Thoughts on the 2019 AFRICOM Posture Statement

Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:

I have a few points to add:

  1. I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
  2. I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
  3. The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
  4. The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:

 

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Mali/Burkina Faso: Continued Fallout from Koulogon and Yirgou Violence

On the night of December 31-January 1, two consequential attacks occurred in villages in Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, Donzo hunters attacked the village of Koulogon, targeting ethnic Fulani/Peul and killing thirty-seven people. In Burkina Faso, suspected jihadists attacked the primarily Mossi village of Yirgou, which elicited a reprisal attack by Yirgou villagers against nearby Fulani. In Burkina Faso, the death toll soon approached forty.

Koulogon is located in the Bankass cercle of Mali’s Mopti region (see Bankass town on this map), while Yirgou is located in the Barsalogho Department in Sanmatenga Province of Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord Region (see Barsalogho town on this map).

The two incidents reflect the wider “ethnicization” of Sahelian, and particularly central Malian, conflicts that many analysts have been pointing to in recent years. That is, a dynamic takes hold where jihadists are assumed to be Fulani, the Fulani are targeted for collective punishment, and then both the jihadist violence and the intercommunal violence reinforce the overall dynamic of insecurity, where people organize violence along largely ethnic lines.

These two incidents have received major attention for a few reasons. First, they exemplify this dynamic of spiraling violence, providing instances that the media can readily understand and convey. Second, the death tolls are high in each instance, reflecting wider escalation:

Third, the violence marked a grim start to the new year, and the timing undoubtedly plays a part in the media’s focus on the incidents. And fourth, the attacks underscored how authorities are falling short when it comes to preventing violence. Regarding that last point, it is worth noting that Burkina Faso had already declared a state of emergency in parts of seven out of thirteen regions even before the Yirgou attack.

Here is some of the attention the incidents have gotten.

For one thing, there have been presidential visits to the villages:

Regarding Koulogon, notably, Malian President Keïta promised to establish a military base in the vicinity, and a gendarmerie unit has been deployed to Diallasago.

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré has also met Fulani/Peul leaders, attempting to defuse the ethnicization issue:

There are also calls and plans for investigations, with a United Nations inquiry underway regarding Koulogon, and with various civic and ethnic associations calling for other inquiries. For example, in Burkina Faso an association (Fulani-led, from what I can tell) called the Collectif contre l’impunité et la stigmatisation des communautés (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities) is giving press interviews and organizing marches.

The Collective is also calling for the disarmament of Koglweogo militias (see here for background), depicting the militias as vehicles for ethnic violence.

In short, the conflicts in Mali and Burkina Faso comprise a whole swath of complex, localized but interconnected dynamics and conflicts, and the Koulogon and Yirgou incidents throw a lot of those dynamics into sharp relief. At the same time, there is a limit to how “legible” the violence is when viewed through the prism of individual incidents. This is an important note to conclude on, I think:

Burkina Faso: Reading Through Wikileaks Cables on Blaise Compaoré and AQIM

As the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso grows, recurring questions have surfaced about whether and how much complicity existed between the previous administration of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014) and al-Qaida in the islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and whether Compaoré’s presidential guard is involved in the current violence. One of the most comprehensive investigations of these issues comes from Joe Penney. His piece must be read in full to be understood, but here is a brief excerpt:

Under Compaoré, Tuareg rebel groups who had allied with Al Qaeda were able to come in and out of Burkina while the country hosted peace talks between them and the Malian government, giving way to rumors that Compaoré had a tacit agreement to allow their presence in exchange for no attacks. The new government made a conscious decision to cut off their access to the country.

Burkina Faso’s current president, Roch Kaboré, has also mentioned “collusions” between Compaoré’s regime and AQIM.

One obvious and additional step toward shedding light on this issue involves searching through leaked State Department cables to see what American diplomats wrote about Compaoré and AQIM during some of the years when the regional kidnapping economy was at its peak (those years would be 2008-2012 for the kidnapping economy, but the cables cut off in 2010) . I tried various searches (Compaore AQIM, Burkina AQIM, Compaore Qaeda, Compaore GSPC, etc.), which yielded five cables that had what I consider substantive and relevant content for this post’s topic. Most of these cables date from 2009, and this is important partly because Penney refers above to events in 2012.

There are no bombshells in the cables, and most of the mentions of AQIM were vague and brief, although of course it is possible that more sensitive information and analysis was transmitted in more highly classified documents and in meetings and discussions not captured by the cablegate archive. It is also possible that more explosive information is contained in later cables.

Overall, the five cables I found suggest that (a) Burkinabé officials were worried about AQIM infiltration in northern Burkina Faso by 2009; (b) U.S. and French officials were somewhat worried about the possibility of AQIM expansion into Burkina, but in the context of worrying about a broader expansion of AQIM from Senegal to northern Nigeria; and (c) U.S. officials seemed to like Compaoré, consider him and his government worthy of further investment as a security partner in the Sahel, and to have relatively few concerns about whether Compaoré’s role in hostage negotiations implicated him in any nefarious way. The cables do not give evidence of any non-aggression pact between Compaoré and AQIM, but they do suggest that Compaoré’s government lacked a strategy (and possibly lacked the will) to deal with what officials considered AQIM infiltration. None of this undermines Penney’s arguments (again, the cables date from an earlier period than the one he is discussing in the excerpt above); but neither does it necessarily confirm them.

