Has Boko Haram met its match? Chad and the African intervention force in Nigeria

Chadian armored car By Idriss Fall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chadian_Eland_Mk7.jpg

Chadian armored car. Idriss Deby’s Chad is expected to contribute nearly 4,000 troops to an emerging African Union force to combat Boko Haram in Nigeria.
By Idriss Fall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chadian_Eland_Mk7.jpg

The month of February saw two significant developments in Nigeria, both related to the pernicious Islamist insurgency most commonly known as Boko Haram. First, of course, was the unexpected postponement of much-anticipated national elections originally slated for February 14 on account of “security” reasons—effectively giving the country six weeks to contain Boko Haram before the belated poll is held on March 28.

In a piece published February 20 in the National Interest, I offer thoughts on the second development: the emergence of a five-nation regional coalition comprising Nigeria and its four neighbors, formed in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s 2014 Chibok kidnappings of #BringBackOurGirls lore. In early February, Chadian incursions across the border into Nigeria marked the first shots fired in what is likely to become a 8,750-strong African Union force aimed at defeating Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency.

As I note in the article, it is hard not to be cautiously optimistic about “the prospects of the coordinated regional force as a refreshing alternative to five years of bungled counterinsurgency.” It is perhaps no surprise that neighboring Chad, which boasts arguably the most experienced and best-equipped army in the region, will play a central role in the new mission.

A regional force with Chad at the helm, however, faces both challenges and risks. In addition to tempering expectations about an extraordinarily difficult task—containing and defeating a ruthless and fluid adversary—I offer a dose of caution on Chad’s recent conduct and intentions:

Chad’s tenuous human rights record raises a number of question marks. Last April, President Déby pulled the plug on military involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Chadian peacekeepers were widely accused of gunning down civilians and siding with a Muslim rebel coalition. At home, Déby has been Chad’s one and only president since 1990, and international monitors accuse him of brutally repressing political opposition.


Chad’s stated foreign policy objectives—including regional stability and civilian protection—do not tell the whole story. Military contributions in Mali, CAR, and Nigeria are by no means altruistic. Should Chadian efforts turn the tide in Nigeria, expect them to come at a price. This could entail additional oil rights around Lake Chad—which straddles the border between Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad—or a more general admission to cement Déby’s role as regional kingmaker, a part he has actively pursued.

The nascent military coalition has achieved early successes, repelling Boko Haram attacks on Niger and Cameroon and retaking a number of small towns on Nigeria’s northeastern periphery. But can it last? And at what price?

Check out the full piece for The National Interest here: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-only-thing-nigeria-fears-more-boko-haram-12285

If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them along!

Posted in Central Africa, Chad, Nigeria, West Africa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to avoid Ebola-inspired violence in West Africa

U.S. Airmen board a C-17 bound for West Africa at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Credit: USAFRICOM, https://www.flickr.com/photos/africom/15280718898/in/set-72157648426607086

U.S. Airmen board a C-17 bound for West Africa at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, carrying supplies for medical treatment centers in Liberia as part of AFRICOM’s Operation United Assistance.
Credit: USAFRICOM, https://www.flickr.com/photos/africom/15280718898/in/set-72157648426607086

Last month, I wrote another short piece for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’sAfrica Conflict Monitor,” this time about the international community’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. It was published as the “featured analysis” in the December 2014 issue. While reviews are mixed on whether Ebola is finally coming under control, the article reflects the urgency of the time at which it as written (early November 2014). Attention has largely moved on to other issues (like North Korea and Russia’s troubled economy), but the long-term approach advanced here – framing and suggesting steps toward battling Ebola’s political and economic side effects – remains just as relevant as it did during the height of Ebola panic this fall. Check out a version of my full article below. As always, comments and suggestions welcome.

As of late November 2014, the number of reported Ebola cases in West Africa has exceeded 15,000, and the death toll from the incurable disease has surpassed 5,000. At the same time, eroding confidence in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone portend an increasingly perilous future for civil harmony if the epidemic is not contained. While widespread conflict remains unlikely, an increase in Ebola-related violence in the region adds urgency to an important objective – curbing the public health crisis before rising discontent over how governments have handled Ebola incites unbridled politically- or ethnically-motivated clashes.

In the fight to quell the infectious disease, West African governments have looked increasingly to foreign partners like the United States for help.  On 16 September 2014, President Barack Obama responded by rolling out the beginnings of a strategy to combat Ebola, and his administration has repeatedly emphasized that the epidemic is a US “national security priority.”[1] The deployment of an expected 3,000 American military personnel to the region – the cornerstone of the US response – will help relieve an overburdened and underequipped public health infrastructure in West Africa’s three most affected countries. Yet even as the US government and others devote greater resources to halting the spread of Ebola, there has been little serious discussion of how to prevent a corresponding political and economic crisis in the region.

The spill-over effects of Ebola in West Africa

As the Ebola outbreak approaches the one-year mark, warning signs pointing to political instability and economic decline continue to mount. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, both ravaged by more than a decade of civil war between 1989 and 2003, the likelihood of relapse into widespread conflict remains low, but both countries have already experienced a handful of episodes of Ebola-related violence. On 21 August 2014, Liberian soldiers opened fire on protesters objecting to a blanket quarantine and night-time curfew in a Monrovia slum, killing a local boy and injuring many others.[2] In eastern Sierra Leone, two local residents were killed in a deadly riot on 22 October 2014, instigated by health workers’ attempts to draw blood from a 90-year-old Ebola patient.[3] Meanwhile, in mid-September, rock-wielding villagers in rural south-eastern Guinea murdered eight government officials and journalists on an Ebola awareness mission, believing that the delegation itself was carrying the disease.[4]

This sample of recent incidents is connected by a common thread: namely, the apparent disconnect between disenchanted populations – often in poor, isolated corners of the country – and local governments increasingly seen as unable or unwilling to address local needs. Relying on soldiers to serve as the government’s primary interface with local communities has aggravated tensions between the state and its population, and gaps in the public health response have undermined confidence that governments will be able to bring the epidemic under control, let alone resuscitate economic growth. The World Bank estimates that, if Ebola persists, Liberia’s Gross Domestic Product could contract by as much as 12% in 2015, and Sierra Leone’s economy could shrink by nearly 9%.[5] In Liberia, the current outbreak has fuelled accusations of government corruption, and ill-advised policy decisions (for example, threatening prosecution against any Liberian found to be shielding Ebola cases) have further tarnished President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s reputation.[6] Meanwhile, fear of Ebola crossing borders – Mali and Senegal have both inherited cases – has heightened regional animosities.

