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

By Oumar Ba, a graduate student at Ohio University pursuing a Masters Degree in Political Science

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 Touré 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?

Oumar Ba

Oumar Ba is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Florida, USA.

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

  1. Oumar really insightful article!!! I will keep it very short. I will be there first to admit that I know little about the war on terror and its connection to West Africa in particular Maurutania. I just have these two questions, what has been the reaction of ECOWAS to these developments? What is the official view from ECOWAS of the French military base in Dakar? I think a regional approach is extremely important from the leadership and the people themselves. More so, a continental approach is imperative as well, what is the AU saying? Lastly, does the AU actually have a continental approach to the fighting of terrorism or does ECOWAS in West Africa? Or do these countries such as Mauritania truly depend on the help from outside the continent and region to fight these terror attacks?

  2. I am not aware of any regional strategy from ECOWAS or a continental strategy from the African Union to address these issues. At this moment, ECOWAS is busy trying to make sure that the erratic behavior of the military regime in Guinea does not lead to a civil/ethnic war in that country. Mauritania and Mali actually try to not to reveal the extent to which AQMI poses a threat to their security.Tourism is a large source of revenues for these countries and they do not want that industry to go downhill. Two years ago, the annual automobile rallye Paris-Dakar was cancelled due to security threats in Mauritania. The rallye has moved now Argentina-Chile and oddly enough, it's still called Paris-Dakar.
    Mauritania and Mali are among the largest countries in Africa and very sparsely populated, which poses a real challenge for the governemnts to exert their authority over such large territory. One would expect them to work together on this issue, but there is a blame game between their two governments that reminds me of the one between Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Sidi of Mauritania was quoted by a senegalese newspaper a few weeks ago saying that as long as Toure will be the President of Mali, terrorism will grow stronger in the region.
    According to BBC news, the US military has handed over to the Malian army 5 million dollars worth of vehicles and equipments to help fight Al Qaeda.
    Concerning the french military bases, it is a sovereign decision of the individual contries that host them. These bases are part of larger defense agreements that include the possibility of the french troops to intervene to help save the governments in the case of a coup d'etat, which is one of the reasons why most host countries still want them there. Deoending on where France's interests are in the case of a coup, they can decide to intervene as they did in Gabon in 1964, and in 2008 when they saved the regime of Idriss Deby of Chad when the Tuaregs assieged Ndiamena.

  3. Great article Oumar! Just like Kazi, I do not know much about the topic, hence thanks for the insight.

    I am however still struggling with transnational terrorism vs the war on terror (i.e maybe international terrorism?). I appreciate that this is not the topic of the article, but how would you differentiate between the two? Is there a difference really?

  4. Bose, in regards of transnational terrorism, i have hesitated to use the label terrorism when talking about AQMI for 2 reasons. First, in most cases, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Second, the word "terrorism" is used so much that now we are not even sure what it entails. Academically speaking, the most common understanding of a terrorist group is any non-state actor that use violence to induce fear and panic in order to attain political goals. As of now, we don't still know what the goals of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are. Unlike other organizations that release videotapes of propaganda and say what their objectives are, AQMI is just operating more like an international criminal organization. In my text, "transnational" refers to the fact that AQMI operates in multiple countries.
    The War is Terror is the American policy to combat Al Qaeda and other organizattions. As of now, the War on Terror hasn't reach West Africa yet, that is why I ask if that will be case in the near future. My opinion is that the US will be engaged in military operations in the region but it probably will be a war by procuration or a proxy war.

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