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Jihad in Syria: The Thin Line between Insurgency and Terrorism

Friday, 11. October 2013 10:00

According to the latest IHS Jane’s Intelligence report, moderate and radical jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand among the Syrian rebel groups. The report is  alarming not only because it begs the question of the likelihood that any of these jihadist groups, together or separately, might permanently gain control over the opposition, but also because it suggests that Al-Qaeda is gaining leverage over the Syrian conflict at a steady pace. This article will argue that even though there has been an increase in the overall number of jihadi fighters, not all jihadi groups share the same ideology and not all of them pursue terrorist tactics. In fact, the main jihadist groups cover a very broad understanding of jihad, and don’t always agree between themselves on its interpretation. This differentiation leaves place for both alliances and for fratricidal infighting.

There are three jihadi Salafist groups present in Syria. Two of them, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are radical and affiliated to Al-Qaeda through an oath (bayaat) and officially leading a transnational jihad. However, after a history of unification and separation, they still do not agree on their plans of establishing a transnational Caliphate: if ISIS is more ambitions in its scope, Nusra only restricts its ambitions to the toppling of Bashar Al-Assad. The third group, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), often described as more moderate, is not affiliated to Al-Qaeda and leads a smaller scale national jihad. SIF sympathizes with Jabhat Al-Nusra, its radical “brothers and partners in the trenches and battles”, and is being led by the Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades.

Nusra and ISIS bring together some 10.000 fighters, with some 6,000 rebels belonging only to the Nusra Front, although reports diverge on this distribution. The two groups are less numerous than the 30-35,000 fighters that the moderate SIF counts, and this while considering the massive defections from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) towards the Nusra Front and ISIS. Over 1,000 foreign fighters have also joined the insurgency, but they are spread among Nusra, ISIS and SIF, with ISIS apparently being the most attractive destination group. Moreover, there seems to be a certain polarization going on in the transnational jihadist camp, as Nusra fears that ISIS might be gaining too much strength and that it defeats the purpose of the insurgency by fighting both the regime and the other rebel groups simultaneously. As a result, several jihadist groups, amongst them Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, are trying to isolate ISIS by forming an alliance limiting its own goal only to the establishment of the rule of Shari’a over Syria above any other sectarian or international consideration (such as extending the fight over Shi’as, Christians and Iraq).

In terms of strategy and tactics, all three groups draw the bases of their strategic thinking from insurgency classical theorists such as Mao, Marighella and Che Guevara. They all use irregular tactics against the regime on one side, and try to win the hearts and minds of the local population on the other one. By providing humanitarian aid and social assistance, the jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand over the FSA who does not seem to have the capacity to take over the administration of the areas it has conquered. The three groups have (separately) put into place bus systems, regular and Islamic schools, insured the collection of garbage etc., which all contributed to gaining the acceptance and the support of even those locals who do not believe in Salafi Islam.

While both moderate and radical jihadist groups rely on seemingly common strategic principles, their tactics differ. On the one hand, as enumerated in a previous article I wrote on this blog, SIF’s tactics relate more to guerrilla warfare and fit better in the framework of a civil war in which there is no clear imbalance of power between the opposing sides. SIF gradually developed its methods from simple, sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were/are used in Iraq or Afghanistan) to small-arms ambushes and other classic guerrilla tactics such as hit-and-run raids. Gradually, their growing forces and tactical proficiency eventually made them capable of conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (for instance at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa), all the while keeping on resorting to remotely detonated bombs.