An explosion of conflict in this fragile environment is certainly not inevitable. Ordinary Liberians and Sierra Leoneans have demonstrated an extraordinary resilience during and after the civil wars of the 1990s and few wish to see a return to widespread violence. Moreover, the vast majority of violent incidents in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 are connected to concern about the spread of Ebola, suggesting that a focused effort on containing the disease itself could preclude future deadly clashes. Finally, international assistance aimed at resuscitating the economy and reviving public confidence in local governments can help ensure that Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone or others do not succumb to political collapse or war.

President Obama’s articulation that the virus poses a threat to “the political stability and economic stability of [West Africa]” suggests that the US government anticipates wider ramifications of Ebola beyond public health.[7] On this matter, many West African governments, as well as the UN and European Union (EU), are in agreement. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has indicated that Ebola “has gone beyond health issues…It has gone to the areas of affecting social and economic situations” and “it may even affect political stability if this is not properly contained and properly treated.”[8] On 18 September 2014, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2177, agreeing that “the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security.”[9]

Nonetheless, despite widespread recognition of the epidemic’s political and security dimensions, the international community’s response has focused almost entirely on immediate humanitarian concerns: more doctors, nurses, ambulances, and medical facilities. In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone little has been done – by local or international actors – to address the broader issue of governance underlying a fraught public health response.

AFRICOM and the US response to Ebola

Consider the Obama administration’s policy as an example. US strategy to combat Ebola has three main components: domestic preparedness, civilian (i.e., medical and public health community) response, and the military deployment. Most domestic critiques of Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis – in the American media, foreign policy community, and US Congress – have focused on the first component.[10] Meanwhile, the second layer of response – deploying health and disaster response professionals to West Africa to treat Ebola patients and monitor the virus’ spread – is largely the domain of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and US Agency for International Development and has endured far less censure from critics.

Contributions from the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), established 1 October 2007 to spearhead US defence projects on the continent, constitute the third layer. Obama’s strategy tasked AFRICOM with its largest mission yet, which includes building at least 10 new Ebola treatment centers and a medical staff training facility in Liberia and establishing an “air bridge” to rapidly move supplies in and out of Ebola hotspots. AFRICOM will also coordinate the US government’s future humanitarian relief efforts from a staging base in Senegal and a new Joint Force Command headquarters in Monrovia. Service members will stop short of providing direct patient care, concentrating instead on logistics, command and control, and engineering.

Sidebar: A history of AFRICOM public health programs

To many observers, the decision to deploy American armed forces to West Africa came as an initial surprise. However, AFRICOM has, since its founding in 2007, played an important role in public health initiatives in Africa. The command’s inaugural theatre strategy in 2008 included an objective to “turn the tide on HIV/AIDS and malaria,” and AFRICOM is now the US government lead on efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in African militaries.[11] In 2012, AFRICOM helped establish a six-nation task force dedicated to malaria prevention in East Africa, and the command regularly arranges table-top exercises on “Pandemic Disaster Response” with African governments, including Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.[12]

At these tasks, explained President Obama, “our Armed Services are better…than any other organization on Earth”.[13] Endowed with a wide variety of talents, generous funding, first-rate technology, and relatively robust experience on the continent, AFRICOM emerged as a logical and expedient choice to lead US government efforts to tackle Ebola.

The decision to deploy military personnel also makes sense within the context of how the threat is framed in the US. Inter-agency meetings on Ebola are attended by members of the National Security Council, and the White House routinely describes the effort to contain the virus as a “national security priority.” Describing the issue this way in the lead-up to Obama’s announcement likely helped to bring the US Congress, frequently critical of the president’s initiatives, on board. It also speaks to the growing trend of incorporating so-called “non-traditional” security challenges – a collection of threats that do not directly employ violence but can be seen as underwriting it – into defence planning. Under this expanded definition of national security, Ebola joins the ranks of other humanitarian and climate-related challenges – from food shortages to global warming.

Toward a new strategy for containing Ebola’s political and economic spill-over

All this makes US strategy on Ebola more puzzling. Recurrent rhetoric on the need to avert political instability in West Africa points to a response that is broad in scope and one that diagnoses and addresses a key determinant: widespread disillusionment with the performance of local governments. However, substantive US action to this point has been limited to reactive, humanitarian concerns like building treatment centers and equipping them with doctors, nurses, and medical supplies.

Facilities and staff to treat Ebola are undoubtedly essential, and figures from the CDC and World Health Organization suggest scaling up relief efforts has helped slow Ebola’s spread. However, failure to address issues of governance – like public communications, corruption, and expedient administration – risk transforming a humanitarian crisis into a political one. As Guineans, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans lose faith in the ability of existing political institutions to help keep them healthy and safe, the probability of conflict escalates. Unfortunately, foreign governments and international institutions such as the UN remain relatively inexperienced in performing the types of fixes required. These include partnering with local elders and religious leaders to raise awareness about Ebola, training local governments on communications and messaging, and strengthening links between rural areas and their countries’ respective capitals.

The US can partially overcome its own shortcomings in these areas by adjusting its organizational apparatus at home. For example, should the National Security Council remain the primary avenue for day-to-day crisis management, a second body should be created to propose and implement longer-term solutions. The guest list should include, as a start, West Africa experts, linguists, political scientists and economists from in and outside of government.

An effective strategy to contain spill-over must also be multilateral. A rough division of labour has positioned French and British forces in Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively, tasked with a mission similar to AFRICOM’s in Liberia. China, Cuba and Germany have also promised to send medical and military personnel to the region, and more partners should continue to be brought on board. France, the UK and the US already have experience in promoting security sector reform in the region; equally-powerful efforts are required to help the civilian administrations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone regain the trust of their populations.

Matching rhetoric with action on Ebola

How the EU, UN, US and others have framed the Ebola crisis suggests they are attuned to Ebola’s debilitating strains on political and economic structures in West Africa. Moreover, the growing global commitment to sending medical and support personnel to the region demonstrates a general willingness to expend resources to contain the disease. Yet the means still do not match the ends. A “national security priority” or “threat to international peace and security” requires nations to propose action focused both on addressing the acute problem at hand and curbing its crippling side effects.

In Sum:

  • Ebola is widely considered a threat to national or international security, yet efforts to date have emphasised immediate humanitarian concerns while neglecting political and economic ramifications.
  • The US has authorised AFRICOM to deploy as many as 4,000 military personnel to West Africa primarily to construct Ebola treatment centres, provide logistical support and coordinate future US government relief efforts.
  • A more effective response will require that the US and its partners focus on restoring public confidence in the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

[1] Barack Obama, “Weekly address: focused on the fight against Ebola”, White House, 25 October 2014.

[2] Norimitsu Onishi, “Quarantine for Ebola lifted in Liberia slum”, New York Times, 29 August 2014.

