Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017

Ten thousand members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) have been transferred from Kordofan to North Darfur to help implement a mandatory disarmament campaign in the region. Almost exclusively Arab in composition, the RSF will attempt to disarm not only non-Arab rebel forces still in the field, but also Arab elements of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) that are in near rebellion and nomadic tribesmen who rely on their weapons to protect their herds from thieves and predators.

Sudan Armed Forces Armor in Darfur (Nuba Reports)

Both the RSF and the BGF are products of Khartoum’s efforts to make the infamous and internationally reviled “Janjaweed” disappear. Absorbing these ill-disciplined Arab militias into better defined government formations helped support a government narrative that the Janjaweed were not government-backed marauders, but rather unaffiliated bandits that had been removed from Darfur through the efforts of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In theory, transforming these militias into salaried employees of the state would bring them under tighter state control at a time when many Janjaweed and their commanders were beginning to have second thoughts about having sacrificed their reputation in return for empty promises from Khartoum. In practice, the RSF has transformed itself into a border control force reducing migration flows to Europe with ample funding from the European Union, while the BGF has evolved into a new formation, the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (“Sahwa”) Council (SRAC), which has slipped from government control with the help of enormous profits from its domination of artisanal gold mining in northwestern Darfur.

Both RSF and BGF are composed of members of the semi-nomadic Abbala (camel-raising) tribes of northern Darfur, the main source of Janjaweed manpower after the ongoing Darfur rebellion began in 2003. Some of the Abbala tribes, including the northern Rizayqat, had not been allotted specific lands for their use by the old Fur Sultanate (c. 1600-1916) or the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium administration (1916-1956).

Darfur (Human Rights Watch)

While customary arrangements between the semi-nomadic Arabs and sedentary non-Arab groups regarding land-use and migration routes continued into the independence period, these accommodations began to fall apart in the 1980s as drought and an encroaching desert placed new pressures on traditional systems. Possessing useful pastures became essential for the pastoralist Arabs, but after centuries of land allotments by Fur Sultans (the feudal hakura system) and their colonial successors, there was no unclaimed land to be had; dispossessing others was the only means of establishing a new dar, or tribal homeland.

The Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, whose dar-s were legally and traditionally defined, had little involvement with the depredations of the Janjaweed. Unfortunately for the Baqqara, this distinction is little understood outside of Sudan. It is also important to note that not all the Abbala tribes were involved with the Janjaweed; the Janjaweed was primarily drawn from sections of the northern Rizayqat (who were much affected by lack of land-title) and elements of Arab groups from Chad and Niger who had migrated to Darfur with the encouragement of the Khartoum regime, which suggested they carve out their own land-holdings from territory belonging to non-Arab tribes the regime viewed as supporters of the rebellion.

The progress of Khartoum’s disarmament campaign will have important consequences for the future of the Darfur rebellion, the regime’s continuing efforts to centralize power in Sudan and even the European Union’s campaign to reduce illegal migration into Europe.

Musa Hilal: From Janjaweed to Border Guard

With the possible exception of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, no individual is more closely associated with the deeds of the Janjaweed than Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir (center) with Musa Hilal (right of of al-Bashir)      (al-Jazeera)

Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups. The southern Rizayqat are baqqara with little involvement in the Janjaweed). From his home village of Misteriya, Hilal became involved in the 1990s with the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. The Um Jalul began to clash with non-Arab Fur and Zaghawa tribesmen in the 1990s, leading to Hilal’s eventual arrest and imprisonment in Port Sudan in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence.

Hilal’s prison term was brought to an abrupt end by the shocking April 2003 raid on Darfur’s al-Fashir military airbase by Fur and Zaghawa rebels retaliating against growing waves of government backed Arab violence against non-Arab communities. An unnerved government realized the SAF might not be capable of containing the mobile hit-and-run tactics of the rebels developed during fighting in Chad in the 1980s. After deciding to turn to local tribal militias to carry the counterinsurgency campaign, suddenly Shaykh Musa was just what the regime needed. Consequently, Hilal was released in June 2003 to organize a counterinsurgent force infused with pro-Arab ideology and armed, supplied and directed by SAF intelligence units. This was the “Janjaweed.” [1]

The strategy employed to hobble the militarily powerful insurgent forces was to cripple their support base and supply system through the destruction of defenseless Fur and Zaghawa villages. Tactics typically involved an initial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force (usually crude “barrel-bombs” rolled out from Russian-built Antonov transport aircraft), followed by waves of horse and camel-borne Janjaweed and a final “mopping-up” force of Sudanese regulars and intelligence agents. Murder, torture, rape and looting were all part of a process intended to punish relatives of insurgents and even those with no connection to the rebels other than a shared ethnic or tribal background. Incitement of ethnic hatred, promises of immunity and a license to loot freely helped give free rein to the basest instincts of the Janjaweed; those reluctant to join in such activities were subject to imprisonment and the collective punishment of their families.

One of Hilal’s leading lieutenants during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses was Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat, though by this time the Awlad Mansur were resident in South Darfur, having moved there in the 1980s where they seized Fur lands in the southern Jabal Marra region.

Hilal’s notoriety brought largely meaningless sanctions from the UN Security Council in April 2006. Instead of ostracism, Hilal was brought to Khartoum, where he was integrated into the government as a special advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and a member of parliament in the ruling National Congress Party (Hilal later repudiated his membership in the NCP).

By 2005 the government’s campaign in Darfur had begun to attract unwanted international attention, including ill-informed but nonetheless damaging accusations of “genocide” from various media sources and celebrity activists. However useful to the regime, the “Janjaweed” had to go. The solution was integration into the Border Guards, previously a small and little known camel-mounted unit. Arab tribesmen serving in the Janjaweed for loot were now given salaries and government ID cards which helped shield the new Border Guards from prosecution for war crimes while bringing them under tighter regime control. Musa Hilal was made a top commander in the expanded BGF.

The Return of Musa Hilal

Following a dispute with the government, Musa Hilal returned to northwest Darfur in January 2014, where, despite remaining commander of the BFG, he established the 8,000 strong Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC) as a vehicle for his personal and tribal political agenda. By March 2014 he had brought the northwestern Darfur districts of, Kutum, Kebkabiya, al-Waha and Saraf Omra under SRAC’s administrative control by the exclusion of government forces. Clashes between Hilal’s mostly Mahamid followers and government security forces began to occur with regularity.

Musa Hilal’s SRAC is also involved in a struggle with the RSF over control of Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya), where gold was discovered in 2012. The SAF withdrew from the area in 2013 under pressure from Hilal’s forces, which then defeated the rival Bani Hussein Arabs in a bloody struggle for control of the region. In 2016, the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Hilal was making approximately $54 million per year from SRAC’s control of the artisanal gold mining at Jabal Amer, though the report was not publicly released due to Russian objections. Gold is now the largest source of revenue in Sudan since South Sudan and its oil fields separated in 2011, though much of it is smuggled out of the country to markets in the Gulf States (Radio Tamazuj, April 27, 2016; Radio Dabanga, April 5, 2016).

In May 2017, SRAC spokesman Ahmad Muhammad Abakr called for “all Arab tribes in Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile state to disobey the government’s military orders and refrain from participating in its war convoys.” Suggesting their cause had been “stolen by the government,” Abakr declared:

The ongoing wars are now fabricated for the purpose of a divide-and-rule policy of which the ruling elite in Khartoum is the ultimate beneficiary rather than the people of Sudan… If there is a need for war, we ask you to point weapons against those who employ you to fight on their behalf in order to take your political, economic and military rights instead of fighting a proxy war (Radio Dabanga, May 31, 2017).

The Rapid Support Forces

Prior to Hilal’s return to Darfur, Khartoum had detached the BGF’s Fut-8 Battalion (based in Nyala, South Darfur and commanded by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo) from the rest of the force and used it as the core of a new paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The move was partly a response to internal tensions in the BGF between Fut-8 and the Hilal-commanded Fut-7 Battalion, which claimed Fut-8 was favored by Khartoum in terms of supplies of weaponry, vehicles and supplies. [2] At the same time, Daglo and his followers complained that Hilal was not distributing BGF resources fairly, especially the all-important Land Cruisers. [3]

RSF Troops, Darfur

The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) and continues to enjoy the patronage of Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad Abd al-Rahman, a Rizayqat. [4]

The RSF was integrated into the SAF in 2016, but with an unusual semi-autonomous status under the direct command of President Bashir (a Nile Valley or “riverine” Ja’alin Arab). Saying that the establishment of the RSF was the best decision he had ever made as president, Bashir recently told a graduating group of 1450 RSF recruits in Khartoum that their aim must be to “show force and terrorize the enemies” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2017).

