Boko Haram and ISIS: Be Careful with Evidence

In March of this year, the violent Nigerian sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The pledge has elicited questions about what kind of material support the Islamic State may provide to Boko Haram, especially in terms of fighters, training, and money. These questions tap into an older inquiry about what connections Boko Haram has/had to other jihadist organizations – for years before the pledge, there were allegations of operational ties to al-Qa’ida’s affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And these questions also take on added significance now, as Boko Haram is being forced to chart a new course in the wake of its recent territorial losses to Nigerian and regional armies.

When assessing the strength of Boko Haram’s outside connections, it’s important to weigh the evidence carefully. News organizations and analysts all have the temptation to seize on small details or perceived trends as evidence of growing operational ties. But the details may not be as significant as analysts presume, and the trends may not be new.

Example 1: An article headlined “With Help from ISIS, A More Deadly Boko Haram Makes a Comeback.”

The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town [Marte, Borno State].

[…]

All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”

What caught my eye here was first, the phrase “unleashing female suicide bombers” – which suggests that this is new. Not really. I basically stopped reading after that, since the article’s credibility evaporated when it began to present the old as evidence of the new. But to go further, it is certainly possible that Boko Haram members are training in Iraq. Yet are Kurdish websites really the most reliable sources? And is this really evidence of an Islamic State-supported Boko Haram comeback?

Example 2: An article headlined “Captured video appears to show foreign fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram.” When we read the article, we find that the video shows “a man speaking in Sudanese Arabic” and wearing “a white turban.” Another man wears “a black turban.” Are these men fighters? Are they Sudanese? Are they Nigerians who spent time in Sudan? Do they have anything to do with the Islamic State? The answers to some of these questions may well be yes, but I would argue that we can’t know yet – and so we shouldn’t over-interpret the limited evidence that is available. It’s better to withhold judgment.

As a final note, I would say that there has long been an assumption in many quarters that Boko Haram simply could not be homegrown, or that Nigerians could not possibly be the masterminds of Boko Haram’s violence. Well, why not? Nigeria is home to over 170 million people (that’s more than Iraq, Syria, and Algeria put together, with at least 70 million residents to spare). Is it inconceivable that some Nigerians would know how to make bombs, plan sophisticated attacks, conquer territory, and produce propaganda? I think the alliance with ISIS is real and that it will have some effect, especially in the sphere of media and rhetoric, where there is observable and consistent evidence of influence. But I am suspicious of the analysts who seem to need to find an Arab hand behind any and all terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Review of Todd Moss’ The Golden Hour

Last year, Todd Moss published The Golden Hour, a novel about a coup in Mali. Moss served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2007-2008, and he has long been a senior officer at the Center for Global Development, where he wears a number of important hats. You can read his full biography here. The Golden Hour is a work of fiction, but it draws on his work at State and is clearly inspired partly by events in Mali in 2012-2013. Below I review the novel as a piece of writing and as a political statement.

As a Novel

From a literary point of view, I very much enjoyed the book. I found it to be a literal page-turner; I read it in two long sessions, the first of which kept me up much later than I had planned. The novel is engrossing largely because Moss strikes a skillful balance: he includes enough characters and plots twists that the book stays intriguing, but does not bog the writing down with needless complexity. Too many thrillers pack in characters and events until even the most sympathetic reader or viewer becomes lost and frustrated; Moss wisely avoids that.

The idea at the heart of the book is also compelling. Moss’ central character is an academic-turned-diplomat, Judd Ryker, who gets to put his ideas into practice. Ryker’s theory is that a coup can be successfully reversed within approximately one hundred hours. Mali becomes his first real test. I can’t say whether the idea of the “golden hour” in coup-reversal is workable or not; the point is, it’s interesting, and it was part of what kept me reading.

As a side note, I wondered whether the real-life scholar Jay Ufelder (who is not, it should be said, an advocate of anything like a “golden hour”) provided any of the inspiration for Ryker. There are certainly scholars out there doing sophisticated work on understanding coups, so the character of Ryker does not seem crazy.

As a Political Statement (Caution: Spoilers)

Moss was not, I think, primarily trying to make a statement: from what I can tell, The Golden Hour was written as a literary project and as an experiment in thinking through how an idea might play out. Nevertheless, a piece of fiction such as this, taking heavy inspiration from recent and dramatic events, implies some opinions about real-life politics.

