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
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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.


Sharer of New Zealand mosque shooting video gets 21 months

Philip Neville Arps, left, appears for sentencing in the Christchurch District Court, in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (AP)
Updated 18 June 2019
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Sharer of New Zealand mosque shooting video gets 21 months

  • Under New Zealand laws aimed at preventing the distribution of objectionable material, Arps faced up to 14 years imprisonment on each count

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: A Christchurch businessman who shared a video of worshippers being slaughtered at a New Zealand mosque was sentenced on Tuesday to 21 months in prison.
Philip Arps had earlier pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing the video, which was livestreamed on Facebook by a gunman on March 15 as he began killing 51 people at two mosques.
Christchurch District Court Judge Stephen O’Driscoll said that when questioned about the video, Arps had described it as “awesome” and had shown no empathy toward the victims.
The judge said Arps had strong and unrepentant views about the Muslim community and had, in effect, committed a hate crime. The judge said Arps had compared himself to Rudolf Hess, a Nazi leader under Adolf Hitler.
“Your offending glorifies and encourages the mass murder carried out under the pretext of religious and racial hatred,” the judge said.
O’Driscoll said Arps had sent the video to 30 associates. The judge said Arps also asked somebody to insert crosshairs and include a kill count in order to create an Internet meme, although there was no evidence he’d shared the meme.
Under New Zealand laws aimed at preventing the distribution of objectionable material, Arps faced up to 14 years imprisonment on each count.
In other cases, at least five other people were also charged with illegally sharing the shooting video. An 18-year-old was jailed in March while the others weren’t kept in custody. The teen is accused of sharing the video and an image of the Al Noor mosque with the words “target acquired.” He is next due to appear in court on July 31.
The judge said Arps had argued he had a right to distribute the video under the banner of freedom to pursue his political beliefs.
Arps’ lawyer Anselm Williams told the judge that Arps should not be sent to prison.
“It’s my submission that this court needs to be very careful to sentence Mr. Arps based on what it is that he has actually done, and what he accepts he has done, not on the basis of the views that he holds,” Williams said.
After the hearing, Williams said Arps had filed an appeal against his sentence at the High Court, but declined to comment further.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, last week pleaded not guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism in the mosque shooting case. His trial has been scheduled for next May.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has helped lead a global pledge named the “Christchurch Call,” aimed at boosting efforts to keep Internet platforms from being used to spread hate, organize extremist groups and broadcast attacks. New Zealand has also tightened its gun laws and banned certain types of semi-automatic weapons since the attack.