Despite government claims that Darfur was stabilized, the RSF took a leading role in May 2017 alongside the SAF in a bitter four day battle around Ayn Siro in the Kutum district of North Darfur last May against the Zaghawa-led Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) and the allied Sudan Liberation Movement – Transitional Council (SLM-TC), led by Nimr Abd al-Rahman. [5]

Several leading prisoners, including veteran rebel Muhammad Abd al-Salim “Tarada,” military commander of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW), were reported to have been killed by NISS agents following their capture. The defeated rebels fled westward along the Upper Wadi Howar into Chad, though they later issued a joint communiqué making an unlikely claim to have driven off the government forces. The heavy losses suffered by the SLM-MM marked a disappointing return to Darfur after the movement had spent nearly two years fighting as mercenaries in Libya (Sudan Tribune, May 29, 2017; May 23, 2017; Sudan Vision, May 22, 2017; Radio Dabanga, May 23, 2017; IRIN, August 2, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

RSF commander Daglo claimed the Darfur rebels were aided at Ayn Siro and Wadi Howar by Chadian opposition fighters (who have also been fighting as mercenaries in Libya) [6] and insinuated that the Chadians were harbored and supported logistically by Musa Hilal, though he did not elaborate on the reasons for this new support by Hilal for Darfur’s non-Arab rebels (Sudan Tribune, June 4, 2017).

By January 8, 2017, the RSF announced the capture of over 1500 illegal migrants in the last seven months following the interception of 115 migrants several days earlier (Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2017). RSF activity along the Libyan border is intended to intercept traffickers in humans and narcotics and to demonstrate Sudan’s commitment to reducing flows of illegal migrants after the European Union made a grant to Sudan of €100 million to deal with the issue.

Most of the illegal migrants making their way through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe hail from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. The EU is funding the construction of two RSF camps equipped with modern surveillance equipment and electronics for intercepting and detaining illegal migrants. [7]

Rejecting Integration

Defence Minister Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Bin Auf announced a reorganization of the SAF’s “supporting forces” on July 19, 2017. A central part of the reorganization was the planned integration of the BGF into the RSF. Within days, SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikher announced the BGF would refuse to allow its integration, saying the decision was “ill-considered and unwise” and had been taken without consulting the BGF leadership (Radio Dabanga, July 23, 2017).

On news of the refusal, one of Hilal’s old opponents, Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (leader of the largely Fur SLM-AW), used radio to reach out to the Arab militia leader, stating that while Musa Hilal’s “awakening conscience may be belated,” it was “time for all the Sudanese people to stand united against the regime” (Radio Afia Darfur, via Sudan Tribune, August 20, 2017). Abd al-Wahid has always been the rebel commander most likely to seek terms with Darfur’s Arab community, recognizing the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and farmers as well as the existence of a common enemy in the Khartoum regime.

Hilal has also stepped up his anti-government rhetoric, urging his tribesmen not to volunteer for the SAF’s campaign in Yemen, claiming Vice-President Abd al-Rahman and General Daglo have stolen millions of dollars given to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in return for their participation in the intervention against the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen’s ongoing civil war (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).

Turmoil on the Libyan Border

On September 22, 2017 the RSF claimed to have killed 17 human traffickers a day earlier with a loss of two RSF men. The encounter took place in the Jabal ‘Uwaynat region where the Sudanese, Libyan and Egyptian borders meet. [8] An RSF field commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Abdallah, described the intercepted group as “the largest armed gang operating in human trafficking and illegal immigration” on the Libyan-Sudanese border. The RSF also claimed to have detained 48 illegal migrants being shipped to Libya (Radio Dabanga, September 24, 2017).

A SRAC spokesman insisted those killed were SRAC members involved in trading but not trafficking, adding that the men had initially only been detained by the RSF, but were killed after three days of negotiations failed to reach an agreement on a ransom  (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017). One of those killed was a Hilal bodyguard, Sulayman Daoud. Leading SRAC member Ali Majok al-Momin counter-charged the RSF with “trading and smuggling vehicles over the borders with Chad and Libya” (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017).

The incident was not the first involving the RSF and SRAC on the Libyan border. Seven SRAC members, including leading member Omar Saga and Muhammad al-Rayes, another of Musa Hilal’s bodyguards, were arrested near the border by the RSF on their return from Libya on August 11, 2017.

Behind the RSF’s vigilance against Hilal supporters on the Libyan border is Khartoum’s fear that Hilal is establishing cross-border contacts with “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA – actually a strong coalition of militias under Haftar’s command that oppose the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli). Hilal also has important ties to militarily powerful Chad, whose president, Idriss Déby Itno (a Zaghawa), is Hilal’s son-in-law. Further complicating matters for the government is the high probability that many Mahamid and other Arab members of the RSF could defect to the BGF in the event of a full-scale conflict between the two.

Musa Hilal reportedly sent 200 vehicles full of armed fighters to besiege the RSF camp until those RSF members involved in the September 22 killings were turned over to the BGF (Sudan Tribune, September 26, 2017). A battle between the BGF and the RSF was averted when the two sides agreed to third-party mediation. The process favored the BGF, with the RSF making concessions over control of the gold workings at Jabal Amer and handing over vehicles, military equipment and BGF members detained in the attack (Radio Dabanga, September 29, 2017).

SRAC claimed on October 7, 2017 that two columns of armed RSF Land Cruisers, one from Ayn Siro and one from Kabkabiya, had been sent to “punish Hilal” by defeating his forces and bringing him in to Khartoum “dead or alive” (Radio Dabanga, October 9, 2017; Sudan Tribune, October 8, 2017). The accusation was not new; Shaykh Musa has claimed for years that Khartoum is intent on his assassination.

Conclusion

According to SRAC spokesman Haroun Medeikhir, Musa Hilal met in August with BGF commanders and traditional leaders across Darfur to discuss what he termed Khartoum’s attempt to “dismantle the Arab tribes” (Sudan Tribune, August 14, 2017). Key to bringing the Arab tribes to heel would be disarmament. It was no surprise then that the tribes were alarmed when Vice-President Abd al-Rahman announced a new six-month campaign to disarm Darfur’s militias beginning on October 15.

The SAF and RSF are also taking over 11 military bases being abandoned by the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). [9] The world’s second-largest peacekeeping force is in the first phase of a withdrawal prompted largely by international exhaustion with the complex Darfur issue and UNAMID’s annual budget of $1.35 billion. Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place, began to push for an early UNAMID exit after the mission called for an investigation of the mass rape of 221 women and underage girls by SAF troops in the Fur village of Tabit in October 2014. [10] Khartoum maintains that Darfur has been stabilized and rebel fighters either expelled or neutralized.

Khartoum’s new effort to consolidate its power in Darfur raises renewed possibilities of an alliance of Arabs and non-Arabs against Khartoum, but the events of the last three decades have left a massive and deeply ingrained distrust between the two. Arab and non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur have toyed with the idea of an alliance against the center since 2007, when some Arab factions began to realize their international reputation had been irreversibly stained from manipulation by an insincere Khartoum regime that never had their interests in mind. [11] In addition, the services and development programs promised to the Arabs for their participation in the Janjaweed campaigns never materialized, leaving the Darfur Arabs no better off than they had been in 2003. Tension between the Darfur Arabs and the riverine Arab groups that control the government (the Ja’ailin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya) tend to bring out the strong prejudices that exist between the two Arab groups. The riverine Arabs regard the Darfur Abbala and Baqqara as backwards and “Africanized.” The Darfur Arabs, however, claim descent from the great Juhayna tribe of Arabia; some extremists seeking to shed the control of the riverine Arabs have described the latter as “half-caste Nubians.” [12]

Even Musa Hilal has at times demonstrated a broader understanding of Darfur’s ethnic make-up and the methods used by Khartoum to create and exploit racial and ethnic divisions. In 2008, Hilal told a gathering of Baqqara and Abbala tribal leaders that all Darfuris were “Africans” of mixed Arab and African origin who needed to work on restoring their traditionally cooperative social fabric. [13] In a private meeting with U.S. diplomats that followed, Hilal said “We found out that we have more in common with the Africans of Darfur than with these Nile Valley Arabs,” and even made a surprising recantation of the Arab supremacist philosophy he had followed for decades, suggesting that, based on their better education and moderation, “the Fur should lead” in Darfur, a return to the leadership structure of the old Fur Sultanate. [14]