The politics of the novel are complicated, which is a good thing: you could not pigeon-hole it as a defense of any particular ideology. I found some elements compelling, and others discomfiting.

One thing I found compelling was Moss’ depiction of an ostensible (and fictional) terrorist group called Ansar al-Sahra, whose violence and crime pushes some United States government officials to support Mali’s coup leader – again, all in the novel. Part of the novel’s resolution involves Ryker’s discovery that Ansar al-Sahra has been manufactured by the coup leader and his soldiers. This discovery helps Ryker unmake the coup and restore the civilian president. That kind of statement from Moss – that the U.S. government is too gullible when it comes to terrorist “threats,” and too tolerant of thugs who claim to be anti-terrorist – is timely and appropriate. The point to me is not that real-life terrorist groups are in reality secret plots, but rather that governments frequently overreact to terrorist groups, especially new and murky ones.

There was one thing that made me uncomfortable: Moss’ inclusion of a successful armed rescue of an American hostage by American special forces. The depiction of a flawless rescue, carried out by badasses, could mislead some readers into thinking that this should always be the approach in a hostage crisis. Some armed rescues work; many others go quite badly.

Finally, there’s a point about which I felt some real ambivalence: Moss’ depiction of the State Department as a place of high drama and high-stakes decision-making. When I worked there for a year in 2013-2014, I found that many officials – even senior officials – saw their time eaten up not by making “tough calls,” but by dealing with bureaucratic pressures, including the constant demands that different U.S. government agencies place on one another. This is exactly the point that Moss is trying to make, I suppose: that true leadership means finding ways to circumvent bureaucracy. His novel is a celebration of the idea of independent, anti-bureaucratic initiative – he opens with a quote from G.R. Berridge, “The advantages of backchannels are secrecy, speed, and the avoidance of internal bureaucratic battles.” But I think Moss overestimates the room that someone like Ryker might have to improvise, to go “backchannel,” to pursue diplomacy as an adventure and a risk.

Judging from my own (albeit limited and junior) experience, I think risk-aversion is so entrenched in American diplomacy right now that Ryker’s actions are almost unthinkable. Of course, The Golden Hour is a novel and it works as a novel – it’s not meant to map onto reality one-to-one. But the question of risk-taking in diplomacy has tremendous relevance right now, and in that sense I have trouble confining to the question of the plot’s plausibility to the text.

I also am not so sure that I want some of our current officials freelancing more – I would rather see systemic changes in how the United States looks at the world and allocates its resources. The scariest thing to me, in fact, is the diplomat who races through twenty-hour days thinking they are Ryker, thinking they are caught up in a whirling drama of high-stakes events – when in fact they are just managing various inputs and outputs within an essentially closed system comprising government officials (ours and theirs). What effect, after all, has the U.S. had on the ground in Mali since 2012? Has the U.S. decisively changed the course of events there at any point? Perhaps that’s because we’re missing a Ryker; or perhaps it’s because the current bureaucratic systems and diplomatic culture prevent the development of creative policies, not just when it comes to reversing coups but also when it comes to thinking imaginatively about Muslim Africa and the wider Muslim world.

Roundup on Niger’s Arrest of Moussa Tchangari (Updated)

On Wednesday, Niger’s Interior Ministry confirmed that authorities had arrested (on Monday)

On Monday, Nigerien authorities arrested a journalist and civil society activist named Moussa Tchangari on charges of collaborating with Boko Haram. (EDIT: Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said that Tchangari “has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram.” According to Oxfam’s Associate Country Director for Niger, Fenke Elskamp, “Tchangari[‘s] file [is] still empty, his lawyers confirm.”)

The arrest comes amid an uptick in Niger’s conflict with the Nigerian sect this year, which has seen Nigerien soldiers deploying inside Nigeria as well as a spate of attacks by Boko Haram inside Niger, particularly the southeastern Diffa Region.

Niger’s action also occurs in the context of other struggles over the control of information during the fight against Boko Haram. For example, the Nigerian government has in the past blacked out mobile phone service in northeastern states, and journalists have complained that they lacked access. Moreover, the case of Tchangari is reminiscent of Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida, who left Nigeria for the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Salkida had interviewed Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf during the latter’s lifetime and had written for years on the sect. He began to experience harassment “after security agencies and Nigerian authorities began to mistake his in-depth reporting on the extremist group as evidence of his closeness to the sect.” I obviously do not know all the facts in either case, but I give the benefit of the doubt to both Salkida and Tchangari.