[3] Rod Mac Johnson, “Ebola riot in S. Leone kills two as WHO to launch vaccine trials”, AFP, 22 October 2014.

[4] Rukmini Callimachi, “Fear of virus drives mob to kill officials”, New York Times, 19 September 2014.

[5] World Bank, “Ebola: new World Bank Group study forecasts billions in economic loss if epidemic lasts longer, spreads in West Africa”, 8 October 2014.

[6] For more on Ebola’s political ramifications in Liberia, see Helene Cooper, “Liberia’s crisis puts president in harsh light”, New York Times, 31 October 2014 and [6] Kim Yi Dionne, “Why West African governments are struggling in response to Ebola”, Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post, 15 July 2014.

[7] David Hudson, “The President meets with senior staff to discuss the U.S. response to Ebola”, White House, 6 October 2014.

[8] Helen Regan, “U.N. chief: ‘Ebola has gone beyond health issues’”, TIME, 17 September 2014.

[9] United Nations, “With spread of Ebola outpacing response, Security Council adopts Resolution 2177 (2014) urging immediate action, end to isolation of affected states”, 18 September 2014.

[10] The President’s efforts to assuage a domestic audience that American public health infrastructure would be ready “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores” suffered a blow after a Texas hospital mishandled the arrival of Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan in early October.

[11] Gen. William Ward, testimony, House Armed Services Committee, 13 March 2008; Danielle Skinner, “Stability through health: U.S. AFRICOM hosts first HIV/AIDS program management training”, US Africa Command, 24 August 2011.

[12] For example, see Steve Owsley, “Pandemic disaster response exercise wraps up in Ghana”, US Africa Command, 14 February 2012.

[13] Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Ebola outbreak”, 16 September 2014.

Posted in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, US policy, West Africa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Should the U.S. be training and equipping African armies? The logic of security assistance and its discontents

U.S. Marines offer training to a group of African military officers at Camp Pendleton in California By AFRICOM, August 13 2014, http://www.africom.mil/newsroom/photo/23480/united-states-africa-command-image

U.S. Marines offer training to a group of African military officers at Camp Pendleton in California
By AFRICOM, August 13 2014, http://www.africom.mil/newsroom/photo/23480/united-states-africa-command-image

This month, I wrote a short piece on U.S. security assistance in Africa that was published as the “featured analysis” in the August 2014 issue of the “Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor,” compiled and edited by Consultancy Africa Intelligence. CAI has kindly allowed me to reproduce my article here for Notes on the Periphery readers. Check it out:

In a widely-anticipated foreign policy address in May, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a proposed $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” These partners are likely to include a number of African militaries and police forces—the first line of defence against Islamic extremist groups operating across the continent.

While unique in its size and global scope, the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund is only the latest in a milieu of US programs collectively known as “security assistance.” Building professional African security forces, in fact, has been an important—albeit controversial—component of US Africa policy for nearly two decades. Yet as the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan frees up additional resources, analysts and policymakers expect the US Department of Defense (DoD) to deepen its commitment to training and equipping African militaries in the years ahead, though its success is not assured.

The strategic logic of US security assistance

Tracking US policy toward Africa reveals a complicated mosaic of overlapping objectives, from fostering economic liberalization to defending human rights. It is perhaps not surprising, however, that policymakers at DoD view Africa primarily through the prism of national security. In recent testimony, Gen. David Rodriguez, Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), highlighted the “increasingly syndicated and active violent extremist network in Africa,” the persistent threat to American facilities and personnel, and the risk of widening instability in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. This characterization reflects a paradigm shift following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the US government began to place greater emphasis on addressing emerging transnational threats emanating from weak or “failing” states.

Conversely, budgetary and legal constraints and an American public wary of military adventurism compel DoD to engineer new, creative responses short of war. How can the US both continue to expand its global reach while avoiding the economic and readiness costs of military overstretch? The use of security assistance as a foreign policy tool in the past two decades offers a potential low-cost, high-reward alternative.

Navigating the milieu of security assistance programs in Africa

“Security assistance” traditionally refers to a collection of American aid programs, jointly administered by the State Department and DoD, aimed at training and equipping foreign security forces to combat emerging transnational threats, from terrorism to drug trafficking to piracy. Of the various programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF)—which provides grants for foreign countries to purchase American military equipment—is both the most common and the most controversial. Yet other activities are not directly related to combat; many focus on engaging civil society, improving intelligence capabilities, or facilitating the rule of law. For example, recent projects in Africa include: removing anti-aircraft weapons from post-Qaddafi Libya; equipping African militaries to diminish HIV/AIDS within their ranks; and identifying populations in Niger vulnerable to cross-border attacks by Boko Haram. Hundreds of African military officers are admitted each year to the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, where soldiers receive training at American defense colleges with a focus on human rights, democratic values, and military discipline. Moreover, the Africa-centric Global Peace Operations Initiative has facilitated the training of more than 200,000 peacekeepers to date.

All told, the US spends roughly US$ 9 billion annually on security assistance, twice what was spent in 2001.[1] Africa’s slice of the pie is comparatively small at roughly $2 billion per year (or $650 million excluding Egypt). Yet much of the growth has accrued to Africa: security assistance funds for the region have nearly tripled since 2009.[2]

The guiding principle behind security assistance is conflict prevention: nurturing indigenous military and political institutions capable of thwarting the spread or outbreak of violence before it starts. Furthermore, security assistance aims to operationalize an old English adage: giving a man a fish feeds him for a day, but teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime. “African solutions to African problems” is a popular mantra in both the US defense community and in Africa, a continent historically portrayed as reliant on foreign troops to keep the peace.

Challenges and discontents of US security assistance in Africa

These activities, however, are not universally well-received. In some circles, the advent of AFRICOM in 2008 aggravated fears of “militarizing” America’s relationship with the continent. To be sure, recent U.S. Special Forces raids in Libya and Somalia suggest that the Obama administration is not afraid to occasionally use force in Africa unilaterally. Moreover, the US military presence in Africa has grown to roughly 5-8,000 American military personnel this year. Yet US activities are circumscribed: even officers assigned to combat zones—including 300 US advisers helping Uganda hunt the Lord’s Resistance Army—are limited to support roles, precluded from using force except in self-defense. And in many cases, the US military emphasizes the opposite: the prominence of development, human rights, and governance in security assistance efforts serves to downplay the strictly military dimensions.

A second concern involves the recipients of security assistance. Relatively few African nations receive American munitions through FMF, but all but 13 send officers via IMET to train in the US.[3] Though it cannot control officers’ behavior upon returning to their respective commands, the US is often held liable for disreputable activities that later occur. For instance, critics pounced on the revelation in March 2012 that Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the leader of a coup in Mali, had previously received training in the US. Existing vetting procedures to screen out potential liabilities like Sanogo produce an additional dilemma: ill-disciplined military units least likely to qualify for training are often those that would benefit most from assistance.

