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.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Trajectories of Islam in Mali

I’ve written an article (.pdf) for the summer 2013 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. The piece is entitled, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali’?” I analyze trends in Malian Muslim leaders’ public religiosity and political participation. An excerpt from pp. 46-47:

Islamist rule at gunpoint seems unlikely to return in the short-term. The end of armed Islamist control, however, does not mean that Islam will recede as a political force in Mali. The public roles—plural—of Islam in Mali have expanded and diversified from the time of the French colonial conquest to the present. This expansion has been especially pronounced since 1991, when a military coup set the stage for two decades of multiparty elections and political liberalization. While Islamists hold few elected offices, liberalization facilitated the expression of diverse Muslim identities in Mali. Mass movements and mass media are two powerful channels through which Muslim activists shape values, influence politics, and contest the meaning of Islam. The 2012-2013 crisis occurred in the midst of this ongoing reevaluation of the role of Islam in public life in Mali. The crisis further expanded opportunities for Muslim leaders to expand their participation in politics and intensified debates over what it means to be Malian and Muslim.

Post-war Mali will likely not be an “Islamic state” in the sense of a state where micro-policies are explicitly based on specific references to Islamic scriptures and traditions. But Islam already has a greater public role in Mali than before the war began. As Mali emerges from conflict and re-imagines its political system, Malian politicians and outside partners hoping to restore an idealized “status quo ante,” in which Islam supposedly played no public role in a democratic and “secular” country, may have to acknowledge the increasingly powerful influences Muslim activists and movements wield in Malian society and politics.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

Africa Blog Roundup: Susan Rice, Mali, Darfur, Kenyan IDPs, and More

Africa in DC: “What Does Susan Rice’s Appointment as National Security Adviser Mean for Africa?”

Bruce Whitehouse:

As French troops hunted Islamist fighters in northern Mali this past winter, historian Greg Mann said that what was taking place in the region was not one war, but several. For a few months starting in January 2013, the various armed conflicts that had broken out over the previous year appeared to converge, as did French and Malian interests. But, as Gregreminded us in March, the French government’s war was not the Malian government’s war. And now it seems that Mali’s war — after a long hiatus — is starting up again, and breaking away from France’s war.

For weeks there have been rumblings of an impending resumption of armed conflict between Malian government forces and the MNLA separatist rebel group that controls the northern region of Kidal. Rumors of Malian troop movements north of Gao have been circulating since February. But this week these were joined by an army statement that government forces had massed midway between Gao and the rebel-occupied town, and by news today that Malian troops took the village of Anafi, 100 km southwest of Kidal. Areport on Malijet claims that Malian soldiers are within 35 km of the town, and that MNLA forces are retreating toward Algeria; a similar report has appeared on Reuters.

Amb. John Campbell: “Racism in Mali and the Upcoming Elections.”

Aly Verjee:

The second honeymoon of Darfur’s Doha peace process lasted just over a month. On April 6, Mohammad Bashar, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement-Sudan (hence referred to as JEM-Bashar) signed the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD; English, Arabic) in the ballroom of the Doha Ritz-Carlton hotel.
In Doha, Bashar told delegates he was looking forward to going home. On May 12 he was dead, killed on the Sudan-Chad borderlands at the hands of his former comrades in the mainstream Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Internally Displaced: “Kenya and South Sudan – The Border Question Resurfaces?”

Africa UP Close: “Youth Farming and Aquaculture Initiatives Aim to Reduce Food and Political Insecurity in Senegal.”

Prisca Kamungi: “Municipal Authorities and IDPs Outside of Camps: The Case of Kenya’s ‘Integrated Displaced Persons’.”

What are you reading?

Africa News Roundup: Ethiopia and Egypt, Chad and Libya, CAR’s Crisis, and More

Los Angeles Times:

A battle over water has turned into a war of colorful rhetoric between Ethiopia and Egypt over the flow of the Nile, which begins in the African highlands but keeps Egypt from being swallowed entirely by desert.

An ambitious Ethiopian dam project is diverting Nile waters that Cairo says will reduce the river’s northward flow. The Egyptians have stumbled into crisis mode: At a meeting hosted by President Mohamed Morsi this week, several politicians, unaware TV cameras were rolling, suggested sabotaging or threatening to bomb the dam.

IRIN: “[Central African Republic] Crisis Remains Dire – and Neglected.”

El Watan (French):

Gao, Kidal, Anefis… Six mois après le lancement de l’opération Serval, que deviennent les villes du Nord-Mali ? Notre envoyée spéciale a échappé à un attentat kamikaze et a vécu des accrochages entre l’armée malienne et le MNLA. Elle témoigne de la peur et de la précarité dans lesquelles vivent les populations.

BBC:

Seven people have died in the Somali port of Kismayo in fighting between two self-declared leaders of the strategic city and surrounding area.

Residents told the BBC the clashes began in the town centre at midday and lasted for about 40 minutes.

They broke out after one of the leaders tried to meet the defence minister who is attempting to resolve the crisis.

VOA: “South Sudan Switches from Arabic Textbooks to English.”

From May (missed it then), Luke Balleny: “What Impact Has the EITI Transparency Initiative Had on Nigeria?”

The Economist: “Could Political Demonstrations in Ethiopia Herald Greater Freedom?”

Wall Street Journal: “Chad’s President Warns of Islamist Threat in Libya.”

What else is happening?

Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?

Africa News Roundup: Kenyatta and the ICC, Niger Bombings, Northern Kenya, Libya, Algeria, and More

AP:

With the help of French special forces, Niger’s military on Friday killed the last two jihadists holed up inside a dormitory on the grounds of a military garrison in the desert town of Agadez, and freed at least two soldiers who had been held hostage by the extremists, according to French and Nigerien officials.

See also Reuters on a claim of responsibility for the attack by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reported killed in March. Opinions may vary as to whether Belmokhtar is still alive or not.

VOA:

South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Thursday that he would “never accept” the International Criminal Court. He spoke during a visit from new Kenyan president and ICC indictee Uhuru Kenyatta, who pledged the creation of roads, rail and pipelines to deepen economic ties between Kenya and the new nation.

[…]

“We have talked about these problems of the ICC, that the ICC, whatever has been written in Rome, has never been used against any one of their presidents or heads of states. It seems that this thing has been meant for African leaders, that they have to be humiliated,” said Kiir.

Reuters:

African nations have backed a request by Kenya for charges of crimes against humanity by its president to be referred back to the east African country, African Union documents show.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are both facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of masterminding ethnic bloodshed in post-election violence five years ago that killed more than 1,200 people. Both deny the charges.

One minister, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters that the African Union specifically avoided calling on the war crimes tribunal to drop its prosecution, but he acknowledged that the request for a local process amounted to the same thing.

AP: “Violence in Somalia Scares Investors, Aid Workers.”

Two headlines on Libya give a mixed picture of the country’s trajectory:

  • AFP: “Libya Economy Surges Following Revolution: IMF” (The IMF’s Libya country page is here).
  • Al Jazeera (video report): “Libyan Armed Groups Refuse to Cede Power”

World Politics Review: “With [President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika Still Sidelined, Algeria’s Challenges Mount.”

IRIN: “Restive Northern Kenya Sees Shifting Power, Risks.”