This past week has seen a number of gun attacks and suicide bombings in the northern region of Nigeria, specifically in Kano and in the eastern border town of Ganye. Police have confirmed that suspected Islamist gunmen have launched a series of gun and bomb attacks in a remote town near the border with Cameroon. At least twenty-five people have died in the town of Ganye after gunmen attacked a prison, police station, bank and bar. The most recent attack in Nigeria’s northern region comes just days after two suicide bombers exploded their car at a bus station in Kano.
The simultaneous attacks that occurred in Ganye have killed at least twenty-five people.
According to the police spokesman for the western Adamawa state, Mohammed Ibrahim, the gunmen carried out four simultaneous assaults in Ganye, which is located in the Adamawa state. They opened fire on a bar, a bank, a prison and a police station. The gunmen also set free an unspecified number of prisoners. The police spokesman further noted that the men used explosives and assault rifles in the attack on the police station, during which a policeman was shot. Seven people were shot in the bar, six near the bank while the others were gunned down either outside their homes or on the streets. Troops and policemen who have been deployed to the town have recovered three unexploded bombs, a Kalashnikov rifle and some rounds of ammunition, which were left by the attackers. Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, police are suspecting Boko Haram militants to be behind it as the raids resemble previous ones, which have been claimed by the group. Currently, no arrests have been made.
The town of Ganye is located some 100 km (60 miles) from the state capital of Yola. Although it is located near the border with Cameroon, it is not near the area where a French family of seven were kidnapped and taken across from Cameroon into Nigeria last month. The family – a couple, their children (all under the age of twelve) and an uncle – were kidnapped by six gunmen on three motorbikes in Sabongari, which is located 7km from the northern village of Dabanga. Sources close to the French embassy in Cameroon had indicated that the family had earlier visited Waza national park. While the exact border-crossing route taken by the kidnappers remains unknown, it is highly likely that the militants would have remained near the area and crossed over into Nigeria shortly after the kidnapping. As such, while Ganye is too far south from the general area where the family was taken, it is highly likely that the militants may have crossed the border area closer to Maiduguri, which is a known Boko Haram stronghold.
Violence carried out by Islamist insurgents throughout Northern Nigeria has been on the rise in the past weeks after a brief calm. On Saturday, three bombs exploded in the North’s main city of Kano. According to Kano state police spokesman Magaji Majia, one
of the bombings was a suicide attack, however the incident claimed no lives apart from the bomber. In a separate incident, a remote-controlled bomb that targeted a joint military and police checkpoint did wound a number of police officers. A separate gun attack in the city’s Dakata district also killed one person on Saturday. According to Kano state police spokesman, four people have been arrested in connection with the attacks.
On Monday, March 18 a bomb blast, which targeted a bus station in an area of Kano that is mostly inhabited by southern Christians, killed at least 41 people and wounded 65. The attack occurred when two suicide bombers exploded their car into a bus station in Kano, setting off a large explosion that hit five buses. Witnesses have described hearing multiple blasts and seeking wounded victims fleeing the area as authorities cordoned off the scene. The bus station that was targeted in Monday’s attack primarily services passengers who are heading south to the mostly Christian regions of the country. The bus station was previously attacked in January 2012, a blast which left a number of wounded civilians. So far, authorities have not provided any information relating to who is behind this latest bombing. Furthermore there has been no claims of responsibility, however this attack is similar to the hit-and-run tactics that are favored by Boko Haram militants.
With more suicide attacks and bombings occurring every week in the northern region of the country, it is becoming evident that the Nigerian government is finding it difficult to
adequately manage Boko Haram and related criminal gangs who have overtaken militancy in the oil-producing south-eastern Niger Delta region as the main threat to the stability of Africa’s oil producer. Furthermore, while the town of Ganye is located further south, and away from the cities of Kano and Maiduguri, which have been hit by a number of attacks over the past few months, it demonstrates the capabilities of Boko Haram and similar criminal groups in carrying out hit-and-run attacks outside of the normal regions where they are known to operate. It indicates that the militants throughout this region of Nigeria are able to freely move around to stage attacks, signifying that they may also be able to cross over the border into Cameroon in order to carry out attacks and to kidnap westerners. It is also believed that Boko Haram may have members in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
The French Presidency has confirmed that death of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, stating that he was killed in fighting in Mali. While this confirmation has ended weeks of speculation about whether one of the group’s leading commanders had been killed, it nevertheless increases fears for the lives and safety of the remaining fourteen French hostages who are being held in captivity in the Sahel region.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in AQIM, has been confirmed by France, which noted that DNA samples had made it possible to formally identify him. A statement released by the Elysee Presidential Palace indicated that “the President of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the north of Mali, at the end of February.” The statement went onto say that the death of “one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.”
Last month, officials in Chad had claimed that Chadian forces fighting alongside French troops in northern Mali had killed Abou Zeid on 22 February. Days later, reports surfaced that fellow militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was also killed in fighting that occurred in the mountainous regions of northern Mali. The fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reportedly killed on 2 March 2013, has yet to be confirmed. Although AQIM formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, officials in France made little comment regarding his death, stating that while it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting, the death would not be confirmed by French officials until a body was produced and verification through DNA testing was completed. Speculation mounted that France’s reluctance in confirming the death of Abou Zeid was due to fears that the remaining French hostages may be used as human shields during bombing raid, or that they could be subjected to reprisal executions.
