How Africa can beat terrorism

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The past decade has seen a sharp rise in terrorism and extremism in Africa. With the recent abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram sparking outrage all over the world, the issue of terrorism has ceased to be local.

Once upon a time, the only “terrorists” in Africa, if you believed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan, came in the shapes of Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Samora Machel, Holden Roberto, Sam Nujoma and the other freedom fighters and liberation movements then fighting to free their countries from white minority rule. Not any more. Now the terrain has totally changed.

From the east, in Somalia, where al-Shabaab has been laying waste to human life and property all the way into Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, to Nigeria where Boko Haram thinks boarding school children are legitimate targets of attack in addition to the indiscriminate murder of civilians, to the Maghreb and Sahel countries where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates and competitors have gone as far as launching a full-scale hot war in Mali after years of attacks in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, the definition of a “terrorist” on the continent has changed dramatically from how Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan saw it in their day, to a dangerous extremist prepared to kill, maim and destroy.

Unlike the rebels of yesteryear, the new terrorists are faceless people with no fixed abode to counterattack and defeat.

All of a sudden, after the disastrous decades of the 1980s and 90s where rebel wars laid huge swathes of Africa to waste, the continent now has an even more dangerous situation to handle – more dangerous in the sense that, unlike the rebels of yesteryear, the new terrorists are faceless people with no fixed abode to counterattack and defeat.  And this makes it more difficult to hunt them down. Sometimes they do not even have a coherent political ideology or grievance to tackle or resolve. Therefore the countries that host or are worst affected by the terrorists have been slow to act against them, because some of them do not fit the classical definition of a terrorist, which is “a person who uses unofficial or unauthorised violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.

With its roots going back to the late 18th century, the word “terrorist”, according to historical records, “was originally applied to the supporters of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated for repression and violence in pursuit of the principles of democracy and equality”.

Thus, if “terrorist” groups do not have clear political aims at the beginning, their host countries tend not to pay early attention to them until it is too late. And when they finally act, the security agencies tend to over-react and end up radicalising the groups even more, making them more violent and dangerous. This has definitely been the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The origins

Some experts have traced the increasing terrorism threat in Africa to global developments and the call many years ago by Osama bin Laden, the then spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, to Muslims in Africa to rise up in rebellion against the West.

But granted that Bin Laden really said that, the reality on the ground shows that apart from AQIM, which has clear early connections with al-Qaeda and global events, the antecedents of the other two largest terrorist groups in Africa – al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – are rooted more in local politics and grievances, even though
one has to admit that religion, and in this case Islamic fundamentalism, has been a major pull factor on which terrorism has ridden to menace Africa.

Again, it has to be conceded that though Boko Haram, the short name given by residents of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria to the group founded between 2002-04 calling itself Jama’atu Ahl As-Sunna Li-D’awati Wal Jihad, is rabidly against Western education, which the group considers to be corrupting Muslims, the core grievances of Boko Haram are local issues.

According to Lt-Colonel Aminu Mohammed Umar of the Nigerian Army, who presented a detailed paper on Boko Haram last year, there are several local factors that have made Boko Haram the violent group it is today. First, he says, the group originally led by Mohammed Yusuf (alias Aminu Tashen-Illimi) attracted more adherents, mainly refugees from the wars across the border in Chad and jobless Nigerian youths, because it offered welfare handouts, food, and shelter.

The group’s armed wing came out of this cadre of militant youths, and was helped greatly – wait for this – by a “tangential group of politicians, financiers, sympathisers and supporters who were maintained to serve as a link to the society and government”.

Umar goes on: “The source of the group’s money at its early stage of existence is not clear, but it included contributions from members as well as sustenance through its farm. At some point, the Borno State Government appointed a member of the sect, Buji Foi, as commissioner of water resources and chieftaincy affairs in return for political support from the sect. He became the chief financier of the sect until he was killed in 2009.