Complete faith in Daglo’s loyalty does not exist in Khartoum, where conciliation is common when it is in the regime’s interests but indiscretions are never completely forgotten. In this case the issue is Daglo’s mutiny against the government in 2007 over RSF salaries, land and a dispute with Musa Hilal. Unable to assert its authority in Darfur and unwilling to see large numbers of armed Arabs join the rebels, the regime was forced to make major concessions to keep Daglo’s forces onside. When the salaries still went unpaid, Daglo threatened to storm Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Money and arms eventually brought an end to the mutiny, but not the suspicion. [15]

While some Arabs and non-Arabs may discover they have a common enemy in Khartoum, they are still far from having common goals. In recent years, Khartoum has shown little interest in mediating disputes between Arab groups in Darfur that leave these groups weak, preoccupied and unable to unite against the center, especially at a time when budget cuts related to the loss of oil-rich South Sudan make it difficult for the regime to buy cooperation. The consequent environment of perpetual tension and suspicion does not bode well for the success of a campaign to seize the weapons of Darfur’s armed factions by force. In making the attempt the regime will encounter the consequences of its long-standing cynicism and duplicity on the Darfur file and a divide-and-rule policy that has left it with fewer friends in the region than when the rebellion and counter-insurgency began in 2003.

NOTES

  1. The term “Janjaweed,” which predates the counter-insurgency, was used colloquially in reference to armed bandits. The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or the government.
  2. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf
  3. Julie Flint, “Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2009, fn.78, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf
  4. For the RSF, see, “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  5. The SLM-MM is named for its Zaghawa commander, Minni Minawi (a.k.a. Sulayman Arcua Minawi). Like Hilal, Minawi joined the government in Khartoum from 2006 to 2010 as Senior Assistant to the President of the Sudan before returning to the rebellion in Darfur. Nimr Abd al-Rahman was captured by government forces in the battle and replaced as SLM-TC head by al-Hadi Idriss Yahya.
  6. See Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf; “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010 .
  7. See Suliman Baldo, “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’,” Enough Project, April 2017, https://enoughproject.org/files/BorderControl_April2017_Enough_Finals.pdf
  8. For Jabal ‘Uwaynat and RSF activity in the area, see: “Jabal ‘Uwaynat: Mysterious Desert Mountain Becomes a Three-Border Security Flashpoint,” AIS Special Report, June 13, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3930
  9. The UNAMID bases are located at Eid al-Fursan, Tullus, Muhajiriya, al-Malha, Mellit, Um Kedada, Abu Shouk, Zamzam, al-Tine, Habila and Foro Baranga.
  10. “Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit,” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/02/11/mass-rape-north-darfur/sudanese-army-attacks-against-civilians-tabit
  11. See Andrew McGregor: “Darfur’s Arabs Taking Arms against Khartoum,” Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies Commentary (November 2007), http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=559
  12. Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Zed Books, London, 2008.
  13. “Iftar with the ‘Janjaweed’,” U.S. Department of State Cable 08KHARTOUM1450_a, September 25, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KHARTOUM1450_a.html
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf; Julie Flint, op cit, 2009, pp.34-36, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf

“Biafra or Death”: Mazi Nnamdi Kanu and the Struggle for Biafran Independence

Andrew McGregor

October 10, 2017

Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the founder and leader of a Biafran separatist movement known as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), has been missing since a raid by Nigerian security forces on his Abia State compound on September 14. Rumors abound regarding Kanu’s fate or location: some say he sustained gunshot wounds in the raid and is in serious condition but unable to seek medical help for fear of arrest; others say he was killed and his body taken away or that he was arrested after the raid and hustled off in an unmarked vehicle, or even that he escaped to the United Kingdom (UK) via Malaysia (This Day [Lagos], September 24; Vanguard [Lagos], October 2).

Mazi Nnamdi Kanu

Nigeria’s government, fearing the growth of a southern version of the northern Boko Haram insurgency, declared IPOB a “terrorist organization” the day after the raid. Given that over one million Nigerians died during the unsuccessful 1967-1970 war for Biafran independence, Kanu’s efforts to inflame separatist sentiments in Biafra and their consequences for Nigeria’s stability and oil revenues are being taken seriously.

IPOB, claiming two million members mostly from the Igbo ethnic group, says it is in a struggle with Hausa-Fulani security forces from the Muslim north. Kanu has been accused of creating a secret armed group to combat them. Kanu, a dual British-Nigerian citizen, was out on bail on treason charges that followed his 2015 arrest at the time of his disappearance. The separatist leader promised before the raid: “If I’m re-arrested, this country will burn, I assure you” (Sun News [Lagos], September 2). Kanu’s promise to cut off vital oil revenues from the south has hardly endeared him to the rest of the country and he is opposed even by some fellow Biafran separatists.

(History Today)

The government’s decision to declare IPOB a terrorist group and the army’s ongoing Operation Python Dance II has pre-empted any mass insurrection, but tension in Nigeria’s South-East region is growing.

Early Life

Kanu was born in Nigeria’s Abia State in 1967, the first year of independence for the short-lived Republic of Biafra. A Christian of the Igbo ethnic group (one of Nigeria’s largest, with 33 million people), Nnamdi Kanu is the son of HRM Eze (an Igbo royal title) Israel Okwu Kanu, a traditional ruler based in Isiama Afara, a town in Umuahia, Abia State (Nigerianbiography.com, December 19, 2015). As the son of an Igbo traditional ruler, Nnamdi Kanu is sometimes referred to by his followers as “prince.”

Kanu attended the University of Nigeria, Nnsuka in Enugu State, where strikes interrupted his progress, before further studies at London’s Guildhall University (NigerianMonitor.com, n.d.).

According to his father, Kanu was originally a member of a major Biafran independence group, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), but a rift began with MASSOB leader Chief Ralph Uwazuruike over the distribution of party funds. A permanent split occurred after Uwazuruike arrived at Kanu’s wedding with ten buses of angry supporters. The wedding was disrupted and Kanu badly beaten (Punch [Lagos], February 14, 2016). At that point, Kanu decided to lead his own independence movement.

Radio Biafra

 Radio Biafra first operated as the “Broadcasting Corporation of Biafra” during the Nigerian Civil War. The station was revived by Kanu as a London-based shortwave and internet broadcaster in 2009. [1]

According to Kanu, “Radio Biafra programs were designed to wake up the public from their slumber and address the issues of the time, which [were] youth unemployment, lack of infrastructural provisions, poor electricity, an absence of rural development, and conspicuous absence of respect for human rights” (Facebook, December 31, 2015).

In practice, Kanu and his radio associates became known for inflammatory and insulting commentary. Beginning in 2013, Kanu used his broadcasts to claim that Igbo politicians were controlled by northern Muslim Hausa-Fulani “godfathers” who were working toward the Islamization of Nigeria’s southeastern states (Sahara Reporters, March 25, 2014). In a statement written after his 2015 arrest, Kanu apologized for referring to President Buhari on Radio Biafra as “evil, a terrorist and a pedophile,” and for uncomplimentary comments about President Goodluck Jonathan and Igbo elders: “All I was trying to do is draw attention to the problems afflicting society and what society is doing about it” (Facebook, December 31, 2015).

In one of his most disturbing statements, Kanu promised chaotic bloodshed if he failed to get his way:

If they fail to give us Biafra, Somalia will look like a paradise compared to what will happen to that zoo. It is a promise, it is a pledge and it is also a threat to them. If they do not give us Biafra, there will be nothing living in that very zoo they call Nigeria; nothing will survive there, I can assure you…  I do not believe in peaceful actualization or whatever rubbish it is called. I have never seen where you become free by peaceful means (Sahara Reporters, March 25, 2014).

Arrest and Trial

 Kanu was arrested at a Lagos hotel by the Department of State Services (DSS – Nigeria’s secret police) on October 14, 2015 during a visit home. He was charged by the DSS with “criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organization.” The arrest generated protests outside the Abuja courtroom and across much of southwestern Nigeria. Despite being granted bail on October 19, 2015, Kanu remained in detention over the protests of his lawyers.

Nigerian authorities were no doubt alarmed by an address given by Kanu at the World Igbo Congress in Los Angeles on September 5, 2015 in which Kanu said the independence movement needed “guns and bullets.” Kanu tried to walk back his comments in a June 2017 interview, insisting the Igbo only needed weapons for self-defense against marauding Fulani herdsmen, but the damage was done (Daily Post [Lagos], June 27).