A final challenge is the difficulty of measuring success, a central puzzle in conflict prevention. Can the absence of violence be attributed to effective and professional security forces? Or is it primarily driven by other factors? All too often, the signs of dysfunction and decay in the national military are not evident until after a crisis arises. In Africa, measuring effectiveness is also complicated by the fact that the US is not the only player involved in building state institutions: one must also consider the role of the European Union, China, Turkey, regional organizations, and others.

Sidebar: US security cooperation with Niger and Nigeria: two cases worlds apart

To understand the variable response to US security assistance, consider the contrast between two neighbors: Niger and Nigeria. Niger is slated to receive nearly $40 million in US military aid this year and has long been a central player in the US-funded Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). In February 2014, it hosted an annual, multinational military exercise with the US, and the US flies unarmed drones from Niger’s capital city. Though also a member of TSCTP, Nigeria’s security relationship with the US is far less robust. Under American law, rampant human rights abuses disqualify many Nigerian units from receiving training; still others who pass vetting procedures are routinely held up by a Nigerian government lukewarm to foreign assistance. According to Africa analyst Richard Downie, Nigeria believes it is “nice to have the military equipment, but maybe less welcome [is] the teaching and training on human rights respecting.”

To the US, overcoming these obstacles will be a critical test for an emerging national security strategy that prioritizes military cooperation and burden sharing. To Africans, the expansion of security assistance offers many potential rewards, but also costs. Though noble in its stated goals, the verdict on security assistance as a sustainable tool for building professional militaries remains to be heard.

[1] “FY 2015 Congressional Budget Justification – Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs”, US Department of State, 4 March 2014.
[2] Also excludes Egypt, where assistance has remained relatively constant at roughly US$ 1.2-1.3 billion per year. “FY 2010 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations”, US Department of State, November 2009.
[3] “FY 2015 Congressional Budget Justification,” 4 March 2014.
Posted in Niger, Nigeria, terrorism, US policy, West Africa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To combat Boko Haram, it’s time for Nigeria to think big

Much has been written about Boko Haram, Nigeria’s ruthless Islamic insurgency, since more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped last month. But there remains a considerable amount of confusion over how Boko Haram came to be, and more importantly, what to do about it.

In a piece for The National Interest published last week, I attempt to make a novel contribution in two ways. First, I briefly explore the historical context that gave rise to Boko Haram—beyond the boilerplate scapegoat of “colonialism.” The story I offer is principally one of government corruption (accentuated by the discovery of oil in 1956), which lies at the heart of the widespread discontent in northern Nigeria:

A booming oil sector precipitated the need for a centralized federal bureaucracy. Government corruption exploded as a result. As politicians jockeyed to capture the newfound wealth, they became increasingly unaccountable to their citizens. The agricultural sector—previously the lifeblood of the economy in the Muslim north—deteriorated, and a painful period of IMF structural adjustment in the 1980s only widened the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Out of this discontent arose a flurry of Islamic extremist groups in northern Nigeria—of which Boko Haram is only the latest, though arguably the most violent, iteration:

In 1978, a reformist preacher named Abubakar Gumi inspired the creation of the “Izala” movement, which offered refuge in a rejectionist view of Islam. A radical Shiite campaign emerged after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The most violent were the Yan Tatsine, whose rousing leader, Mohammed Marwa, inspired thousands to rise up against the existing political and religious order. The same grievances—economic deprivation, corruption, and an ineffectual federal state—carried over to 2002, when Mohammed Yusuf founded what would become Boko Haram.

From here, I offer a framework for thinking about how to solve the riddle of Islamic extremism in Nigeria, arguing that the use of force may be politically expedient, but unsustainable. If the goal is to end the continuum of violent extremism in northern Nigeria, one must employ a broader analytical frame:

Instead, as American President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The first step toward eradicating Boko Haram is to recognize that violent extremism is larger than just a security problem. It is better understood as a product of decades of corruption, economic malaise, and failed governance. The only way to ensure long-term stability in northern Nigeria is to address these shortcomings.

In short, the key to ending violent extremism in Nigeria is to think big and long-term. This requires President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to swallow a dose of humility as it learns to ask the international community for help, for example, in training Nigerian forces capable of counterinsurgency. It also means getting the bottom of questions such as: why has $20 billion in oil revenues gone missing?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan UK Cabinet Office, February 2013, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cabinetoffice/8464852428

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan
UK Cabinet Office, February 2013, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cabinetoffice/8464852428

Undoubtedly, there are problems with this approach. Expanding the scope of the problem—from a purely a security issue to one of corruption, economics, and the frustratingly vague issue of “governance”—risks raising the bar so far out of sight as to become unattainable. A coterie of Nigerian elites, whose power and influence often relies on bribery and patronage, are certain to resist anti-corruption measures. I don’t yet have good answers for how to overcome this conundrum, but it is worthy for further research.

My op-ed also did not fully address another important component: fractures within northern Nigeria, including ethnic, religious, and ideological divides. Here a more detailed understanding of local dynamics in northern Nigeria—mainstream Sufi Islam vs. rejectionist movements, perceptions of the Kanuri people, and local authority figures—is warranted. For those who are interested, the International Crisis Group’s 2010 report on northern Nigeria is a good start.

You can read the full piece for The National Interest here: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/nigerias-boko-haram-horror-show-how-move-forward-10510.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them along!

Posted in Boko Haram, Nigeria, terrorism, West Africa | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“War” in West Africa?

Scanning the headlines, it would seem that war was all the rage this past week in West Africa.

It began last Saturday in Paris, where the leaders of five West African countries—Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, and even tiny Benin—confidently agreed to wage “total war” on Boko Haram, the ruthless Islamist extremists behind the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls last month in northeast Nigeria. Cameroonian President Paul Biya, whose country has seen an uptick in kidnappings in recent months, announced that he had come to France “to declare war on Boko Haram.” French President Francois Hollande, who presided over the meeting, firmly situated violent extremism in Nigeria as a regional threat, arguing that “Boko Haram is an organization that is linked to terrorism in Africa and whose will is to destabilize the north of Nigeria, certainly, and all the neighboring countries of Nigeria and beyond that region.” (This echoes Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s about-face, now depicting what he once considered a contained threat as “no longer a local terrorist group.”) The response, the six leaders agreed, was for Nigeria and its neighbors to work together to establish a joint counterterrorism strategy, coordinated patrols, and a channel for sharing intelligence.

