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.


Leading Hong Kong activists charged for Tiananmen vigil gathering

Updated 41 min 9 sec ago

Leading Hong Kong activists charged for Tiananmen vigil gathering

  • Hong Kongers defied a ban on rallies to mark the June 4 anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown
  • China’s leaders have rejected calls to give Hong Kongers universal suffrage

HONG KONG: Thirteen prominent Hong Kong democracy activists appeared in court on Monday charged with holding an unauthorized gathering to mark the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the latest in a string of prosecutions against protest leaders in the restless financial hub.
Last month tens of thousands of Hong Kongers defied a ban on rallies to mark the June 4 anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown against students pushing for democracy.
The annual vigil has been held in Hong Kong for the last three decades and usually attracts huge crowds. It has taken on particular significance in recent years as the semi-autonomous city chafes under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
This year’s vigil was banned for the first time with authorities citing coronavirus measures. At the time local transmission had largely been halted.
But thousands turned out to hold candles in their neighborhoods and in Victoria Park, the traditional site of the vigil.
Police later arrested 13 leading activists who appeared at the Victoria Park vigil.
All appeared in court on Monday to be formally charged with “inciting” an unlawful assembly, which carries up to five years in jail.
Among them are Jimmy Lai, the millionaire owner of the openly pro-democracy Apple newspaper, veteran democracy activists such as Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho as well as young campaigner Figo Chan.
When asked if he understood the charge, Lee invoked the hundreds who were killed by Chinese tanks and soldiers at Tiananmen.
“This is political persecution,” he said. “The real incitement is the massacre conducted by the Chinese Communist Party 31 years ago.”
Some of those charged on Monday — and many other leading democracy figures — face separate prosecutions related to last year’s huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.
China’s leaders have rejected calls to give Hong Kongers universal suffrage and portrayed the protests as a plot by foreigners to destabilize the motherland.
Earlier this month Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law aimed at stamping out the protests once and for all.
The law targets subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion, with sentences including life in prison.
But its broad phrasing — such as a ban on encouraging hatred toward China’s government — has sent fear rippling through a city used to being able to speak its mind.
Police have arrested people for possessing pro-independence or autonomy material, libraries and schools have pulled books, political parties have disbanded and one prominent opposition politician has fled.
The law bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and its contents were kept secret until the moment it was enacted.
It empowered China’s security apparatus to set up shop openly in Hong Kong for the first time, while Beijing has also claimed jurisdiction for some serious national security cases — ending the legal firewall between the mainland the city’s independent judiciary.
China has also announced global jurisdiction to pursue national security crimes committed by anyone outside of Hong Kong and China, including foreigners.