Inspired by Donald Trump’s support for Brexit, Kanu wrote the president-elect from prison in November 2016 to remind him that his electoral victory placed upon him a “historic and moral burden to liberate enslaved nations in Africa… It is imperative to draw historical parallels between your victory and that of the great Dwight Eisenhower, a fellow Republican, who was instrumental in the dismantling of European colonialism in Africa” (Herald [Lagos], November 11, 2016).

Nnamdi Kanu with supporters (Naij.com)

During new bail hearings in early 2017, Kanu often appeared in court wearing a Jewish yarmulke and tallit [prayer shawl], signs of his newly professed adherence to Judaism and the belief that the Igbo are a lost tribe of Israelites. [2] Some followers protesting for his release outside the court appeared in similar garb.

The court granted Kanu bail on April 25 on condition that he refrain from public speaking, giving interviews or joining a gathering of ten or more people. He was due back in court on October 17, 2017. One of the three individuals who stood as sureties for Kanu’s bail was Nigerian Chief Rabbi Immanuel Shalum Okabemadu.

After his release, Kanu attempted to clarify his position on Biafran independence:

An independent Biafra means going back to where we were before the White man came. I am talking about total independence from Nigeria. Nothing can ever happen to make me change my mind about this [direction] of independence for Biafra. It is either Biafra or death. I will not go to war because truth is a far more potent and deadlier weapon than bullet and mortars. I have absolutely ruled out war from the struggle. When I say Biafra or death, I mean I will keep pushing; either I am alive or dead in the process, I won’t stop (Daily Post [Lagos], July 6).

Nnamdi Kanu and the Hebrew Igbo

Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency was greeted with street celebrations by IPOB members who believed he would reverse President Obama’s support for the Buhari administration. Many of the pro-Biafran celebrants wore yarmulkes and tallitot. Some of the self-declared Jewish Biafran separatists believe the president’s strong support for Israel will translate into support for an independent pro-Israel Biafran state (Forward.com, February 6).

Pro-Trump Rally, Port Harcourt (The Forward)

The similarity of some Igbo customs to Jewish customs was first noted in the 1789 autobiography of a freed slave, Olaudah Equiano. [3] These similarities were expanded upon by Christian missionaries, but the identification by an Igbo minority with Judaism and Israel is of much more recent vintage. Nonetheless, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that “there are no historical, halachic or national grounds to view the members of the Igbo tribe as Jews,” and all Igbo attempts to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return have resulted in deportation (Forward.com, January 24, 2016). Efforts to establish a link by DNA testing have proven controversial rather than conclusive (Times of Israel, August 11). Though the “Jewish Igbo” remain a highly vocal and visible minority, out of some 33 million Nigerian Igbo, only 3,000 to 30,000 practice a form of Judaism.

Benjamin Onwuka

A rival Biafran independence movement is known as the “Biafran Zionists’ Federation” (BZF, a break-away group from MASSOB).  Pro-U.S. and pro-Israel, the BZF is led by barrister Benjamin Onwuka, who declared the independence of Biafra with himself as “interim president” on July 31 (Pulse.ng, August 1). Onwuka announced Israelis would have important cabinet appointments in his new administration and (falsely) that the new nation had “been recognized by the U.S.” (Daily Post [Lagos], July 31; This Day [Lagos], September 13).

The Biafran National Guard

An armed group closely associated with Kanu is the Biafran National Guard (BNG), a group of militants led by “General” Innocent Orji, who claims to have received his appointment from the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, president of Biafra during its brief independence (1967-1970). (Daily Post [Lagos], September 5).

The BNG says it works in cooperation with IPOB but ultimately takes orders from “Supreme Allied Commander Prince Nnamdi Kanu.” The group claims to have large numbers of Biafran-origin veterans of the U.S. military services and is seeking to recruit more. [4] In a statement released on September 18, the BNG declared that they were not a new group (as claimed by the Nigerian Army) but were an independent organization that did not subscribe to the “peaceful strategy of IPOB,” adding the Nigerian military “can go to hell” (Daily Post [Lagos], September 18). One of their odder beliefs is that President Buhari is dead and has been replaced by an imposter who is the product of plastic surgery and determined to “crush” Biafrans (Daily Post [Lagos], September 5).

A November 2016 Amnesty International report appeared to confirm IPOB and BNG claims of incidents of extreme violence against Biafran secessionists by the Nigerian Army, police and DSS, including widespread torture and the deaths of at least 150 pro-Biafra protesters between August 2015 and August 2016. [5] The army, in turn, cited IPOB attacks against non-Igbo ethnic groups and security services and claimed that IPOB’s “unjustifiable violence… threatens national security” and has produced “unimaginable atrocities to unhinge the reign of peace, security and stability in several parts of South East Nigeria” (Premium Times [Abuja], November 24, 2016).

The Raid on Nnamdi Kanu’s Compound

Abia State’s police commissioner declared that the Ariara police station was attacked repeatedly between September 10 and 14 by IPOB members using petrol bombs. The station was destroyed, with one policeman killed and three pump action shotguns stolen. The commissioner also outlined disturbances in Umuahia, where IPOB members allegedly attacked soldiers as well as the residences of military and police officers. Sixty members of IPOB were arrested and charged with offenses including terrorism and attempted murder (Guardian [Lagos], September 17; The Nation [Lagos], September 25; Premium Times [Abuja], September 25).

With tensions rising in Umuahia, a serious clash occurred on September 10 between security forces and followers of Kanu staying at his family compound. Kanu claimed troops had attacked the compound and injured occupants in an attempt to kill him; his lawyer added that “about five of his family members were brutally wounded and some unfortunately killed” (Premium Times [Abuja], September 10).

The police and the Army’s 14th Brigade gave varying descriptions of the incident, but both agreed there was no attack on Kanu’s compound, but rather that suspected IPOB militants had attacked soldiers on patrol and an armored personnel carrier (APC) on a test run with stones, broken bottles and machetes (Sahara Reporters, September 10; Leaders.ng, September 18). The military released a video supporting their version of events, including troops firing in the air but not at the demonstrators.

Four days later security forces were back with the clear purpose of seizing the compound and those within. Gunfire within the compound was reported for over an hour. IPOB claims that the Nigerian army removed 22 bodies and 38 arrested members from Kanu’s compound, none of whom have been heard from since (Daily Post [Lagos], September 18; This Day [Lagos], September 24). Among the missing were Kanu and his parents.

IPOB Declared a Terrorist Group

IPOB’s classification as a terrorist organization began a day later on September 15, when Nigerian Defense Headquarters confirmed that IPOB was “a militant terrorist organization.” Though the military backed off slightly a few days later, calling their announcement a “pronouncement” rather than a “declaration,” IPOB’s new status quickly received government backing (Africa News, September 19). An application by the attorney-general and justice minister to declare IPOB a terrorist organization was given judicial approval by the Federal High Court in Abuja on September 20 (Punch [Lagos], September 22; Sahara Reporters, September 24).

The U.S. Embassy in Abuja declared that IPOB “is not a terrorist organization under U.S. law” (Sahara Reporters, September 24). However, a special adviser to President Buhari insisted that recognition of IPOB as a terrorist group by foreign nations was “inconsequential”: “This is a group that was burning police stations; killing police officers, throwing bombs at military convoys, threatening to make the country ungovernable…” (Daily Post [Lagos], September 25).

Biafran Independence Protest

The “IPOB Intelligence Unit” claimed to have discovered a plot by “Hausa-Fulani Islamic extremists” in the security services to kill condemned prisoners in Nigerian military uniforms and then blame the killings on IPOB militants, justifying the planned extermination of thousands of Biafran “terrorist” youths (Daily Post [Lagos], September 22). No evidence was provided of this planned attempt to exploit the terrorist designation, which is somewhat typical of IPOB’s hyperbolic rhetoric that portrays the Biafran independence struggle as a war between the Igbo and the “British-supported Muslim Hausa-Fulani oligarchy” (Daily Post [Lagos], March 23). However, Nigeria has tried, unsuccessfully, to use the terrorist designation to compel the UK government to shut down Radio Biafra (The Nation [Lagos], September 22).

