peter tinti

independent journalist

Category: counterterrorism

Despite Nigeria’s crackdown, Boko Haram continues its killing ways

CS Monitor

The radical Islamists of Boko Haram appear to have killed 40 students asleep at a college in Yobe on Sunday. Is Nigeria’s get-tough approach working?

Abuja, Nigeria: Suspected members of the rebel sect Boko Haram stormed an agricultural college in Yobe, northeastern Nigeria, on Sunday, killing at least 40 in the latest of a string of attacks that have rocked northern Nigeria.

The surge in violence comes amid a four-month state of emergency covering three states in northeastern Nigeria, and after a spate of summer slaughters, including what appeared to be the gunning down of school children and of Muslims considered too religiously moderate, even as they prayed in their mosque.

Boko Haram has increasingly set its sights on civilian targets, prompting many Nigerians to question claims by the government and the military that they are winning the war against violent extremism.

Though exact numbers are hard to verify, Boko Haram and its affiliates are thought to have killed thousands since it first launched an Islamist insurgency in 2009.

Initially established a decade ago as a religious movement opposed to Western culture, Boko Haram has since morphed into a militant group determined to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

The group rose to international prominence in 2010 and 2011 when it carried out a series of deadly attacks against the Nigerian government and detonated a car bomb after crashing into a United Nations building in Abuja, the capital.

The gunmen in Sunday’s attack are reported to have killed dozens of students as they slept and rounded up others for execution. Several more students were injured trying to flee.

The attacks also come as Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation, top oil producer, and second largest economy – prepares to celebrate its 53rd year of independence amid concerns that Boko Haram is planning more attacks to coincide with the national holiday on Tuesday.

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Niger: The Stable Sahelian State, For Now

Think Africa Press

Despite an outward image of stability, Niger can’t be used as a model for Mali’s reconstruction.

When Mahamadou Issoufou was elected President of Niger in March 2011, he inherited a country which lacked many of the basic trappings of a state. A desperately poor, landlocked nation of 17 million straddling the southern edge of the Sahara, Niger has suffered from violent rebellions, chronic famine, cyclical droughts and flash floods, all of which are exacerbated by limited state capacity and decades of failed governance.

External shocks emanating from the multiple weak states with which Niger shares long borders have further threatened Niger’s stability. The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 saw some 200,000 Nigeriens who were living in Libya, some of whom were working as mercenaries, return to Niger. The result was a sudden influx of arms, unemployed battle-hardened men, and the decimation of livelihoods for entire communities reliant on remittances earned abroad.

The ensuing conflict Mali in 2012 saw tens of thousands of Malians seeking refuge in Niger, straining local communities who were already on the brink of starvation. Most recently, several thousand more refugees have spilled into southern Niger from northern Nigeria, where the government is caught up in a nasty counterinsurgency against Boko Haram.

In late May, Islamist militants affiliated with Mokhtar Belmokhtar — an Algerian national and veteran terror operative in the Sahara and Sahel with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — carried out twin bombings in northern Niger, targeting military barracks in the town of Agadez and a uranium mine near Arlit. The attacks were allegedly carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM leader who had been killed by Chadian troops in Mali. Subsequently, many feared that the destabilising violence that has plagued Niger’s neighbours had finally arrived within its own borders.

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As Security Focus on Niger Grows, U.S.-France Tensions Brew: Part II

World Politics Review

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.

Though much has been made of Niger’s recent ascendance as a key U.S. ally in the Sahel region, the country had already begun to distinguish itself as a useful counterterrorism ally in Department of Defense circles as early as 2006. However, political issues, namely a constitutional crisis in 2009 and a military coup in 2010, complicated the relationship. Once elections were held and Niger’s democracy was restored in 2011, the U.S. was eager to “re-normalize” relations and expand cooperation.

Further impetus to deepen security ties was added by the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011—which drove an estimated 200,000 Nigeriens living in Libya, many of whom were armed fighters, back to Niger—as well as the ensuing collapse of Mali in 2012.