Hyperbole and chest-thumping aside, regional military cooperation is a welcome development. Excepting African Union and UN peacekeeping missions, cross-border coordination in Africa is quite rare (Mali-Mauritania and counter-LRA efforts are recent exceptions). Like the hunt for Joseph Kony in Central Africa, U.S. and European intelligence is likely to supplement the regional response to Boko Haram (though the Americans have stopped short of sending U.S. Special Forces to Nigeria, a key component of counter-LRA efforts). Whether this investment will make a difference is yet to be seen, but it is on the whole a significant step forward.

Meanwhile, as countries agreed to work together to wage war against Boko Haram in Nigeria, divisions in Mali threatened (again) to tear the country apart. After fighting broke out on Saturday between government forces and Tuareg rebels in the northern city of Kidal, Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara told a Reuters reporter: “In light of this declaration of war, the Republic of Mali is henceforth at war.” Saturday’s clashes constitute the most severe breach of an agreement reached last June between the government in Bamako and Tuareg separatists belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA.

Kidal, Mali By aaker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kidal, Mali
By aaker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Friday, African Union chairman and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had brokered a ceasefire between the warring parties—albeit a temporary accord that is unlikely to last without a comprehensive negotiated settlement. But the most concerning development is how the crisis was handled in the interim. According to Reuters:

The Malian army launched an assault on Kidal on Wednesday after clashes broke out last weekend during a visit to the northern town by new Prime Minister Moussa Mara. The action threatened to sink the struggling peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.

Mahamadou Camara, Mali’s communication minister, said on Friday that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita did not give the order for the army’s failed attempt to retake Kidal. The government has launched an inquiry into the matter.

“We had accepted a ceasefire,” Camara told Reuters. “Our forces decided on their own to go. They did not wait for the political order that should come down from the president to the prime minister and then the minister.”

The impulsive attempt to secure Kidal handed Malian forces a humiliating defeat, which killed at least 20 soldiers. But the embarrassing episode is also indicative of a larger problem: more than a year since French forces recaptured northern Mali from an Islamist insurgency in the Sahara, Mali’s military remains unable to maintain command and control.

And Mali is unlikely to get external help. Although the French mission (Operation Serval) continues in Mali, its mandate is circumscribed. According to a French army spokesman: “We are not there to intervene with regard to tensions between Malians. We are 1,600 (soldiers) in Mali now and their role is to fight armed terrorist groups.” And with MINUSMA limited to peacekeeping, the Malian government is largely on its own to maintain a fragile peace with the MNLA.

If one also adds in a brazen coup attempt in Libya this week and a brief skirmish with rogue gunmen in Cote d’Ivoire, talk of “war” in West Africa has returned with a vengeance.

Posted in Boko Haram, Mali, Nigeria, terrorism, West Africa | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jean-Bedel Bokassa and the early years of the Central African Republic

CAR President Jean-Bedel Bokassa with Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu By unknown, image comes from the National Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

CAR President Jean-Bedel Bokassa with Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu
By unknown, image comes from the National Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

I am currently working through Martin Meredith’s mammoth volume, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. While I am only half-finished (the paperback version is nearly 700 pages), my impression is that Meredith does an excellent job laying out the “what” of Africa since independence—what happened and when. Less impressive, however, is his ability to address the tougher questions—the “why” and the “how”—the underlying trends and factors that drove the feeble African states emerging in the 1950s and 1960s to where they are today. Nonetheless, as we think about present day Africa, Meredith’s book can serve as a useful frame of reference for exploring a number of interesting puzzles.

For example, consider one passage about the Central African Republic (CAR), which nominally gained independence from France in 1960 but has since been overwhelmingly dependent on foreign countries for both security and economic development. To paint a portrait of the CAR that emerged after independence—and to compare with where it is today—it is worth quoting Meredith at length:

“In the rush to independence, [Jean-Bedel] Bokassa gained rapid promotion. After serving as a sergeant for seventeen years, he left the French army in 1961 with the rank of captain and was given the task of helping to set up a national army. Three years later, at the age of forty-two, he was appointed chief of staff of the CAR’s 500-man army.

Bokassa seized power on 31 December 1965, after learning that President David Dacko, his cousin, intended to replace him. Initially Bokassa’s regime was not especially brutal…Bokassa’s preoccupation was to enjoy the pomp and power of office and to amass a fortune for himself.

He liked to describe himself as an ‘absolute monarch’ and forbade mention of the words democracy and elections…His every whim became government policy. He himself held twelve ministerial portfolios and interfered in all the others. He controlled all decision-making, every promotion or demotion, every reward or punishment. Ministers were shuffled with monotonous regularity, as often as six times a year, to ensure that they did not become a threat…

Using government funds at will and fortunate he made from diamond and ivory deals, Bokassa acquired a whole string of valuable properties in Europe, including four chateaux in France, a fifty-room mansion, houses in Nice and Toulouse and a villa in Berne…His sexual proclivities were voracious. He installed wives and mistresses in separate residences, leaving his palace several times each day to pay them visits, holding up traffic on the way…

The French, keen to ensure that Central African Republic remained within the French orbit, continued to underwrite Bokassa’s regime with financial and military support…It was during Giscard’s presidency that the French indulged Bokassa’s greatest foie de grandeur…Bokassa declared the Central African Republic an empire and himself emperor of its 2 million subjects and made elaborate arrangements for his own coronation, using as a model the ceremony in which Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. From France he ordered all the trappings of a monarchy: a crown of diamonds; an imperial throne, shaped like a golden eagle; an antique couch; thoroughbred horses; coronation robes; brass helmets and breastplates for the Imperial Guard; tons of food, wine, fireworks and flowers for the festivities and sixty Mercedes-Benz cars for the guests.

The spectacle of Bokassa’s lavish coronation, costing $22 million, in a country with few government services, huge infant mortality, widespread illiteracy, only 260 miles of paved roads and in serious economic difficulty, aroused universal criticism. But the French, who picked up most of the bill, curtly dismissed all such criticism…

The ultimate irony was that less than two years after the coronation, as a result of Bokassa’s violent conduct, the French themselves felt obliged to step in and remove him from power. Bokassa’s propensity for violence became increasingly evident during the 1970s. In 1972, in a campaign against theft…he personally led a bevy of ministers to Ngaragba prison where he ordered guards to beat convicted thieves with wooden staves. As the convicts screamed in agony, Bokassa turned to a foreign newspaper to observe: ‘It’s tough, but that’s life.’…Bokassa was also said to hold kangaroo courts in the gardens of the Villa Kolongo, sentencing men to be killed by lions or crocodiles he kept there.

