Al Qaeda’s shock troops on the prowl in Africa

Al Qaeda’s shock troops on the prowl in Africa

Sunday, April 17, 2016 3:40 pm

Nigeria announces the capture of ‘Ansaru’ chief Khalid al Barnawi. But al Qaeda’s men in Africa are still very dangerous indeed—especially to foreigners.

Jihadists of Al Qaeda

Jihadists of Al Qaeda

By Philip Obaji Jr.

First, they attacked the Raddison Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Nov. 20, killing at least 21 people, most of whom were foreign nationals.

Less than two months later, the same group unleashed another batch of young militants on Burkina Faso’s popular Splendid Hotel and a neighbouring café in the capital, Ouagadougou, killing 30 people, including eight Burkinabes, six Canadians, three Ukrainians, three French, and an American.

Then, in March, another batch of Islamist militants killed at least 19 people in a gun attack on a beach resort in southern Ivory Coast. Eleven Ivorians lost their lives, and four French citizens were among the dead, as well as one German, one Nigerian, one Macedonian, and one Lebanese.

In what is coming to look like a global Islamist insurgency, it is more than likely there will be more such atrocities targeting foreigners in this part of the world, and probably soon. The Nigerian government’s announcement Sunday that it has captured Khalid al Barnawi, the operational chief of the organization, is a positive development, to be sure. But if there is one thing these jihadist organizations have shown, it is their ability to regenerate, and, indeed, to metastasize.

The North Africa-based group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the hotel and resort attacks, including the one in November in Mali, which it said it carried out with its offshoot al-Mourabitoun. But there is growing reason to believe that AQIM’s West African franchise, Ansaru, took part in the operations and that its members are serving as the shock troops for an offensive against foreigners in Africa.

The existence and activities of Ansaru reflect the schisms within schisms that have divided the jihadist movements of the Middle East and Africa, even as they have spread. The overarching split is between the original core al Qaeda, responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001, and the spin-off now known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, which grew out of the al Qaeda-affiliated resistance to American occupation of Iraq after 2003.

ISIS rejected the leadership and strategy of core al Qaeda in early 2014, choosing to focus its attacks on Shia “heretics” and the creation of a geographically defined and growing “caliphate.” Both of those strategies were rejected by Ayman Zawahiri, the leading al Qaeda ideologue and the head of the organization since the Americans eliminated Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Over the last two years, ISIS has waged a brilliant campaign to expand its brand and its influence, enlisting many affiliates in the Middle East and Africa, and taking its war most recently, to the heart of Europe, with attacks in Paris and Brussels. But as veteran terrorism expert Brian Jenkins points out in a new report for Rand, there may be less to the global reach of ISIS—with its wilayaat, or governorates in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Tunisia, the North Caucasus, and elsewhere—than meets the eye.

Those beyond the territory ISIS administers and defends in Iraq and Syria are “aspirational,” says Jenkins. “In some graphics, the emergence of one affiliate puts the entire country under the Islamic State, but this is misleading,” he writes. “These are outposts of like-minded fanatics—advance parties in a few places, not armies of occupation.”

Al Qaeda and its North African affiliate, AQIM, on the other hand, appear to be playing the long game. And Ansaru is part of that.

So, while Ansaru is not a name as widely known as Boko Haram, which is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, and thus an AQIM competitor in the realm of jihad, terror, and atrocity, Ansaru can be, when it cares to be, just as deadly.

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