peter tinti

independent journalist

Category: us foreign policy

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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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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After war and two elections, Mali has a president

CS Monitor

Former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita wins runoff, paving the way for $4 billion in aid.

Bamako, Mali: Malians weary of war and two rounds of elections sighed with relief Tuesday night when it was announced early that they had a president. The former finance minister, Soumaila Cisse, conceded defeat to the former prime minister, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, despite some qualms.

Mr. Cisse had charged voter irregularity in the hours after Sunday’s runoff vote. But Mr. Keita’s lead was so great in the initial polling that he decided not to contest the outcome and instead visited the winner’s home last evening — and later today announced that he was creating Mali’s first serious opposition party.

That now leaves the West African country with Keita as president, a tough veteran and member of the political elite who is known in Mali as “IBK.”

Keita is regarded as a wily negotiator, a friend of the military, and the choice of the French, the former colonial power, whose troops entered Mali in January to stop the advance of radical Islamist forces at the invitation of the acting Mali government.

Keita was the favorite to win after scoring more than twice the percentage of votes, 40 percent, than did Cisse, who came in at 19 percent. Under Mali election rules (as in France), a runoff is held unless one candidate wins an outright majority.

Last evening, French President François Hollande phoned Keita to congratulate him.

The clear victory also now opens the path for some $4 billion in aid that was tied by donor nations to the completion of fair elections.

A US State Department spokesperson said the elections meant the US government would begin to “normalize our foreign assistance to Mali,” along with more than 100 other states that attended a pledge meeting in May.

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Malians grateful to put elections behind them, after a coup and war

CS Monitor

A runoff vote for president on Sunday saw torrential rains, mud, and long lines in Bamako. But the vote was peaceful and orderly.

Bamako, Mali: Ballot-counting is under way in Mali after voters took to the polls Sunday in the final round of presidential elections that are widely seen as a first step to rebuilding the war-torn West African nation.

Mali forged ahead July 28 with a first round of elections despite calls for a delay by some local politicians and several prominent international NGOs that said it was too early. In January Mali saw a French-led war against Islamic radicals that itself followed a military coup last year.

The July vote saw a record turnout but not an outright majority winner, setting the stage for a runoff between former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumalia Cissé.

Yesterday’s vote was orderly and peaceful. In the morning, Malians in Bamako braved torrential downpours in the early morning to cast their votes. In muddy courtyards throughout the city, long lines seemed to favor male voters but represented a mix of Mali’s diverse population.

Most women, many with a child in tow, wore new, colorful wax-print outfits purchased for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Other women dressed in all black with their faces veiled by a niqab, a growing trend among women in some neighborhoods. Businessmen in suits stood next to men in flowing traditional robes, rubbing elbows with youth in skinny jeans and fashionably tight t-shirts.

Results are expected to be finalized as early as Wednesday.

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Battered Mali will vote again Aug. 11 as two veterans face off

CS Monitor

Western nations have linked the elections – which follow Mali’s brief war to oust Islamic militants in the north – to $4 billion in assistance.

Bamako, Mali: Mali’s first elections after French troops arrived in January to drive out Islamic radicals did not yield a first-round winner. The West African nation will put together a runoff vote on Aug. 11.

The two contenders for Mali’s top job, neither of whom received a clear majority of votes, are Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the former prime minister, and Soumaila Cissé, the former finance minister.

The United Nations has called the elections – the first since the brief war with radical Islamists, and the first for president since a coup toppled Mali’s twice-elected government in March 2012 – a critical first step in putting the war-torn county back together. They also linked them to the release of $4 billion in aid.

Mr. Keita, known locally by his initials, IBK, and who is rumored to be the preferred choice among some French and international diplomats, secured 39 percent of the first-round vote on July 28, which saw a record turnout of 51 percent.

Mr. Cissé, a veteran political insider who has run for president before and has served as head of the West African Monetary Union, took 19 percent. Both men are firmly entrenched in Mali’s often-maligned political class.

The announcement of the totals eased tensions in the capital of Bamako, which had grown steadily last week after Col. Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, minister of territorial administration, held a chaotic press conference stating that Keita was likely to win the first round outright.

When only a third of the votes had been counted, several news outlets began reporting a Keita victory as all but inevitable.

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Election turnout high in Mali on the heels of war and French-led intervention

CS Monitor

Final results may be known as early as tomorrow, as Malians shrug off a coup and chaos and vote with new ‘biometric’ cards.

Bamako, Mali: Still recovering from a radical Islamist insurgency months ago, Mali plunged ahead Sunday with elections that France and the United States had called for as a condition to release some $4 billion in aid.

Ballot counting is now under way after voters in the West African country turned out in unusually large numbers yesterday, with an outcome expected as early as tomorrow.