“Other sources of funding are believed to have come through clandestine contributions from politicians, businessmen, and other wealthy individuals who fear attacks from the group…
Funding also came through armed robberies that the sect successfully carried out during attacks against commercial banks and wealthy individuals.”

Radicalising Boko Haram

According to Lt-Col Umar, the main flashpoint that transformed Boko Haram into the rabidly violent group it is today came on 12 July 2009, when it was carrying its dead members for burial at a local cemetery.

There was a clash between the group and security forces, and this incident provoked Boko Haram to demand an apology from the government, or, it threatened, it would take revenge for what happened.

One has to admit that religion, and in this case Islamic fundamentalism, has been a major pull factor on which terrorism has ridden to menace Africa.

After four days of no apology, the group made good on its threat by attacking police stations in Maiduguru, and from there the terrorist attacks spiralled. To stop the rampaging attacks, the security forces mounted a combined assault by the police and military, but this was so high-handed that hundreds of people were killed, and Boko Haram’s headquarters and mosque were destroyed. Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s leader, was captured by the army during the assault and was passed on to the police for interrogation, but Yusuf died in custody in bizarre circumstances.

For a year or so, the assault succeeded in disrupting Boko Haram, but the group sprang back in 2010, re-energised under the leadership of an even worse man, Abubakar Shekau. Since then, two of the group’s main grievances have been the death of its first leader in police custody, and making Nigeria an Islamic state administered by Sharia.

As Lt-Col Umar puts it: “The group’s grievances continue to evolve over time even though their fundamentals seem to have remained the same. The central issue of the sect’s grievances is related to the security operations against the sect in 2009, which led to the death of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and many of its members. The sect now emphasises the revenge dimension.”

He goes on: “The indiscriminate coercion by security agencies also provoked a staunch reaction from Boko Haram members who primarily want to settle their scores with the security agencies as well as the state. These indiscriminate actions made the sect become ultra-violent, setting them on a revenge path.”

The rise of al-Shabaab

A similar story is told of the rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Formed in August 2006, al-Shabaab, meaning “The Youth”, is an offshoot of the country’s Islamic Courts Union. It made its presence felt in the streets of the capital Mogadishu in early 2007. The group (originally known as Harakat al-Shabaab) was heavily influenced by local clan structures, and has since become al-Qaeda’s only self-proclaimed ally to have wielded substantial territorial control.

According to the Norwegian academic and expert on al-Shabaab, Stig Jarle Hansen: “The organisation is also global in the sense that it has reached out to the Somali diaspora, a fact that has made Western countries more concerned over al-Shabaab’s activities.”

In his book published last year, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012, Hansen attests that al-Shabaab’s modus operandi suggests a group with a local focus, which has extended its reach regionally because of external factors.

“The group [therefore] cannot be understood without grasping Somali clan politics and the local historical background,” Hansen explains. “Younger members of the Somali community might dislike the clan system, and al-Shabaab to a certain extent challenged clan loyalties, but no organisation in Somalia can escape the clan trap. The clan therefore commands more than mere loyalty, it becomes a constructed filter for social reality as clans often have common meeting places, even in the diaspora.”

This notwithstanding, al-Shabaab became the political group in Mogadishu that had the most success in transcending the clan.

Thus, from its modest beginnings in August 2006, al-Shabaab has now grown from a small network of Somalis returning from fighting in Afghanistan to a large organisation recruiting among the poor youths of Mogadishu, in addition to a large contingent of foreign fighters who come voluntarily to swell its ranks.

Al-Shabaab’s growth was also helped by Al-Qaeda in East Africa (AQiEA), which went native when Osama bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan for Afghanistan. According to Hansen, al-Qaeda had been involved in Somalia between 1991 and 1996, sending instructors as well as training forces from Sudan. But as the second half of the 1990s rolled in and al-Qaeda’s focus shifted to attacking “the far enemy”, the USA, and later Israel, it changed the dynamics in the terrorist circles in Somalia.