Conclusion

The Biafran secession movement is badly organized, and its failure to develop an encompassing strategic plan has left it open to charges that it is little more than an excuse for mindless street violence. These weaknesses are now being exploited by the state. IPOB’s threats of military activity to defend itself cannot be taken seriously, though at its present level of organization it is capable of terrorist activities, sabotage, vandalism and low-level militancy. Unfortunately, in Nigeria’s current highly agitated political atmosphere, this might be enough to ignite new waves of ethnic violence similar to those that sparked the first war for Biafran independence. Nigeria’s military is not taking chances — Operation Python Dance II may be viewed as a pre-emptive occupation intended to squelch the development of an armed insurgency, though there is a danger that it might also be seen as more of an act of intimidation than a measured response to a poorly-armed and rag-tag group of militants that one Nigerian commentator described as “looking in need of a good home meal” (Sahara Reporters, September 16).

There are many non-Igbo minorities within the borders of “Biafra” that have not been consulted by the Igbo secessionists, and Kanu’s approach is opposed even by other secessionists, including his rivals in MASSOB. The example of South Sudan’s 2011 secession from Sudan does not hold out hope for the success of an independent Biafra. President Buhari has been unequivocal in his opposition to Biafran independence: “We will not let that happen. For Nigeria to divide now, it is better for all of us to jump into the sea and get drowned” (Sun News [Lagos], May 10, 2016).

Though Nnamdi Kanu has been able to use his “royal” lineage to establish local credibility, his record does not suggest he can be taken seriously as the type of thoughtful, patient and responsible leader needed to bring any new nation into being. His haste, posturing and provocative behavior may have cost him his life; at best they have dealt a serious blow to the long-term success of the Biafran independence movement.

NOTES

[1] http://www.liveonlineradio.net/english/radio-biafra.htm

[2] Nigerian lawyer Remy C. Ilona is one of the most vocal proponents of the Igbo-Jewish identification and his 2014 work The Igbos and Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Oldest and Largest Jewish Diaspora is often cited in this context (Street to Street Epic Publications, 2014). More balanced accounts of the issue can be found in: Daniel Lis: Jewish Identity Among the Igbo of Nigeria: Israel’s “Lost Tribe” and the Question of Belonging in the Jewish State, Africa World Press, Trenton, 2014 and Johannes Harnischfeger, “Igbo Nationalism and Jewish Identities,” in: Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt (eds.), African Zion: Studies in Black Judaism, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 65-86.

[3] Published as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

[4] See https://biafran.org/2015/07/25/mission-of-biafran-national-guard-bng/[

5] “’Bullets Were Raining Everywhere’: Deadly Repression of Pro-Biafra Activists,” Amnesty International, November 22, 2016, https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/bullets-were-raining-everywhere-deadly-repression-of-pro-biafra-activists/

This article first appeared in the October 10, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali

Andrew McGregor

September 7, 2017

In April 2017, the foreign minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based Presidency Council estimated the number of Chadian mercenaries operating in Libya to be 18,000, with another 6,000 hailing from Sudan (Libya Herald, August 23). The numbers emphasized the growing problem of mercenary activity in Libya as well as other parts of Africa.

FACT commander Mahamat Mahdi Ali (Taha Jawashi/Libération).

The first of the Chadian armed groups began operations in Libya’s lawless southern Fezzan region in 2014. Though most of these groups presented themselves as rebels opposing the regime of Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno (who himself took power in a 1990 coup), they shared the common inability to take on Chad’s formidable military. In the meantime, these groups have obtained arms and funding by renting themselves out as mercenaries in Libya’s internal conflict as well as trafficking in people and narcotics through their knowledge of border smuggling routes.

In 2016, Chadian dissident General Mahamat Mahdi Ali gathered many of these groups together under his leadership in the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad). Operating out of bases south of the Fezzan capital of Sabha, FACT became allied to the powerful Misratan “Third Force militia” (recently renamed the “13th Brigade”), an Islamist group supporting the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) administration in Tripoli. In this capacity, FACT became the enemy of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of militias supporting the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tripoli. Despite Haftar’s steady stream of anti-mercenary invective directed at the GNA, most of the Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries in Libya operate alongside forces under his command.

Early Career

The 48-year-old Mahamat Mahdi is a Daza Tubu of the Kecherda sub-group from the Bahr-el-Ghazal region of northern Chad. The Tubu are a nomadic group of roughly 550,000 black Africans speaking a Nilo-Saharan language and sharing cultural similarities with their Tuareg neighbors to the west. The Muslim Tubu are divided into two main groups according to dialect — the northern Teda found in southern Libya, northern Chad and Niger, and the much larger Daza group (also known by their Arabic name, Gura’an) found in Chad and Niger. Clan rivalries have traditionally played a negative role in Tubu attempts at political unification.

The Teda Tubu (Joshua Project)

Mahamat Mahdi was a leading member of the rebel Mouvement pour la Democratie et la Justice au Tchad (MDJT – Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad), which operated in Tibesti and other parts of the northern Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region of Chad from 1998 to 2003. A ceasefire agreement with N’Djamena provided for positions within the government for leading rebels, and Mahamat Mahdi was accordingly made Inspector of the Ministry of Infrastructure. However, he thought better of remaining in N’Djamena when a wave of assassinations began to strike Déby’s political opponents and joined General Mahamat Nouri’s Sudanese-backed Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Developpement (UFDD – Union of Forces for Democracy and Development) (Libération, May 29; PANA, December 16, 2003; Le Visionnaire, June 28, 2016).

The Daza Tubu (Joshua Project)

Nouri, a Daza Tubu of the Anakaza sub-group was the defense minister in the government of President Hissène Habré, a fellow Anakaza who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990 before being deposed by General Déby (from the Zaghawa, a group closely related to the Tubu). [1] In 2009, Mahamat Mahdi became secretary-general of the group, mainly composed of Daza Tubu from the Tibesti Mountains, with the Anakaza sub-group as Nouri’s core supporters. [2]

In February 2008, the UFDD reached the Chadian capital of N’Djamena from its bases across the border in Darfur, but was repelled in violent street fighting by forces personally led by President Déby, a reminder that political life had not dulled the ex-general’s tactical edge (TchadActuel, February 17, 2008; Jeune Afrique, February 11, 2008; Le Nouvel Observateur, March 6, 2008).

A 2010 rapprochement between Chad and Sudan put an end to their mutual support for cross-border rebel groups such as the UFDD. Mahamat Mahdi eventually joined Mahamat Nouri in French exile (Chad is a former French colony), but Nouri ordered him to Libya in 2015 in an attempt to revive the UFDD.

The Creation of FACT

Most of the prospective fighters for the revived group came from the Kreda and Kecherda sub-groups of the Daza Tubu. Mahamat Mahdi used his influence, particularly among his fellow Kecherda, to bring these fighters under his personal control rather than that of Mahamat Nouri, who could exert little control over the process from his Paris exile. [3] Following a clash between Mahamat Mahdi’s supporters and Nouri’s Anakaza supporters that left 20 of the latter dead, Mahamat Mahdi declared the formation of a new rebel movement, FACT, in March 2016 (VOA/AFP, April 8, 2016). The movement established an operational base inside Chad at Tanoua, a region close to the Libyan border.

Now with a movement of his own behind him, Mahamat Mahdi pointed to the Chadian elections that followed a few weeks later as proof that political change in Chad was impossible through the ballot box:

At the beginning, we hoped that there would be a political change at the end of the presidential election. But it was well known that Déby would not give up power. We saw the result: the real winner was robbed of his victory, the ballot boxes were stuffed, the opposition activists were intimidated… The regime has also tried to divide our movement. Only force will make Déby leave, it is our conviction. Slowly but surely, we are preparing to reach our goal… to put an end to this anarchic regime dominated by a small group of men. We have no personal ambitions. We will not fight to retain power. It is no longer possible nowadays to take power with some 4x4s [as Déby did in 1990] and to keep it (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). [4]

Mercenary Activities

FACT quickly split in June 2016, when its Kreda clan fighters followed former UFDD spokesman Mahamat Hassani Bulmay into a new group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic), which later allied itself with the Islamist Libyan militant group Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).

FACT Fighters in Libya (Tchad Convergence)

Unlike the Chadian armed groups that sold their services to Haftar’s LNA, FACT’s alliance with the Misratan Third Force and the BDB brought it unwanted attention from the LNA air force. The group’s base at Doualki, near Sabha, was attacked by LNA aircraft on April 14, 2016. [5] FACT’s rear base at Jabal Saoudah near the Chadian border was attacked by LNA aircraft in mid-December 2016, a strike the movement blamed on collusion between the HoR government in Tobruk and the administration in N’Djamena (Tchadconvergance/AFP, December 13, 2016).