On the other hand, the tactics employed by the Nusra Front and ISIS, both radical jihadist groups, recall a lot of the transnational revolutionary jihadism employed by Al-Qaeda. Suicide attacks, assassinations of prominent governmental figures, car bombs against the Syrian Army and Hezbollah fighters, kidnappings of Westerners and wealthy Syrians for financial extortion, mass executions of Syrian Army soldiers, attacks over Christian settings, preventive strikes over weak tribes and even attacks on liquor stores were reported by the medias and overwhelmingly attributed to the Nusra Front. Over three quarters of the suicide attacks that took place in Syria over 2012 and 2013 are attributed to or claimed by the Nusra Front. In addition, a Nusra cell was discovered being in possession of 2 kilos of sarin gas last May. ISIS, which also operates in Iraq, and cooperates, at times, with Nusra, goes even further. Medias report attempts at kidnapping foreigners, fights against the fellow rebels of FSA, “liberations” of areas already liberated by the rebels, executions of Alawites, and attacks on Kurdish villages in Syria and of Shi’te places of worship in Iraq. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the successful operation of liberating prisoners from the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison last July. Bearing in mind the recent surge in violence in Iraq and the porosity of the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is unsurprising that reports are coming from Baghdad blaming the Syrian conflict for the spread of conventional weapons and of fighters of Syrian origin present around the Iraqi capital.

In conclusion, giving up to the alarmist reports that the “terrorists are taking over the Syrian conflict” seems a bit farfetched. Ideologically, the power balance between the secular and the Islamists has indeed budged, but the Al-Qaeda associated radicals employing specific terrorist tactics still represent a small and disunited fraction of the opposition forces. Under such a scenario, it is Jabhat al-Nusra that emerges as the strongest group with an effective pivotal role – it is the only jihadist faction that has good relations with both ISIS and SIF, thus steadily becoming the “deal maker” and the “deal breaker” of the insurgency.

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The Syrian Islamic Front: What Third Way?

Tuesday, 27. August 2013 16:41

Syrian_Islamic_Front_LogoThe Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) is one of the three major umbrella rebel organizations alongside the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Salafi-jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra. By taking its pride through the promotion of “a third way” amongst the rebels, SIF upholds Salafi Islamist values, promotes religion and officially rejects transnationalist jihadism. This article will argue however that the Salafism promoted by SIF is not exactly “a third way”, but rather an incomplete second way as it still borrows elements of radical jihadism in its speech and methods, and is supportive of the jihadist movements, thus failing to detach itself fully from Jabhat al-Nusra.

Announcing its creation in a December 2012 video, SIF was described by its senior official spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri as a “comprehensive Islamic front, representing Islam as a religion, a creed, a guiding path, and a conduct” consisting of roughly 30,000 fighters. However, this self-description is vague and subject to interpretation. SIF preaches the Salafi purist and fundamentalist version of Islam which aims at establishing an Islamic state and at extending Islamic morals through society. By employing the terminology used by scholar Fawaz Gerges in his book The Far Enemy, SIF is a religious nationalist group fighting the secular state (“the near enemy”) which rejects the transnationalist jihadists that fight for the re-conquest of the lost Muslim territories and against the Western values (“the far enemy”). For this end, according to its January 2013 charter, SIF has a military wing “which aims to topple the regime and extend security” and a civilian wing “from which springs missionary, educational, humanitarian, media, political and [public] service [movements]”. SIF Islamists make a clear distinction between themselves, Salafis waging a local jihad against their government, and Salafi transnational jihadists, the kind that Jabhat al-Nusra are. According to one of SIF’s political leaders, Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, they “do not believe that [they] fit the description of what is popularly known in the West as « radical Islamists » or « jihadis »”, but without developing further on their exact understanding of jihadism. Moreover, SIF’s spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri made clear SIF’s position towards democracy by stating that it is destined to end up in the “garbage heap of history”. From a tactical perspective, SIF avoids the use of those tactics which are frequently associated to the salafi-jihadist extremists such as suicide bombings, even though the information surfacing on this aspect is contradictory. There is little evidence of kamikaze actions, except for a video release from June 2012 of SIF’s largest faction, Ahrar Al-Sham which shows what appears to be a suicide attack, but which took place prior to the creation of SIF. On the same note, Ahrar al-Sham does not use the main means of communication used normally by the jihadi groups, such as Al-Qaeda affiliated web forums, but rather reaches towards the mainstream media through its official independent website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Furthermore, even though Ahrar al-Sham rejects Western-backing, it did take part in armed joint operations with the FSA.

