Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category
New York- It’s such an obvious thing to say but it’s really hard to believe it’s been two solid decades since the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. I viscerally remember sitting in the dormitory at San Diego State University when a friend had the news on. He was from Fontana but had Oklahoma roots and was deeply saddened. I remember that one crackpot analyst being so sure that it was Islamist (Salafist in today’s speak) in nature and how incredibly wrong he was.
That vast tragedy overshadowed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in terms of both the number of casualties and the fact that it forced–for a time–a paradigm shift about how we think about terrorism. With the East Africa bombings in August 1998, the threat of domestic terrorism was once again diminished in the face of an external threat. Al-qaeda with its obscurantist worldview was seemingly more easily interpreted from a national security standpoint than those in league with Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Those whose duty it is to protect the land from attacks must be analytically agile and intellectually nimble in order to reevaluate the constantly shifting threat landscape.
The memorial is beautiful yet somber. It is a symbol of tragedy and renewal.
New York- With Khalifa Haftar suddenly very relevant again after his initially notable reappearance in Libya in March 2011, Libya’s littoral is once against thrust into turmoil in both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Haftar is leading a fight against Ansar al-Sharia and Derna-based salafis in the east and has forces loyal to him attack the General National Congress complex in the west. Whether he can indeed overthrow the enfeebled elected government in Tripoli remains to be seen but thus far his efforts appear to be destabilizing what is already a highly fissiparous state structure with its revolving door of prime ministers. For Haftar’s staunchly anti-Ikhwan stance, the BBC is even referring to him in a loose analogy as “Libya’s Sisi” I profiled Haftar in 2011 which was picked up by Reuters at the time.
This week I am quoted by McClatchy D.C. in an article on Haftar’s newly relevant role in the Libya militia polity as well as Yahoo! Noticias España. My work was also obliquely referenced on the Middle East Institute Editor’s blog last week.
NATO helping to tip over a tin pot dictatorship during Operation Unified Protector and its U.S. precursor Operation Odyssey Dawn was one thing, but state building in Libya in that aftermath of all that is quite another. Simply put, it has not happened in any meaningful way.
From the Tuareg-cum-salafi revolt in northern Mali that began only months after Libya-based Tuareg fighters exited their evaporating sanctuary and returned home via Niger to the Toubou clashes in the Fezzan in the spring of 2012, the ripple effects of the downfall of North Africa’s most caricatured dictator have been felt across the region ever since.
Perhaps Haftar sees himself as a future Libyan military strongman in the fashion of an Egyptian-style military leader. As an old school CIA asset with Nasserist origins, it remains unclear whether he can oust those administering nascent post-Qaddafi state with whom he violently disagrees or defeat the salafi-jihadi militias flying the black flags in troubled Cyrenaica.
It should be remembered that Haftar was gone from Libya for decades before returning there when opportunity struck in 2011. What he does have doing for him is access to heavy weapons–including aircraft–to smite his opponents coupled with the element of surprise.
New York- With the immediacy of the tactical success of the French military campaign in northern Mali beginning in mid-January combined with the aggressive Nigerian offensive in that country’s northeastern Borno State that began in mid-May, the Republic of Niger is wedged between two presently expanding salafi-jihadi conflicts. Niger with its vast uranium reserves, chronic food insecurity and immense poverty has emerged as the newest locale to suffer salafi martyrdom operations a.k.k.a. suicide bombings. I published a report in late June for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst looking at the extension of kinetic militancy into Niger. While Niger is accustomed-like its neighbor Mali-to intermittent Tuareg rebellions and a minor degree of homegrown Islamism while having had several high profile kidnapping incidents in the last several years, neither Niamey or Bamako was adequately prepared for the ramping up of ideologically-driven insurgencies as compared to the veteran (in relative terms) security apparatuses helmed in Algiers and Abuja.
