America’s War on Terror in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The piece below is a guest post from Hannah Armstrong, a freelance journalist who has reported from Niger, Mauritania and Morocco. The opinions expressed here are her own.

Reports of a new deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to help subdue Boko Haram in Nigeria, shared by the Guardian and Danger Room last week, are somewhat misleading. The reports are misleading not because they are unconfirmed, but because the United States has been quietly engaging in counterterrorism in a wide range of African countries, including Nigeria, for almost a decade.

The U.S. currently provides counterterrorism assistance to the militaries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, under the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership, a large-scale expansion of the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which was launched in 2002.

The Africa-focused command center AFRICOM is also active in counterterrorism in Libya, its first military intervention, and Somalia, the first African country to be targeted by American drones launched from new bases in Djibouti and the Seychelles. Obama’s deployment of 100 special operations forces to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, brings the total tally of African countries in which the US is engaged in CT operations to – by my count – 18.

That the theater grew so wide, so quickly, is stunning. Africans were so anxious over potential misuses of the newly-launched AFRICOM in 2007 that rumors of various countries refusing to host bases were a running joke, highlighting the illogicality of a military command centre with evidently humanitarian aspirations.

A few factors explain this turnaround. On the one hand, an uptick in attacks by groups such as Boko Haram and AQIM is generating a lot more noise about terrorism in Africa. This noise is of concern to local governments, foreign investors, tourism industries, and mining operations. On the other hand, local governments have discovered that prioritizing their struggles against fringe militant opposition groups that happen to be Muslim is a great way to fast-track military assistance from the most powerful army on the planet.

“We keep getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places,” AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham told Stars and Stripes in September of this year. “More exercises, more military-to-military engagement, more and more requests for interchanges, and I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore.’”

But what’s to stop African governments from directing their freshly trained, capacity-built, equipment-enhanced militaries against domestic opposition? African regimes may perceive non-‘terrorist’ domestic opposition groups as their most urgent threat. In 2007, for instance, U.S. anti-terrorism training and assistance to Mali were deployed against a Tuareg rebellion, leading rebels to fire upon a U.S. military plane delivering food aid to Malian troops.

“The U.S. has really developed an interest in Africa that we just have never seen before. Between all the goings and comings in the Horn of Africa and all this snake-eater (special forces) Sahara stuff, ungoverned territories… it’s all over the place. Since I think an awful lot of it is being run out of Special Operations Command and out of the agency (the CIA), I think it is probably far larger than anyone imagines,” defense analyst John Pike told the AP.

Gen. Ham envisions an arc (crescent?) of Islamic terrorism that stretches from Somalia’s Al-Shabaab in the East to Boko Haram in the West. The petite AQIM – thought to number, at most, a few hundred – shoulders the heavy task of terrorizing the roughly 2000-mile expanse of the Sahel region, including Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya.

‘Divide and conquer’ need not be the preferred strategy of empire. British imperialist Cecil Rhodes dreamed of uniting Africa by extending an electrical telegraph line from Cairo to Cape Town. In a grimly austere economic environment, fighting terror in Africa relieves some of the pressure on the Army’s newest command center to prove its relevance and attract funding. Motives for U.S. deployments to eighteen – and counting – African countries should be seen not merely in the context of a globalizing al-Qaeda. The shadow war on terror in Africa is also a pretext for anticipatory military cooperation, one that may be laying the ground for new conflicts that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Analyzing AQIM Jihad Recruitment Propaganda

The piece below is a guest post from Hannah Armstrong, a freelance journalist who has reported from Niger, Mauritania and Morocco, and is currently working on her MA at the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at the School of Oriental Studies and Diplomacy.

The following communication from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb religious leadership, posted to jihadi forums in August 2010 and translated by the author, furnishes unique insight into how the group perceives Sahelian militarization and recruitment. Addressed to an internal, not external, audience, the message cuts across tribal, ethnic, and national boundaries in an effort to create a political community based on shared histories and Islam. It was published shortly after a joint Franco-Mauritanian raid on an AQIM base in northern Mali.