Here are the cables I found, with pertinent excerpts. The first two digits of each number refer to the year the cable was sent.

  • 09OUAGADOUGOU1136, “MOD DISCUSSES WIDE RANGE OF REGIONAL SECURITY ISSUES WITH CDA.” This is by far the most important cable and deserves to be read in full. The abbreviations in the title refer to the (Burkinabé) Minister of Defense Yero Boly and the (American) Chargé d’Affairs. The most relevant lines are these: “Noting the recent AQIM kidnappings in Mali and Mauritania, Charge asked whether the Burkinabe armed forces were increasing their security measures. Boly responded that Burkina Faso’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Burkina/Niger/Mali border and collecting important information. Despite these efforts, the country remains vulnerable from a security standpoint. The MOD mused about how to properly exploit the intelligence information and leads they had obtained thus far. The Minister of Defense explained that the northern cities of Markoy (and its market), Gorom-Gorom, and Deou are of particular interest as they are ‘infiltrated’ and ‘Islamicized’. Burkinabe intelligence sources have uncovered Nigerian trained Nigerien nationals (particularly former students of Koranic school in Nigeria) who are operating in that region in a believed liaison with AQIM. The GOBF [Government of Burkina Faso] has their names, they know who they are, but don’t know how to move forward and properly exploit that information. Boly noted that small cells of the type AQIM are know to dispatch currently have a relatively high chance of circulating undetected by Burkinabe security forces…Boly recognized that Burkina Faso has probably only been lucky up to now that AQIM has not focused activities here.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU135, “PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL WITH AMBASSADOR.” This is a readout of a meeting between Compaoré and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in February 2009 (though the cable was filed in March). Some important lines: “In something of a new twist, Compaore raised concerns about regional security in the Sahel region. He said that he was worried that ‘Salafists’ had ‘installed themselves’ in Northern Mali. Specifically he said that he was concerned because they had seized hostages and that there might be further instability stemming from these activities. Without providing further details, he indicated that Burkina Faso would soon be approaching the US with certain concrete proposals on how to combat instability in the Sahel region.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU298, “REQUEST FOR ESTABLISHMENT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POSITION IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO.” As the title suggests, this cable deals with the embassy’s request for more DOD personnel in light of the exponential increase in U.S. military activities in Burkina Faso. For this post’s purposes, the most relevant lines are these: “Geographically, Burkina Faso occupies a key strategic location in West Africa. It borders states with known AQIM activity and may serve as a safe haven or transit point. At present, intelligence on this critical terrorist and security-related threat is absent.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU569, “A REGIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS AQIM.” Key excerpt: “Although Burkina Faso is a somewhat peripheral actor in these events, it has functioned in a mediating capacity in both conflict resolution and hostage issues. It would certainly play a secondary role in any regional solution, but nonetheless we would like to propose some thoughts on what a regional solution might look like and suggest some steps as to how we might get there.”
  • 10ADDISABABA288, “AU SUMMIT – A/S FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS CARSON MEETS FRENCH COUNTERPART.” This cable, from February 2010, describes a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and a senior French official. Key lines: “Gompertz thinks the security situation in the Sahel remains fairly unchanged from the Paris meetings on Sahel counter-terrorism (CT) issues six months ago. He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is expanding into northern Burkina Faso and recruiting in Senegal. The DGSE [French intelligence] believes AQIM will find weakness in northern Nigeria.”

If readers find any cables I missed, please let me know.

A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.

Burkina Faso: Salafis Urge the Government Not to Conflate Them with Jihadists [Updated]

A corollary to today’s post – about the flawed “conveyer belt” metaphor of people moving from hardline religious activism to jihadism – is that non-jihadist Salafis are very keen to avoid being labeled jihadists. Last month an example of that occurred in Burkina Faso, where there is a significant jihadist presence in the north and escalating violence in the east. Amid those developments, the Burkinabé Salafi movement Daawatoul Islamia (Islamic Call) has been urging authorities and the public not to conflate them with jihadists.

In public remarks, Daawatoul Islamia Salafi leader Mohammad Kindo praised the work of authorities and security services, described jihadist violence and banditry as divine tests, and then said:

Faced with this terrorist menace, the Burkinabé must unite and rule out any conflation between these killings, religion, and certain ethnicities. The victims of terrorism are Muslims, Christians, Mossis, Samos, Peul, etc. Therefore in the struggle against terrorism we must pay attention in order to avoid [causing] other conflicts through accusations and oppressions between the sons and daughters of our nation.

In other words, Salafi movements are keenly aware of the reputational risks – and therefore the dangers – that jihadist escalation poses for them.

Of course, Salafis are not alone in making such arguments – as International Crisis Group has put it, policymakers around the world should “disaggregate not conflate” (p. iii) when it comes to confronting jihadism.

