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ISIS And Boko Haram Spur Military Escalation In Africa

Chadian soldiers in N'Djamena
Chadian soldiers in N'Djamena
Nathalie Guibert

DAKAR — Security concerns in Africa currently revolve around two central issues: the anarchy in Libya, and the Boko Haram caliphate that has taken root in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Looking ahead to 2015, the Islamist terrorist threat looms over the continent, even as some question whether the military-driven reaction of African governments may create even more instability.

Terrorism dominated talks last month at the first Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa, an informal meeting resulting from a Franco-Senegalese initiative.

Hiroute Guebre Selassie, the UN secretary general's special envoy for the Sahel, says the situation was getting particularly acute in the the region south of the Sahara, citing "drought, poverty, the weakening of political regimes, trafficking and the flood of arms coming out of Libya."

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The Sahel belt — Source: Felix Koenig/GFDL

According to another UN expert, "Armed groups like Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, or al-Shabab describe their own activity as extending from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.They've acquired the capacity to fight conventional wars. They imitate each other, using the same strategies and modus operandi."

From a military standpoint, "We lack rules for apprehending these groups," says a high-ranking French officer. "We are faced with entities moving from perpetrating destabilizing action, whether low or high power, to the temptation of becoming states."

The officer noted that ISIS was now also recruiting administrators, with a focus on expanding its military capabilities. It is still too early to focus on the root causes such as education and poverty. "We're still in a military frame of mind," he says.

While ISIS is a growing source of worry all the way to West Africa, intelligence services estimate that it doesn't yet have concrete connections. Right now the group's focus is on Iraq and Syria. But "Libya is hiding a considerable terrorist union behind clan wars," says one French official who confirmed ISIS presence in the city of Derna in northern Libya.

"As long as we haven't solved the problem in southern Libya, there will be no peace in the region," says Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali's president.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, the country has become a hub for arms trafficking throughout Africa. Keita asked his fellow Forum participants, "For every arms convoy that's stopped, how many get by without our knowing about them?"

Chad President Idriss Déby has a message for the West. "The solution is in the hands of NATO, which created the problem in the first place" when it intervened against Gaddafi in 2011.

"The problem is that if we intervene in southern Libya, the first place armed groups will flee to is Algeria … which has no desire to see the bad guys," says one French government source.

The top target for both the French and American military is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, author of the spectacular January 2013 attack at the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria that killed 40 people.

Although his profile is lower than it was two years ago, "He's in Libya, we saw him in Benghazi," this source recalls. "But we don't have the means to intervene."

Too many plans

For the countries in the region, the other big preoccupation is Boko Haram, and the decline of Nigeria's ability to respond is worrisome. France announced in Dakar the development of a "military liaison committee" comprised of military officials from Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon.

Members of the France's Operation Barkhane — Photo: vabaddict via Instagram

But from the European Union to the African Union, from development aid to military operations, political rivalries and contradicting plans weigh on all efforts. There are at least 15 "Sahel strategies." And the results? "In Mali, there is no official will whatsoever," one official complains.

Smaïl Chergui, the Algerian who is the African Union commissioner for peace and security warns against "the multiplication of initiatives." Algeria, which single-handedly directed the negotiations between armed Tuareg and Bamako groups, didn't even send a government representative to the Dakar Forum.

Military officials in at least 11 countries of the region are focused on cutting the armed groups' power through "counter-insurrection strategies."

The Chadian president called for his neighbors to invest in their own defense. "It's important for each country to have at least two or three operational units," Déby says. The African Union says that its "rapid reaction capacity" will be functional in 2015, with 5,000 soldiers ready to be mobilized. Still, the project for an African force — promised for years — is stagnating, even as the French government has proposed changing the OECD rules that forbid financing military equipment to train African armies.

"Our efforts are paying off," insists French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. In the past year, "200 jihadists were neutralized by French forces. Operation Barkhane ha become a new regional counter-terrorism system. And in the near future, joint operations involving two or three countries will be developed in Sahel," he says.

The United States spent $800 million in security aid in Africa in 2014, according to Amanda J. Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. Over the past 10 years, the European Union invested 1.2 billion euros in operations to maintain peace in Africa, with an additional 750 million euros allocated for 2014-2016.

But right now, a very real security risk is the focus of most governments' attention in the region. "Should we be happy about the growing militarization in the region?" asks Gilles Yabi, an expert with Wathi, a new West African think tank. "Militarization may have weakened the countries in the region as much as terrorist groups have," he says.

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Calmez-Vous, Americans: It's Quite OK To Call Us "The French"

A widely mocked tweet by the Associated Press tells its reporters to avoid dehumanizing labels such as "the poor" or "the French". But one French writer replies that the real dehumanizing threat is when open conversation becomes impossible.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Dirk Broddin on Flickr
Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — The largest U.S. news agency, the Associated Press (AP) tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at journalists: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead use, wording such as people with mental illnesses.”

The inclusion of “The French” in this list of groups likely to be offended has evoked well-deserved sarcasm. It finally gives me the opportunity to be part of a minority and to confirm at my own expense, while staying true to John Stuart Mill's conception of free speech: that offense is not a crime.

Offense should prompt quips, denial, mockery, and sometimes indifference. It engages conflict in the place where a civilized society accepts and cultivates it: in language.

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