Nonetheless, SIF is undermined by not being an effective alliance, but rather a conglomeration of local units which act as semi-independent subfactions. Its leading components are the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades (Harakat Ahrar al-Islamiya) which make up a third of SIF’s manpower and are reputed to be the most powerful individual armed group in the entire Syrian opposition, thus making the SIF itself one of the best fighting forces within the opposition. Even though a great lot of the factions SIF comprises are Salafi, its second largest faction, the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, are more diverse and incoherent, comprising some extreme-Salafi jihadis, Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists, and members of the local Sufi orders. SIF also takes on a few foreign mujahedeen fighters of European origin – usually a defining trait of transnationalist jihadi groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra.

SIF’s subfactions unite however their voice regarding their de facto attitude towards Jabhat al-Nusra which sounds at odds with its nationalist aspirations. Through one of its channels, SIF announced that the Al-Qaeda affiliated group is “our brothers and partners in the trenches and battles” and that they “only see honesty in their work as well as toughness and bravery”. Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari, of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, also defended them by stating that “the USA has classified a lot of groups as « terrorists » using criteria that are perhaps more suited to American interests, which are not necessarily our interests”. SIF is strongly opposed to any form of foreign intervention, with the leader of SIF, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, declaring at a conference in Cairo in June that “any invading force that sets foot on Syrian territory under any pretext, whether to support the regime or to allegedly stop aggression, will be treated as an occupying force”. In addition, SIF’s main group, Ahrar al-Sham, reacted negatively to the April rapprochement between the Islamic State of Iraq (the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though Ahrar al-Sham agreed in principle with the objectives of a possible Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it believes that more realism and patience are required in such situations given that none of today’s Islamist factions is strong enough to assume religious leadership over the Muslim community (umma). By simply having an official opinion on the matter, Ahrar al-Sham is acknowledging the need for such a group, while simply disagreeing on the timing. This reaction places SIF’s leading faction in a position where its voice matters in a context involving the internal affairs of two transnational jihadi groups.

If SIF’s deeds and aspirations seem contradictory on the surface, their funding comes mainly from individuals supportive of radical transnational jihadism, and not from governmental sources. Little is known about SIF’s donors, but some of Ahrar al-Sham’s sources include Kuwaiti-based Syrian Salafi preacher sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami (who uses strong language against Christians and Jews), Saudi-based Syrian preacher Adnan al-‘Arur (reputed for his rhetoric against non-Sunni religious groups and for his strong involvement in raising donations), Kuwaiti Salafi politician and ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and individuals from Qatar.

In conclusion, it is difficult to agree with SIF’s declaration of promoting a clear and distinct third way in the Syrian conflict. Its unambiguous links with Jabhat al-Nusra say the contrary, while only the lack of ideological cooperation with the secular Free Syrian Army supports the idea of distinctiveness. Nevertheless, regardless of their ideological leaning, SIF are a major actor to be taken into account on the Syrian civil war theatre, which, logistically speaking, can actually provide for a second or even a third way. Since their creation in 2012, the tactics of Ahrar Al-Sham have developed from simple sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were used in Iraq) to small-arms ambushes, classic guerrilla tactics (remotely detonated bombs, hit-and-run raids, and ambushes) until they were eventually capable of also conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa) – a promising tactical development only waiting to be matched by a clear ideological position.

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Breaking Party Lines: America’s Polarization over PRISM

Thursday, 27. June 2013 10:58

According to the latest Pew/Washington Post poll56% of the Americans say that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, while a non-negligible minority of 41% finds it unacceptable. However, the latest Gallup poll done on the same topic claims the opposite: that 53% of the Americans disapprove of the programme, while only 37% approve of it. What conclusion can one draw from these seemingly contradictory results? Why are they so substantially different? And, most importantly, who are the people for and against PRISM and why is the public opinion so polarized on this issue?