The U.S. and Niger signed a status of forces agreement, which had been in the works since 2007, in January 2013, after which U.S. military activities in the country significantly increased.

In February, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would be sending about 100 troops to Niger. Their mission, according to a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson reached by email, is to provide support “for intelligence collection and facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali.”

However, one U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the number of U.S. military personnel, some of whom might be contractors, is “almost certainly” higher than 100. Several sources, including Nigeriens and outside analysts in Niger, described the U.S. military presence as “palpable,” “very visible” and “obvious.” In February, the U.S. also began flying an unspecified number of unarmed Predator drones out of the national airport in the capital, Niamey.

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As Security Focus on Niger Grows, U.S.-France Tensions Brew: Part I

World Politics Review

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.

Until May 23, Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked country of 17 million that shares long borders with volatile states including Mali, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria, had been spared from the violence that has plagued its neighbors over the past two years. But when Islamist militants launched simultaneous attacks in the country’s north, killing 26 and injuring dozens more, Niger suddenly found itself fighting battles at home that it had hoped others would fight abroad.

The coordinated attacks, which included armed gunmen and suicide bombers detonating two car bombs, targeted a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an al-Qaida offshoot known locally as Mujao, claimed responsibility for both attacks. An online statement reportedly signed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian national and veteran jihadi who led the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria last January, claimed that he “supervised” the attack on Arlit in conjunction with Mujao.

Nine days later, 22 inmates, some of whom are linked to terrorist groups, escaped after Islamist gunmen attacked a prison in the capital city, Niamey. Though the prison raid was initially attributed to Mujao, suspicion quickly turned to Boko Haram, an Islamist sect based out of Nigeria that has been at the forefront of bloody, intercommunal violence in northern Nigeria.

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Meet the Waraba Battalion

The Wall Street Journal

The EU’s military-training mission in Mali graduates its first unit.

Koulikoro, Mali: Capt. Ibrahim Soumassa is calm, though his unit has just sustained heavy casualties. “Last night, we received intelligence that jihadists infiltrated this village,” the Malian army officer explains to me. “But we drove them out and are in the process of securing the area.”

He points to a distant cliff, on which the silhouettes of his troops are seen against an overcast sky. “They are searching for snipers,” he says.

They won’t find any—not real ones at least. Here, in a dusty garrison town on the Niger River, 60 kilometers downstream from Bamako, the jihadists are fake and the casualties are simulated. Capt. Soumassa’s soldiers have been engaged in a training exercise put on by military instructors from the European Union.

“The goal,” Capt. Soumassa tells me, “is to prepare us for urban combat.” Recounting the steps he and his men took to secure the village, he betrays the studiousness of an overachiever. “This is what we will need to do in the North,” he says.

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US bounties changes strategy on West African jihadis

CS Monitor

The US is offering up to $23 million for information leading to the location of Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and Al Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Bamako, Mali: The US is offering $23 million worth of rewards for information on key leaders of terrorist organizations in West Africa.

The list of Islamist militants – released yesterday by the US State Department’s “Reward for Justice” program – reads like a who’s-who of prominent jihadists responsible for a string of deadly attacks and high-profile kidnappings throughout North and West Africa in recent years.

The highest reward of up to $7 million is for information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau, who leads the Nigeria-based Boko Haram group that has terrorized the northeast region of Nigeria.

The call for information marks the first time the US is offering cash in exchange for tips on leaders of Islamist groups in West Africa, and may suggest a shift in US thinking regarding the threat posed by Islamist militants in the region. Until recently, most analysts viewed terror cells in Africa as domestic groups with local agendas and few experts considered these groups a direct threat to the US.

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Double bombing in Niger may have links to Algeria attack

CS Monitor

A note purporting to be from former Al Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for bombings at military camp and uranium mine in Niger. Belmokhtar plotted deadly attacks on Western firms in Algeria, and was thought to be killed in early March.

Bamako, Mali - Islamist militants launched simultaneous attacks in Niger on Thursday, killing 26 people and injuring dozens more.