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You have succeeded o pious ones and your infidel traitor enemies are defeated

from the pen of the Sheikh Abderrahman Abi Anas Alshanqiti (God preserve him)

Thanks be to God and then:

The filthy people, vile Mauritanian apostates, gathered. They are all vile under the banner of the cross…the damned French banner. The owners of these ashen faces met:

These faces which were entirely lost

Damned faces full of shame and humiliation

And they came goaded on by cursed France, engulfed with fire and shame – how damned this yoke – they are followed in this life by curse and on the day of resurrection, misery. How damned their destiny has been. They betrayed the ancestors who uphold the message of God and they killed the youth of the finest brotherhoods, as is evidenced by these speeches, which give great cause for anguish:

Misfortunes poured upon me – had they been

Poured upon days, these would have returned to nights.

How we have mourned our departed, loved, endeared to us in battlefields. We were joined together with them around the principle of monotheism, to which we are exclusively bound:

What a plague befell you for your age

It is not a sheep that dies, nor camel

But the plague befell a free man

And in his death, a great creation dies

And I said, being soaked in sweat lifted me and my times and my conditions repudiated me and I am even more plagued by worries and grief, though we are of God and it is to Him that we chiefly return. Reward us for our loss and goodness, let us withstand these trials and compensate us with better conditions:

My friend, release generous tears

Haven’t you heard of the affliction that has happened?

A solemn affliction intolerable to hear

From the horror of it, I see my heart ripped apart

The martyr had mourned us like loved ones

We are strong, capable of facing foreign oppressors

Hence I perceived it was my duty to write these lines and the following:

FIRST: These are the names of the brothers who were killed in this strike:

  1. The brother the commander, my master and my trainer, love of my heart, the Algerian Bilal Abu Musalem (Salami Ameroush). Born in 1981, he joined the mujahidin in 1999, smiting since that time the enemies of the sect, the traitorous sons of France. By God, he was the best brother for his brothers. May God put in him acceptance and

love between his brothers, especially the migrants.

Jolly and with good morals, patient, meek, brave, intrepid, sincere, modest, generous, pious – so we count him. He is laudable before God. God damn the evildoers.

  1. Albashir Abu Aldhdah (Abdalali Ashaairi) the Moroccan of Tangiers, born in 1981 and joined the muhahidin the ninth month of 2005. Brave, intrepid, a lion, gallant, dauntless, obliging and helpful to his brothers, never bored and tireless:

  1. Ibrahim Abu Mrdas (Abdalkader Ould Ahmadnahu) the Mauritanian, born the year 1985, joined the mujahidin 3-21-2007, and since then battering the sons of apostasy until God granted him what he wished for, for so we count it. He was of kind disposition, loving of knowledge, humble, loving of his brothers.

And the remaining brothers they are Abdalrazak (Ali Ould Sidi Mohamed) of Azawade born 1993 joined the mujahidin the sixth month of 2009, and the brother Ossama Anu Ziiii (Wanatu Ould Alhasaan) of Azawade born in 1992 joined the mujahidin in the ninth month of 2009 and the brother Abdalraouf (Bob Ould Hmaat) of Azawade joined the mujahidin one month before he was martyred. And how few, one who walks with it like him.

The principle of monotheism united the youth. They left their homes for the sake of victory of the only God, which was on their tongues.

…..

God forgive them all and join us to them as martyrs, with no substitutions or exchanges.

SECOND: I address to the entire Islamic nation condolences for the blows dealt its good sons – particularly to the families of these brothers who were martyred because of the treachery of the traitors. May God cut the roots of these traitors and help us to take our revenge upon them.

Our beloved families: Do not grieve for what God gave is what he took. Everything – with its own set period – is unto Him. So be patient and account and know that your sons were expended as martyrs – so we count them and they are laudable before God, God almighty said: [1] We ask God that he recommends those who died from among you for their monotheism on the day of judgement.

