How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel

Special How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel
Supporters of the Nigerien defense forces attacked the headquarters of the political party of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey on Thursday. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2023
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How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel

How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel
  • Experts say Niger is at risk of becoming a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment following July 26 coup
  • Daesh and Al-Qaeda affiliates have most to gain from chaos in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, say analysts

JUBA, South Sudan: Niger has become the third nation in the troubled Sahel region in as many years to suffer a military coup, causing concern among Western leaders and neighboring states over the repercussions for the ongoing fight against Islamist insurgency.

President Mohamed Bazoum, who is currently confined to his official residence in the capital, Niamey, was toppled on July 26 by his own presidential guard. The head of the elite force, Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani, has declared himself the new leader.

Coming in the wake of similar military takeovers in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, the US and former colonial power France have demanded Bazoum’s reinstatement, acknowledging his key role in the fight against extremism.

The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, have likewise insisted on the need to restore stability to effectively confront the extremist threat, indicating neighboring states might consider using force to reinstate Bazoum.




General Abdourahmane Tiani, who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger. (Reuters)

Niger’s strategic position in the Sahel region, bordered by countries experiencing violent extremism, makes it an important ally in the international fight against Islamist insurgency. Before the coup, Niger actively participated in regional counterterrorism initiatives.

However, the coup and its potential disruption to governance and security could jeopardize these vital partnerships and impede the progress of regional security efforts.

Aneliese Bernard, director of the Washington D.C.-based risk advisory group Strategic Stabilization Advisors, says similar coups in the region show that extremist groups have the most to gain from these episodes of instability.

“History has shown that groups like the Islamic State Sahel Province and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin have successfully capitalized on governance and security vacuums left by states consumed with internal political issues and this has allowed them to expand their influence in Mali and Burkina Faso following recent coups,” Bernard told Arab News.

JNIM and ISSP are two rival radical groups operating in the region. It is not uncommon for individuals to switch sides between these groups, which further complicates the security situation in the region.

JNIM operates in neighboring Mali, with activities extending across West Africa, having pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.




Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin in Burkina Faso. (Supplied)

ISSP, meanwhile, operates as the Sahelian affiliate of Daesh and has also been involved in attacks across the region.

According to Bernard, the coup has destabilized the governance and security apparatus in Niger’s southwestern Tillaberi region, close to the triple frontier with Burkina Faso and Mali, where the ISSP is active.

“In such situations, JNIM and ISSP might seize the opportunity to exploit the absence of state authority and promote themselves as alternatives to governance and security,” she said.

“By championing the perception that neglected and marginalized communities in the periphery are left without support from the government, these jihadist groups have managed to infiltrate remote communities successfully.”

One targeted group is the Fulani people, an ethnic minority in the region, accused by authorities of harboring terrorist sympathies. Due to their status as a discriminated minority, extremist groups have found some success recruiting among their ranks.

Virginie Baudais, director of the Sahel and West Africa Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the possibility of Western aid being suspended as a result of the coup raises questions about how Niger’s security forces will handle the Islamist threat.

“Armed groups have consistently targeted defense and security forces in the region, making it essential for the international community to realign its priorities and support,” Baudais told Arab News.

FASTFACTS

• President Mohamed Bazoum was toppled by his own presidential guard on July 26.

• The coup follows similar military takeovers in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali.

• Experts say radical groups like JNIM and ISSP have the most to gain from coups.

“However, while the situation has continued to deteriorate, people do not feel protected by international troops. That is why they support their armed forces in the fight against terrorism, but support for the coup perpetrators is not unanimous.”

Alex Nkosi, a Malawian policy specialist based in the West African country of Togo, likewise highlights the potential for divisions within Niger’s military ranks.

“The coup could invoke divisions within the military because not all soldiers support the military indulgence in politics,” Nkosi told Arab News. He is also doubtful Niger’s armed forces will have the means to go it alone against the extremist groups.

“If military aid and assistance from the US and France are suspended due to the coup, Niger’s security forces may face challenges in maintaining operational capabilities,” said Nkosi.

“The loss of resources, intelligence-sharing platforms, and training programs could therefore weaken their ability to confront well-armed and organized Islamist groups effectively. Niger may have to seek alternative sources of support or re-evaluate its strategies to address the security challenges independently.”

