Friday, June 4, 2010

Will West Africa be the next battleground for the War on Terror?

*Note: I wrote this article for the Bokamoso Leadership Forum on Jan 04 2010

Umar Faruk Abdul Mutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit bound airplane on Christmas day, is a Nigerian national. However, the reports seem to indicate that his self-radicalization and his potential ties to Al Qaeda occurred while he was studying Arabic in Yemen. Nigeria experiences cyclic religious violence that often leaves hundreds of dead, the latest being the crackdown on the Kala Kato sect in Bauchi State on December 28 2009 and the clashes between the Police and the Boko Haram sect last August. But this eruption of religious violence appears to be an issue confined within the Nigerian borders, in other words, it is not a transnational problem. Therefore, it is not the subject of this post.

The object of this article is to ask questions about the probability of West Africa, especially within the Sahel-Sahara region, becoming the new frontier for the War on Terror. Within the last few months, many events that often went unnoticed by the western media, have nonetheless proven to be steps in the escalation of transnational violence, and have made the U.S and some European governments pay more attention.

Oumar Issa, Harouna TourĂ© and Idriss Abdelraman are three Malian nationals that were arrested in Ghana on December 18, 2009 by U.S federal agents and were extradited to New York to face charges of “narco-terrorism”. They allegedly have some ties with al Qaeda and some cocaine connection with the Colombian FARC. Of course, both al Qaeda and the FARC are on US terror list. We do not know at this moment if and to what extent these three individuals are involved in narco-terrorism but the intriguing aspect of this issue is the unprecedented arrest of Malians in Ghana by the U.S. government.

On November 20 2009, a Boeing 727 with an expired registration from Guinea Bissau was found incinerated in the Malian desert, in the middle of nowhere. Though there are still many speculations about this unusual crash landing, the United Nations revealed that the airplane took off from Venezuela, went to Columbia, was picked up by the radar around the Cape Verde islands, then disappeared until it was found in the desert, burned to the ground, with no signs of the pilot or the crew. Apparently, the crew discharged its load of cocaine there, burned the plane, and left the scene. These events happened amidst US efforts to help Malian security forces to combat terrorism in the northern part of the country.

The border between Mali and Mauritania is the area where an Italian couple was kidnapped on December 18, 2009. On December 28 2009, a group named Al Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) issued an audio message and claimed that it is detaining the Italian couple. Three weeks earlier, the same group kidnapped three tourists from Spain in the South East region of Mauritania. Since the start of its operations four years ago, AQMI is responsible for the death of about 30 Mauritanian soldiers but it was not until it killed four French nationals in Aleg, Mauritania in 2007 that it started targeting westerners. Last June, AQMI claimed responsibility for the murder of an American citizen in the capital city of Mauritania and the suicide attack on the French Embassy in Nouakchott. That was the first suicide attack ever in the region.

How will these events impact the local development? What political consequences will there be? Do local governments have the means to face the threats from AQMI? What strings will be attached with any help from the Western governments? How will the local populations react if there is an escalation of the violence?

Local tourism activities are already paying a hefty price. The Western governments have issued warnings for their citizens who would be tempted to travel to the northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao. The political fallout of these events can be seen in the recent developments of the democratic process in Mauritania. President Aziz removed the democratically elected President Sidi, and ran for the elections he prepared and made sure he won. The western powers did not waste any time in recognizing the new regime as the legitimate government of Mauritania. A few weeks after his investiture, President Aziz paid Sarkozy a visit. The political stability of Mauritania is a vital ingredient in any attempt to fight terrorism in the region. On December 24 2009, the Obama administration reinstated Mauritania in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) program, which is a program of trade benefits for African countries that are meeting the threshold of democratic reform. At the same time, Madagascar, Guinea and Niger were dropped from the program.

What are the geostrategic consequences of the war on terror in West Africa? What does it mean for the central command of US military operations in Africa: AFRICOM? What about the French military troops based in Dakar? Until recently, the French government was reviewing its military alliances with its former colonies and studying the effects of the potential closure of some of its military bases in Africa to reduce its expenses in this post-Cold war era. The Commandant of the French military base in Dakar, General Paulus has said that “France maintains permanently a warship in the Gulf of Guinea to assist the French citizens. If we would close one or the other base (Dakar, or Libreville), this warship would have to cover all 15 countries from Mauritania to Mozambique.” Obviously, the French military forces would not want to retreat from West Africa just to see AFRICOM establish a permanent base in the region. Will Mauritania offer to host a permanent American military base in its soil?

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