – a significant and tragic mistake that already seems to be snowballing into a catastrophe:

Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled by road to a religious conference, the Malian and Mauritanian governments said Sunday. Early reports indicate that the men’s long beards aroused the suspicion of Mali’s military, which confused them for the extremists who have taken over the nation’s north.

The preachers were heading to the gathering in Bamako when they were executed in Diabaly, 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of the capital. The dead included at least 12 nationals of Mauritania, the Mauritanian government said in a government communique that blames Malian security forces for executing the preachers. A relative of two of the victims and a Mali police official confirmed this version of events.

See the full article for statements from the Mauritanian and Malian governments. The Mauritanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement is available in Arabic here and a press release from the Malian government is available in French here.

Google Maps has no location for “Diabaly,” but does map “Diabal” in the region of Segou.

Some sources have said that the preachers were members of the “Dawa society,” while others have identified them as members of the South Asia-based Tablighi Jamaat, which is also sometimes known in Arabic as Jama’a al Tabligh wa al Da’wa, roughly translated “The Society for Delivering the Message and Calling People to Islam” – da’wa meaning the call to Islam.

Malian authorities have acted swiftly to manage the political fallout from the incident. The country’s foreign minister has traveled to Mauritania to personally express his condolences, and the government has launched an investigation of the incident. This may be enough to assuage anger in Nouakchott.

The Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali quickly condemned the Malian government and portrayed the incident as a trigger for wider conflict:

“With this barbaric act that was not warranted, I don’t see any future for Malian army or the Malian government because we are going to continue our southward push to Bamako. This was a declaration of war,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a senior Islamist speaking on behalf [the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, MUJWA.]

This threat, I think, deserves to be taken seriously.

How did such an incident occur? The details may remain murky, but there are at least two points to be made. The first is that tensions on the ground seem to be running high, making townspeople – who in one version reportedly (Arabic) seized the preachers and handed them over to the army – and soldiers prone to shooting first and asking questions later. The second is that the political confusion and tension in Bamako may filter down to soldiers, especially ones posted near the zone controlled by northern Islamists. With things unsettled in Bamako, soldiers in places like Diabaly may be quicker to act impulsively.

In any case, the incident has brought the Malian government both a diplomatic problem and a new source of contention with the northern Islamists.