As Trump takes on a grieving widow, terror in the Sahel threatens
There are now more than 800 US troops in the north African state of Niger, which has come as a surprise to American military analysts and political leaders.
Four members of the US special forces were killed in a firefight with Islamic radicals in the north of Niger in early October, which led to a war of words between President Donald Trump and the wife of one of the dead soldiers, Myeshia Johnson.
Her husband La David Johnson's body was found a day after a gun battle with more than 50 extremists north of the Niger capital, Niamey.
While the immediate social media firestorm has focused on the upsetting story of how the president appeared to forget the name of the dead soldier and cause the widow great distress, the reality is that there’s been a surge of activity in the Sahel region in North Africa.
A report by the Global Strategy Network, in conjunction with the Soufan Group, claims about 5,600 soldiers from more than 33 countries have returned from Syria and Iraq to their homes across the world.
It also says up to 30% of the foreign fighters from Europe have already made their way back to the continent from the Middle East, while a report in Russia called "Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees", says Libya is particularly vulnerable.
While the report states it is too early to say if there has been an increase in attacks directly attributed to the returning soldiers, it has warned there is every likelihood this will happen.
"A major factor will be the attitude and ability of the surviving members of the cohort of more than 40,000 foreigners who flocked to join IS (Islamic State) from more than 110 countries both before and after the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014," it says.
Many of those fighting for IS had originated from Africa and they have returned home to begin mobilising there, according to military specialists.
In the US, Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that the continent was now being groomed by radicals for more action.
“The war is morphing,” he said on Friday, October 20.
“You are going to see more actions in Africa, not less. You are going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less. We are going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”
The US is not alone. While around 800 personnel are in Niger, there are also French and other countries involved in the region as the Sahel has become central in the war against terror.
The message of extremism is now shaping the image of Islam in parts of the continent where extreme poverty and political isolation are rampant.
"The war is morphing"
That is as the religion grows more diverse in other parts of the world, and the role that Gulf states are playing in fanning the fundamentalism through the funding of Wahhabi madrassas and the export of a particularly virulent form of Islam is part of the problem, according to terror experts.
The particular message of revolutionary action leading to a perfect future resonates in the rural African landscape and it's one that the radicals are happy to exploit.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab set off two massive bombs on Friday, October 20, which killed more than 350 people. That may have been a public relations disaster, however, as Somalians reacted with outrage and street protests against the terror organisation surged at the weekend.
It was the most extreme act of violence in Somalia’s history, and signs of an increase in both the activity and level of carnage linked to extremists.
The Soufan Center report says IS fighters may find it difficult joining some of the al-Shabaab groups. It goes on to say: "In Somalia, a group of Al Shabaab members led by a Somali with British nationality declared allegiance to IS in October 2015, and although there was little evidence of an immediate influx of foreign recruits, the group may yet attract Somali diaspora who worry that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab will regard them with suspicion, as well as IS fighters from Yemen. Another group of IS supporters in East Africa has already attracted recruits from Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania, and will also compete with Al Shabaab for diaspora members."
In West Africa, there have been renewed clashes between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army in the third quarter of 2017.
According to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, "Islam in West Africa has evolved somewhat differently from the Middle East, having been influenced by pre-existing African traditions. It is characterised by tolerance and nonviolence.”
Since the middle 1990s there has been a steady rise in radical Islam in Africa according to military and political analysts.
The growth of Salafism is now palpable across broad parts of central, east and west Africa. The definition of Salafism holds that they are a militant group of extremist Sunnis who believe themselves the only correct interpreters of the Koran and consider moderate Muslims to be infidels.
They seek to convert all Muslims and to insure that its own fundamentalist version of Islam will dominate the world.
It is a revolutionary form of Islam that promotes violence and hatred, where suicide bombing is welcomed and the killing of self for the good of the sect is regarded as sacred.
Businesses and individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other oil-rich states are funding these Salafi fundamentalists, according to various investigations by global terror experts over the past decade.
The Wikileaks documents outlined how Saudi Arabia is the world's largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, but that the Saudi government was reluctant to stem the flow of money until now.
The Gulf states are funding the building of mosques in rural areas and preaching the gospel of action and the strict interpretation of the Koran known as Wahhabism has spread quickly in a region where corruption and chaos abound.
Donations are pouring into Africa allowing conservative African groups to build mosques, finance charities, and use digital and other forms of media to grow.
The reaction to this spread has begun to alarm Saudi Arabia, which cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of funding extremists groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and IS. At the time observers called this an act of hypocrisy.
Then on Tuesday, October 24, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he was going to return his country to what he called “moderate” Islam and said he wanted to “eradicate” extremism.
According to studies by the King’s College of London, at least 75% of all terror attacks in the last decade have been conducted by people espousing Salafist ideology, which emanates from Saudi madrassas.