LNA warplanes also bombed FACT positions in Jufra. Mahamat Mahdi claimed the attack took him by surprise: “We thought it was an error at first, until Haftar’s entourage asserted that the purpose was to annihilate any rebellion that might destabilize a neighboring state” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016).

According to the UN, FACT participated in the BDB’s March 2017 attack on the LNA-held Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil facilities on the Mediterranean coast, losing a senior commander in the process. [6] FACT was also reported to be involved in clashes with the LNA around the important Tamenhint airbase northeast of the Fezzan capital of Sahba in mid-April, though Mahamat Mahdi denied involvement (RFI, April 16). In retaliation, the LNA’s 116th Battalion shelled the Chadian camps south of Sabha in June after driving the Misratans from Tamenhint (Facebook in Arabic, June 15, via BBC Monitoring).

Despite much evidence of involvement, General Mahamat Mahdi maintains that FACT has a neutral stance in the Libyan conflict: “It is a position of principle and common sense: we are Chadian rebels, we have no reason to interfere with the Libyan problems” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). The General claims Haftar is colluding with Déby against him.

Chad closed its border with Libya in early January, fearing infiltration of its borders by Tubu rebels and Libyan Islamic State (IS) fighters fleeing northern Libya after the loss of their stronghold at Sirte (Reuters, January 5). France also imposed financial sanctions on Mahamat Mahdi Ali and his rival Mahamat Nouri on January 19. Nonetheless, Mahamat Mahdi claims that FACT has actually helped prevent the southwards penetration of IS fighters: “We oppose groups like the Islamic State that deny human rights. Our presence is a bulwark to their advance towards Libyan south” (Jeune Afrique, December 21, 2016). Two months later, he emphasized: “Today the only concern is how to contain the Islamic State” (RFI, February 27, 2016).

Chadian Mercenaries and Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis

Chad announced on August 23 that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Qatar over “the continued involvement of the state of Qatar in attempts to destabilize Chad from Libya” (La Tribune Afrique, August 23; Reuters, August 23). N’Djamena insists it has “irrefutable proof” that Qatar supports and finances Chadian opposition groups based in Libya, despite denials from Doha (RFI, August 26). Chadian Foreign Minister Hissein Brahim Taha stressed that his government’s dispute with Qatar is strictly a bilateral issue and “not the continuation of the diplomatic crisis” in the Gulf region (La Tribune Afrique, August 24).

N’Djamena claims the Qatari financing is funnelled through long-time Chadian rebel leader Timan Erdimi, who has made Doha his home since 2009. (RFI, August 26). [7] Chad has sought Erdimi’s extradition for several months (La Tribune Afrique, August 24). Erdimi is Déby’s nephew and leader of the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), a Libyan-based Chadian rebel movement that has provided mercenary support for Haftar’s LNA in the battle for Benghazi and was attacked by the Subul al-Salam Brigade for its involvement in criminal activities around Kufra. Subul al-Salam is a Salafist unit affiliated with Haftar’s LNA and composed largely of Zuwaya Arabs, the dominant Arab group in the Kufra region.

A Libyan-based Chadian rebel group was reported to have crossed the border on the weekend of August 19-20, killing a number of Chadian government troops in a surprise attack. UFR spokesman Yusuf Hamid insists his group was not responsible for the attack: “I categorically deny the accusations of the Chadian government. We did not get anything from Qatar, not a single penny, not a small piece of equipment. Nothing.” (RFI, August 24). If true, this leaves the possibility that the strike was undertaken by Mahamat Mahdi’s larger FACT movement (though there remains a chance it could have been the work of one of the lesser Chadian armed groups active in southern Libya).

Two members of the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Battalion in southeastern Libya were killed during a clash with Chadian gunmen on August 26. The clash occurred in the Hanagar region some 300 kilometers southwest of Kufra, where the same two groups battled last February. Subul al-Salam claimed to have killed seven Chadians, whose identity cards suggested they were mercenaries working for the LNA-affiliated Ali al-Thumin Brigade (Libya Herald, August 26; Libya Observer, August 26; Libya Observer, February 2; Libyan Express, August 26). The Battalion has also engaged several times in the last few years with Darfur rebels now operating in the region as mercenaries or highwaymen.

Conclusion

Mahamat Mahdi Ali is a strong irritation for the Déby regime in Chad but a constant source of destabilization in Libya. Despite Mahamat Mahdi’s frequent assertions that times have changed, it seems difficult to identify any other plan for him to achieve regime change in N’Djamena other than “to take power with some 4x4s.” Beyond his core group of up to 1500 fighters (some of whom may be in it strictly for the money), there is little evidence of popular support for Mahamat Mahdi’s movement within Chad, where both government and opposition continue to be dominated by the Tubu and related groups, a tiny minority of Chad’s total population. In addition, President Déby’s authoritarianism is overlooked by France and the United States, which value him as a partner in the War on Terrorism. Mahamat Mahdi Ali is thus an important example of a new type of African mercenary ready and willing to exploit regional conflicts for profit while using the cover of legitimate political resistance.

Notes

[1] After a long legal odyssey, Habré was sentenced to life in prison on May 30, 2016 by a Special African Tribunal in Senegal for mass-torture, rape and the murder of 40,000 Chadians during his time as president.

[2] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, S/2017/466, June 1, 2017, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1711623.pdf

[3] Jérôme Tubiana and Claudio Gramizzi, “Tubu Trouble: State and Statelessness in the Chad-Sudan-Libya Triangle,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/SAS-CAR-WP43-Chad-Sudan-Libya.pdf

[4] The tactics of using 4×4 trucks equipped with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns were perfected by General Hassan Djamous (Bidayat) during the 1987 “Toyota War” between Chad and Libya and have been used in a variety of military campaigns in the Sahara/Sahel region since.

[5] Final Report, op cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For a profile of Timan Erdimi, see “A Family Affair: The Erdimi Twins and the Zaghawa Battle for Chad,” Militant Leadership Monitor, July 30, 2010, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2263

This article first appeared in the September 7, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Islamic State Announces Libyan Return with Slaughter of LNA Personnel in Jufra

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 24, 2017

A late-night strike by a large group of Islamic State militants on a Libyan National Army (LNA) checkpoint near Fugha in the central province of Jufra was a bloody warning that the Islamic State is regrouping in Libya after a major defeat late last year.

(Libya Observer)

The dead included nine soldiers of the 131st Infantry Battalion and two civilians from Sirte who had the misfortune of arriving at the checkpoint as the killings were ongoing (al-Wasat, August 23, 2017). The men had apparently been taken prisoner first, as they died from close range shots to the head or from being beheaded or having their throats slit.

The killers left the scene with stolen arms and vehicles after setting fire to the checkpoint and everything they couldn’t carry away (Libya Observer, August 23, 2017). The Islamic State’s Amaq news agency claimed a total of 21 LNA personnel had been either killed or wounded in the attack (Telegram messaging service, August 23, 2017).

The Islamic State militants were forced out of their stronghold in the coast city of Sirte late last year by Bunyan al-Marsous (“Solid Structure”), a Misratan-led coalition of militias (mostly Islamist), aided by punishing air strikes by American warplanes based offshore.

Eight of the soldiers at Fugha were from Surman and were former members of the 32nd Mechanized Brigade, a Qaddafist-era elite unit commanded by the late Colonel Khamis al-Qaddafi, son of the Libyan leader (Libya Herald, August 23, 2017). Despite their reputation as loyal, even fanatical, Qaddafists, some veterans of the Brigade were integrated into the 131st Battalion after the revolution. The battalion battled the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) in the coastal oil crescent region in early March 2017. A surprise strike by the BDB against the Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil terminals on March 3 ejected LNA units (including the 131st) from the area, while there were unconfirmed reports that two NCOs of the 131st Battalion had been captured and beheaded by the BDB. The deceased were later identified as Muhammad Oweidat and Imad Zlitni, but the BDB denied beheading the two soldiers (Libya Herald, March 12, 2017).

LNA Forces seize Jufra Airbase in June, 2017 (Libya Express)

The LNA expelled the BDB from its bases in Jufra in a rapid campaign in early June. The operation was helped by the fact that the BDB had lost local support following an especially vicious assault on the LNA-held Brak al-Shatti airbase on May 18. Seven civilians and over 130 captive soldiers of the LNA’s 10th and 12th Brigades were slaughtered by the BDB and their allies. Many had their throats slit, while others appear to have had their heads run over by trucks.