Abou Zeid, who is believed to be 47, was a pillar of AQIM. Considered to be one of the most radical AQIM leaders, he is responsible for the death of at least two European hostages as well as the leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to a number of eye witness reports, Abou Zeid personally beheaded the British national.
While the death of Abou Zeid was confirmed by members of AQIM weeks ago, France’s official acknowledgement and confirmation may result in militant rebels in Mali carrying out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of the French hostages will likely be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Unconfirmed reports released earlier this week indicated that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on 10 March 2013. A man claiming to be a spokesman for AQIM stated that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” While there was no mention of his execution being directly linked to the death of Abou Zeid, it is highly likely that today’s confirmation by France may lead to further executions which will undoubtedly be blamed on his death.
One Malian solider has died while two others have been left injured in the first suicide bombing to target the city of Timbuktu on the eve of the one year anniversary of a coup that paved the way for the Islamist takeover of Mali and the eventual collapse of one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The bombing occurred near the airport in Timbuktu when an attacker set off an explosive belt inside a car that had been stopped at a checkpoint. According to a military source, “the jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital.” Malian army spokesman Captain Samba Coulibaly stated that the suicide bombing took place at a road block that is manned by Malian soldiers, just before a French checkpoint. French military officials also confirmed that at least ten Islamist fighters were killed in clashes that occurred after the bombing while sources in the city have reported that sustained gunfire continued until 3AM (local time) on Thursday morning. French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard stated that French and Malian forces had repelled an attempt by militants to infiltrate Timbuktu’s airport on Thursday morning. He further indicated that there were no French casualties.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian troops in late January 2013 after the city and its resident endured a nine-month rule by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had imposed a harsh form of Sharia law on the population. Since then, the town has seen relative clam, unlike the northern city of Gao which has been hit by a number of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the Islamist rebels were driven out.
This most recent suicide bombing has further cast a doubt over France’s claims that the Islamist resistance in Mali is close to being crushed. The bombing also comes just one day after French President Francois Hollande stated that the military operation in Mali was in its last phase and that the country was just “days away” from regaining its territorial integrity. Although thousands of Malians have remained skeptical about French assurances that the northern region of the country was increasingly becoming safer, yesterday’s suicide bombing has proven that while French and Chadian troops are continuing their efforts on capturing Islamist rebels in the Ifoghas mountains, groups of Islamist rebels remain throughout the country and therefore are a continued threat to the country’s security and stability. The suicide bombing in Timbuktu also raises questions about France’s possible troop withdrawal which is set to take place at the end of April and whether or not African forces will be ready to cope with a threat that is increasingly turning towards hit and run attacks as a mechanism of maintaining its presence within Mali and as a way of destabilizing the security of the country.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated that a French hostage has been executed in Mali. A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated in a telephone call to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) news agency that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March 2013 in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” Although the news agency could not confirm whether or not the spokesman is in fact a member of AQIM, ANI did confirm that they had received a phone call from a man who presented himself as Al-Qairawani and who claimed that the “spy” Verdon had been executed. He further stated that “the French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages.” In the past, al-Qaeda groups have often used ANI in order to broadcast their claims or statements, which often turn out to be true.
Mr. Verdon was seized on the night of 24 November 2011 along with Serge Lazarevic. According to their families, the two men had been on a business trip when they were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, in northeastern Mali. The families of the two men have however denied that they were secret service agents. Shortly after the kidnapping, AQIM claimed responsibility and in August 2012, a video depicting Mr. Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released.
Early Wednesday morning, a French Foreign Office spokesman indicated that they were attempting to verify the reports of the killing. Currently, no further information has been provided however a spokesman for the French Foreign Office has confirmed that the family of Mr. Verdon has been notified. If these reports are confirmed to be true, it will be a worrying development for Paris as it will greatly increase the risk of those hostages who are being held in Africa. There are still some fourteen French nationals who are being held in West Africa, including at least six who are being held in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates. Over the past few weeks, a number of the hostages‘ families have expressed their growing fears for their loved ones in light of the ongoing French intervention in Mali.
Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Sinai Peninsula has become a hotbed of radicalized activity. Many indigenous Bedouin, who have long been disenchanted by the Egyptian government, have turned to smuggling as a lucrative financial endeavor. The system of tunnels, created to transport illicit goods, have also served as for radicalized individuals and groups to enter the region. The desert terrain, largely uninhabited, provides hidden shelter among road-less paths and desert caves. This combination results in a prime opportunity for mujahedeen to build bases from which to carry out organized crimes and terrorist activities throughout the Maghreb and into the Sahel regions.