In 1998, when al-Qaeda attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Somalia was central to the attacks as al-Qaeda used safe houses in Mogadishu to organise part of them. Other safe houses in Kismayo (Somalia) and Lamu (Kenya) were also used as bases to smuggle arms and personnel for the attacks in which Somalis and Kenyans played the major roles. 

Somalia, again, became more important to al-Qaeda as it decentralised its East African operations, and used Somalia as a place to hide, plan, and re-supply. These activities in Mogadishu inevitably attracted the attention of the USA and its allies who targeted the AQiEA in covert operations. This forced al-Qaeda to strike back at American “agents” in Somalia, leading to what became known as the “Shadow War” of Mogadishu in 2002-06.  

Ironically, the rise of al-Shabaab was aided by the policy mistakes of the international community.” – Stig Jarle Hansen, Norwegian academic

Ethiopian occupation

According to Somali experts and al-Shabaab itself, it is this Shadow War, and the targeting of Somali Afghanistan veterans when the US declared its war on terror, that led to the formation of al-Shabaab in 2006.

Thus, driven by its own jihadist ideology that emphasised Sharia, al-Shabaab made the observance of law and order an important tenet, and this, according to Hansen, “brought the group considerable sympathy. Its members were also well trained compared with the average Somali militiaman”. Hansen continues: “Ironically, the rise of al-Shabaab was aided by the policy mistakes of the international community. Perhaps the best-known factor was the Ethiopian occupation [2007-09], which created a fertile environment for recruitment amongst some clans.”

According to Hansen, “a factor often overlooked is the role of Ethiopian military doctrine. The Ethiopian tendency, following old Soviet strategy, to use heavy artillery in urban warfare created widespread animosity and large-scale civilian deaths. Al-Shabaab was seen by many as one of the few actors to avenge these actions.

“Also, security reform programmes implemented by the international community were badly planned, and failed to ensure that the newly trained police of [Somalia’s] Transitional Federal Government (TFG) were paid. Thus the TFG police became highly predatory when taking over areas cleared of insurgents, and this enabled the opposition to highlight the contrast with the peaceful and safe period of Sharia Court rule” from which al-Shabaab emerged.

The Ethiopian invasion and occupation of 2007-09 has since been proven to have been a CIA project (see pp. 19-20). The Ethiopians acted as the spearhead though the real masters behind it all were the Americans. As Somalis became fed up with the Ethiopians, al-Shabaab capitalised on the anti-Ethiopian feelings to focus heavily on justice provision after it took control of large areas of southern Somalia at the end of 2008. 

Hansen, however, warns that “it is simplistic to claim that outside circumstances alone were at the root of al-Shabaab’s success. Al-Shabaab was also, for a Somali setting, a relatively efficient organisation. Its operations were aided by a higher degree of unity that its rivals did not have, the ability to transcend clan if necessary, and relatively sound battle tactics.”

Terrorists running a government

By 2007, al-Shabaab’s active media profile had ensured that it had become famous and was seen as “fashionable”.  Hansen attests that “the period 2007-08, in many ways, saw al-Shabaab go from being a marginal network to having the largest territorial control of any al-Qaeda affiliated organisation in the world.

“Mogadishu itself was calm in January 2007, so calm that some Western foreign services thought the situation was under control. The Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs even told journalists that the city was safer than surrounding African capitals.”

Hansen goes on: “By mid-2009, al-Shabaab controlled most of southern Somalia. Its victory had been built on mobility and – quite contrary to popular belief – its unity, and its forces were small, perhaps only 5,000 men. This was too few to have more than a rudimentary control over the areas, but slowly al-Shabaab started to build up governance structures.”

In the end, even though al-Shabaab had been declared a terrorist group by the USA, Australia, Britain, Canada and other nations as far back as 2008, it still went on, in 2009, to seize Somali territory larger than Denmark and ran a government for four years in the areas under its control, including Mogadishu, the capital, and in the process becoming very popular with the people.

Up to this day, as Hansen puts it, the law and order aspect of al-Shabaab’s governance structures is the most overlooked by the Western media, but “it was the strongest card in getting local support”. 