The coordinated attacks – which included armed gunmen and suicide bombers detonating two car bombs – targeted a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.

The dual attacks come amid growing fear that the conflict in northern Mali, as well as Islamist insurgencies in Nigeria and southern Libya, could further destabilize the region. Until yesterday, Niger – a poor, landlocked country of 17 million – had largely been spared from the violence that has plagued its neighbors over the last year.

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In Mali fight, Chad proves a powerful partner for France

CS Monitor

Chad may be a poor country marred by frequent turmoil, but its forces have fought very effectively against Islamist rebels in northern Mali.

BAMAKO, MALI: Weeks after the French launched their military intervention in Mali, the majority of Islamist rebels who were once in control of northern Mali’s major cities have retreated to hideouts near the Algerian border.

But  forces from Chad have followed them, spearheading an ambitious push into northern Mali’s Ifoghas mountains, a terrain often compared to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora. And despite suffering dozens of casualties during weeks of heavy combat, Chadian forces have succeeded in killing and capturing more than 100 jihadist militants and uprooting a network of weapons caches, fuel depots, and food stuffs hidden among the countless caves and grottoes that dot the landscape.

The string of Chadian military victories against a well-prepared and amply equipped rebel force has prompted many to wonder how Chad – a poor, landlocked country marred by decades of political turmoil and near continual civil war – has been able to contribute so effectively to this fight.

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In Mali, the Peril of Guerrilla War Looms

New York Times

GAO, Mali — Aguissa Ag Badara, a former tour guide, now rides around the city on the back of a motorcycle looking for Islamist militants who may still be lurking about. He even wears a pin to advertise his mission. It reads, “Vigilance Brigade: Patrollers of Gao.”

“We said Mujao had infiltrated the population, but no one listened,” said Mr. Ag Badara, referring to the Islamist militants who attacked this strategic city last week. “We support the French, we support the Malian state and the African forces, but why are they only at the checkpoints and in their camps? The war is here in the streets.”

The battle for Mali is not over. Remnants of the militant forces that once controlled major towns have not simply burrowed into their rugged, mountain hideaways far to the north. They also appear to have taken refuge in smaller villages nearby, essentially pulling back to less-contested ground after the French-led intervention to oust them, residents and experts say.

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Malian and French Troops Reassert Control in Key City

New York Times

GAO, Mali — French and Malian troops appeared on Monday to have reasserted control of this strategic settlement in northern Mali after a protracted firefight with Islamist extremists who infiltrated the city after being chased from it two weeks ago.

Malian troops took up position on virtually every street corner on Monday and fresh bullet holes scarred a police headquarters, testimony to Sunday’s fighting in Gao, which is at the edge of the desert and is the largest population center in the north.

The battle between Islamist militants and a force of Malian and French troops, which continued for much of Sunday afternoon, suggested that the quick French campaign against the local Al Qaeda affiliate and its allies was not over.

Overnight, a series of explosions echoed in the early hours of Monday but the cause of the blasts was not immediately clear.

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Mali War Shifts as Rebels Hide in High Sahara

New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — Just as Al Qaeda once sought refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora, the Islamist militants now on the run in Mali are hiding out in their own forbidding landscape, a rugged, rocky expanse in northeastern Mali that has become a symbol of the continued challenges facing the international effort to stabilize the Sahara.

Expelling the Islamist militants from Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, as the French did swiftly last month, may have been the easy part of retaking Mali, say military officials, analysts and local fighters. Attention is now being focused on one of Africa’s harshest and least-known mountain ranges, the Adrar des Ifoghas.

The French military has carried out about 20 airstrikes in recent days in those mountains, including attacks on training camps and arms depots, officials said. On Thursday, a column of soldiers from Chad, versed in desert warfare, left Kidal, a diminutive, sand-blown regional capital, to penetrate deep into the Adrar, said a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters who accompanied them.

“These mountains are extremely difficult for foreign armies,” said the spokesman, Backay Ag Hamed Ahmed, of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, in a telephone interview from Kidal. “The Chadians, they don’t know the routes through them.”