Impact of Bedouin Disenfranchisement
Since ancient times, the Egyptian Sinai has been home to several nomadic Bedouin tribes. During the Six-Day war in 1967, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula, providing job opportunities for Bedouin, particularly in the tourist industry. The Bedouin had become accustomed to a cash economy and material wealth during Israeli occupation. Following the end of the occupation in 1982, the Cairo-based government perceived the Bedouin as collaborators with the Israel to destabilize Egypt. Consequently, the Bedouin have been perceived as second-class citizens, facing human rights hardships and severe economic blows.
Twenty percent of Bedouin in the Sinai are denied Egyptian citizenship. They cannot join the police or military, or study in police or military universities. Bedouin tribesmen cannot hold government positions or form political parties, nor can they own land, for fear they would re-sell it to Israelis. Employment opportunities in the Sinai are preferentially given to non-Bedouin Egyptians, and corporate developments have created boundaries that impact the nomadic tribes’ ability to travel throughout their historic territories. Finally, Bedouin tribesmen are often blamed for violence in the region, held without cause or evidence by Egyptian Police. These factors generate great animosity against the Egyptian government; outcries have been met with meager financial assistance and empty promises.
In order to retain wealth and material goods, members of some tribes have turned smuggling as a lucrative opportunity to generate income. Since the 1990s, smuggling rings have expanded to include items of higher value, including drugs, weapons, cars, and people (kidnap for ransom). Concurrently, Bedouin traffickers have enlarged their networks, with weaponry becoming the new expression of wealth.
Smuggling in the Sinai
It is important to note that not all members of tribes have resorted to smuggling, rather, certain members of specific tribes. The dominant tribes involved in smuggling on the Sinai Peninsula are the Sawarka, Tihaya, and Tarabin tribes, which have traditional boundaries bordering Israel and/or the Gaza Strip. Connections also exist between Bedouin Rashaida of Eritrea and Sudan, who predominantly engage in human trafficking, and the Tuareg tribes of Libya, who transfer weaponry throughout the Maghreb. Bedouin tribes do not have a sense of national loyalty—only to tribe— nor do they ascribe to an ideology that prevents them from dealing with particular groups, even if they are deemed dangerous or radical, as long as they can afford the price. Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Egypt and Israel wrote, “…terrorists, both from Gaza and reportedly al-Qaeda, have used the territory to smuggle arms and plan operations.”
Heading west, tribes transfer goods and materials through the Maghreb and Sahel Regions, taking advantage of porous borders and lax security. From the south, tribes use a system that goes from Kassala, Sudan to the Egyptian border, then north into Sinai. Toward the east, Bedouin smugglers use an intricate system of tunnels to deliver materials through Gaza and beyond. At Sinai’s eastern border, commonly used routes are the Heth and Philadelphi routes, which go between Gaza from Sinai. Tunnel systems that are known by Egyptian and Israeli law enforcement have been bombed or flooded. However, to keep their trading systems open, tribesmen will pay up to $100,000 for the creation of new tunnels.
In addition to smuggling, some tribesmen charge for extensive knowledge of safe and desolated areas within the Peninsula, where smugglers or radicals entering the region can hide while fleeing from law enforcement.
Hideout for Radicalized Groups
Increased lawlessness in the Sinai results directly from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Bedouins were among the first to ignore national curfews, and rising vehemently against Egyptian police. In February 2011, the police left the Sinai Peninsula, and returned in August 2011 with limited presence. In that time, Al Qaeda inspired militants penetrated the region, and continue to increase presence. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the militant faction of Hamas, as well as Al Qaeda inspired networks, are known to be operating quasi-military training camps in the Sinai. Due to this threat, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) received permission to send 3,500 military troops into the demilitarized zone, yet the small number of troops is unable to secure the vast, unfamiliar region.
Increased Radical Activity
This week, Egypt’s interior ministry told police in the Sinai Peninsula to raise a state of emergency, after obtaining intelligence that jihadist fighters might attack their forces. Last August, fifteen Egyptian policemen were killed in an assault on a police station bordering Egypt and Israel. The militants seized two military vehicles and attempted to storm the border.
In early January, Egyptian authorities issued a security alert for the Sinai as intelligence services received information about potential attacks by extremist groups in the Sinai. On 15 February, the authorities announced the seizure of two tons of explosives headed to the Sinai from Cairo, followed by the discovery of a weapons cache in Al-Arish two days later. The seized weapons include 21 anti-aircraft shells, six anti-tank mines and an anti-aircraft gun. The same day, one ton of explosives was found in a car headed from Cairo toward the Sinai. On 27 February, Egyptian security forces confiscated 60 antitank missiles south of Cairo that were being transported in two pickup trucks from Libya. And on 5 March, a cache of weaponry, including antitank mines, was seized in el Arish
Egyptian President Mohamed Mosri has pledged to get a grip on security in Egypt but as he struggles to assert control over an entrenched security establishment, this appears to be another empty promise. Morsi administration and Egyptian security forces are hindered by several factors, including poor resources and coordination, and conflicting views on counter-smuggling and counterterrorism strategies. A failure to cultivate Bedouin allegiance and intelligence will also decrease Egyptian security forces ability to identify lairs of suspected jihadists.