The number of attacks by militants in Africa rose from a few dozen a year in 2010 to well over a thousand by 2015.
In South Africa, Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State, says the Sufi form of Islam has been steadily pushed out of some countries in favour of Salafism. While the former is regarded as moderate and inspired by concepts of love and acceptance, the latter preaches a fundamentalist attitude which fosters hatred and contempt for diversity. It also teaches that to kill those they call non-believers is not only acceptable, but necessary.
Leif Wenar of King’s College has said that at the heart of this spread is Saudi Arabia, which has spent tens of billions of dollars to fund madrassas, fundamentalist preachers and even scholarships to study this inflexible form of Islam.
“Saudi Arabia is not the only factor, of course, in the spread of violent extremism. But for 50 years Saudi Arabia has been funding schools and mosques and radical preachers worldwide, who have set down their particular narrow and puritanical version of Islam, which has in many places mutated into the violent extremism we see today,” Wenar told Voice of America.
Salafists have conducted attacks against non-Muslims or Muslims they despise around Africa, in Mali, Kenya, Somalia, Chad, Libya, Morocco and the Central African Republic.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates funds thousands of scholarships to Africans to attend madrassas in the Gulf states. When they return they are imbued with a fundamentalist and hard-line attitude to other religions and other Muslims, according to Solomon.
The growth of the number of East African students studying these countries has climbed from a few hundred in 2010 to 10,000 in 2014 according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in a recent report.
There has been a spike of attacks aimed at Christians and other African-based religions since 2014, particularly in Kenya and Nigeria where Christians and Muslims live side by side.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, attacks by militant Islamists against civilians in East Africa rose from just a few in 2010 to roughly 20 per year since then, the majority in Kenya.
One of the most sensational, says the centre, was the 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, where militants caused more than 60 civilian deaths and left hundreds injured.
Leif Wenar of King’s College has conducted a review of children’s textbooks published in Saudi Arabia, which compared Christians and Jews to animals and tells children not to befriend people of other religions.
“This really is quite an archaic and extreme ideology that the Saudis have been sending, and it seems [that] to check it, we should make the world more aware of what’s going on,” he said.
In 2013, for example, a flood of emails released by Wikileaks, contained a statement from the office of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from John Podesta her campaign chairman, saying: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Those inside Islam in Africa who’ve warned of this trend have been murdered, physically assaulted and intimidated. For example, in 2014, Abdisaid Abdi Ismail published a book questioning whether the death penalty for apostasy was solely confined to Islam.
The response to his suggestion was swift. He himself was labelled an apostate and received death threats and after repeated protests by fundamentalist clergy, his books were withdrawn from Kenyan news stands.
The growth of fundamentalist-linked Sharia law followed the writing of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who believed that Islam should become a political force and override all other aspects of existing social life and should be enforced through “the sword”.
There is no place for the secular state, or any other religion, according to those who hold fast to this belief system, with most Wahhabists linking secularism directly to a concept of Christianity.
Their expansion into the Sahel and other regions of Africa has unnerved local leadership, and led directly to calls for assistance. The US along with its European allies like France and other Sahel-based African states have responded by sending troops into the fractious region as the signs grow that a clash of cultures and religions has started which will shape the future of the continent.
The militant groups exist in pockets throughout the western Sahel and Lake Chad basin. Boko Haram controls much of northern Nigeria as well as parts of Niger, Chad and the Cameroon. There are numerous other Wahhabi-inspired groups in Mali.
The Sahara separates these local groups in and near the Sahel from territory dominated by al-Qaeda and IS in North Africa — particularly Libya and Algeria but the networks have extended since the demise of IS in Syria and their crushing defeat in Iraq.
The Sahel also provides links to Saudi Arabian and other Gulf states through emigration and refugee movement which has further complicated the picture.
The region holds some of the biggest deposits of uranium, gold, silver, copper and other minerals which are being tapped by militants as their IS cousins did with oil in Syria and Iraq.
France’s focus is Mali and other parts of the western Sahel, while US operations have concentrated on the Lake Chad basin to the east. It is a sign of just how seriously Washington takes the threat of fundamental Islam, while continental bodies, like the African Union (AU), try to deal with extremists.
In a paper published in 2015, the AU warned that political instability was playing into the hands of the extremists and called for projects to solve conflicts peacefully. It also called for more cooperation between countries and for more direct action by governments, including the creation of joint military action to quash the militants.
There has been an increase in regional coordination with groups such as The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) an initiative which involves a partnership between Algeria, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Morocco.
The TSCTP is an initiative which is aimed at the regional capabilities of nations to protect themselves against terrorism, improving and stationing security forces on regional basis, promoting the democratic government and reinforcing cooperation with the United States.
It was as part of this cooperation that the US has increased its troop component in the Sahel. The four special forces troops who died were members of the Green Berets and the attack took place around 200km north of the Niger capital, Niamey, near the border with Mali.