While most of the conflict in Mali in 2012 consisted of a series of rebel advances and government retreats followed by a drawn out stalemate period, it seemed certain that once some form of military intervention was inevitably launched, the jihadis would surely begin a more asymmetric campaign that would feature suicide bombings and fidayeen-style raids on the forces of state actors be they indigenous, regional, or Western.
Less than a month after Operation Serval began, Mali experienced its first suicide bombing in Gao Region when on February 8 militants attacked a Malian Army checkpoint on the Gao-Bourem road. The attack was immediately claimed by MUJAO’s spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui. As if the first explosive message was insufficient, it was immediately followed up by a second attack on the same checkpoint the following day.
Then on February 10,MUJAO jihadis launched a rather reckless raid on Gao’s centre ville. Despite MUJAO’s aggressive asymmetry, most of its operations resulted in tactical failures in terms of what were presumably hoped for mass casualty events. The strategy-at least in terms of branded messaging-was, however, somewhat successful. The two nodes of salafi-jihadism in North and West Africa i.e. Algeria to the north and northern Nigeria to the south, were being bridged with the gradual expansion of militancy in the broader Sahel region.
The Sahel has traditionally served as a natural geographic and cultural buffer zone which is being eroded by rapid advances in mobile technology and social media which have the means to both disseminate radical thought among susceptible populations that are woefully underserved by feeble central governments as well as connect militant groups with traditionally localized or divergent agendas to one another. For several years analysts have speculated whether there were or could be links to AQIM in Algeria-Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.Even the head of AFRICOM stated: “linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome.”
These claims were oft criticized by what were believed to be the very different aims of AQIM and Boko Haram. AQIM which is firmly rooted in the GIA and GSPC of Algeria’s 1990s civil war was an Algerian movement (albeit a quite fissiparous one indicated by the GIA-GSPC split) seeking mostly to create an Islamic state within Algeria’s borders-although undoubtedly some of these salafis were adherents of a borderless ummah ideology. But when the GSPC renamed itself AQIM in 2007, in the form of AQIM as a matter of strategic survival it broadened both its operational geography–which the GSPC had already begun in its final phase–in places like Mali and Niger while making inroads amongst those populations who harbored their own long-held grievances against their respective central governing institutions.
Meanwhile in the Hausa-dominated states of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram–Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da`wa wa al-Jihad for those in the know–maintained as its primary goal the formal introduction of sharia law throughout Nigeria. But when Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO gained power in northern Mali in 2012, locals who had fled Gao described to TWD the presence of Hausa speaking, Anglophone militants operating alongside MUJAO in Gao ville and its immediate environs. For Boko Haram to be present in Gao it would likely have had to pass through southwestern Niger, skirting around its capital Niamey. But several Malian intellectuals who spoke candidly with TWD in 2012 stated that they firmly believed Boko Haram already had a presence in southern Niger including with Niamey itself and therefore the movement of Nigerian militants into Mali was not as improbable as some Westerners might assume just by looking from afar at perceived vast distances on a flat map.
As nation-states occupying transition zones connecting the dry Sahara to the more verdant sub-Sahara, Mali and now Niger have manifested clearly as conduits between these what are often thought of as disparate regions of Africa. When movements like AQIM, MUJAO and Boko Haram graft themselves onto deeply held provincial tribulations beyond their traditional realms, the threat to the respective wobbly regimes squeezed in the middle is heightened more so. Thus we may see suicide bombing spread even farther to poorly protected targets in N’djamena and Nouakchott, perhaps even Dakar. None of these movements appears to pose a specific threat to the West itself–at least for the time being–but they threaten Western interests and allies which may pull Paris and Washington in only deeper into a widening crisis.
Though the jihadis were forcefully ejected from Mali’s northern and central cities mostly by French air strikes followed by ground columns and Abuja is touting that it has reached a truce of sorts with Boko Haram, the troubles for Niger and Mali, and possibly Mauritania, Chad and other regional states may be far from over.