No longer able to stand the embarrassment of propping up Bokassa’s regime, the French, after considerable prevarication, decided to remove him. On 20 September (1979) while Bokassa was on a visit to Libya, French troops stationed in Gabon and Chad flew into Bangui, took control and installed David Dacko as president.” (pp. 224-230)

Bokassa’s proclivity for opulence, absolutism, and violent repression was hardly rare in Central Africa. Meredith also offers fine descriptions of the whims of several other infamous autocrats, including Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Zanzibar’s Abeid Karume, and Equatorial Guinea’s Francisco Macias Nguema. Released in his home country after serving seven years in prison, Bokassa had perhaps the best luck of the crop—he was the only strongman not to die in prison, exile, or at the barrel of a gun. Yet the Central African Republic that emerged after his removal was in many ways doomed to stagnate or collapse. Already set back by its unfortunate geography and poor infrastructure, the Central African Republic suffered from Bokassa’s borderline maniacal quest to preserve his personal power and wealth, which left the country bankrupt and with near-nonexistent institutions. Michel Djotodia’s coup d’état last year that set in motion the present conflict facing the CAR today was the country’s fourth since Bokassa’s rule. But no military or civilian government has been able to substantially reverse the country’s fortunes.

The irony is that the gradual disintegration of state control in the CAR since 1979 lends some degree of credibility to the ubiquitous claim proffered by the autocrats of Bokassa’s time: “Because of the internal tensions and rivalries afflicting most African states, only strong government could provide the stability they needed to develop and prosper.” (p. 175) In other words, better a peaceful autocracy than a nation riven by anarchy and violence. As Mobutu would remark years later: “après moi, le deluge” (“after me, the flood”). Thus the dilemma that Meredith helps to portray.

From Syria to Egypt to Rwanda and elsewhere, this same dichotomy frustrates the policies of Western governments today. In an environment where a free, multiparty democracy is not a viable option, how does one address growing despotism? Is it better to excuse a burgeoning autocracy in the name of stability (see present-day Egypt or Uganda), or pull the plug on a brutal dictator where leader and government are one and the same, with wildly unpredictable consequences (see 2003 Iraq, 2011 Libya)? There will be many lessons learned when the story of the CAR’s present violence is written, and most of them will have little to do with these questions. Yet as we survey the African continent today—both its advances and setbacks—it is useful to shed light on the decades immediately following independence, when expectations soared across the continent—only to be dashed by the bouts of autocracy and anarchy that followed.

Posted in Book reviews, Central Africa, Central African Republic | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book review: “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa” by Jason Stearns (2011)

Internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Goma, DRC. Goma has been at the center of nearly two decades of conflict in eastern Congo. By Endre Vestvik, 2007: https://www.flickr.com/photos/endrevestvik/2373363027/in/photolist-4BNrBE-79DZ3f-9bLiqX-8XB3zL-8Xy1za-cJKT61-8XB4L5-4BNsrL-4BNu5o-4BNsWu-4BJ8n8-4BJ61r-4BJ6Gk-4BNpP5-4BJ8We-4BJ79c-4BNuyE-xuqB8-7CV6tA-4BNtxu-5B81Ud-5xWCnV-9bPxHh-5JEaPj-5ZiQMq-5Km1pG-5ZiQK7-eMrqtb-eMeZPv-eMrrY3-eMrrJd-eMrstf-eMrq7W-eMf3Ne-eMrqqb-eMeWbT-eMf482-eMrnmS-eMrmeN-eMeXmX-eMeXUP-eMrmKU-eMf2DV-eMrp21-eMf27R-eMrrnC-eMeZT8-eMeYU6-eMf3cK-eMeWTK

Internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Goma, DRC. Goma has been at the center of nearly two decades of conflict in eastern Congo.
By Endre Vestvik, 2007: http://bit.ly/1gA1m9y

“Africa has the shape of a pistol, and Congo is its trigger.

Jason Stearns borrows this prescient utterance from Frantz Fanon, a fiery anti-colonial philosopher of the 1950s and 1960s, to open a chapter of his impressive chronicle Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. Though three years have passed since the book’s release—and a half-century gone since Fanon’s eerie metaphor—2014 offers perhaps as good a time as any for Americans and Europeans to reflect on Africa’s great war as we observe the 100th anniversary of our own.

Stearns is a seasoned analyst of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; his experience and incisive observations are on display in his meticulous retelling of the seven-year conflict that ravaged central Africa from roughly 1996-2003, remnants of which continue to simmer today. Dancing in the Glory is not the sole English-language account of this calamitous period: Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War and Filip Reyntjens’ The Great African War offer a more comprehensive blow-by-blow of the struggle that left as many as 5 million dead. But Stearns’ account is eminently more readable than the alternatives, employing graceful prose and unique nuggets culled from interviews with the countless Congolese and Rwandan politicians, commanders, ex-rebels, and activists that fill his extensive rolodex.

The tragic play of Africa’s Great War unfolds in two dramatic acts, with the Rwandan genocide as its prelude. In Act I, Rwandan and Ugandan forces, riding the coattails of a Congolese Tutsi rebellion they themselves manufactured, drive Mobutu Sese Seko—Zaire’s peculiar and ostentatious dictator—from power. Perennial rebel commander Laurent Kabila, who spent much of the previous three decades languishing and drafting anti-imperialist pamphlets in neighboring Tanzania, is installed as Congo’s new leader.

After a brief 15-month intermission, Act II opens in August 1998 with the Rwandans and Ugandans racing again toward the Congolese capital in Kinshasa, this time to unseat their former proxy. A flurry of Congo’s neighbors—including Angola, Chad, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—come to Kabila’s aid, saving his ineffectual government from imminent collapse; the assailants are forced to retreat. But by the next year, a bevy of new rebellions—backed by Kigali and Kampala—have carved out nearly two-thirds of the country, producing a bloody stalemate in which the Congolese people are the primary victims.

Within each act, a multitude of actors scurry on and off the stage, each motivated by dynamic, competing visions for how the play should end. Stearns likens Congo’s war to layers of an onion: it “contains wars within wars…Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa” (p. 69).

Of course, in many instances, regional and local interests align, as in Rwanda’s attempts to pull together the guise of a “domestic” opposition in Congo in 1996:

“The Rwandans had picked up four strange bedfellows to lead the rebellion. Besides Kabila, there was Deo Bugera, the architect from North Kivu; Andre Kisase Ngandu, a bearded and aging commander who was leading a rebellion in the Ruwenzori Mountains…and Anselme Masasu, a taciturn twenty-some-year-old from Bukavu…In Kigali, the Rwandans embarked on some much-needed bonding exercises with their newly recruited rebel leaders…Thus was born the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). A grandiose name for a group that initially had little political or military significance other than providing a smoke screen for Rwandan and Ugandan involvement.” (pp. 88-89)

Two years later, Rwanda would again host get-to-know-you sessions for a new rebellion, producing what would become the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), led by an aging Marxist professor named Ernest Wamba dia Wamba.

