Africa Watch

Libyan legacy – ever-widening terror threat

Gaddafi ghost still haunts Africa

Burkina Faso has become the latest victim of a terror attack by Islamic militants as Libya remains the source of this deadly threat.

The well-planned and executed 15 January terror attack on the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, is seen as further confirmation of Islamic militants’ broadening area of operation.

Unlike some other states in northwest Africa’s unruly Sahel region, Burkina Faso remained relatively immune to the threat of radical Islam in recent years. It has now been added to the victims list.

The Ouagadougou attack was strikingly similar to one in November 2015 on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Not unexpected

The Burkina Faso attack was, according to many analysts, deliberate and not unexpected.

Burkina Faso is an important ally to both the United States and France in the fight against Islamic militants and provides military bases and accommodation to their military forces.

In 2014 France launched Operation Barkhane from Burkina Faso to counter the growth of militant Islamic groups in northern and western Africa.

The deployment of 3 000 French troops in five of its former colonies, including Burkina Faso, effectively hampered militants’ activities and revenge was to be expected.

The Splendid Hotel, in particular, was deliberately chosen because of its international clientele, including many French patrons.

Most vulnerable

The Sahel region, where Islam is the dominant religion, is considered the most vulnerable to terror attacks by any of the many jihad groups that are linked to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS).

Senegal is a typical example, where both its government and population expressed a growing sense of vulnerability and fear that terror could strike at any moment after the Burkina Faso attack.

No country in Africa and its citizens are, however, completely safe. Cynthia Ohayon, Africa analyst at International Crisis Group in Ouagadougu, said: “There’s no reason to think Burkina Faso should be the last country hit. The question now is which capital is going to be hit next?”

There is also the somewhat unusual case of Stephen McGowan that received surprisingly little coverage in the South African media. McGowan, a South African, was taken hostage in Timbuktu in 2011 by al-Qaeda militants and remains in captivity.

The rivalry for dominance between various Islamic militant groups, notably al-Qaeda and IS, contributes to the increase in violent terror attacks in the Sahel which could spread to other regions in Africa.

Not many attacks receive international media coverage and the audacity and brutality of many slip by without the international community really noticing.   

Collateral damage of Libya’s collapse

There is strong consensus among analysts that the collapse of Libya after the West, Nato and the US initiated the violent disposal of the country’s iron-fisted dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, is central to the terror threat that followed in northwest Africa and now seems to be escalating. 

The removal of Gaddafi from power will remain controversial. Some are arguing that the 2011 violent regime change in Libya, terminating Gaddafi’s brutal and oppressive rule, was just and correct. Others argue that the removal of Gaddafi created a far worse situation. As one analyst put it: “Few may have rued the day that Muammar Gaddafi was toppled – but the day after? That is a different matter.”

The defeat of Gaddafi unleashed massive weapon stockpiles amassed over many years, bought with Libya’s oil wealth. Many of these weapons ended up in the hands of militant Islamic groups and organisations.

According to one Sky Television report “warehouses the size of airport terminals stuffed to the brim with all manner of stockpiled weapons were emptied into the Sahara and carried on its sand seas across North Africa, fuelling conflict and enriching radical Islamist gangsters.”

IS in Libya

Taking advantage of the disintegrated security situation in Libya, IS has steadily been building its presence in the country. According to American intelligence agencies, IS has over the past few months redirected several hundred foreign fighters, originally bound for Syria, to Libya to bolster its fighting force there to at least 3 000 men.

The IS presences in Libya has been a growing concern for some time. In October 2015, a US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) expert called the country “the hub that they use to project themselves across all of North Africa”.

According to Patrick Prior, senior defence intelligence expert for combating terrorism for the DIA, “Libya is the province or affiliate we’re most worried about”.

At a recent seminar in Washington, Gen. Joseph Votel, commanding officer of US Special Operations Command, said his command is spending more time and attention on Libya, trying to keep IS from growing more powerful there. He added: “There is a concern about Libya. It can’t all be about Iraq and Syria.”

Intelligence sources also warn that the wobbly political situation in Libya could be permanently paralysed if IS seizes control of Libya’s oil resources.

Concern that sustained political pressure and recent battlefield gains against Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq will influence IS to open a new front in Libya has added urgency to international efforts to broker a political agreement between warring factions in Libya.

In December last year UN negotiators achieved the almost impossible when agreement was reached on the establishment of a government of national unity in Libya. 

There is, however, much scepticism about whether the national unity government will succeed in bringing to an end the current political paralysis that has provided fertile ground for fundamentalists to exploit.

On the military front there is also an urgency to capitalise on recent battlefield gains against IS in Iraq. This was confirmed by a meeting on 20 January 2016 in Paris, specifically chosen as venue after the deadly IS-directed terror attacks in the city late last year.

Defence ministers of the US, Britain, Australia, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands pledged to intensify the fight against IS.

Against the backdrop of the Burkina Faso attack, although carried out by al-Qaeda-linked operatives, it can be expected that attention and effort to contain the spread of Islamic militancy in Africa will receive renewed attention in the West.

Libya the key

In this regard Libya is the key. As long as peace escapes Libya and the country limps on without a proper, functional central government, and with an army command barely able to exert control over groups nominally under its command, the rest of the continent will have to stay on red alert and vigilant to the possibility of terror attacks by Islamic militants anywhere, anytime. 

by Garth Cilliers

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