With all the grim talk of relgio-political or inter-communal violence and such mentioned above, I thought it would be good to balance out this post with something a bit more relaxed. I attended a fantastic concert on June 21 where Bombino, a mezmerizing Tuareg guitarist from Niger’s uranium rich, politically troubled Agadez Region. Bombino sings in Tamasheq, the language of the Sahara-Sahel area’s indigenous Tuareg people who refer to themselves as the Kel Tamasheq.
I have no clue if there was any intention of this by the concert’s organizers but it was great to hear Saharan Tuareg rock in the same venue as the venerated Amadou and Mariam who sing in Bambara, the predominant language of southern Mali and in the areas surrounding its capital Bamako, but it seemed symbolically poignant if it the result was unintentional. One of the more simplistic perceptions of Mali’s internal war-which has since affected Niger as the salafi-jihadi militants sought safe ground from French air strikes-is that it had an implied north-south dynamic in which impoverished or resentful northern ethno-linguistic groups felt underserved by and underrepresented amongst the southern-dominated political circles in Bamako. Some of the same can be said for Niger where northerners feel Niamey is a far off kleptocracy that undermines their own economic and political interests.
Amadou and Mariam
New York- While it’s memorial day here in the United States, this past Saturday it was the 50th anniversary of the African Union [formerly the Organization of African Unity until 2001]. I visited the AU/OAU’s original headquarters in 2011in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after the hectic melée’s of Egypt, Libya and Bahrain when I needed a bit of a break.Upon reading of the AU’s 50th anniversary festivities, I thought a short photo essay was in order.
I initially ventured to the AU’s grounds from my hotel on Churchill Road to try and gather information on the possible creation of Jubaland astatelet in southwestern Somalia as well as the doings of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Dolo Odo refugee camp on the Somali border. But I quickly discovered that a Chinese government construction outfit was building a gleeming new AU conference hall and tower on the adjoining lot which captured my attention.
New York- I have an article out today on the French-led external military intervention in central and northern Mali which began in mid-January. I woke up this morning excited to have a new piece out only to see that there had been a double suicide bombing in neighboring Niger. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claims to have carried out simultaneous attacks in the distant towns of Arlit and Agadez.
UPDATE-Today Mokhtar Belmokhtar released a statement that the attack was a joint operation by MUJAO and his Signatories in Blood katiba (unit) “in the name of [the late] Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid.” He then said that his salafi-jihadis had decided upon a “military withdrawal” in response to the French intervention.
The attack on Nigerien troops and the French uranium mining consortium AREVA does not come remotely as a surprise for several reasons. As I noted in a post on this blog last spring, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou was coming out as particularly vocal among regional heads of state in West Africa–obviously concerned that the instability in northern Mali would likely affect a vulnerable Niger that has already been saddled with its own internal challenges for many years.
Like Mali, Niger has faced its own bouts of Tuareg rebellion-most recently with le Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice-MNJ led by former Qaddafi ally Aghaly ag Alambo. Ag Alambo was arrested in Niamey in March 2012 over a June 2011 Libyan arms explosives episode he was accused of being involved in as Qaddaffi’s regime crumbled in Tripoli and war materiel began flowing in much larger quantities throughout the wider Sahara.
Though certain conspiratorial-minded critics have speculated that France’s intervention in Mali was motivated by crass economic interests in that country (often with scant data on the true value of untapped resources in Mali’s north), in terms of French industry at home, Niger is far more important.
China likely has a larger economic stake in Mali than does France if not in aid than purely large scale in infrastructure projects.Beijing may even put PLA boots on the ground in the name of UN peacekeeping as it presently has in Sudan’s Darfur region.
France does have genuine interest in Niger’s uranium resources and which local communities of Tuareg, Toubou, Arabs and Fulani feel they should be genuinely benefitting from economically. There is deep resentment among Niger’s ethnic minorities in the country’s north over economic grievances and environmental degradation related to French doings in their bomeland as well as a startling lack of development in the Agadez Region and its Arlit Department.