A few perspectives on Tchangari’s case are below.

AFP:

“This man has been collaborating with Boko Haram for some time, and he is actively spreading propaganda and false news in liaison with Boko Haram,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou told AFP.

[…]

Tchangari was arrested on Monday and charged with “criminal links to the terrorist group Boko Haram”, he said.

Tchangari’s organisation Alternative Espace Citoyen has been critical of the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Niger, where the army is fighting Boko Haram.

In early May, his group published a report that criticised the Niger authorities after the evacuation of some 25,000 Lake Chad residents over fears of new Islamist attacks, following a deadly assault in late April.

Amnesty:

Niger must immediately release a human rights defender arrested after he criticised the indictment of six village leaders for “failure to cooperate” with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram, Amnesty International said today.

[…]

The fight against Boko Haram and national security requirements must not be an excuse for arrests, which lack a solid legal basis and do not respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charge should not be the weapons used to silence those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Here are a few more resources:

  • Tchangari’s Twitter account. His most recent tweets, dating May 8, are photographs of people displaced from Lake Chad islands by order of Nigerien authorities.
  • The website of Alternative Espaces Citoyens, an NGO where Tchangari is Secretary General.
  • A statement (French) from African and European human rights organizations, calling on Nigerien authorities to free Tchangari.
  • RFI (French) quotes some civil society members in Niger, including a member of Alternative Espaces Citoyens and Amnesty’s Nigerien researcher.
  • The RFI story above says that Nigerien authorities were offended by an interview Tchangari gave to RFI’s Hausa service. The Hausa service has covered the displacement from Lake Chad, but I haven’t been able to find the interview.

Nigeria: The PDP Thinks about Its Next Steps

Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has held the presidency for sixteen years, but as of May 29 it will be in the opposition. Defeat has left the PDP with a number of questions, most importantly: What next?

Over the weekend and into this week, the PDP’s official Twitter handle started a surprisingly candid discussion of this issue, all while expressing confidence that the PDP would maintain “its ability as the flagship of democracy.” The series of tweets generated controversy, including within the PDP, with some officials saying that the account was not speaking for the party.

The online conversation has been paralleled by leadership changes. Adamu Mu’azu, national chairman since January 2014, just resigned, as did Tony Anenih, chairman of the Board of Trustees – perhaps to make way for outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan to take that position. There is a precedent for a former head of state to play such a role: former President Olusegun Obasanjo was chair of the Board from when he left office in 2007 until 2012.

A number of serving and former PDP elected officials have weighed in on what the party should learn from its defeat and where it should go from here. One is former Cross River Governor Donald Duke, who gave an interview with Channels Television in April. The interview has attracted some attention – you can read about it (and watch it) here.

For my part, I thought the PDP’s tweets effectively conveyed the message that the party was willing to listen to ordinary citizens. For that reason, disavowing the conversation would make the party look worse. On the other hand, a willingness to listen will not be sufficient for revamping the party’s image. I think what the PDP will need to figure out is whether it is, or can be, more than a collection of elites united by a desire to win elections. The party will also need to show what policies it has to offer beyond a slate of macroeconomic “reforms” that sometimes delivered rapid growth, but did not deliver enough jobs.

 

Niger: President Issoufou’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou and a delegation of cabinet ministers and other senior government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia from approximately May 10-12. The visit is not unusual, but in light of Senegal’s recent decision to send troops to support Saudi Arabia in its military venture in Yemen, there has been more attention to Saudi-Sahelian relations. So it is interesting to look at the content of Issoufou’s trip, which centered on themes of Saudi investment in Niger and Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh (French), Issoufou met King Salman. This was Issoufou’s first visit since King Salman took the throne in January, so Issoufou gave both condolences on the death of King Abdullah and congratulations on King Salman’s coronation. In addition to meeting the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministers, Issoufou met (French) Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Assaf as well as Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar. With al-Assaf, Issoufou discussed the Saudi Fund for Development and its projects in Niger.

