Despite Western-backed response, Sahel extremists gaining ground

Moustafa Djobe speaks on May 23, 2019 to members of a group called 'Sigida Lakana' or 'Protection of our environment' in the Bambara language, while they take part in a 48 hour sit-in in front of the new headquarters of the G5 Sahel, which was previously based in Sevare, Mali, until it was attacked last year. (AFP)
Updated 25 May 2019

Despite Western-backed response, Sahel extremists gaining ground

  • The so-called G5 Sahel group — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — seek to expand their anti-terror campaign

ABIDJAN: Exremists are scoring gains in the Sahel, defying efforts by five countries in the fragile region to fight back with Western help against Islamist militancy.
Areas of insecurity on the Sahara’s poor, arid southern rim are widening, analysts say, even as the so-called G5 Sahel group — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — seek to expand their anti-terror campaign.
“Overall, the security situation in the Sahel continued to deteriorate, having spillover effects on neighboring countries that are not members of G5 Sahel, including Benin, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Togo,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this month.
Guterres said in recent months, armed groups had been sighted on Mauritania’s border with Mali, attacks on security forces had continued unabated in Mali itself, “terrorist groups, militias and armed gangs” had proliferated in Burkina, and jihadists had killed dozens of soldiers and civilians in Niger.
At the end of last year more than 120,000 people had been displaced in Mali, a tripling in the space of a year, while 160,000 have fled their homes in Burkina.
According to a French military source, there are about 2,000 fighters across the Sahel, of which up to 1,400 are in Mali.
Their hallmark tactics — brutal gun attacks, roadside bombings and hostage taking — seek to weaken the rule of law and authority of the state, often fomenting intercommunal fighting on which they capitalize.
“There are not necessarily more attacks, but the attacks are more violent. The groups have acquired some technical competence,” said Mahamadou Sawadogo, a researcher at the Crossroads of Study and Research for Democracy and Development at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University.
“There’s an increase in power at the quantitative level and also in their efficiency,” noted Lassina Diarra, author of a book on West African countries facing transnational terrorism.
“In Burkina, there appears to have been a merger of means between groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda and those affiliated to the Islamic State,” he said.
“It seems that they now lend each other a helping hand.”
Diarra suggested that battle-hardened fighters may have arrived from the Middle East after the so-called Islamic State lost its territory in Syria.
“We are seeing changes in operational methods with the use of explosives, mines and car bombs” combined with more ambitious raids, he said.
Both academics showed concern at the weakness of regional armies, particularly in Burkina.
The problems facing the G5’s armed forces are well known. Their militaries are under-equipped and poorly trained, even though governments are already earmarking as much as 15 percent of their budgets on security.
With support from France and others, the G5 countries are pushing ahead with plans for a pooled 5,000-man force.
But at present, they lack coordination in border zones, where extremist forces are particularly active and whole populations become internally displaced.
“The armed groups play with these borders,” Sawadogo said.
Even if militants do not maintain a permanent presence, their zone of influence is growing.
“They don’t need to be there all the time, holding ground. They create the feeling of insecurity with sporadic attacks,” Diarra said.
“They harass the symbols of the state” and drive out civil servants working for it, Sawadogo noted. “They don’t have a hold over areas but they are not seeking to be a static force. It’s governance from a distance.”
“They have created comfort zones,” he argued. “And now there’s a corridor” that extends from southwest Burkina Faso to Mali and western Niger.
“We need to fight against the ideology of the jihadists,” Diarra said when asked how to fight back. He recommended providing instruction for imams that would avoid radical preaching and “factors for recruitment.”
“We have to fight on the same ground as the jihadists, use the same strategy,” Sawadogo said.
“For now, the jihadists benefit from complicity. They move around, prepare attacks and routes to fall back. They pass through villages.”
But while village folk know about the armed groups, the security forces get little or no intelligence to strike, he said.
Both researchers insisted on the need to uphold the presence of the state, with officials in place and a degree of local investment to help restore confidence among citizens.
With the right structure in place, they said, people might be inclined to help the security forces and ignore militant extremism.


UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

Updated 18 August 2019

UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

  • Johnson will travel for talks with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron
  • Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit

LONDON: UK's Boris Johnson will visit European capitals this week on his first overseas trip as prime minister, as his government said Sunday it had ordered the scrapping of the decades-old law enforcing its EU membership.

Johnson will travel to Berlin on Wednesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and on to Paris Thursday for discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron, Downing Street confirmed on Sunday, amid growing fears of a no-deal Brexit in two and a half months.

The meetings, ahead of a two-day G7 summit starting Saturday in the southern French resort of Biarritz, are his first diplomatic forays abroad since replacing predecessor Theresa May last month.

Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit or warn that it faces the prospect of Britain's disorderly departure on October 31 -- the date it is due to leave.

European leaders have repeatedly rejected reopening an accord agreed by May last year but then rejected by British lawmakers on three occasions, despite Johnson's threats that the country will leave then without an agreement.

In an apparent show of intent, London announced Sunday that it had ordered the repeal of the European Communities Act, which took Britain into the forerunner to the EU 46 years ago and gives Brussels law supremacy.

The order, signed by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on Friday, is set to take effect on October 31.

"This is a landmark moment in taking back control of our laws from Brussels," Barclay said in a statement.

"This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back -- we are leaving the EU as promised on October 31, whatever the circumstances -- delivering on the instructions given to us in 2016."

The moves come as Johnson faces increasing pressure to immediately recall MPs from their summer holidays so that parliament can debate Brexit.

More than 100 lawmakers, who are not due to return until September 3, have demanded in a letter that he reconvene the 650-seat House of Commons and let them sit permanently until October 31.

"Our country is on the brink of an economic crisis, as we career towards a no-deal Brexit," said the letter, signed by MPs and opposition party leaders who want to halt a no-deal departure.

"We face a national emergency, and parliament must be recalled now."

Parliament is set to break up again shortly after it returns, with the main parties holding their annual conferences during the September break.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to call a vote of no confidence in Johnson's government after parliament returns.

He hopes to take over as a temporary prime minister, seek an extension to Britain's EU departure date to stop a no-deal Brexit, and then call a general election.

"What we need is a government that is prepared to negotiate with the European Union so we don't have a crash-out on the 31st," Corbyn said Saturday.

"This government clearly doesn't want to do that."

Britain could face food, fuel and medicine shortages and chaos at its ports in a no-deal Brexit, The Sunday Times newspaper reported, citing a leaked government planning document.

There would likely be some form of hard border imposed on the island of Ireland, the document implied.

Rather than worst-case scenarios, the leaked document, compiled this month by the Cabinet Office ministry, spells out the likely ramifications of a no-deal Brexit, the broadsheet claimed.

The document said logjams could affect fuel distribution, while up to 85 percent of trucks using the main ports to continental Europe might not be ready for French customs.

The availability of fresh food would be diminished and prices would go up, the newspaper said.