And like Mali, Niger has been suffering from a persistent food crisis in recent years but to a much more severe degree than Mali to the west whose whole “Azawad” region has been deemed a humanitarian emergency by a host of NGOs. Not to mention that Nigerien citizens crossed the border into Mali to take part in MUJAO’s foothold in Gao Region. One of the lower tier MUJAO commanders in Gao Ville was reportedly a Nigerien national.
Secondly there were the reported developments of the U.S. setting up a drone facility in Niger that was very much welcome by Issoufou and word that French Special Forces were coming into their spartan former colony to protect the uranium extraction operations that would both make poorly defended targets while stoking jihadi ire. The Arlit AREVA mine is estimated to provide 40% of metropolitan France’s nuclear energy which is 80% of the power consumed in France.
On top of all that Nigerien troops are stationed in Mali as part of the AFISMA intervention force in towns like Ansongo and Menaka. Then there is the fact that French and Chadian troops have pushed the jihadis out of their camps in Kidal Region in the Ametetai and Terz valleys and in the overall Adrar des Ifoghas area (although the Elysée does not want independent observers up there on the ground apparently-and hasn’t allowed an journalist embeds with non-French passport holders as far as I know). So the surviving men of MUJAO and AQIM who were not killed in French airs strikes will have to have gone somewhere, non?
Lastly on this though, AQIM has breached the Nigerien capital of Niamey in the past with a bold kidnapping of two Frenchmen in January 2011 which ended with the hostages being killed rather than ransomed. In the wake of a disastrous rescue attempt by French Special Forces, it seemed as if the kind of trouble we see in that country on this day was well on the horizon.
French troops may have merely been the catalyst for such salafi-jihadi expansion rather than the sole driver of today’s tragedy that killed 26.
Guest blogger: Jason Florio
Follow Jason on Twitter at @floriophotoNYC
See Jason’s online portfolio here
New York- I’ve known photographer Jason Florio for nearly a dozen years now. Our paths have had this dramatic before-and-after symmetry. Jason shot in northern Afghanistan just before 9/11, I just after. He shot in Baghdad just before it fell, I, again, just after. Jason was in Lebanon not long before the most recent Israeli invasion, me during it in summer 2006. Jason traversed Libya when Qadaffi’s rule was unwavering, I as it was falling to pieces.
Below is an except from Jason and his wife Helen’s most recent adventure along the River Gambia beginning in Afrique l’Ouest (Francophone West Africa) and ending in the Anglophone sliver that is Gambia where Jason has been traveling for many years now. Enjoy!
“The River Gambia is one of Africa’s last major free-flowing rivers, starting as a mere trickle from under a rock in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. It meanders through the gold-rich land of south east Senegal, and through the length of The Republic of The Gambia (the country is named after the river) and enters the Atlantic Ocean having coursed it’s way for over 1100km(approx. 685 miles) and broadened to 14km wide. Plans are afoot to build a hydroelectric dam on the river on the Senegal-Guinea border.
The dam would bring much needed power to a dark region, but would displace ancient villages, change the natural flow of the river, drastically effect the fragile eco system. The reduced flow would create greater salinity in the river further upstream, severely impacting the lives of villagers whose very survival is based on crop irrigation by the river. Documentary photographer Jason Florio, and his wife, writer/producer Helen Jones-Florio, accompanied by two Gambian fishermen followed the river for two months by canoe and motorcycle from source-to-sea.
Traveling in-part in the footsteps of 19th century explorers to the region including Mungo Park and Gaspard Mollien, their aim was to create a modern day account of the people and communities along the length of the river, before the dam stops its natural course forever.”
For more images from the River Gambia Expedition, click here
New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.
This spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.
The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’
Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….
The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.
Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.
Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.
Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.