(Unfortunately the Fund’s website does not have a country page for Niger, but the Saudi embassy in Niger provides a few details here, writing that the Fund works in “health, education and the construction of dams, as the fund is now building seven health centers in seven regions in Niger and the [sic] of 150 primary schools project. You can also read about a dam project in Mali here [Arabic].)

Issoufou’s other meetings concentrated on spurring greater Saudi investment in Nigerien businesses and development.

After his stop in Riyadh, Issoufou visited (French) the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and made ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. He then met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. (Niger was a founding member of the OIC and hosts the Organization’s Islamic university for Francophone Africa, located in Say near Niamey.) Issoufou also sat down with the vice president of the Islamic Development Bank, and the Bank and the Government of Niger signed a financing agreement for a road between Tébaram and Tahoua. See the Bank’s announcement here.

It’s a busy travel season for Issoufou – this week he is in Ghana for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States.

Headlines out of Today’s ECOWAS Summit

Between May 15 and 19 (today), Ghana has hosted three important meetings for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): (1) an Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers from May 15-16; (2) a Session of the Mediation and Security Council on May 17; and (3) a Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on May 19.

The Council of Ministers is made up of member states’ Ministers in charge of ECOWAS Affairs, while the Mediation and Security Council is composed of member states’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. More details about the agendas for these meetings can be found here, with additional information on the Heads of State summit here. I should note also that Ghana’s President John Mahama has been the ECOWAS Chairman since 2014.

Here are some key takeaways, readouts, and headlines from the meetings:

  • Term limits: “West African leaders on Tuesday rejected a proposal to impose a region-wide limit to the number of terms presidents can serve, after opposition to the idea from Togo and Gambia, Ghana’s foreign minister said.”
  • Mahama’s remarks/Jonathan’s farewell: Reiterating his earlier praise for Nigeria’s “historic elections,” Chairman Mahama lauded President Goodluck Jonathan for his “mature statesmanship” in conceding defeat, and “salute[d]” President-elect Muhammadu Buhari for his victory. You can read Jonathan’s remarks at the summit here.
  • Youth Employment: Mahama also urged greater focus on job creation for youth, saying, “considering the fact that we have the fastest growing youth population; young people are coming out of school at every level of the educational system in the hope of finding jobs, it’s going to be a major hurdle for us.”
  • Common External Tariff: “Regarding the [ECOWAS Common External Tariff or CET], which entered into force in January this year, the Commission indicated that as at 30 April 2015, only eight Member States had started the implementation, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, with the remaining seven countries, lagging behind due to various reasons, such as legal requirements, public health and other technical considerations. Council commended the eight Member States and urged the remaining seven to take the necessary steps to ensure effective implementation of the CET before the end of the year in accordance with the decision of the Authority of Heads of State and Government.”

Recent Developments and Perspectives on Mediterranean Migration Crisis

This year, repeated fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea have shocked the world and highlighted the struggles of migrants who travel from Africa and the Middle East to the shores of the Mediterranean seeking access to Europe. I’ve written on the issue here, especially as it relates to European-Sahelian relations, and now I want to point out a few recent developments and perspectives on the crisis.

Developments

  • Naval Mission: Today, European foreign and defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, backed plans for a European Union naval mission that “will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.” The mission is supposed to start next month.
  • Italian Rescues: Last week, the Italian Coast Guard rescued nearly 2,500 migrants.
  • Shelters: The European Union, in cooperation with Niger, plans to open shelters in the Nigerien cities of Agadez, Arlit, and Diffa. The centers aim to “dissuade [migrants] from trying to reach Europe and instead offering local alternatives.”
  • Anti-Trafficking Law: On May 11, Niger’s parliament passed a “law that could see human smugglers facing up to 30 years in prison in an effort to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing its borders in hopes of getting to Europe.” Together, the shelters and the law attempt to go part of the way toward addressing Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s call to address the local roots of the migration crisis.

Perspectives

  • Francis Kornegay: “The Mediterranean crisis is indicative of how intellectually inadequate geopolitical and foreign policy/national security analysis has become at connecting the dots of interdependence between land and sea in the world’s unfolding power dynamics.”
  • Gary Younge: “The facts on immigration don’t fit easily on a mug, whereas the politics of xenophobia can be condensed into a single sentence. ‘They’re coming here to get what’s yours.’ This is, of course, a lie, stemming from a system in which borders reflexively open for capital and close for people.”