The Polls

The two polls were conducted roughly around the same period of time (7-9 June 2013 for Pew, 10-11 June 2013 for Gallup), and interviewed the same number of people (a bit over 1,000 each). The way in which the question was asked was, nevertheless, one of the major differences between the two surveys: if Pew phrased the question in a way that mentioned the use of a “secret court order” and explained that there were “MILLIONS” (in capital letters) of Americans who had only their telephone records checked by the NSA, Gallup inquired over both telephone and Internet records and made no indication of any legal procedure that might have been followed by the NSA, nor mentioned the number of Americans affected. However, Pew did ask a separate question over the monitoring of e-mail and other on-line activities where 45% of the interviewees agreed with the surveillance as long as it was pursued with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks, while 52% disagreed.

These slight differences in the framing of the questions might have distorted the answers to a certain extent. Firstly, the Pew poll emphasized to (or maybe even informed?) the interviewee of the underlying legality of PRISM, by implying that a competent judicial authority had some knowledge about it. Secondly, while Pew asked two separate questions obtaining two quintessential opposing results, Gallup asked a more comprehensive question that, in percentage points, received almost the average of the two Pew questions. Thirdly, the fact that the interviews were held a few days later might have also played a small part given the age of fast information we are living in, when new declarations, articles, and strong editorial positions come out on an hourly basis.

Either way, regardless of the phrasing and the timing of the interviews, the partisan division over the topic is clear. If Pew did not conduct any inquiries over this matter, the results of the Gallup poll suggest that Democrats are more likely to approve (49%) of the government’s programme to obtain call logs and Internet communication, while the Independents (34% approval rate) and the Republicans (32%) are more likely to disapprove it. A CBS News poll (9-10 June 2013, 1,015 interviews) reinforces this idea by pointing out again that the Democrats are divided on the question (48% agree, another 48% disagree), while a clear majority of Independents and Republicans disapprove (62%, 66% respectively).

By comparing these results to the ones obtained in 2006 by Gallup when inquiring over the support for a government program that “obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans”, the 2013 results are in coherence (43% approval, 51% disapproval), whereas the partisan results shifted dramatically for the Democrats (only 40% approved in 2006), Independents (56% approved) and the Republicans (63% approved). This can be explained by the change of the Democrats and Republicans from opposition to power and viceversa, and would suggest that there is no clear doctrine of any of the Parties on this issue, but only ad hoc positions based on whether one trusts the current government.

On the same note, the Gallup poll reveals that most of the Republican voters believe that Ed Snowden did the right thing by leaking the news of the surveillance programmes, while a majority of Democrats believe he acted wrongfully.


The politics behind

Even though each electorate shows a tendency towards a certain stance, its lack of a clear and major leaning is reflected by the divisions existing within the two major American political parties. Thus, the internal factions of each party give in a variety of shades that make reaching a partisan consensus difficult.

From the Republican side, Vice President Dick Cheney (a neoconservative) called Edward Snowden a “traitor”, while Peter King (neoconservative), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, called for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong. Mike Rogers (social conservative), the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee also agreed that the programs were important for national security. Republican Senator John McCain (traditionalist, leaning neoconservative) declared to the CNN that the surveillance programs were needed because threats to the US were “growing, not diminishing”, while adding that he believed “that if this was September 12th, 2001, we might not be having the argument that we are having today”. These declarations were made in spite of Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s (traditionalist, author of the Patriot Act) depiction of PRISM as “an abuse of that law”. Furthermore, Republican Senator Rand Paul (constitutional conservative, Tea Party member and a potential 2016 presidential candidate) told “Fox News Sunday” that he would consider a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the mining of phone records, while also questioning the moral authority of President Obama. He was joined in by former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin (also a Tea Party member) who also stood up for Edward Snowden’s actions, while pushing for more protection of personal freedom. If the Tea Party lost some of its momentum since 2010, PRISM might prove to be another clinging point for the advocates for more personal freedom from within the GOP, which could further the cleavage between the neoconservatives and the liberal conservatives.