THIRD: I call these proud tribes whose sons fell as martyrs because of this reprehensible treason and despicable treachery to revolt against the apostate traitors and helpers of Christian France, for they were created for humiliation and they were not for Him of the people. I call the tribes to jihad, God’s way. Almighty God said :[2]

This is the market of paradise before you : let us go to the turfs of swordfights and the killing fields and the heroes’ arena – you are up for it, thanks be to God, so do not be stingy with yourselves.

Here they are, the people of the cross, they bared their teeth and declared war on Muslims in your country. So take up your swords against them before they initiate against you and send them to their end before they send you to yours.

FOURTH: to the treachery of those who sold out their religion for this life, who are loyal to the Jews and Christians who are hostile to God and his messenger and the faithful. To the Mauritanian army I say:

Do you know what you gained from yourselves?!

Are you satisfied with being slaves to the cross, apostates from the religion of God?!

If not, tell me what was it that came across you?!

Is it greed and lechery, or love of this life and its pleasures? Or is it meanness and servility, and being an agent of the West?!

I swear by God, you will bite your fingers out of remorse at your despicable deed and your miserable betrayal… even after a time, days before us will have wars and fighting. We are prepared for it by the correct faith and love of God and his prophet and the faithful, and love of fighting and murder on God’s path, and hatred for the infidels, and faith in victory and in the unseen which God promised us. We ask God that this faith be not reversed.

We prepared for it patience, with the permission of God patience with no end and long breaths and no haste for results however what we are sure of is what God almighty said :[3]

FIFTH: and to scholars of the bad I say:

After this obvious, clear, exposed, unjust, unwarranted loyalty to Christians, will you defend this apostate system? Hey, you! How do you judge? How do you argue on behalf of these infidels – he was not mistaken who described them as :

O bad scholars, repent to God and recall his saying :[4]

SIXTH: And to the enemy of God Sarkozy I say:

You wasted the opportunity and you opened the door to a scourge upon your country:

The news is what you see, not what you hear… I don’t say today or tomorrow or after tomorrow but it will be with the permission of God… even if after a while.

And I ask God to give victory to all mujahidin and cut the roots of the infidels and the atheists. Amen.

The Organization of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The text “You have succeeded…” by Mauritanian religious leader Sheikh Abderrahman al-Shanqiti seeks to persuade Sahelian Muslims to form a shared political community with Al Qaeda. This propaganda provides insight into how AQIM perceives its role in Sahelian politics, while revealing approaches it deems likely to connect with local populations. In this paper, I analyze how poetic style serves the text’s dual objectives of eulogizing and inciting to war. I question its potential appeal, highlighting contradictions between local and global jihad. I conclude by drawing attention to how this discourse departs from larger trends in AQIM ‘media jihad’ and the overall AQIM communications strategy.

In honoring six AQIM fighters slain in a raid by French-backed Mauritanian forces, al-Shanqiti appeals to a traditional medium of West African mass communication: elegiac poetry. In the second half of the 19th century, Arabic poetry in West Africa played a vital role in rallying support for jihadis’ social, religious, and political agendas.[5] Verses distributed to elite Islamic scholars spread throughout the Muslim masses via translations into local languages like Hausa and Fulfulde. Arabic West African elegiac poetry characteristically extolled the virtues of the slain, while expressing submission to God’s will and acknowledgement that this world is ephemeral. In this spirit, Shanqiti’s original verses honor the departed, situating those individuals within familiar local narratives of ‘warrior ethos’. He praises their exceptional, warlike qualities: “A massive army came towards you – A normal man would have feared – And you, with no armor but only your sword, you were not afraid,” – while consoling that the loss of such men is God’s will: “You fell but your honor rose, like the sun that rises and falls – that is part of its glory.”[6] Such verses are a strong stylistic departure from eulogies written by Al Qaeda central figures. Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri’s eulogies, for instance, read more like newspaper-style obituaries (“he was a sports trainer for the police forces”, etc).[7] Poetic verses indirectly serve the purpose of recruitment, by extending the promise of glory and renown in death to would-be fighters.