Despite his attempt to peel back layers of the onion, Stearns’ account remains unabashedly Congo-centric. It is strongest when unpacking the motivations and lifestyles of a series of the domestic insurgent leaders, from Kabila to Wamba to Jean-Pierre Bemba (a savvy ex-Mobutist who led the Uganda-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo). His interviews with both the perpetrators and victims of violence in eastern Congo provide a human face to a harrowing war often reduced analytically to nebulous concepts of state weakness and foreign manipulation.

Nonetheless, because the war was undeniably transnational—troops from nine different nations occupied Congo at its peak—Dancing in the Glory would have benefited from a deeper dive into the regional and pan-African context. Excepting Rwanda, the interests and machinations of the major regional players—notably Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe—go relatively unexplained. Stearns’ account fumbles Luanda’s view of Congo after Mobutu, glossing over Angola’s decision to intervene—and to stay—on behalf of Kabila as a question of “better to have the devil you know ruling Kinshasa than a political unknown” (p. 197). And there is virtually no mention of the more marginal, but still important players—namely Burundi, Chad, and Sudan. (Prunier’s Africa’s World War provides a much fuller account of the regional dimensions.)

Countries participating in the Second Congo War (1998-2003) By Don-kun, TUBS [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Countries participating in the Second Congo War (1998-2003)
By Don-kun, TUBS [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The onion’s outermost layer—the role of the international community—also earns scarce attention. Aside from a few anecdotes about the 2002 peace process and foreign companies seeking Congo’s natural resources, Dancing in the Glory does not sufficiently analyze the role of international players. The United Nations, which convened many meetings on Congo and deployed a peacekeeping mission to the country in 2000, is scarcely considered.

Stearns’ narrative ends with a peace deal struck in 2002, after which current President Joseph Kabila (Laurent’s son) tightens his grip on power, but the book’s concluding chapter offers a useful framework for thinking about Congo today. Looking across the DRC’s political landscape in 2014, there remain few protagonists—only deep shades of corruption, rent-seeking, and impunity. Unlike Sierra Leone, Rwanda, East Timor, and the former Yugoslavia, there has been little national effort to facilitate the process of restorative healing. Most of the warlords and former militia leaders who perpetrated atrocities during the conflict have gone unpunished; many even serve in government. Meanwhile, Eastern Congo remains a tinderbox for armed rebellion and equally pitiless counterinsurgency. Channeling Thomas Hobbes, Stearns writes that “the Congo does not have a Leviathan, a state that can protect its citizens or even impose a monopoly of violence.” (p. 329) Until the strength and legitimacy of Kinshasa’s security forces improve, one can surmise that Congo will continue to experience pockets—or entire swathes—of instability.

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope. The international community has succeeded—for now—in capping the spigot of arms and money flowing from Rwanda to armed insurgents in North and South Kivu, and a new UN intervention brigade, backed with a mandate to hunt, has taken the fight to a flurry of insurgent groups operating the region. More generally, in a new preface, Stearns intentionally tries to accentuate the positive:

“The Congo is not just blood and gore. It also has an incandescent, raw energy to it, a dogged hustle that can be seen in street-wide hawkers and besuited ministers alike…Despite its tragic past, and probably in part due to the self-reliance and ingenuity resulting from state decay, it is one of the most alive places I know.” (p. xix)

Dancing in the Glory is primarily aimed at helping an international audience comprehend the particularities of a conflict region neglected due to its enormous complexity. But ultimately, Stearns emphasizes, Congo will have to build greater state capacity, more equitable distribution of wealth, and an inclusive political system “on its own terms.” Despite frequent forays into Congo by international actors, for good and for ill, the fate of the country rests overwhelmingly with the Congolese people.

Stearns’ account frequently compares the situation in Congo to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”—the idea that infamous Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann was simply doing his job, just a cog in a machine that is structurally unhinged. In a political system that is historically corrupt and violent—where power flows to the most ruthless, the most fraudulent—how does one change the political culture and a country’s ethos? Dancing the Glory does not provide perfect answers, but in examining the past, it lays out a framework for thinking about Congo’s future.

Laurent Kabila, the ill-fated leader who eventually came to mimic the excesses for which he castigated his predecessor, aptly captures the essence of Congo’s conundrum in 1997 remarks: “Who has not been Mobutist in this country? Three-quarters of this country became part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.” (p. 9)

Read more:

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Chad announces withdrawal from Central African Republic

The Republic of Chad, considered something of a military power in Central Africa, announced today that it would be withdrawing all its troops from the African Union mission in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR).

It is worth noting that the New York Times’ first version of the story from this morning described the announcement as “an apparent blow to international efforts to bolster peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic.” (You can read the early version here.) But the story had become more nuanced by the afternoon:

“The pullout solves an immediate problem for the United Nations, which plans to redeploy some of the African Union forces into a peacekeeping mission under a United Nations mandate in the coming months. The withdrawal means that the world body no longer faces the awkward choice of whether to accept Chadian forces as part of that mission…But it also potentially creates new logistical and political problems. The United Nations must find additional troops at a time when several peacekeeping missions worldwide are struggling to fill their ranks.”

This improved depiction strikes a better balance as we consider both the fragile AU operation in CAR (known as MISCA) and the growing anxiety in CAR, the wider region, and the international community over Chad’s military presence. The decision comes five days after a widely-reported incident of Chadian troops opening fire on civilians in Bangui and accusations building for months that Chad is aiding and abetting Muslim rebels against Christian “anti-balaka” militias. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon entered the fray, reminding “all those who are involved in spreading the violence, including those directly or indirectly supporting or otherwise facilitating the actions of armed groups, that they will be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.”

This is the second conflict in two years in which Chadian forces have entered the fight just long enough to announce a quick withdrawal. In neither instance were N’Djamena’s interests altruistic. But while Chad’s withdrawal from Mali came on the heels of disproportionately high casualties in two months of fighting (it would later return under a new UN mission), today’s announcement coincides with a growing sense that, as Chad’s foreign military grumbles, “Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering in CAR.” In other words, Chad retreated from Mali to satisfy a domestic constituency (local elites and the military itself), but its withdrawal from CAR may reflect a sense in N’Djamena that it had to save face with the region and international community.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Central Africa, Central African Republic, Chad | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A divorce years in the making: Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

The tendency in international affairs after a dramatic event is to hastily address the question of “what does it mean?”—as if the event represents a pivotal turning point that bends an otherwise steady trend line. Such is the case after Al Qaeda’s central command in Afghanistan/Pakistan posted a message online last week disentangling itself from its affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria/Levant), now popularly known as ISIS. The key line of the damning statement reads: “ISIS is not a branch of the al Qaeda group, we have no organizational relationship with it, and the group is not responsible for its actions.”