On the other side of the political spectrum, divisions arise too. Two Democrat senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall (left-wing) appeared worrisome and requested that the government reveal more about its practices in data-gathering. On the contrary, Dianne Feinstein (moderate), the Democrat chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the programmes were “within the law”, that they were part of the government’s obligation of keeping Americans safe, which was something that human intelligence was not going to do. On the same note, President Obama defended the programme through his White House chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, by saying that the “President doesn’t think the program has violated privacy”. To top it all, a bipartisan group of eight senators has introduced legislation that requires the government to detail its understanding of the laws that permit such an extensive surveillance.


Why the division?

First and foremost, as shown above, the division within the American electorate can be explained by political allegiance and the in power/in opposition antagonism which might push towards certain “by default” attitudes. While this would explain the polarization, the slight leaning towards disapproval could be influenced by the decisive bulk of Independents guarding their skepticism towards PRISM.

Nevertheless, without the leadership of the higher ranking representatives which are themselves facing intra-partisan divisions, one can understand why the electorate is still hesitant in forming an overwhelming majority over the issue. After years of leading a “war against terror”, the conservative leaning Americans who agree with the surveillance scheme may embrace the idea that exceptional times demand exceptional measures. Also, what might be regarded as the US government’s “salami tactics”, might have made even the most exceptional measures seem somehow normal and not shocking to those Americans agreeing with them in general terms. From this standpoint, PRISM could and should act like a cold shower that puts the fight against terrorism back into perspective.

Unfortunately, however, it would be too optimistic to believe that the programme will suddenly come to a halt. Most probably PRISM will stir a much needed heated debate, will provoke numerous congressional hearings and, in the best of cases, create a clear majority in the electorate that will demand some limits be put to the surveillance. Nevertheless, once the limits of privacy have been breached, one must not expect miracles either – any downsize of PRISM would look like a success compared to the nowadays breadth of the scheme, but, as long as the programme stays in place, some doubts will always arise as to its methods.

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US Drones in Niger and Counterterrorism Cooperation

Friday, 29. March 2013 17:21

This article was written by Thomas Franklin (pseudonym), who is currently serving as a US Navy officer. This article does not represent the views of the United States Navy or of the US Government.

In February the United States elaborated on its deployment of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA, often called drones) to Niamey, Niger. American RPAs are being employed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to support counterterrorism operations, principally French and Chadian, against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Northern Mali. AQIM and its allies’ descent toward Bamako and the French military intervention in response were catalysts for the RPA deployment, but in reality many in the US Military have desired increased ISR collection in the region for years. What interest does the US have to deploy RPAs to Niger? This post focuses on the advantages of such a deployment, leaving the drawbacks to a later post.

It is in the interest of the United States to counter AQIM and other terrorist groups in the Sahel and to stabilize national governments in the face of the regional upheaval caused by the overthrow of Kaddafi in 2011 and the coup d’Etat in Mali in 2012. The ultimate goal is to set the conditions for regional reconciliation, stable democratic government and economic growth.

The Threat

2012 marked a rupture for AQIM and allies as they expanded their control over northern Mali and made a move on the capital at the end of the year. Over previous years, they intermittently succeeded and failed in a variety of terrorist attacks and kidnappings and collected ransom money to finance larger attacks, such as the bombing of the French Embassy in Mauritania in 2009. AQIM is now degraded, but hard work lies ahead: it has dispersed and its cells must be found, watched and prevented from regrouping.

Zooming out from Mali, AQIM represents part of a larger and growing problem. Other terrorist groups – such as Ansar al-Dine and Boko Haram – are increasingly active in tough to locate cells across the Sahel. Most of these terrorist groups have regional ambitions and a desire to attack western targets. Few have demonstrated both the intent and the capability to attack the American homeland or European continent, yet they are growing more ambitious. Supporting these terrorist groups in alliances of convenience, Touaregs control lands adjacent to international borders, facilitate arms transfers and logistical movements, and sometimes rebel against national governments.