Shanqiti turns directly to recruitment following the elegiac verses, inciting Muslims to revolt. He appeals to the ‘proud tribes’ on the grounds that their sons were made martyrs at the hands of ‘apostate traitors and helpers of Christian France’. His rhetoric (“reprehensible treason and despicable treachery”, “vile Mauritanian apostates”) vividly conveys the humiliation of suffering attack by fellow Muslims, at the behest of a former colonial power. The threat posed by the unholy alliance of Mauritanian and French forces, he informs, is existential: “the people of the cross… declared war on Muslims in your country. So take up your swords against them before they initiate against you.” In fact, France had declared war weeks before, just after the failed raid to liberate the hostage Michel Germaneau resulted in his death and the death of the six fighters– but war was declared upon AQIM and not Muslims.

France’s willingness to wage war on a non-state actor whose footprint stretches across at least five of its former colonies should bear some responsibility for the confusion. But Shanqiti is unmistakably constructing a narrative in which not only AQIM but also all local Muslims are under existential threat. The categories of enemies in the text are quite clear – Mauritanian soldiers are ‘apostates’, the French ‘infidels’ and ‘people of the Cross’.[8] However, appeals to readership – the pool of potential recruits – reveal interesting inconsistencies. We can say that the text is meant primarily for local readership,[9] but to which categories do ‘local’ readers belong? Those target groups he singles out for direct address – ‘proud tribes’, ‘scholars of the bad’[10] and families of the slain – are transnational, spread across Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, yet united by ancient traditions like pastoralism and tribalism, as well as recent encounters with French colonization and Salafist ideology. Only once does he address the “entire Islamic nation” his condolences for the loss of the six fighters, before quickly turning to the families of those individuals – who are Moroccan, Mauritanian, Algerian, and Malian – and asking them to avenge these deaths. Shanqiti envisions his audience as Sahelian Muslims, but more specifically, as a community with a shared pre-colonial past grounded in local Arab West and North African discourse, and a potentially shared postcolonial future guided by an imported religious ideology, Salafism.

Local traditions like tribalism, pastoralism, Sufi folk customs and political leadership split between warriors and zawyas still prevail among diverse Sahelian and to a lesser extent Maghrebi communities. But while material bonds and kinship formed the traditional foundations of political loyalty, modern encounters with foreign forces brought upheaval. The expansion of European political economy into Africa in the 19th century upset a balance of power of exchanging tribute for protection among warriors, pastoralists, cultivators, and merchants, contributing to the decline of local forms of economy and defense.[11] More recently, the entry of hard-line Salafist ideology from the East via satellite television shows and missions from the Gulf has competed with local sources of religious authority. Exceedingly weak states,[12] and fragile, contested forms of religious and political authority among traditional communities characterize the contemporary era. This is fertile territory for constructing new religious and political communities.

This is precisely what Shanqiti’s Manichaean depiction of holy war against infidels and their collaborators/agents seeks to do: enfold Sahelian Muslims within the same political community as Al Qaeda. Asymmetrical warfare like Al Qaeda’s depends on winning the hearts and minds of locals; such propaganda frames the struggle in terms to which it hopes the audience will relate. From a Western security perspective, a French-supported surgical strike upon a known Al Qaeda base is a smart move for a Mauritanian government tasked with monopolizing the means of violence. But against the backdrop of the escalating militarization of the Sahel region (“one of the most important strategic energy locations in the world today” according to Sahel expert Jeremy Keenan[13]), the role of foreign powers in local military incursions could have unforeseeable consequences, like deepening locals’ resentment against the Mauritanian state and potentially drumming up sympathy for Shanqiti’s argument that France is at war not only with AQIM but with Muslims. Certain themes are likely highly relatable – there is for instance deep, widespread resentment stemming from shared postcolonial grievances and frustrations with local states’ weaknesses that would frame the way Malian and Mauritanian Muslims in particular read the venomous censure against the French-backed raid by Mauritanian forces upon Malian soil.