Surman, the home of eight of the soldiers killed at the Fugha checkpoint, was the scene of fighting in March 2016 between local fighters and male and female Islamic State terrorists from Tunisia who had escaped American airstrikes and a February 25-28 offensive against Islamic State fighters in neighboring Sabratha.  During its brief occupation of Sabratha, the Islamic State militants beheaded 12 policemen after overrunning their station but were unable to fulfill their intention of destroying the Roman ruins there. After the beheadings, ten of the terrorists were killed by the Surman fighters; a woman and her child were the only prisoners (Libya Observer, March 3, 2016).

Both LNA commander “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and Faiez Serraj, chairman of the rival UN-recognized Presidency Council, promised a firm response to the Fugha attack. To some degree, the Islamic State has been able to exploit the lack of a united response to their activities due to political and military divisions within Libya. The massacre at Fugha was the first large-scale operation by Islamic State fighters since the collapse of their Sirte stronghold last December and suggests the movement may have successfully regrouped to launch a new phase of their campaign to impose an Islamic Caliphate on Libya.

General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017

General Ali Kanna Sulayman (Paris Match)

Lieutenant General Ali Kanna Sulayman, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, ruled the military district of southwestern Libya during the Qaddafi era. Ali Kanna was forced from Libya into exile in Niger during the Libyan Revolution, but unlike many of his Tuareg Libyan Army comrades who joined rebel movements in northern Mali, Ali Kanna kept his eyes on Libya, waiting for a chance to reinsert himself as leader of a neo-Qaddafist movement in the Fezzan region. Since his quiet return several years ago, Ali Kanna has tried to organize a multi-ethnic “Army of the Fezzan” and succeeded in reasserting his authority in Tuareg-held regions of southern Libya while attempting to rally the Tubu and Arab tribes of Fezzan in a common cause. With the recent release of many leading Qaddafists from prison, Ali Kanna stands to be a major player in the gathering neo-Qaddafist revival.

Background

In 2004, Ali Kanna was appointed commander of the newly formed Maghawir Brigade, a unit of approximately 3,000 Sahelian Tuareg (i.e. hailing from Niger and Mali rather than Libya) based in the Fezzan city of Ubari. When the 2011 revolution broke out, the brigade used deadly violence to repress protests in Tripoli and fought revolutionaries in northwestern Libya. [1]

When the unit broke up in the latter stages of the revolution, those Tuareg members who did not return to Mali or Niger formed the Tendé Brigade in the Fezzan city of Ubari. The brigade would play a major role in the severe fighting that took place there against the Tubu in 2014.

Exile

Most of the Sahelian Tuareg deserted Qaddafi as things began to look bad for the regime during the 2011 revolution. Ali Kanna fled to Niger rather than northern Mali, where the Tuareg, who had brought their arms with them, formed new rebel movements to establish the new nation of “Azawad.” General Ali Sharif al-Rifi, another committed Qaddafi supporter and his last air force commander, also fled to Niger, and the two generals settled temporarily in the historic city of Agadez. Al-Rifi later moved to the Niger capital of Niamey, where he associated with Sa’adi al-Qaddafi until the latter was deported to Libya in 2014. Al-Rifi was reported to have returned to his home in the Fezzan town of Waddan in June 2017, a sign that Qaddafists now feel it is safe to return to Libya (Libya Herald, June 18, 2017).

In September 2013, a group of Fezzani elders met in Ubari to declare the establishment of Fezzan as an autonomous federal province of Libya in response to the inability of authorities to provide either services or security in the region. Most of those involved were Qaddafists but the initiative went nowhere, having failed to involve local communities and institutions (al-Arabiya, September 26, 2013; Libya Herald, September 28, 2013).

Return

After his return to Fezzan, Ali Kanna initially allied himself with the Misratan Third Brigade against the forces of “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar, a Qaddafist general who was repudiated by Qaddafi after his defeat and capture in Chad’s 1986-87 “Toyota War.” Understandably bitter over his treatment, Haftar was rescued from captivity by the CIA and brought to the United States to act as an asset-in-waiting should the United States commit itself to regime change in Libya. Never deployed for this purpose, Haftar returned to Libya during the revolution seeking to establish himself as a national strongman in the Qaddafi mold, accepting aid to accomplish this from anyone willing to offer it, including Egypt, the UAE and Russia.

Ali Kanna made a bold move to reshape the political and military landscape of the Fezzan when he held a gathering of tribal and village representatives to ask the youths of every tribe to abandon their allegiances to various militias and join a new “Army of the Fezzan,” warning there was “a great threat to the people of the South” (Paris Match, May 22, 2016).  The Fezzan Army would be loyal to the principles of the Jamahiriya rather than the GNA government in Tripoli or the rival HoR government in Tobruk (Middle East Eye, November 11, 2016).

Ali Kanna appeared to make progress with his concept of a Fezzan Army independent of Libya’s rival governments in October 2016, when a group of southern Libyan National Army (LNA – a military coalition under the command of Khalifa Haftar) officers appointed him commander of the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces in South Libya.” General Ali Kanna was explicit that his new command would remain aloof from politics and would not support any government until the achievement of national unification. LNA headquarters treated the incident as a rebellion and sent General Muhammad Ben Nayel to surround and disarm the dissident officers (Digital Journal, October 9, 2017; Libyan Express, October 10, 2017). General Ben Nayel was commander of the LNA’s 12th Brigade and an important figure within the Arab Magarha tribe.

Without sufficient support for the initiative, Ali Kanna changed course and declared he would work with any national army operating under a unified national leadership (Libya Herald, April 13, 2017). Of course, the establishment of such an army is still far from sight.

There was speculation that Ali Kanna and other returning Qaddafists were seeking to carve out a new place for themselves in Libya by dedicating themselves to ridding Libya of Islamic State forces, even if this meant coming under the command of Khalifa Haftar.

The Qaddafist Revival – 2017

When Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi was released from a Zintan prison in early June 2017 after six years imprisonment, there were reports of street celebrations in Sabha and a rumor that he had joined Ali Kanna in the Fezzan (Libya Herald, June 10, 2017). Sa’if, who was sentenced to death in 2015, is widely regarded as the most likely of Qaddafi’s surviving progeny to revive Qaddafism as a political ideology in Libya. Sa’if al-Islam’s release was followed by the release of 30 officers of Qaddafi’s army and other Qaddafi supporters from Hadba prison in Tripoli (Libya Herald, June 11, 2017). Days later Sa’adi Qaddafi, Abu Zayid Dourda (a chief administrator in Qaddafi’s government) and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi were transferred from prison to a luxury hotel in Tripoli where they were allowed to meet with supporters. Up to that point, al-Senussi, Qaddafi’s top enforcer, was awaiting his execution under a death sentence issued two years ago (Libya Herald, June 13, 2017; Arab News, February 22, 2017).

General Ali Kanna (center) at the Ghat Ceremony. The green scarves symbolize the Qaddafist Jamahiriya state.

Ali Kanna expressed his continued devotion to the Libyan Jamahiriya (the Qaddafist state) on September 1, 2016 during a ceremony in Ghat to mark the 47th anniversary of the Libyan Revolution of 1969 (Lavoixdelalibye.com, September 24, 2016).

Ali Kanna’s status was evident when he attended the ceremony marking the completion of the reconciliation agreement between the Tuareg and Tubu in May 2017. The agreement was the culmination of peace efforts started after a bitter conflict between the two groups nearly destroyed the Fezzan city of Ubari in 2014. Ali Kanna was reported to have played an important role in the Doha-sponsored mediation process after his 2015 return to Libya.

In May 2017, the Misratan 13th Brigade (the former “Third Force”) conducted a peaceful handover of the Sharara oil field to Ali Kanna’s Tuareg militia, their former allies. Sharara was seized in 2014 by the Third Force and local Tuareg allies who forced out Tubu and Zintani militias (Libya Herald, May 25, 2017).

Under pressure from local tribal militias, the 13th Brigade then evacuated Tamenhint Air Base north of Sabha, which was quickly occupied by the LNA’s 12th Brigade with support from the LNA’s 116th Brigade (Libya Herald, May 25, 2017). The 13th Brigade’s withdrawal was a major setback for the Misratan supporters of Libya’s internationally recognized government, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Conclusion

Sa’if al-Qaddafi appears unlikely to abandon politics now that he has been released from prison, but restoring Qaddafism as an ideology in Libya will be slow and careful work. Part of these efforts will involve exploiting a relationship with Khalifa Haftar’s LNA and the GNA’s rival, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) government, which has expressed a willingness to allow members of the Qaddafi regime to re-enter public life. To complete his encirclement of Tripoli and the GNA, Haftar needs support in the Fezzan, the last region to fall to the anti-Qaddafi revolutionaries in the 2011 revolution. The vast oil and natural gas reserves of the Murzuq Basin and Fezzan’s al-Sharara and al-Fil oil operations are also major strategic assets of immense value to whoever controls them.