Residents of Mogadishu were happy that in the areas under al-Shabaab control, there were no robberies. The group did the policing work, and protected citizens and property against thieves.

But the strength of al-Shabaab’s governance varied according to its local strength. Its “administrations [based on Sharia] were an urban phenomenon, and were more ideologically streamlined in the larger cities,” says Hansen. “Outside the cities, the group simply did not exist, or consisted of local clan militias. [However] the al-Shabaab governance structures were nevertheless revolutionary, and functioned better than other Western-backed institutions in the south of Somalia.”

The terrorist group even engaged in development work, building roads in southern Somalia! “In Kismayo,” Hansen says, al-Shabaab ordered work on the long asphalt road in the city that connects most parts of the town, the Kismayo-Jilib road. Work also began on the road between the Kismayo police station and the airport, as well as the road between Mugambo and Koban towns.”

Although declared a terrorist group in 2008 by nations including the US, al-Shabaab went on in 2009 to seize Somali territory larger than Denmark and ran a government for four years in the areas under its control.

Funds for these projects came through taxes. Al-Shabaab created the Maktabatu Maaliya (the ministry of finance), chaired by Ibrahim Afghani, who supervised an increasingly efficient taxation system. “Like all Somali militias, al-Shabaab took payments from workers, businesses, and aid agencies,” says Hansen. 

According to one NGO manager: “In the regions where al-Shabaab had absolute control, they demanded a percentage of the total project cost. It may range between 5 and 15 per cent depending on the administration and the influence of the local partners implementing the project. 

“A demand was also made on landlords [and] vehicle owners working under a contract with the UN or international organisations. Around 15 per cent of the rent had to be paid to the Shabaab if you leased property to an international organisation or the UN. Employees were also instructed to reimburse roughly 5 per cent of their salary on a monthly basis.”

As a result, before 2011 business activity and employment generally increased in al-Shabaab-controlled areas due to the relative security there, and this in turn fuelled the collection of more regular taxes. 

“For example,” Hansen recalls, “by 2010, al-Shabaab charged every ship that docked at Kismayo’s port $2,000 and $1,000 for a dhow. It also taxed the imported goods unloaded at the port, with $0.60 levied on every 50 kg bag of imported food, $200 for every car, and between $400 and $500 for every truck.” 

Ordinary Somalis were also taxed. Al-Shabaab collected between 10-15 per cent tax on everything from land and property – both plots with houses or without houses – to commercial centres, stores, livestock, farms, hawkers, residential houses, the construction sector, and any other place that engaged in business activities.

Al-Shabaab was finally defeated by troops of AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) and lost its territories under its control. But today its tentacles have reached into Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya where it has sleepers and cells.

What can Africa do?

So what can Africa do to arrest the situation – now that both Boko Haram and al-Shabaab appear to be going for broke and expanding their paths of death into neighbouring countries? According to one French government official, speaking in mid-May at the height of the crisis created by Boko Haram’s abduction of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, “Boko Haram represents a risk for all countries in the region and all heads of state should be aware of that.”

What the French official was pushing for was a combined effort by West African countries to deal with the Boko Haram threat, which is a sound suggestion. Because, if, say, all the countries in the vicinity – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – joined efforts with Nigeria and denied rear bases for Boko Haram, in addition to intelligence-sharing, it would be much easier to attack and defeat it than if Nigeria acted alone. 

But this assumes that Boko Haram is like a conventional army that can be chased around and annihilated. But it is not. Its members only have to shave their beards, if they have any, and put on new shirts and melt into society, and that will be the end of any combined effort to attack them. 

On the other hand, and this is the downside of what the French official was advocating for, if a combined multinational effort does not defeat Boko Haram early enough, then as has been the case with al-Shabaab in Somalia, it will take retribution on the collaborating countries, and in the end what was originally a localised terrorism problem in Nigeria will become a multi-country issue. This has been the case of Kenya and Uganda, a situation that has brought untold hardships and death to their citizens at the hands of al-Shabaab.  