Are shared local grievances enough to sway the Muslim masses – or even more than a radical fringe – to adopt global jihad? AQIM has gained a limited local following since emerging from the Algerian GSPC Groupe Salafiste pour le Predication et le Combat; its membership now consists of hundreds from across the Maghreb and Sahel, with geographical concentration in the border area lining Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria. “What had started out as an Algerian problem is now engulfing Mali and Mauritania. They are the weak link,” said Zakaria Ould Ahmed Salem, a specialist on political Islam at the University of Nouakchott.[14] But I would argue that AQIM’s recruitment strategy is intrinsically limited by what has been called “confrontational dialectics between global and local jihad”.[15] There is no direct path from point A, the common ground of enduring pain and shame at the colonial experience – a wound reopened by ongoing militarization of the Sahel region – and frustrations with weak local states, to point B, waging war upon France, which Shanqiti explicitly references with a direct threat to Nicolas Sarkozy.[16]

Shanqiti’s message is atypical of AQIM communications, affording rare insight into an inward-oriented recruitment campaign tailor-made for the Sahel and Maghreb. Since the 2007 merger with Al Qaeda, AQIM communications have increasingly featured videos and images to accompany written texts, allowing increased impact in mass media and raising the disturbing impact of kidnappings of Westerners with graphic materials.[17] Communications also often come with French translations to facilitate the task of foreign media, with transcriptions of video and audio content often added. Torriano posits that these trends stem from a desire to merge with Al Qaeda and please its leaders, or perhaps were even conditions of joining the Al Qaeda franchise imposed by central leadership. Improvements in the quantity and quality of AQIM propaganda following the 2007 merger also reflect the influence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who effectively used media to exaggerate its image and capacities, “enabling it to lead Iraqi insurgency even when said image did not correspond to its actual size and representativeness”.[18]

Shanqiti’s message is a window into a different kind of propaganda campaign, one that does not seek to impress foreign jihadis or foreign media but rather to build a political and spiritual community grounded in local Sahelian-Maghrebi discourses. It is unaccompanied by images and videos that make superficial impressions, nor by a transcription to simplify the task for foreign media. It contains poetry and allusions to local traditions such as tribalism, pastoralism[19], and the treachery of a Muslim army collaborating as “agents” of the former colonial power. Poetic communications by groups like Hamas similarly use poetic verses as a medium for “political mobilization and ideological consolidation”.[20] But whereas Hamas is first and foremost committed to Palestinian sovereignty and independence, AQIM has no positive goals to offer recruitees – only the negative one of opposing foreign ‘Crusaders’.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abdallah, A., “Arabic Poetry in West Africa: An Assessment of the Panegyric and Elegy Genres in Arabic Poetry of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Senegal and Nigeria”, Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2004), pp. 368-390.

Alshaer, A., “The Poetry of Hamas”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Vol. 2, 2009, pp. 214-230.

Filiu, J.-P., “The Local and Global Jihad of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring 2009.

Siqili, I., “The Two Martyrs of Al-Qa’ida Central: Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Banshiri & Muhammad ‘Atef: A Eulogy by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri”, Views from the Occident Blog, 12 January 2011, http://occident2.blogspot.com/2011/01/two-martyrs-of-al-qaida-central-abu.html

Taylor, R., “Warriors, Tributaries, Blood Money and Political Transformation in Nineteenth-century Mauritania”, The Journal of African History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1995), pp. 419- 441.

Torres Soriano, Manuel R.(2011) ‘The Road to Media Jihad: The Propaganda Actions of Al Qaeda in theIslamic Maghreb’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 23: 1, 72 — 88.

Trofimov, Y., “Islamic rebels gain strength in the Sahara”, Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2009.