These presidential elections come 16 months after a military coup in Mali and six months after a French-led military intervention to liberate the desert north from rebel groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Yesterday’s vote is seen as a critical first step for a poor, landlocked country once wrongly considered a model of democracy. And the vote came amid concerns by local officials and several prominent international NGOs that hastily planned elections might further destabilize an already divided nation.

Others warned elections might put civilians at risk of attack from armed rebel groups in the north.

In the neighborhood of Lafiabougou, in the capital Bamako, lines had formed before polls had opened.

At a separate polling station across town in Hippodrome, a steady stream of voters arrived late into the evening.

APEM, a network of 2,100 Malian election observers, said that 96 percent of polling stations had opened on time and that turnout was “high.” Polls closed without reports of any major incidents.

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Mali Holds Elections After Year of Turmoil

New York Times

Under pressure from France and other Western powers, Mali held a presidential election on Sunday that some observers said the country was not ready for and that risked excluding thousands of its citizens.

Voting went off peacefully, nonetheless, in an election that Mali’s numerous donors deemed crucial to restoring the country’s stability after more than a year of turmoil: an Islamist takeover in the desert north in the spring of 2012; a military coup in the capital; French military intervention to forestall Islamist advances in January; and the flight of nearly 200,000 inhabitants beyond Mali’s borders.

Mali, a poor West African desert nation, has been ruled by a makeshift, unelected government since March 2012, with no parliament, few functioning state institutions and a weak, military junta-approved president. Billions of dollars in aid have been promised by international donors but only if the country has at least the appearance of democracy. That meant proceeding to a hasty election that some of the country’s politicians, research institutes like International Crisis Group, and even the country’s electoral commission warned might be premature.

Still, all over Bamako, the capital, on Sunday, long, orderly lines formed, and citizens dipped their fingers in dye to show that they had voted. Many suggested that, however imperfect, the election would put an end to months of uncertainty.

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High turnout in Mali’s first election since coup

The Independent

As Malians go to the polls, hopes are high the election will bring a better future.

Bamako, Mali – The West African nation of Mali voted in presidential elections on Sunday just 16 months after the country descended into chaos in the wake of a coup led by mid-ranking army officials.

Sunday’s polls are seen as an essential first step for a country once considered a model of democracy, and come just six months after France intervened to liberate northern Mali, a vast desert expanse that fell under the control of rebel groups linked to al-Qa’ida.

The run-up to the elections saw several of the 27 presidential candidates barnstorming across the country, filling local stadiums along the way.

Despite calls for a delay by some local politicians and several prominent international NGOs, Mali forged ahead with elections that the international community, particularly the US and France, had been calling for as a condition to releasing nearly $4bn dollars in pledged aid and assistance.

Yesterday, Malians went to the polls in large numbers. The election observers said in a statement that 96 per cent of polling stations had opened on time and turnout was “high”, without giving further details. Unless a candidate garners more than 50 per cent of the votes outright – an outcome that most observers see as unlikely – a second round run-off will follow on 11 August.

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Mali votes: Views from street

Al Jazeera

As Malians go to the polls, hopes are high the election will bring a better future.

Bamako, Mali - The West African nation of Mali is holding presidential elections on Sunday, in what many see as a crucial first step to stabilising a country rocked by 16 months of war and political turmoil.

The vote takes place amid lingering security concerns and a chaotic voter registration process, prompting many to question if Mali is ready to hold free and fair elections.

Some commentators fear a rushed vote may risk further destabilising an already divided nation. Despite calls for a delay by groups such as the International Crisis Group and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Mali’s interim government and the international community are determined to go forward with the vote, as $4bn in reconstruction and development assistance is on hold until Mali elects a government deemed legitimate by the international community.

At the centre of the debate are biometric identification cards known by their local acronym, NINA. Mali’s electoral officials and their international counterparts claim that more than 80 percent of the 6.8 million cards have been distributed, a number widely disputed locally.

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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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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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With French air strikes, has the war to retake northern Mali begun?

CS Monitor

Today’s expansion of the French air campaign beyond central Mali has left many wondering if the war has started – without much international coordination.

DAKAR, SENEGAL: France widened its military intervention in the African nation of Mali today beyond targets in the center of the country, sending fighter jets to the north to hammer training camps, infrastructure, and logistics depots used by Islamist rebels with ties to Al Qaeda.

“The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country, and Europe,” said France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on French television.

The French began air strikes on Friday to counter an ambitious rebel advance southward from their strongholds in the north. While France’s intervention appears to have the tacit support of the international community, the expansion of the French air campaign beyond central Mali has left many analysts wondering if a long-discussed war to retake northern Mali has begun in earnest – without much international coordination or planning.

“That’s the $64 billion question,” says François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “I think all of this has happened so quickly between Thursday and today that the immediate objective of stopping the two [Islamist] columns and preventing the replenishment of the frontline [Islamist] forces has been the beginning and the end all of what the French are trying to do.”

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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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