In these circumstances, a better policy would be leaving Nigeria alone to deal with Boko Haram in the open, while neighbouring countries provide quiet support and intelligence-sharing. There are precedents of this around the world to draw from. For many years, Britain dealt alone with Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorism, while its neighbours provided quiet support and intelligence-sharing. Germany did the same with the Red Brigade or Baader Meinhof Gang. Africa can do the same.

A good policy would be leaving Nigeria alone to deal with Boko Haram in the open, while neighbouring countries provide quiet support and intelligence-sharing.

In his paper presented last year, Lt-Colonel Umar offered useful advice on what Nigeria could, and should, do to defeat Boko Haram. African leaders would do well to listen to him. His preferred solution includes the following: 

Capture/neutralisation of Boko Haram’s core leaders: This, Lt-Col Umar thinks, will not only prevent the terrorist group from organising, recruiting and launching attacks, it will also deny it support. “Joint operations and supportive operations should be solicited from neighbouring countries to accomplish this task,” he says.

Improve ideological operations: According to Umar, ideology remains the core strength of Boko Haram adherents. As many of the group’s ideologies are linked to classical Islamic doctrine, they appeal to the wider Muslim population. “To counter these ideologies, the government must establish counter-ideological committees to pick on the vulnerability of interpretations by the sect’s leadership so as to demonise them in [their] communities.”

Addressing legitimate grievances: “A commitment to resolve the Boko Haram crisis,” Umar says, “would require addressing some of the grievances of the sect. The government must also address many legitimate claims of damages suffered by innocent individuals caught in the cross-fire during the crackdowns on sect members.” Because of these unresolved grievances, a meaningful segment of the population is amenable and sympathetic to Boko Haram.

Umar also advocates the prosecution of members of the security agencies who grossly violated human rights of individuals in the crackdowns against Boko Haram, in addition to the government stopping human rights abuses and all forms of law enforcement violation by the police and security agencies, including arbitrary arrest and detention. 

Create greater employment opportunities: “The lack of employment in Nigeria,” Umar says, “remains a monumental challenge. The northeast region where Boko Haram remains active is considered the worst affected. This is partly due to the failure of the government and is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict.” Thus, the creation of jobs there will put more youths into employment and deny Boko Haram a vital recruiting base. 

Political reforms: Umar attests that the political landscape in Nigeria creates disenchantment for the majority of the people, and the disenchantment has created a growing army of well-known and dangerous militias that have been tools for politicians. “The reluctance of the government to check these growing armies over time creates a ready pool for the Boko Haram extremists in the North…” To stop militias emerging to fight political interests, the politics of the country must be reformed to create a level playing field.

Dialogue and national reconciliation: A long period of instability has deepened the existing religious and ethnic fault-lines in Nigeria, Umar says. The emergence of Boko Haram has worsened it, and as there is an observed religious patronage by political elites, it makes them indecisive in making prompt decisions. Only a national dialogue and reconciliation effort can resolve these issues, he says.

Amnesty for Boko Haram: “Granting of amnesty for those who unconditionally renounce terrorism will be necessary,” Umar adds. But this offer should only be made to Boko Haram members who have not been directly involved in the violation of human rights, so that the government will not be seen as rewarding the guilty. “Amnesty is a programme that weakens insurgent groups by encouraging surrender and defection,” Umar says.

What others did

All said and done, an amnesty, political reforms, dialogue, national reconciliation, and addressing legitimate grievances have been some of the solutions others elsewhere have used to resolve their terrorism problems. 

Britain used these forms of problem-solving to good effect in finding a solution to the IRA problem. Even though Mrs Thatcher pretended to be tough in public with the IRA, insisting that
she would not “negotiate with terrorists”, in secret her government was negotiating with the “terrorists”, using intermediaries. Africa must
learn a lesson from the British, and others’ experiences around the wor
ld, if the continent is to defeat the terrorists threatening the lives of its citizens.

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Written by Baffour Ankomah
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