Volman, D. & Keenan, J., “The origins of AFRICOM: the Obama administration, the Sahara-Sahel and US Militariation of Africa”, Concerned Africa Scholars, Bulletin No. 85, Spring 2010, concernedafricascholars.org.

 


[1] “And do not speak of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead / Nay, (they are) alive but you do not perceive. (Al Baqarah : 154)

[2] “O you who believe! What (excuse) have you that when it is said to you: Go forth in Allah’s way you should incline heavily to earth? Are you contented with this world’s life instead of the hereafter? But the provision of this world’s life compared with the hereafter is but little if you do not go forth, He will chastise you with a painful chastisement and bring in your place a people other than you, and you will do Him no harm. And Allah has power over all things.” (Al Tawba : 38-39)

[3] “the end is with deeds”

[4] “And do not plead on behalf of those who act unfaithfully to their souls / Surely Allah does not love him who is treacherous, sinful.” “Behold! You are they who (may) plead for them in this world’s life, but who will plead for them with Allah on the Resurrection Day, or who shall be their protector?” (Al Nisa 107, 109)

[5] Arabic poems were the first forms of written literature or poetry in the region, according to Abdullah. Cf. Abdallah, A., “Arabic Poetry in West Africa: An Assessment of the Panegyric and Elegy Genres in Arabic Poetry of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Senegal and Nigeria”, Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2004), pp. 368-390.

[6] Translations of verses omitted from the above translation were kindly provided by Peter Webb.

[7] Siqili, I., “The Two Martyrs of Al-Qa’ida Central: Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Banshiri & Muhammad ‘Atef: A Eulogy by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri”, Views from the Occident Blog, 12 January 2011, http://occident2.blogspot.com/2011/01/two-martyrs-of-al-qaida-central-abu.html

[8] Shanqiti’s word choice draws parallels between the “apostate” Mauritanian army’s betrayal of the Muslim people and the early converts to Islam who reverted to their old ways after the death of the prophet Mohammad.  He refers to the French with the same word for infidels (“mshrekeen”) used to describe those against whom Mohamed waged war. Such editorial choices evoke classical Islamic paradigms in the minds of readers, and further the goal of casting the struggle as one between holy warriors (AQIM) and apostates and infidels (the French and Mauritanian forces).

[9] As opposed to say, Southeast Asian fighters, or potential recruits in the Persian Gulf.

[10] Shanqiti is presumably referring here to Salafi scholars who work alongside the state rather than against it.

[11] Taylor, R., “Warriors, Tributaries, Blood Money and Political Transformation in Nineteenth-century Mauritania”, The Journal of African History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1995), pp. 419- 441.

[12] Built upon arbitrary postcolonial borders, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in particular routinely rank among the world’s weakest.

[13] Volman, D. & Keenan, J., “The origins of AFRICOM: the Obama administration, the Sahara-Sahel and US Militarization of Africa”, Concerned Africa Scholars, Bulletin No. 85, Spring 2010, concernedafricascholars.org.

[14] Trofimov, Y., “Islamic rebels gain strength in the Sahara”, Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2009.

[15] Filiu, J.-P., “The Local and Global Jihad of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring 2009.

[16] In an ominous final address to French President and “enemy of God” Nicolas Sarkozy, who has ‘opened the door to a scourge’ upon France, Shanqiti categorically states that avenues for dialogue are sealed shut: the only communications AQIM will send France are “Yemeni swords and spears” and “the stern Islamic army”.

[17] Torres Soriano, Manuel R.(2011) ‘The Road to Media Jihad: The Propaganda Actions of Al Qaeda in theIslamic Maghreb’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 23: 1, 72 — 88.

[18] Torriano, ibid.

[19] Cf. : “It is not a sheep that dies, nor a camel. But the plague befell a free man”

[20] Alshaer, A., “The Poetry of Hamas”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Vol. 2, 2009, pp. 214-230.

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