x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Arab Spring uprisings embolden Africa's militants

Boko Haram in Nigeria, Tuareg insurgents in Mali and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have ramped up operations since the Arab Spring. Experts are worried that the region could be further destabilised as these groups acquire more weapons and power.

Boko Haram bombed five locations on Christmas last year, including St Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla outside the capital Abuja.
Boko Haram bombed five locations on Christmas last year, including St Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla outside the capital Abuja.

Boko Haram in Nigeria, Tuareg insurgents in Mali and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have ramped up operations since the Arab Spring. Experts are worried that the region could be further destabilised as these groups acquire more weapons and power, John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent, reports

TUNIS // Across North Africa, the Arab Spring uprisings have empowered millions: activists, politicians, voters - and, it turns out, the region's militants.

Revolts that brought down dictators also threw security services off balance, while weapons poured out of Libya in the chaos that followed Muammar Qaddafi's downfall, analysts said.

"We're very concerned," said William Lawrence, head of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO. "As many as 12 countries could be significantly affected by the flow of arms and fighters."

Al Qaeda's North African franchise and Nigeria's Boko Haram group have increased attacks over the past year, while Tuareg insurgents in Mali launched new offensives last month.

The expanding violence highlights the difficulty of controlling the Sahara desert and adjacent Sahel region, more than 9 million arid square kilometres where national borders often fade into irrelevance.

Through history the region was populated by nomads, driving their livestock and raiding caravans that transported goods between sub-Saharan kingdoms and Mediterranean ports.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the troops of colonial France sweated their way across the Sahara in a continuous effort to impose order.

A new threat arose in the late 1990s: Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), which has attacked mainly Algerian security forces in a messy coda to the country's civil war.

While the group's northern wing has carried out bombings and ambushes, its Saharan bands based in northern Mali have gained millions of dollars by kidnapping westerners for ransom.

Saharan countries have increasingly worked together on security, and the United States has pumped funding into counter-terrorism training for the region's armies.

In 2007 the GSPC officially renamed itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), linking its quest to build an Islamic state in Algeria with the global jihad of Osama Bin Laden.

Last year North Africa saw a different kind of uprising, as pro-democracy protests led to the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

However, political upheaval also weakened security forces in Tunisia and Libya, and the collapse of Mr Qaddafi's regime exposed his arsenal to weapons traffickers while depriving some African governments of a former benefactor.

"That's going to create problems for established rulers across Africa," said Jon Marks, chairman of Cross-Border Information, a British risk-assessment firm. "Even a small number of armed militants can still make trouble in the nebulous security situation."

AQIM stepped up attacks last year, including a double suicide bombing that killed 18 at Algeria's top military academy in August, and claimed credit for brazen kidnappings in Mali.

"AQIM's capabilities in the Sahara are steadily expanding," said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a North Africa expert for Control Risks, a risk-assessment firm in London. "The group has shown that it is capable of handling several hostage situations at once."

In separate kidnappings last November in Mali, gunmen abducted two Frenchmen from their hotel in Hombori, and grabbed three European tourists and shot dead a fourth in a Timbuctoo restaurant.

AQIM said later that it held the five hostages, and last month threatened to execute them if their governments attempted a rescue. The group also holds four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 in Niger.

Libya's interim government has struggled to secure weapons stocks and control borders. The discovery last September that surface-to-air missiles had gone missing set off international panic.

So far, there is no evidence that the Libyan missiles have found their way to militant groups, analysts said.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior AQIM commander in the Sahara, told Mauritania's state news agency last December that the group had acquired Libyan weapons.

Some governments think that AQIM has also trained Nigeria's Followers of the Prophet's Way for Preaching and Jihad, known as Boko Haram, who bombed churches, the national police headquarters and the United Nations office in Abuja last year, said a UN report last month.

Seven Boko Haram members were arrested in Niger en route to Mali with bomb-making instructions and contact details for AQIM members, said the UN report, based on information from officials in five Saharan and Sahelian countries.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tuareg fighters hired and armed by Qaddafi as mercenaries returned home to Niger and Mali after his regime fell last August.

Last month Tuareg insurgents in Mali from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) stormed into northern towns armed with new heavy machine-guns and anti-tank weapons, renewing a decades-old struggle for an independent Tuareg state.

The United Nations called on Wednesday for the rebels to halt their offensive, shortly after they seized the border town of Tinzawatene and forced government troops to withdraw into Algeria, Reuters reported.

"The Libyan crisis shook up the order of things," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, an MNLA spokesman quoted this week by the New York Times. "A lot of our brothers have come back with weapons."

While militant groups have differing goals and ideology - the MNLA, for example, publicly condemns AQIM - they are increasingly plugged into a common network of weapons traffickers, analysts said.

Many also have staying power that goes deeper than politics, bound to communities and thriving on local grievances, said Mr Marks.

"They come from families or tribes," he said. "There are a whole series of unresolved issues."

jthorne@thenational.ae