A focus on using the military to counter Islamist violence fails to address the reasons for its growth
The war in Ukraine has inevitably dominated Western media over the past year, but the so-called 'war on terror' is far from over, however much the NATO leadership wishes otherwise. Conflicts continue in northern Iraq and Syria, and there has been an upsurge in violence on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
At least as significant as this is Islamist-fuelled violence from the western Sahel right across equatorial Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and Somalia. With the French withdrawing military support from several of its former colonies, the United States has become increasingly involved in the region, though this is complicated by the presence of Russia's Wagner mercenaries, who are capitalising on anti-European sentiments and Western policy missteps.
In Iraq and Syria, US involvement takes the form of air strikes, the most recent being targeted on Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri, an ISIS leader who, according to US Central Command, "was responsible for planning ISIS attacks into Europe and developed the leadership structure for ISIS". His death earlier this week came just over a month after US and local forces staged a helicopter raid that killed another ISIS leader, Hamza al-Homsi.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban security forces are continuing with their numerous attempts to control local affiliates of ISIS, while across the eastern border in north-west Pakistan, violent confrontations continue between the Pakistani Army and Islamist paramilitaries.
The clashes follow an explosion in a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar that killed as many as a hundred people, mainly police officers, in January. The attack was originally claimed by a faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, though the al-Qaida-linked group later denied it. The group has been behind several other attacks since a ceasefire with the Pakistani authorities broke down last November.
I have written before on the ongoing development of ISIS, al-Qaida and linked groups, and have specifically raised the spread of influence of such groups across northern and central Africa south of the Saharan Sahel belt from Mauritania through to Chad, as well as the DRC, Uganda, Somalia, Kenya and down to northern Mozambique.
Jihadist activity in Ghana, Uganda and the DRC
The intensity of the individual conflicts varies greatly, with periods of calm affecting most countries, but two recent issues help to indicate more general trends.
One is in west Africa, where Ghana has long been seen as a development exemplar but is facing sporadic but worrying problems with paramilitaries that exploit existing tensions. In the northern town of Bawku, a six decade-long tension between Mamprusi and Kusasi ethnic groups is being fomented by an al-Qaida-linked paramilitary group that has previously been far more active across the border in Burkina Faso, only 10 kilometres to the north.
It is not currently a major problem for the Ghanaian authorities, but serves as a reminder of a pattern of jihadist activity that is recurring across the wider region as ISIS and other similar groups see opportunities to exacerbate existing tensions for their own gain.
The second issue is the activity of an ISIS-linked movement, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), in the east of the DRC, near the city of Butembo and northwards towards Beni, a city of close to a quarter of a million just west of the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda.
For more than two years, the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF) has joined counter-insurgency operations with the DRC's armed forces to stop the ADF but these are so far failing, with the ADF actually extending its activities north of Beni in the DCR. This is primarily because DRC's units are having to retreat in order to counter an expansion of an unrelated paramilitary group, the M23 movement.
Unless Uganda increases its troop numbers - which is improbable because senior figures in the nation's armed forces may not be sure that the situation is winnable - the end result is likely to be an extension of the power base of the Islamists, while M23 increasingly affects Goma, a regional DRC capital, with increased risks of attacks. As an analysis this week by security journal Jane's Defence Week puts it:
"As the attention of security forces is drawn away from other non-state armed groups by the M23's threat to Goma, it is almost certain that groups such as the ADF will take advantage of the stretched resources of security forces and act to expand its area of operations and the operational tempo of its attacks."
So, in Ghana, a jihadist group moves in on long-term local ethnic tensions, while in the DRC a diversion of government forces to handle a completely different challenge allows another group to prosper. In response, there has been an expansion in US military involvement across much of sub-Saharan Africa, especially as France has cut back on its own counter-insurgency programme.
The military command responsible for US security interests across the African continent, Africa Command (Africom), was formally established back in 2007 in response to jihadism in the Sahel, though US units were active in the area long before that.
It concentrates on responding to perceived challenges to US interests by promoting the training and equipping of government militaries, especially special forces. Central to this has been an annual Flintlock exercise, the first being organised in 2005 and involving 700 soldiers from 10 countries.
This year's two-week Flintlock brought together 1,300 soldiers from 29 countries last month, and while the process extends to include legal elements, it is primarily a military answer to growing insecurity. What it seems far less concerned with are the underlying societal circumstances that make it so easy for people to be recruited into extreme movements akin to cults.
Recruits are all too often young men aged 15-30 with little in the way of prospects - sparking fears that socio-economic divisions may be worsening, particularly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, even before the impacts of climate breakdowns start to have their effect.
As so often, the US sees controlling dissent, right through to violent revolts, first and foremost as a problem for the military. As long as that mindset continues, there will be no end to the violence, death and suffering.
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