Following on from his feature about dirty bombs, author Al J Venter writes about another alarming development – the spread of Islamic fundamentalist terror in recent years into Africa, and, in particular, West Africa.
This is a brief synopsis of the situation based on edited material from his book on the subject, which can be picked up here. (Use the code FNNT25 to get a 25% discount).
WARNING: graphic image contained within this article
Article by Al J Venter
While the Middle East has been the traditional epicentre of Islamic extremism, in recent years the pendulum has begun to swing to Africa.
As things currently stand, much of Somalia remains ungovernable; Boko Haram attacks vex Niger, Cameroon and Chad; and sporadic al-Shabaab-linked attacks continue in Mozambique. Here, rebels in the gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region have terrorised villagers in remote communities for more than a year.
Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, a collection of Islamist rebel groups known as Seleka forced the Portuguese army into a five-hour battle – it took this long to disperse them despite the deployment of an armoured group and the elite 2 Parachute Infantry Battalion. The rebels were well established behind static defences and armed with 12.7 and 14.5mm heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks (‘Technicals’.)
As well as the Portuguese, the French have also been active in tackling the Islamist threat on the continent.
And the bulk of their effort, launched in 2013 and presently comprising a 20-country force, has been in the Republic of Mali. The impetus for their operation? To prevent the country from becoming a ‘failed state’.
The enemy, in this case, has been an Islamic State offshoot known as AQIM – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Having put Malian soldiers to flight and swept southwards out of the Sahara Desert, this rag-tag al-Qaeda army had managed to beat its way almost 1,000 kilometres southwards.
In fact, the problem of weak government forces continued even after the French had responded. According to reports, an entire Mali Army unit posted in the city of Mopti fled in every available vehicle as soon as they heard al-Qaeda was coming.
That left two Armee de L’ Air Gazelle SA 342 gunships – not the most advanced helicopters – and a modest force of French Special Forces troops as the only barrier between the advancing AQIM Jihadists and the Malian capital of Bamako, in the south of the country.
Fortunately, Operation Serval, as it was called, managed to halt the rebels through combined air and ground attacks. Three weeks later, most of the attacking Jihadists had been driven out from the majority of Mali’s northern towns and cities. It is notable that one of AQIM’s favourite ploys of kidnapping French nationals immediately stopped.
After 10 weeks, the French had sustained seven dead and their African allies – Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and others – also suffered losses, largely from suicide bombings; for their part, their enemies lost something like half of their estimated strength of around 2,000 fighters. Several people I spoke to said that enemy losses might actually have been higher.
But, as per the norm for these kinds of threats, the problem has not abated and will more than likely persist for decades.
Colonel Alain Bayle, until recently the French military attache in London, said in a series of personal communications that AQIM’s efforts at fostering a Jihadi revolt must be thought of as a long-term problem. He suggested, in fact, that Europe might be faced with a religious uprising that could last centuries.
Though fighting in Africa has been merely sporadic after the first AQIM thrusts, he reckoned controlling the problem remained uniquely difficult. The regions adjoining the Sahara Desert where the group operates cover several countries and, taken together, are almost as big as Western Europe.
He said that although the French military effort (now substantially aided by countries that include the US and UK) was efficient, mobile and had lots of armour and helicopter gunships, the terrain continued to present serious challenges. Just as had “always been (the case)… since the beginning of time,” the desert remained the enemy’s ‘backyard’ and his biggest ally:
“The enemy is elusive, clever and remarkably well-trained, considering that these are people of the Sahel* who have made an art of slipping in and out of mountain hideaways with the kind of ease that comes with experience.
"Worse, in the beginning, they always seemed to be one step ahead of our security forces.”
(*A transitional zone between the desert of the Sahara and the savannah to the south).
Indeed, the toughest rebel resistance was encountered in the Adagh, expansive highlands in northeast Mali that stretch into Algeria. Because the terrain there is so remote and undeveloped (there are no roads to speak of), the area became a major obstacle. One visitor told the BBC that the mountains were a perfect spot for a guerrilla army:
“The annual rains fill up the gueltas, or ponds, with drinking water for nomadic animal herds and insurgents and there are numerous caves that offer shelter from sand storms and helicopter gunships.
"Moreover, the Algerian border is close and porous enough to keep supplies of food, diesel and ammunition flowing in – as long as corrupt local officials can be bribed or forced to turn a blind eye.”
In this, the conflict might be thought of as beginning to resemble Afghanistan.
And as well as there being echoes of that war in the frustrating geography and government corruption, here too one sees local support for border-crossing Jihadists.
As French forces had moved further north, towards the mountains, solid evidence of foreign Jihadists fighting with mainly Tuareg rebels emerged. (The Tuaregs are an indigenous ethnic group that were initially nomadic). This included squads of children who had been trained and were armed with Kalashnikovs.
It also became apparent, as per the struggle against militant Islam elsewhere, that the enemy rarely took prisoners.
To be clear, the motivations of these groups are not always militarily orientated. Recruitment and Jihadist indoctrination has been a significant part of the process - as is brutally-efficient intimidation, which, in plain language boils down to ‘join our ranks or you’re dead’.
On the other hand, although AQIM's attempted insurrection initially involved comparatively few combatants - people of Moorish, Arab and some of Tuareg extraction – it did occur in the wake of a military coup. There were also quite a few disaffected soldiers from the regular Mali Army within their ranks. These men had thrown in their lot with the revolutionaries because, to many of them, it seemed that AQIM offered real hope and a way of countering a government that was cripplingly corrupt.
Colonel Bayle recognised this reality as well. He stressed that “this was not a (series of wars) only against (Jihadists) but rather, against people having various interests in challenging the established order.”
Whatever the motivations of those involved in the Mali insurgency, collectively, they have shaken France into action. With the rise of al-Qaeda in the wake of the January 2013 coup and the preceding terror attack on an Algerian gas installation, the French government was forced to review its much-vaunted ‘military non-participation status’ in West Africa.
Almost ‘cast in concrete’, those principles were believed by all to be inviolable. Yet, barely a month after the insurgency started, the French went into Mali.
Al J Venter has had more than 50 non-fiction titles published in Britain, the US and South Africa, many of them about the military and insurgency-related developments in the Middle East and Africa. To pick up a copy of his latest book on the topic, ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Shadow of Terror Over the Sahel, From 2007’, click here. Enter the code FNNT25 to receive a 25% discount, and visit Pen and Sword for more military-related titles.
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