United States experts have recently warned that two extremists movements in Africa, which have affiliated themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, could become a major threat on the continent if they come together and boost cooperation.
While for now, Islamist rebels who are operating in Libya and have proclaimed allegiance to IS, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, have traded little more than praise over the Internet, along with probably some fighters and weapons. However experts are now warning that this could change and may develop into a regional threat. According to a former CIA analyst, “they could decide that instead of fighting to achieve their immediate local objective they decided to shift their focus and go after Western interests,” adding, “for instance, Boko Haram attacking the French soldiers of Barkhane, or the Americans in Cameroon.” The former refers to a French anti-terror operation that is currently taking place in the Sahel region of central Africa. While the former analyst noted that such cooperation could take place, he added that both groups are likely not yet there.
Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS earlier this year, and renaming itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), appears for now to be more of a rebranding move, which came as the group was forced out of territory, which it had previously held in northeastern Nigeria. Experts however are warning that it could also be a transition into a larger global jihadist agenda. Movements that are geographically isolated can benefit from adopting the initials, symbols and rhetoric of the most feared Islamist extremist organization in the world. Over this past year, IS has been able to hold large swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, despite an ongoing coalition bombing campaign. Furthermore, it has also carried out deadly attacks in the region, including blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt, and has inspired attacks on Civilians from Paris to London to California.
This move to a larger global jihadist agenda is already being seen within boko Haram, specifically in the attacks that it has carried out over the past few months, and in the way that it has begun to market itself. Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS and its renaming could enable the terrorist group to recruit foreign fighters. It is highly likely that Boko Haram has gained some advise on military tactics, as experts have noticed that despite ongoing military operations in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks have become increasingly coordinated. In turn, the latest Boko Haram videos released by the group are of a more professional quality then older videos. They also carry the insignia of IS. Sources have disclosed that while the numbers remains small, there are indications that the flow of fighters towards Africa has already begun. Last month, two young French people were arrested in Tunisia as they were trying to reach zones controlled by IS in neighbouring Libya. Furthermore, experts have reported that in the April edition of its magazine, Dabiqu, IS called on volunteers to consider joining Boko Haram “if you can’t join the caliphate.”
In Libya, experts have noted that groups that have professed loyalty to IS have expanding rapidly, with some increasing their numbers from 200 to 2,000 members over the past year. Their growing power, fuelled by the post-Kadhafi political and security chaos that currently exists across Libya, has resulted in great concern for European officials. One expert has noted that if ties between Boko Haram and IS evolve further, this could develop into Boko Haram militants being trained in Libya, if IS gains further ground in the country.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande will embark on a trip to three former colonies in West Africa. The official tour comes as his country puts the finishing touches to a military operation aimed at combatting extremist violence in the Sahel region. On Sunday, France’s Defense Minister announced that the country will end its military offensive in Mali, effectively replacing it with a new operation, codenamed Barkhane, which will involve some 3,000 French troops and which will span the largely lawless Sahel region. However in a sign that tensions in Mali are far from over, on Monday the French Defense Ministry confirmed that a French legionnaire died in a suicide attack near the northern town of Gao. This is the ninth casualty that France has suffered in the West African nation.
According to the President’s office, Hollande’s upcoming visit will include stops in the Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad, which is where Barkhane’s headquarters will be located. The French president will begin his African tour in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, which is currently on the economic rebound after experiencing a decade of unrest that was sparked by a failed coup in 2002. He will then visit Niger, which includes a stop at a French military base from which surveillance drones are deployed within the region. According to a source close to Hollande, because Niger is surrounded by restive areas – Nigeria to the south, Libya to the north, and Mali to the west – the president will “continue strategic talks on all these crisis areas surrounding the country and establish how we can collaborate to ensure better security in the region.” In the Chadian capital N’Djamena, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, which apart from troops, will also mobilize drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armored vehicles and transport planes.
France announced Sunday that its military offensive in Mali will now be replaced by an operation that will focus on the wider and largely lawless Sahel region, and will aim at combatting extremist violence, which is now threatening the entire area.
During a television interview Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganization of our troops in the Sahel zone.” France’s Serval offensive was launched in January last year and saw French troops deploy to aid Malian soldiers in stopping al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from descending further south and advancing on the capital Bamako. While France had initially planned to end operation Serval in May, and redeploy troops to the Sahel region to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, renewed clashes between rebels and the army in the northeastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
While the French-led Serval operation, which saw nine soldiers die over a period of eighteen months, has widely been deemed a success by the international community, Le Drian indicated that the concern has now shifted to the vast Sahel region, noting the operation aims “to make sure there is no upsurge (in terrorism) as there are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” adding “the aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
The new “counter-terrorism” operation, which has been codenamed Barkhane, will launch in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Some 3,000 French soldiers will take part in the operation in which 1,000 will remain in the northern regions of Mali while the rest will be deployed in the four other countries. Drones, helicopters, fighters jets, armored vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Suicide Attack in Northern Mali
Meanwhile, in what is a sign that security in northern Mali remains fragile, France’s Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that a French legionnaire has been killed in a suicide attack in northern Mali. This brings the number of soldiers killed in Mali since 2013 to nine.
A statement released by the Defense Ministry indicated that Serbian-born Dejvid Nikolic, 45, who held French nationality and was part of the Genie 1st regiment, “fell victim to a suicide attack” about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern town of Gao on Monday. A suicide bomber in a car targeted French troops who were on a security mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao. Seven soldiers were injured in the attack and Nikolic died of his wounds on Monday evening. He had been a legionnaire for more than twenty-five years and served in several hot spots, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. He had also worked in Africa, notably in Gabon and Djibouti. The Defense Ministry stated that his currently mission was his eight abroad. News of the death of the French soldier comes just days before President Francois Hollande is due to travel to West Africa as France prepares to redeploy some of its troops from Mali to the wider and largely lawless Sahel region in a bid to combat extremist violence.