New York- In the wake of the French military intervention in Mali late last week, I felt like it was time for TWD to kick into high gear. On Monday, I appeared on BBC Arabic’s News Hour programme from the beeb’s Manhattan studio (which was actually the NYC AP bureau). The show was hosted by Lebanon’s lovely Fida Basil and featured Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a one time Algerian ambassador to Libya-turned outspoken Algerian dissident in exile in the UK and Akli Shaka, the Leeds-based spokesman for the Imohag (alt. Imuhagh–the endonym of the Tuareg people) and myself. I also did a piece for CNN.com (pictured above) synthesizing recent developments with my work on the ground there in 2012.
One of the topics I fielded during the segment was whether or not there would be a Salafi blowback on the French metropole or in amongst any of Mali’s neighbors where security is already inherently sketchy and AQIM essentially has freedom of movement across several over the borders. As I was answering an email to colleague this morning, I cited the GIA’s hijacking of an Air France flight 8969 heading from Algiers to Paris’s Orly airport on Christmas Eve 1994 and the Paris metro bombings in 1995 (as with all terrorist related events related to Algeria’s bloody civil conflict there of course is an alternate theory that the DRS-Algeria’s all-knowing intelligence service-was behind some or all of these events). Not suggesting the GIA in the 1990s is a precise direct analogy but the experience offers some insight. Monday I thought it all but assured that Mali-based Salafi-jihadis would strike in a neighboring state in the very least. Whether they have the capability to strike on French soil remains to be seen I suppose. Let’s hope that is not the case.
In the immediate aftermath of the largely successful raid on the jet at Marseille’s airport in which the four GIA operatives were killed by French commandos, four Catholic priests were murdered in in the immediate aftermath in retribution in Tizi-Ouzou east of Algiers in the Kabylie region which has remained a locus of conflict in some degree or another until the present.
As soon as I hit send on said email, I then checked the news to see something that seemed like the logical next step: a massive raid was launched on a sprawling energy installation’s complex today in which an estimated 41 expatriate workers were taken hostage by men believed to be under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s (a.k.a. MBM, a.k.a. Belawar) AQIM faction “La katiba des Moulathamine” (or is it al-Mouwaqiin bi Dam-“Signatories in Blood battalion” a constituent of or breakaway from the “Masked Brigade”-it seems there is no agreement/too little information at the time of this writing) or AQIM itself depending on reports.
In what was likely a carefully planned assault, militants struck the Ain Amenas liquified natural gas field project being operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s state energy concern Sonatrach on Algeria’s eastern border with Libya due south of the triple border with Tunisia.Many believe that Belmokhtar was behind the audacious raid in Algeria’s Illizi Wilayat (province), bringing a flurry of attention to a character generally little known in Anglophone media circles.
There had been speculation last fall that Belmokhtar had been dismissed as commander of his men by AQIM’s overall Algeria-based emir, Abdekmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) which Droukdel reportedly later denied.
The biggest story suddenly surged from the war in Mali to one of the biggest terror attacks on Algerian soil in many years. Just like that, the news cycle had to catch up to speed on events to Mali’s north in the chaotic midst of learning about Mali itself. As with its captured diplomats in Gao, Algeria taking its characteristically hard line, claims it categorically will not negotiate-much less pay ransoms for-hostages, foreign or indigenous.
Just before the start of the Mali conflict in December 2011, I edited a report by Dario Cristiani entitled “Mixing Ideological and Pragmatic Jihad: A Fresh Look at Mokhtar Belmokhtar.” If you are following me on Twitter, you can DM for a PDF if interested.
UPDATE: In keeping with Algiers’s stated no-negotiations position (despite the fact the government said talks were attempted), Algerian forces launched what could be called a disastrous ‘rescue’ mission. Reports right now are conflicting about whether the operation is still ongoing or whether it has already concluded. Whatever has happened, it has likely been quit bloody.
UPDATE: Friend and colleague, the Toronto-based analyst Andrew McGregor appeared on CBC News to talk about the history of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the impact of the Ain Amenas raid, its sophistication and beguiling logistical improbabilities. He also discussed the possible long term effects on Algeria’s energy industry, a key source of that country’s GDP. Click play below.