In this context, RPAs based in Niger can conduct ISR and pass actionable intelligence to French, Chadian, Nigerien, and other local forces “on the ground” to track and pursue terrorists and their facilitators. Soldiers on the ground will be safer as RPAs’ “eyes in the sky” reduce the risk of their being ambushed. Manned aircraft also conduct ISR, but the geography and mission favors RPA.

Fit for the Geographical Environment

Niger is an excellent staging point to conduct airborne ISR against terrorism in the Sahel regardless of the aircraft deployed: it is near Northern Mali and right in the middle of the Sahel, a huge, land-locked, sparsely populated area with few good roads. Even under normal circumstances, the region’s international borders are too large to be patrolled. If the US has trouble patrolling the border with Mexico, imagine Niger’s problem: the country with the lowest human development index in the world (UN Development Program, 2012) must patrol borders with Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Algeria, and Libya. Up until January, the US had little or no persistent ISR coverage over the region. The local countries’ governments did not either.

The US likely deployed MQ-9 Reapers to Niger (here is a decent but dated graphic comparing American RPA). The Reaper has a maximum range of 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) and the airborne endurance to conduct 24-hour ISR missions. Reapers provide persistent ISR coverage over all of Niger, and, assuming overflight rights are granted by neighboring countries, all of Nigeria, most of Mali and part of Chad, Libya, and Algeria.

The clear advantage of RPAs over other forms of ISR in the region, including manned aircraft, is their ability to loiter and provide a persistent “stare” to observe people, vehicles, caravans, camps, and buildings. Terrorist groups would have to observe strict, disciplined operational security to avoid being identified and tracked. At a minimum, this would disrupt their operations, possibly deterring some of their more brazen kidnapping stunts, saving Western lives and preventing ransom money from reaching AQIM.

An Opportunity for African, French and American Security Cooperation

International operations where US military RPA operators work closely with French and African soldiers on the ground leverage all parties’ strengths to locate and track terrorists and prevent them from carrying out future attacks. The US military technical expertise in operating RPAs to track terrorist groups, honed after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and combined with French and African language skills and cultural knowledge on the ground, make for an effective counter to terrorism in the Sahel. The French and Chadians, now deeply involved in counterterrorism operations in Northern Mali, need more RPA assets: Chad does not have RPAs and France does not possess the number and type of RPAs necessary to fully support their soldiers in harm’s way.

This presents a unique opportunity for Franco-American counterterrorism cooperation. The gains in support of Operation SERVAL could be significant, saving French soldier’s lives and preventing AQIM from slipping away. Patience and the establishment of the right international military-to-military relationships could also lead to effective and economical long-term cooperation to help stabilize the region. Even if such multinational coordination would be difficult, as sharing intelligence often is, the payoff would be worth the cost.

Such RPA cooperation would be only one aspect of a larger anti-terrorism effort emphasizing training, military-to-military engagement, and non-military cooperation such as economic and institutional development assistance, which over the long term are the most important. It would also be in synch with the kind of partnerships Washington is eager to develop to minimize its military footprint in distant theaters.

If the Situation in the Sahel Deteriorates

RPAs can provide actionable intelligence on the planning of future attacks, allowing the US to avoid, prevent or stop them. These assets could provide the US one more source of intelligence to climb the leadership hierarchies of terrorist groups in the Sahel, assess their activities, and find and arrest their most dangerous leaders. If they become a bigger problem in the future, for example launching attacks directly on the American homeland or the European continent, the US will be in a better position to strike them directly. Yet in the current context, working with African partners and the French to fight terrorism – with them in the lead – should be the main effort.



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Boko Haram: the Next Global Jihadists?

Friday, 9. March 2012 7:21

Yet another attack was perpetrated on Sunday against a church in the Nigerian city of Jos by the group Boko Haram. In November last year, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee had issued a report stating that this Muslim sect, which has been carrying out increasingly violent attacks in Nigeria in the past months, was “an emerging threat to the U.S. homeland.” The organisation, whose name translates as “Western education is a sin” in the Haoussa language, is a Salafist jihadist group based in northeast Nigeria. Seeking to establish Sharia law across a country divided between a mainly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, it has killed 935 people since 2009 through bombings and assassinations of Christians living in the north of the country. Last August, it moved up a notch when it managed to attract worldwide attention by attacking U.N. headquarters in Abuja, killing 25 people and injuring more than 80. But has Boko Haram really become the “next battalion” of global jihadists?

