February 22, 2013 | 1800 GMT
Stratfor’s Vice President of Africa Analysis Mark Schroeder discusses the links between al Qaeda and the jihadist groups operating in north and west Africa, threats to Nigeria and the French intervention in Mali.
Colin Chapman: A huge slice of north and west Africa, parts of it rich in resources, now needs to be approached with caution. Advisories from the United States and many European capitals suggest travelers should avoid some countries. Kidnapping is common, and a French family was snatched from Cameroon this week and spirited across the Nigerian border. Units of al Qaeda operate from Algeria and Libya in the north through to Nigeria in the south. So what’s happening here, and what’s at risk?
Thanks for watching Agenda, and joining me to evaluate the strengths of jihadists and the efforts to contain them is Stratfor senior Africa analyst Mark Schroeder. Mark, let’s start with the facts. To what extent are Islamist extremist groups in north and west Africa linked?
Mark Schroeder: Well let’s break that apart group by group and just to lead off with the preeminent headline group right now, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its leadership position is in northeastern Algeria. However, its forward location is in northern Mali, where of course it is fighting a defensive-style guerrilla conflict against the French and other African forces that have intervened in Mali. Now they have cooperated — I’m talking about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — have formed up relationships with indigenous rebel groups in Mali, and these are very close relationships, with two groups in particular. One is referred to as Ansar Dine, the other is referred to as the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa. These are effectively Malian groups but of radical Islamists who are fully embedded with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Now beyond the Malian environment, there are other rebel groups and militant groups active in this part of Africa. And we can talk about groups in Nigeria, where kidnapping incidents have gotten a lot of attention lately, with two attacks in the last several days — one involving the Islamist militant group known as Ansaru, the other kidnapping likely conducted by the militant group known as Boko Haram.
Colin: Now the groups you mentioned that are active in Nigeria and have claimed responsibility for recent kidnappings — are they linked in to these others?
Mark: Now that question requires a careful answer. There are elements of these Islamist militant groups in northern Nigeria who have had a relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and that relationship is one of personnel who have traveled to Mali or territory under the control of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to interact, to learn, to exchange notes and training programs from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for use in northern Nigeria. But as far as a relationship that is, say, a merger or an alliance, or cooperating on a large scale between the groups, that is not yet the case.
Colin: And do these groups have contacts with radical Islamists operating in European cities like Paris and London?
Mark: Well that is clearly the concern, and we have seen that play out across other theaters as well. I’ll reference the Somali militant group al Shabaab, who have supporters in the Somali diaspora In the Western world — in Scandinavian countries, in the U.K. and in the United States and Canada. With the case of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, its roots go back to Algerian militant groups who fought extensive campaigns against the Algerian state in the 1990s. And part of those campaigns included direct attacks on the French homeland, including bombings in Paris and even one attempt to hijack an Air France airliner and crash it into the Eiffel Tower. So the French, when they intervened in Mali, they already had a long history of combat against what is that root of the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militant group.
Colin: Could these groups really extend their reach to attack mainland Europe?
Mark: Well clearly these regional nodes of al Qaeda, specifically al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operating out of Yemen, they are threats not only to governments in their region but they have conducted more wide-scale attacks. And these countries in the West and in the United States recognize there needs to be, you know, considerable oversight paid to these jihadist groups. A failure to do so could lead to a terrorist incident — even if not on a sustained level, but still could be a significant threat to its interests. In the case of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, even though that jihadist group has never attacked the United States directly and does not possess a capability to attack the United States, it can impact American interests in the West African region and it can impact American allies, notably the French. But of course let’s remember the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya in 2012. Not only was it burned to the ground but its ambassador was killed there as well by affiliates of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Colin: Let’s move south and spent a couple of minutes on Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where we’ve seen terrorist attacks and recent kidnappings.
Mark: Exactly. Nigeria is, you know, a significant country in Africa — the most populous African country, with about 165 million people. It’s Africa’s leading oil-producing state. It generates upwards of 2 and a half million barrels of oil a day, you know, it’s a significant African player. But because of some of those attributes, it also faces considerable competition and rivalry inside the country to control those resources and those assets. And there has been a history of using militancy to control politics. As recently as a few years ago, in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, we saw extensive militancy conducted by groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. And effectively this group would attack oil pipelines and kidnap oil workers to hold that oil resource hostage so that the other power players in Nigeria would basically yield and give them political prominence.
What we’re seeing today in northern Nigeria is a similar campaign, however by aggrieved northerner Nigerians displeased, totally opposed to the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from the Niger Delta. And they are using very similar practices of militancy. Slightly different tactics, but overall the objective of using militancy to undermine confidence in the government and to basically make the country — certainly the northern part of the country –ungovernable to the point that the Jonathan administration backs down from power. And all eyes are on the country’s 2015 national elections and effectively a showdown between Jonathan supporters in the south and northerner opponents using effectively terrorism to destabilize the federal government.
Colin: A frightening prospect. Now it has been the French that have taken the lead in trying to rub out some of these groups. But is President Francois Hollande in this for the long term?
Mark: Well so far, you know, France has been very successful at achieving its military tasks in northern Mali. But, you know, the stage of conflict that we are in right now in northern Mali has transitioned to a guerrilla-style conflict. And al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Malian proxies have withdrawn from its forward locations in towns such as Timbuktu, and Gao, even Kidal in the north, and basically have pulled their forces and their defenses into a mountainous chain called the Kidal Mountains, bordering Algeria, and from there have launched guerrilla-style attacks against the French and allied forces in that part of the country. We have also seen guerrilla-style attacks including suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices in Gao town, where the French and other allied forces are patrolling.
And so the Hollande administration does not want to stay forever in Mali and would prefer to transition its French-led operation to an African led-operation. But determining the appropriate time to make that transition — drawing down French but at the same time not undermining security and stability, basically relying on African forces to boost their presence — that timing is still up in the air.
Colin: It all sounds too familiar — shades of Afghanistan.
Mark: France has long experience, you know, being confronted by terrorists such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And it knows that it holds, you know, considerable political and economic interests in this part of Africa that have to be protected. Just next door to Mali is extensive uranium mining deposits that France relies heavily on to feed its nuclear power plants at home.
Colin: Well, Mark, there’s much more we could discuss, but we’ll have to leave it there. Mark Schroeder, ending Agenda for this week. Thanks for being with us, and bye for now.