Those alternatives may include Russia’s Wagner Group — the private military contractor now based in Belarus since its abortive uprising against Russia’s military leadership in June this year.




French President Emmanuel Macron with Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum at the Elysee Palace in June. (AFP)

Wagner has been making significant inroads into Burkina Faso and Mali since their respective militaries took power, providing manpower and expertise in the fight against extremists. Given the pro-Russian sentiments among Niger’s coup leaders, it is perhaps only a matter of time before Wagner soldiers emerge from the shadows.

Against this backdrop, according to Wim Zwijneburg, humanitarian disarmament project leader for the Dutch peace organisation PAX, a pullout by French forces from Niger will likely also prompt a removal of MQ-9 Reapers by the Americans, who have drone bases in Agadez, 740 kilometers northeast of Niamey.

“Combat drones operated by the two countries have been instrumental in the monitoring of militant cross-border movement in the Sahel,” Zwijneburg told Arab News.

“A lack of these air assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions will mean less information available to track militant groups, including Daesh affiliates, in the region and to respond in a timely fashion.

“This may translate into a new wave of attacks if the national armies do not have alternatives to fill the vacuum. Though Niger recently stocked its own armed drone fleet with Turkish TB-2s, it is not clear if security forces have succeeded in integrating them fully into existing counterterrorism operations.”

Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst and consultant on African peace, security, and governance issues, says if the US and France are serious about combating the radical Islamist threat, Western nations will have to reassess their willingness to engage with military-led governments.

“The seriousness of the Islamist threat and other security challenges in the region might force them to engage with military leaders who now find themselves on the front line of the fight against terrorism,” he told Arab News.




Thousands protested in front of the French Embassy in Niamey. (AFP)

“However, this engagement also raises questions about the promotion of democratic principles and civilian rule, which are core values in Western democracies.”

Ultimately, bridging the difference of opinion between Western governments and African military leaders on approaches to governance will be essential for long-term stability and security of the region, said Hudson.

The cooperation of all parties concerned, including the international community, regional bodies and the local population, will also be critical to finding effective solutions to the complex challenges faced by countries in West Africa.

The military coup has implications for the future of regional cooperation, according to Fidel Amakye Owusu, an international relations and security analyst based in Ghana.

“Nigeria, which borders Niger to the north, has historically relied on close cooperation to address security concerns, particularly in the fight against extremism,” he told Arab News.

However, “the lack of democratic civilian rule might lead to uncertainties and challenges in coordinating intelligence sharing and joint operations against violent extremism,” said Owusu.

“As seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, where military takeovers have occurred, the transition to military rule does not necessarily translate into peace, stability or gains in the fight against extremism.”




Militants in Mali. (Social media)

This can be compounded by the inability of a weak and unstable government to deal with the root causes of socioeconomic challenges effectively.

In such circumstances, there might be limited resources and capacity to implement policies and programs that address unemployment, poverty and social inequality.

As a result, “this situation provides an opportunity for extremist groups to fill the void by offering financial incentives and ideological narratives that resonate with vulnerable populations,” said policy specialist Nkosi.

“There is indeed a risk of Niger becoming a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment if the situation is not effectively addressed.”

Seconding Nkosi’s opinion on the governance crisis, PAX’s Zwijneburg said: “If there is no meaningful attempt to address the grievances of minority groups, there will be enough fertile ground that militants groups will be able to exploit, where even the presence of combat drones won’t make a significant difference.”


ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu

ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu
Updated 6 sec ago
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ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu

ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu
  • Karim Khan believes Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity
  • The prosecutor must request the warrants from a pre-trial panel of three judges, who take on average two months to consider the evidence

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday he is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in connection with their actions during the seven-month war between Israel and Hamas.

Karim Khan said that he believes Netanyahu, his defense minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders — Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh — are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

The prosecutor must request the warrants from a pre-trial panel of three judges, who take on average two months to consider the evidence and determine if the proceedings can move forward.

Israel is not a member of the court, and even if the arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. But Khan’s announcement deepens Israel’s isolation as it presses ahead with its war, and the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Both Sinwar and Deif are believed to be hiding in Gaza as Israel tries to hunt them down. But Haniyeh, the supreme leader of the Islamic militant group, is based in Qatar and frequently travels across the region.

There was no immediate comment from either side.