Whether this terrorist organisation is linked to al-Qaeda or not is a question which has been on many experts’ minds during the past months. A UN Security Council Report stated that Boko Haram members had been arrested last year as they were travelling to Mali, in possession of documents on the manufacturing of explosives and details of AQIM members. More generally, some officials claim that the similarity in the frequency and ingenuity of Boko Haram’s and al-Qaeda’s methods suggests there is some form of cooperation with international terrorist networks: Algeria’s branch of al-Qaeda or Somalia’s Shebabs, even though the latter hypothesis is highly questionable. In addition to these assumptions, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, determined to stand as a front-line ally in the West’s war on terror, has kept such suspicions going by referring to the group as a “terrorist organisation with global ambitions.”

But in spite of Boko Haram’s attempts to recall, notably in their YouTube videos, the style of al-Qaeda, at the end of the day it remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian grievances. Joe Brock explains that “[the group’s] anger is directed not at America or Europe but at Nigeria’s elites: at their perceived arrogance, their failure to deliver services, and the brutality of their security forces.” Even though Boko Haram officially covets the general implementation of Sharia law in Nigeria, and even if, as the late Samuel P. Huntington would argue, religious and cultural differences are enough to trigger a conflict, a careful analysis of the group demonstrates that its resentment already existed decades ago and does not have everything to do with a broader Islamist programme.

There is, indeed, a cocktail of explanations for the ongoing violence in Nigeria. First of all, in spite of extensive natural resources, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world. Although it cannot be denied that there is a radicalisation of Islam in the region, the perception that there exists a differential treatment between the poor northern states and the more developed south has been a crucial factor in the recent upsurge of violence. In the north, the feeling of injustice is rampant. Oil, produced in the Niger delta in the south, is the country’s primary financial resource and yields approximately 60 billion dollars each year (2010). However, the federal system which characterises Nigeria has led to a highly unequal distribution of these revenues: while 13% goes to the oil-producing states, the rest depends on the leanings of the government (who, in addition, takes a mighty piece out of the lion’s share). The south has always been favoured, notably in the hope of easing activists in the Niger delta and of preventing oil from getting out of the country. The north, on the other hand, has been deprived of its rightful share, leading to a feeling of alienation from the government. Today, three quarters of northerners live on less than 200 dollars a year. Furthermore, the Nigerian tradition of alternating between a southern Christian president and northern Muslim one, was ended when Goodluck Jonathan succeeded Olesegun Obasanjo, who died before the end of his mandate. Northerners have found the appointment of Jonathan, a Christian from the south, very hard to swallow.

It is difficult to assess how to best tackle the issue. Boko Haram is said to have become a “franchise that anyone can buy into” and needs to be looked at from several perspectives. Although there is an urgent need to put an end to the massacres that Nigeria is witnessing and to the threat of civil war, it would be a mistake to solely deal with the Muslim sect as a security issue. In 2009, the killing of Mohamed Yusuf showed that the death of a terrorist group’s leader was insufficient to annihilate it. More generally, the harshness of the response, which has been essentially military, is said to have fuelled the violence. The need for economic readjustment, on the other hand, is urgent. A bit of governance reform and human development wouldn’t be a bad idea either. But as economic development expert Jeffrey Sachs asserted in a New York Times article, “at 155 million people and rising, Nigeria is the world’s eighth most-populous country and one of the hardest to govern…Very few [countries] come close to Nigeria’s scale and complexity of challenges.”

While Americans may not have so much to worry about regarding their homeland security, Mr Jonathan, on the other hand, has serious reasons to be disquieted given the gargantuan task ahead of him.

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The return of the Troubles?