For a brief biography of Kindo, see Frédérick Madoré’s Ph.D. dissertation, p. 182.

[Update: A reader writes privately to correct me – Daawatoul Islamia is a Salafi media platform in Burkina Faso, but Kindo and others refer to themselves as Ahl al-Sunna, “People of the Prophetic Model” – a moniker adopted by many Salafis around the world.]

Mauritania: Muslim Scholars and Associations React to the Closure of Markaz Takwin al-Ulama

Last week, I wrote about Mauritanian authorities’ decision to close Markaz Takwin al-Ulama, or the Center for the Training/Formation of Islamic Scholars. The school is run by Muhammad al-Hasan Ould al-Dedew, a prominent Islamist cleric in Mauritania and beyond.

As one might expect, the closure has elicited criticism from Islamists within Mauritania. I was a bit surprised (though I should not have been) that the issue reverberated beyond Mauritania as well.

Here are some of the reactions.

Al-Dedew sent an audio message to supporters and students of the Markaz:

Employees of the Markaz protested in front of the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott, stressing the school’s international and scholastic character:

The staff also went to court:

In Burkina Faso, the Salafi association Daawatoul Islamia (The Islamic Call) denounced the closure and, interestingly, attributed it to authorities’ anger at al-Dedew’s criticisms of Saudi Arabia (h/t Louis Audet-Gosselin, whose tweet about this Facebook entry inspired my blog post):

The Moroccan Islamist association Movement for Unity and Reform (Harakat al-Tawhid wa-l-Islah) also released a statement (Arabic original, French summary) criticizing the closure.

Some Mauritanian actors, meanwhile, took more complex positions. The ex-al-Qa’ida cleric Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Muritani, who returned to Mauritania in 2012 and became a prominent scholar) met with various actors in the debate, including the president, and issued a statement on his Facebook page. The statement argued that the closure was not part of a “general government policy” toward Islam or Islamic institutions, but rather was “an individual issue.” Ould al-Walid went on to say, however, that he and others had asked the president to reconsider the decision and reopen the school. (The statement is much more complex than that, though, in both its argumentation and its politics, and it merits its own blog post.)

Finally, I should point to the response of more official, government-leaning ulama in Mauritania. Two bodies – the National Union of Mauritanian Imams and the League of Mauritanian Ulama – released a statement that praised what they called “tangible services and achievements in the Islamic field” under the president’s leadership. The statement went on to say, without mentioning the Markaz, that “the modern institutes have not succeeded in graduating/producing any scholar from our society since their founding and up to today.” The struggle over the Markaz, in such scholars’ view, is not just a political battle between the government and Islamists but also an epistemological battle over the status and transformation of the Mauritanian mahdara (classical Islamic school).

 

Roundup of Recent Reports and Commentary on Jihadism in Central Mali and Burkina Faso

Several in-depth reports have come out recently looking at jihadism in central Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as a much-discussed article that focuses on Peul/Fulani identity in those areas and across West Africa. Here are some excerpts:

Philip Kleinfeld, IRIN, “In Central Mali, Rising Extremism Stirs Inter-Communal Conflict.”

Before the emergence of jihadism, the social fabric in central Mali was already fragile. For decades weak governance and competition over land and water caused lingering conflicts between the Fulani pastoralists, who move their herds across the region, and largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities.

[…]

Convinced the state cannot protect them, traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou, which translates roughly as, “hunters in God’s hands”.

The group is responsible for a string of indiscriminate attacks on Fulani civilians and is alleged to have received weapons and training from the Malian government. Fellow Dozos from the Ivory Coast and Niger are also believed to have joined their ranks.

Support from the Dogon community itself is mixed however, with many accounts of Dogon chiefs and civilians protecting their Fulani neighbours against the hunters.

France24: “In Burkina Faso, the Terrorist Threat Is Spreading to the East.”

A forest region bordering Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, eastern Burkina Faso has long been regarded as a bastion of organised crime. Thanks to the central government’s neglect of the region, self-defence militias known as “koglweogo” have become the guarantors of security for the local population. And thanks to the dense forests and the lack of adequate road networks, the area is practically inaccessible for national security forces. Thus, eastern Burkina Faso is fertile ground for jihadists.

[…]

A response from the Burkinabé government is long overdue. In a memo on the security situation in the east, relayed by local media, the regional police chief Commissioner Karim Drabo warned that “if security forces do not respond vigorously, the attackers will have time to settle and to spread IEDs throughout the areas they have occupied […] and they are gaining ground”.

And, finally, Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré of the human rights organization Kisal recently published a commentary piece at The Conversation (French). I’ve translated the first paragraph below.

The Peul are currently attracting attention because some of them are instrumentalized by fundamentalist groups seeking to implant themselves at the local level in the Sahel. The jihadist terror creates social distress among the other communities in the affected zones, making the Peul the scapegoats due to their supposed historical affinities with radical Islam. Peul identity thus appears as a bogeyman symbolizing the jihadist threat. However, this identity is too heterogeneous to create such a simple link.