The instinct for many analysts has been to characterize Al Qaeda’s decree as either a boon or body blow for ISIS. However, considering the tenuous history of Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Iraqi jihad, the divorce is perhaps better seen as the next data point in a steady pattern, rather than an inflection point.

Continuation, not deviation

Al Qaeda’s apprehension about its Iraqi outfit dates back effectively to AQI’s inception in 2004, when the group’s increasing brutality caught the attention of Osama bin Laden and the senior leadership. In a 2005 letter to AQI’s infamous founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri (now Al Qaeda’s leader) criticized Zarqawi’s excessive brutality toward the local population. Yet Zarqawi continued to flout the judgment of Al Qaeda’s leadership, eventually provoking a largely sectarian civil war that all but extinguished AQI’s popular support.

AQI, rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, recovered after the departure of U.S. troops in 2001, yet Zawahiri’s relationship with current emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears outright acerbic. ISI-turned-ISIS’s escalating violence in Syria and Iraq in many ways mirrors the Zarqawi days. Having observed the evaporation of public support for AQI in 2006-07, Zawahiri seemed determined in May 2013 not to make the same mistake again: in a letter to budding rivals ISIS and Syria-based Jabhat al-Nusra, Zawahiri commanded ISIS to return to Iraq. Nonetheless, Baghdadi rebuffed Zawahiri’s overtures, retorting in June that ISIS will remain in Syria “as long as we have a pulse or an eye that blinks.” Fast forward to February of this year—after an escalation of ISIS belligerence toward both fellow jihadists and the Syrian population writ large—and Zawahiri has decided he had enough.

Very rough approximation of ISIS' territorial control in Iraq and Syria By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Very rough approximation of ISIS’ territorial control in Iraq and Syria, as of January 2014
By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where is ISIS heading?

Jihadist fighters, donors, and other Al Qaeda sympathizers undoubtedly paid keen attention to ISIS’ expulsion. A number of influential pro-Al Qaeda ideologues have since scolded ISIS and even called on members to defect to other jihadist outfits. Moreover, ISIS’ retreat from some areas of Syria this week may be attributed in part to Jabhat al-Nusra’s (a de facto Al Qaeda affiliate supported by Zawahiri) newfound resolve to fight ISIS after a recent peace initiative failed. As Barak Mendelsohn argues in Foreign Affairs, “now that ISIS is disowned, its own reputation is in peril, with potentially devastating consequences.”

On the other hand, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross suggested to me that if ISIS can now demonstrate that it is possible to survive as a powerful jihadi front sans Al Qaeda’s blessing, Baghdadi’s organization could attract additional donors and prestige. As Will McCants has quipped, “Nothing says ‘hard-core’ like being cast out by Al Qaeda.”

Despite compelling narratives for both sides, I am of the view that Zawahiri’s disavowal will be neither a boon nor a death blow for ISIS. If one accepts that the writing was on the wall since Baghdadi’s objection last year, or even since AQI’s emergence in 2004, the separation’s direct impact may have less impact than analysts suggest. ISIS’ donors will more or less keep donating, while ISIS’ critics will more or less comprise the same opponents as before (e.g., the same influential clerics who criticized ISIS after the split also cajoled ISIS prior to the split).

This is not to say ISIS will simply stagnate—neither gaining nor losing territory, standing, or donors in the future. I hope instead to capture the idea that exogenous factors are likely to have more bearing on ISIS’ trajectory than whether the group has organizational links with Al Qaeda—the independent variable implicitly being addressed.

What other factors influence ISIS’ trajectory?

The most apparent exogenous factor is escalating brutality (which, notably, was not the reason Zawahiri cited for expelling ISIS). As both Mendelsohn and Aaron Zelin have suggested, ISIS—widely considered the most terrifying jihadist group in the neighborhood—risks repeating the same mistakes of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of the 1990s. According to the most common narrative, GIA’s downfall in the Algerian Civil War in 1998 was due in large part to excessive violence. So too with Zarqawi’s hyper-aggression toward both Iraq’s Shi’a and fellow Sunnis in 2005-2006, and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s extremism in Egypt in the mid-1990s.

While disregard for civilian casualties certainly contributed to both GIA’s and Gamaat al-Islamiya’s strains with Al Qaeda, it was the loss of local support that spelled their undoing. ISIS may very well commit the same error, or, alternatively, scale back its malicious modus operandi to win more local influence—regardless of its Al Qaeda affiliation. Additionally, other exogenous factors that might have bearing on ISIS include: the group’s level of internal cohesion, a shift in strategy in Syria and/or Iraq, new alliance-building, and/or a change in the external environment.


Supported by a history of tensions between ISIS and Al Qaeda’s leadership, it is not unreasonable to assert that last week’s divorce simply formalized a long-time de facto split between the two organizations. Initial indications from U.S. intelligence officials seem to corroborate this view.

Of course, in a murky environment where reliable reporting on ISIS is sparse, there is unlikely to be a “smoking gun” that either confirms or dispels this proposition. And considering the novelty of the situation—Zelin points out that this marks the first time that the Al Qaeda core has disavowed an affiliate that has used its name—there is little obvious precedent.

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda’s divorce with perhaps its most powerful affiliate offers an opportunity to revisit our assumptions about the global jihadi enterprise. Was Al Qaeda in Iraq ever truly on the same page as the “core” in Afghanistan/Pakistan?  Furthermore, do jihadist groups need Zawahiri’s blessing to be successful? What factors are important for jihadists to make progress toward their ends? A clearer understanding of these questions, of course, is helpful for thinking about how to contain and counter Islamic extremism in the Middle East and beyond.

One could conversely look at the split from the perspective of Al Qaeda’s core, but for now let me defer to others who have wrestled with this issue:

Further reading:

Posted in Al Qaeda, Iraq, Middle East and North Africa, Syria, terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympic-sized Corruption: A Visual Guide (see link)

While we all wish politics would take a back seat to the athletes and their competition during the Olympic Games, this year’s events in Sochi, Russia make such a dream difficult (if not impossible).

Noted Russian netizen activist and anti-Putin voice Alexei Navalny produced a fantastic map of Sochi highlighting the actions of a corrupt oligarchy which led to significant cost overruns and instances of shoddy construction.

I hope representations such as this map help to highlight the social consequences of the Games, which are always internationally relevant but may take a more high-profile political role this year.

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