Monday, 11. April 2011 11:00

“After a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace.” It is with these words of hope that the former US President Bill Clinton commented the signing of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th 1998 which put an end to years of bloodshed and centuries of tensions. Yet, less than two weeks ago, on April 2nd, Ronan Kerr, a Catholic Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer, was murdered by dissident republicans when a bomb exploded under his car. Thirteen years after the Belfast Agreement, terrorist attacks have suddenly increased and cast doubt on the durability of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

‘The Troubles’ evolved from 1969 to the end of the twentieth century and led to the deaths of over 3 500 people. The Good Friday Agreement finally addressed the deep rooted causes of the conflict. Based on compromise and inclusiveness, it led to the creation of a successful power-sharing government. The main Loyalist and Nationalist terrorist groups such as the UVF, UDA and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), agreed to put an end to their campaigns and had their weapons decommissioned. In 1995, the European Union launched its Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland. Two other EU PEACE programmes followed over the years and in total almost two billion euros will have been invested in peace and reconciliation initiatives in Northern Ireland by 2013. On paper, all signs seem to point to the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the progress of stability and reconciliation.

Yet, according to various sources there has been a recent surge in paramilitary activities in the country. As stated by the MI5, these dissident republican groups are the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA as well as Óglaigh na hÉireann (the “soldiers of Ireland”) and were formed after successive splits within the PIRA. As far as the other side is concerned, there has been no evidence of recent activity from dissident loyalist groups.

On March 27th, a bomb containing 50 kg of explosives was left outside a courthouse in Derry and the attack was blamed on dissident republicans. Back in March 2009, the Real IRA killed two British soldiers and the Continuity IRA was responsible for the death of a policeman. More recently, August 2010 was a particularly violent month: the Real IRA intensified its campaign and planted booby traps and car bombs in various areas. On August 3rd, a car containing 200lb of explosives exploded outside the Derry police station, damaging several businesses. The MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has classified the threat level as “severe” in Northern Ireland and “substantial” in Great Britain. Even more alarming, the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism was published for the first time on 24 September 2010. Before that, the MI5 would only assess the international terrorist threat.

In November 2010, King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) published a report entitled “Return of the Militants: Violent Dissident Republicanism”. This study stresses that republican dissident groups have increased their activity and still represent a possible threat for both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. It points out that the rise in activities by these hardline splinter groups was not expected by security forces.

For the author of this report, Martyn Frampton, Northern Ireland finds itself at a critical moment because two generations are coming together and joining the ranks of militant dissident groups. These generations are the disaffected youths and delinquents that did not witness the violence of the “Troubles” along with veterans from the Provisional IRA who rejected the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and feel disillusioned by Sinn Fein and what they see as unkept promises. In the next four years, 245 million pounds of additional funding will be paid to help the PSNI, the successor to the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary, struggle against attacks from dissident groups. This need for extra funds highlights the new intensity of the threats which have been at their highest since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Could the resurgence of terrorist attacks reflect the stagnation of post-conflict peace in Northern Ireland? The advancements that have been made since the 1998 Agreement need to be put into perspective. The number of “peace walls” that were built to divide rival Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods has increased. In his article for the Financial Times, “Downturn puts Northern Ireland peace under fire”, John Murray Brown states that since the ceasefire, these walls have grown from 18 to 88. Sectorisation is still pervasive and today, integrated education covers only 9 per cent of schoolchildren. The massive injection of funds by the EU into Northern Ireland has now proved to have its limits as far as changing mentalities is concerned; economic aid is not sufficient without a solid strategy for peace.

Mari Fitzduff explains that a conflict never ends, it only evolves. This could perfectly reflect the case of Northern Ireland. The 1998 peace resolution led to idealistic hopes that were rapidly transformed into a certain disenchantment. This is epitomized by the recent resurgence of paramilitary activity which represents an unsettling and unexpected threat to peace in Northern Ireland. Yet are the growing number of attacks only part of the post-conflict path to peace or could they mean that the Troubles are back?

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