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How the French got to airstrikes in Mali: A briefing from Bamako

CS Monitor

Five key questions about how Islamic militants took over northern Mali — and why the French are trying to stop them.

BAMAKO, MALI: French airstrikes in Mali last week have jolted the West’s attention. The strikes and more planned deployments by France and other African states, are designed to halt the progress of Islamist rebels in Mali, and deny radicals an Afghan-style haven for jihad against Europe. Journalist Peter Tinti has lived in West Africa for the last three years and arrived in Bamako today. Here’s his first briefer from the capital.

How did this crisis start?

It started when armed groups took over northern Mali – a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas – last year. Prominent among the groups are Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda who wish to establish a strict and violent version of Islamic law in the region.

Armed conflict and food shortages have driven more than 400,000 people from their home. The rising fear is that the conflict could destabilize the region, creating an ungoverned space and haven to launch terror attacks abroad.

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U.S. Debates Framework for Counterterror Operations in Africa

World Politics Review

As U.S. counterterrorism officials seek greater capability to combat terrorist groups in Africa, the Obama administration is considering asking Congress to approve expanded authority to allow military operations in places such as Mali, Nigeria and Libya, where perceived threats to U.S. security are proliferating.

Broad disagreements remain, however, regarding the nature of these threats and how best to engage them. The diversity of potential targets also raises legal questions, as many of the terrorist groups operating in Africa are not necessarily affiliated with al-Qaida’s flagship franchise, now located in Pakistan.

“The conditions today are vastly different then they were previously,” Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “There are now non-al-Qaida-associated groups that present significant threats to the United States.” Ham later said the debate over new authorization was a “worthy discussion.”

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Long History, Uncertain Results for U.S. Counterterror Efforts in Mali, Sahel

World Politics Review

BAMAKO, Mali — Al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups took control of northern Mali earlier this year, prompting concerns that the vast desert expanse could become a jihadist safe haven. Since then, U.S. policymakers have openly entertained the possibility of kinetic operations, such as drone strikes in northern Mali, and pundits are asking if the landlocked West African nation now constitutes a new front in the war on terror.

Largely overlooked in this discussion, however, is the fact that the United States has been heavily engaged in counterterrorism activities in this part of Africa for more than a decade — an engagement that has long been the subject of external criticism and internal debate.

At the center of the debate is the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), the principal framework for U.S. engagement in Mali since 2005. TSCTP is an interagency, State Department-led successor to the Office of Counterterrorism’s 2002 to 2004 Pan-Sahel Initiative. It is supported by the Department of Defense through Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans Sahara, officially described as “the U.S. government’s regional war on terrorism operation.”

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What has the US already tried in Mali?

CS Monitor

DAKAR, SENEGAL: When Mali received mentions in the final US presidential debate on foreign policy, some pundits began to ask if the landlocked West African nation would become a new focus of American anti-terror efforts. In actuality, the US has already been heavily engaged in counterterrorism activities in this part of Africa for the past decade, and the nature of this engagement has long been a subject of internal debate.

Since 2002, the US government has plowed at least $700 million in counterterrorism funding into Africa’s Sahel, a large swathe of semi-arid territory on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Mali was a key recipient, taking in approximately $60 million since 2002 from the US. Though exact dollar amounts are hard to pinpoint due to the sensitive nature of some activities, many analysts believe that both figures are probably much higher.

The money was supposed to boost the capacity of governments to respond to the challenges posed by terrorism and organized crime across the Sahel. In Mali, that effort received a setback in March when Mali’s US-backed military turned its guns away from the Islamic militants in the country’s north and toppled the US-allied government in Bamako. Since the coup d’etat, US aid has been suspended due to legal restrictions barring US foreign assistance to the government of any country in which the military has overthrown a democratically elected government.

As the US mulls its position on military intervention in Mali and looks to continue shoring up other governments in the Sahel, the debate over how best to use aid in the region has grown sharper.

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