Israel launched its war in response to an Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, at least half of them women and children, according to the latest estimates by Gaza health officials. The Israeli offensive has also triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80 percent of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to UN officials.

Speaking of the Israeli actions, Khan said in a statement that “the effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known. ... They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women.”

The United Nations and other aid agencies have repeatedly accused Israel of hindering aid deliveries throughout the war. Israel denies this, saying there are no restrictions on aid entering Gaza and accusing the United Nations of failing to distribute aid. The UN says aid workers have repeatedly come under Israeli fire, and also says ongoing fighting and a security vacuum have impeded deliveries.

Of the Hamas actions on Oct. 7, Khan, who visited the region in December, said that he saw for himself “the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today. Speaking with survivors, I heard how the love within a family, the deepest bonds between a parent and a child, were contorted to inflict unfathomable pain through calculated cruelty and extreme callousness. These acts demand accountability.”

After a brief period of international support for its war, Israel has faced increasing criticism as the war has dragged on and the death toll has climbed.

Israel is also facing a South African case in the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide. Israel denies those charges.


Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness

Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness
Updated 10 min 56 sec ago
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Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness

Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness
  • The defense has painted Cohen as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump
  • Cohen is the last prosecution witness, and it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone Trump himself

NEW YORK: Former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen admitted Monday to jurors in the Republican’s hush money trial that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from Trump’s company as defense lawyers seized on the star witness’ misdeeds to attack his credibility.
With the prosecution’s case nearing its end, Trump’s attorneys hope Cohen’s admission — on top of his numerous other past lies and crimes — will sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the hush money scheme. The defense has painted Cohen as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump.
Back on the witness stand for a fourth day, Cohen admitted while being questioned by defense attorney Todd Blanche that he pocketed cash that was supposed to be reimbursement for a $50,000 payment Cohen claimed he had shelled out to a technology firm. But Cohen actually gave the technology firm just $20,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, he said.
“So you stole from the Trump Organization?,” Blanche asked.
“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.
Cohen is the last prosecution witness, and it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone Trump himself.
After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump’s company recordkeeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former US president.
The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses, when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for Daniels’ hush money payment.
Trump has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.
“There’s no crime,” Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse Monday. “We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense.”
While Cohen is prosecutors’ most important witness, but he is also vulnerable to attack.
The now-disbarred attorney has admitted on the witness stand to previously lying under oath and other falsehoods, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen served prison time after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign finance violations related to the hush money scheme.
And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.
Blanche grilled Cohen on Monday about his initial public denials that Trump knew about the Daniels payoff. After The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had arranged the payout to the porn actor more than a year earlier, Cohen told journalists, friends and others that Trump had been in the dark about the arrangement.
He did not change his account until after federal authorities in April 2018 searched Cohen’s home, office and other locations tied to him. Four months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges and told a court that Trump had directed him to arrange the Daniels payment.
Known for his hot temper, Cohen has remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defense about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.
Jurors remained largely engaged with Cohen’s testimony, though some appear to be dragging as his testimony stretched into another day. Several jurors stifled yawns while peering at the witness and looking at monitors in front of them as emails and other evidence were displayed. Some took notes. Others sat back and took in the testimony, occasionally peering at the gallery of reporters and public observers.
Cohen told jurors that Trump was intimately involved in the scheme to pay off Daniels to prevent her from going public late in his 2016 presidential campaign with claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.
Cohen told jurors about meetings and conversations with Trump, including one in 2017 in which Cohen says he, Trump and then-Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg discussed how Cohen would recoup his outlay for the Daniels payment and how the reimbursement would be billed as “legal services.”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors would have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, says he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.
Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand. Defense attorneys generally are reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.
Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations. But the judge has limited what Smith can address.
There are often guardrails around expert testimony on legal matters, on the basis that it’s up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws in a case.
Merchan has ruled that Smith can give general background on the FEC, the laws it enforces and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.” But he cannot interpret how federal campaign-finance laws apply to the facts of Trump’s case or opine on whether the former president’s alleged actions violate those laws.


Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister

Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister
Updated 23 min 37 sec ago
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Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister

Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister
  • Putin sprang a surprise last week by removing defense minister Sergei Shoigu
  • The move was widely seen as aimed at getting more value from defense spending

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Monday appointed former deputy economy minister Oleg Savelyev as a deputy defense minister, according to a published decree, in a further sign of his intention to improve the efficiency of Russia’s war economy.
Putin sprang a surprise last week by removing defense minister Sergei Shoigu and replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economist and former deputy prime minister. The move was widely seen as aimed at getting more value from defense spending and cleaning up the defense ministry, which has been hit by a major bribery scandal.
Savelyev worked in the economy ministry from 2008 to 2014 and briefly served as a deputy to Belousov, who headed the ministry at the time.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Savelyev served as Minister for Crimean Affairs in 2014-2015. For the past five years, he has been an auditor for the Russian Accounts Chamber, overseeing state defense and security spending.


Indian police arrest four Sri Lankans for suspected Daesh links

Indian police arrest four Sri Lankans for suspected Daesh links
Updated 20 May 2024
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Indian police arrest four Sri Lankans for suspected Daesh links

Indian police arrest four Sri Lankans for suspected Daesh links
  • The arrests were made late Sunday at the Ahmedabad airport following a tip-off, top police officer says
  • Preliminary investigations show they were in contact with a key Daesh leader, allegedly based in Pakistan

AHMEDABAD: India’s anti-terror police have arrested four Sri Lankan nationals in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad for suspected links to the Islamic State (Daesh) militant group, police said on Monday.

The arrests were made late on Sunday at the city’s airport following a tip-off, said Vikas Sahay, the top police officer in Gujarat state where Ahmedabad is located.

“Preliminary investigations show they were in contact with a key IS leader known as Abu, who is currently based in Pakistan. Further investigations are continuing to uncover the full extent of the conspiracy,” Sahay told reporters, giving only one name for the Islamic State leader.

The arrested individuals were identified as Mohammed Nusrat (33), Mohammed Nafran (35), Mohammed Faaris (27), and Mohammed Rashdin (43), all residents of Colombo, Sri Lanka, whose foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sahay said the Gujarat Police’s anti-terrorism squad found a Daesh flag in their possession, while analysis of two seized mobile phones showed various photographs and videos indicating that they were involved with the militant group.

The ATS also recovered three loaded pistols along with another Daesh flag from a location near Ahmedabad, identified from photos in the mobile phones, Sahay said.

Police have registered a case under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Arms Act against the four suspects, the officer said.


Greece to deport nine European nationals over pro-Palestinian protest

Greece to deport nine European nationals over pro-Palestinian protest
Updated 20 May 2024
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Greece to deport nine European nationals over pro-Palestinian protest

Greece to deport nine European nationals over pro-Palestinian protest
  • The protesters have denied any wrongdoing
  • The Greek protesters were released pending trial on May 28 but the nine foreign nationals remained in custody pending an administrative decision on their deportation

ATHENS: Nine protesters from Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, arrested during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Athens School of Law last week are set to be deported from Greece, their lawyers said on Monday.
Police last week detained a total of 28 Greek and foreign protesters occupying the building, on charges including disrupting the operation of a public entity and assistance in damaging foreign property, according to court documents.
The protesters have denied any wrongdoing.
Evidence included leaflets, Palestinian flags, two smoke flares, gas masks, helmets, paint cans and banner poles, along with a statement uploaded on a website in Greek and English urging others to join the protest, according to the documents.
The Greek protesters were released pending trial on May 28 but the nine foreign nationals — one man and eight women, aged 22 to 33 — remained in custody pending an administrative decision on their deportation.
The foreigners’ lawyers said in a statement that deportation orders had been issued, which would prevent the defendants attending their own trial.
Lawyers Ioanna Sioupouli and Anny Paparoussou said that their clients who live and work in Greece planned to appeal.
Lawyer Vassilis Papadopoulos, representing a 33-year-old Spaniard, called the decision “arbitrary and illegal.”
Pro-Palestinian supporters have staged several protests in Greece since Israel’s war with Hamas began in Gaza in October.
Greece in 2019 scrapped legislation that prohibited police from entering universities, as the conservative government said it was used as a cover for lawlessness.
The Academic Sanctuary Law, a legacy of the crackdown on a 1973 student revolt by the military junta of the time, was designed to protect protesting students and freedom of ideas. Critics decried its abolition as a clampdown on democracy.