In the meantime, Ali Kanna, who is widely believed to have close ties to Algerian intelligence [2], can offer protection to Sa’if al-Qaddafi and a potential military base of veteran fighters capable of making Sa’if a political force in Fezzan to be reckoned with. Though this process remains fraught with uncertainty and a Fezzani population that is by no means solidly pro-Qaddafist, the resurgence of General Ali Kanna Sulayman will continue to go hand-in-hand with the revival of Qaddafism in post-revolution Libya.

Notes

  1. Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey Dispatch no.3, February 2014.
  2. Rebecca Murray “Southern Libya Destablized: The Case of Ubari,” Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper, April 2017, fn. 85.

General with a Deadline: Ibrahim Attahiru’s 40 Days to Seize Boko Haram Leader Abu Bakr Shekau, Dead or Alive

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 29, 2017

After an eight year hunt for Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusufu Buratai, has placed one of the nation’s top generals in an uncomfortable spot by issuing him a forty-day deadline to apprehend Shekau, dead or alive.

Major General Ibrahim Attahiru

The Man and the Mission

The order was given on July 21 to Major General Ibrahim Attahiru, the Theatre commander in northeast Nigeria and leader of the anti-Boko Haram Operation “Lafiya Dole.” [1]

As commanding officer of the Nigerian Army’s 82nd Division, Attahiru directed Operation Crocodile Smile, a joint forces amphibious operation launched against militants in the Niger Delta on August 29, 2016. Attahiru declared the operation a success at its close in mid-September, having killed 23 militants and carrying out the destruction of 38 camps and 91 illegal oil refineries. Army losses included four drowned and one victim of militant fire (Today [Lagos], September 18, 2016). [2] General Attahiru was the Director of Administration Defence Headquarters when appointed to the Borno theatre.

Attahiru and Operation Lafiya Dole

Attahiru took command of the North-East Theatre and Operation Lafiya Dole in May 2017 after a surprise shakeup of leading Nigerian Army commanders. Attahiru replaced Major General Lucky Irabor, who had served 14 months in the post and had the confidence of many of his officers despite repeated and unfulfilled predictions of an imminent Boko Haram collapse. Irabor was posted as the new Force Commander of the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional effort to combat Boko Haram with its headquarters in N’Djamena.

During the command turnover, General Irabor claimed that the Army had taken 1400 suspected members of Boko Haram prisoner in recent months. At the same ceremony, Attahiru promised the opening of a divisional human rights desk where misconduct by officers and troops could be reported (Today [Lagos], May 30, 2017; Vanguard [Lagos], May 30, 2017).  Assertions of human rights abuses during the conflict in Borno have frequently impeded the progress of the military and may even have aided recruitment by Boko Haram.

Burning Villages, Operation Lafiya Dole

The first test of this new approach came days later, following a Boko Haram attack on the village of Ali Dawari (near Maiduguri) on June 7. Villagers fled the attack, but when they returned they claimed to have witnessed Nigerian troops (who had arrived in the meantime) loading their personal effects and foodstuffs onto three military trucks before setting fire to the village. Attahiru dismissed the entire incident: “No soldier would do such a thing. Our troops are guided by rules of engagement and they won’t descend to the level of doing what the people are alleging. On the contrary, the Boko Haram terrorists perpetrated such atrocities and not our troops” (Today [Lagos], June 13, 2017).

The Nigerian Army is processing selected Boko Haram detainees through “Operation Safe Corridor,” a de-radicalization and rehabilitation process designed to enable the former insurgents to “positively reorient their views about life and society in general.” [3] Few details of how this is accomplished are available.

The Shekau Resurgence

According to figures provided by General Attahiru, Boko Haram should now be in its death throes. On July 6, Attahiru told reporters that 404 terrorists had been killed and another 800 to 1000 captured in the last four months alone against a loss of 15 soldiers. However, the general also admitted to 97 suicide bombings and vehicle-borne bombings in the same time span (Today [Lagos], July 7; July 9, 2017).

Rather than disappearing, Shekau has made repeated video appearances in which he threatens his opponents – in March he insisted his movement would not stand down until it had been established in Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali (Premium Times [Lagos], March 17, 2017).

Abu Bakr Shekau (center)

On March 28, Nigerian defense minister Mansur Dan-Ali admitted that Shekau was still alive and justified the prolonged eight-year search for Shekau by noting: “It took America about seven to 10 years to get Bin Laden so we will get Shekau as soon as possible.” Following years of government claims that Shekau was dead, the minister now claimed that it was Boko Haram that was trying to give the impression he had been killed so the Army would relax its efforts (Daily Times [Lagos], March 29, 2017).

A 33-minute video released in June depicted Shekau describing an attack by his followers on a military outpost outside of Maiduguri while displaying ammunition and military gear seized in the assault. Shekau scorned the Army’s operations in the Sambisi forest, claiming his group had already moved to a site near Maiduguri and mocked the military’s repeated claims that he was either dead or replaced by a double: “So I’m alive. But if God wills that you will kill me, it is not surprising because many prophets of Allah were killed by infidels” (Today [Lagos], July 21, 2017).

The Boko Haram leader’s latest video, released on June 28, asserted “There is no way we Muslims in mosques and Christians in churches can work together. This has never happened before even during the life time of apostles and prophets.” According to Shekau, Nigeria’s constitution and democracy prevents any type of dialogue between Muslims and Christians. He issued a warning to Nigeria’s Muslim clerics that they were “playing with hell-fire” by “giving wrong interpretations of the Holy Quran” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 28).

Shekau also claimed credit for the Damboa road ambush a week earlier, saying ten policewomen had been captured who God had given to the insurgents to be their “slaves.” He ended his message by calling on Nigerians to “work for Islam, in accordance with the caliphate that was established by ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, which is a caliphate built upon truth and belief in God” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 28, 2017). Shekau’s reference was to the 19th century Sokoto Caliphate established by the Fulani Islamic scholar ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, a frequent ideological touchstone for jihadists operating in the Sahel.  The Caliphate was known for its reliance on slave labor – Shekau’s boast implies that a revival of slavery is part of the Islamists’ program.

Boko Haram vs. Oil Exploration

Though there are indeed fears that Boko Haram may be scattering; it appears to still have a strong hold on parts of the Sambisi forest, the group’s traditional refuge. On July 26, an Army statement announced that a lieutenant and nine soldiers of the Army’s 5th Brigade had been killed the day before after a convoy escorting Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) workers came under heavy fire in the forest from Boko Haram militants. A number of other soldiers were missing (Sahara Reporters, July 26, 2017). A statement by a Nigerian Army spokesman claimed that all NNPC staff had been rescued while troops were busy “neutralizing” terrorists and pursuing them “relentlessly.”

Two days later, more independent sources were reporting over 50 dead “with more bodies coming in.” The bodies of 18 soldiers and 30 others were brought back to Maidguri after the attack in an area near Lake Chad. Many of the civilians were members of the so-called “Civilian JTF,” a vigilante group that works alongside Nigerian military forces, though their amateur status often leads to heavy casualties in confrontations with the more experienced Boko Haram.

In contrast to the Army’s claim that all oil personnel had been rescued, Minister of State of Petroleum Resources Ibe Kachikwu told journalists that he could not confirm that any NNPC staff had been rescued (The Cable [Lagos], July 28, 2017). A day later, a video emerged of three kidnapped NNPC members in Boko Haram hands, begging the government to meet their captors’ demands. Their identities were confirmed by the Vice-Chancellor of Maiduguri University (to which they are attached) with the vice-chancellor also confirming the deaths of five other members of the university in the ambush (AFP, July 29, 2017).

The ambush was intended to disrupt oil exploration in the Borno region by targeting geological surveyors deployed there after having received assurances from the military that the region was now safe. Nigeria is looking to begin oil production in the northeast to relieve the pressure militants are putting on production in the Delta region, though the attack (so far attributed to al-Barnawi’s faction) demonstrates that the Army’s claims to have secured the region sufficiently to permit oil operations are largely illusionary.

Elsewhere, a video released by Boko Haram in early July showed members of the groups executing eight “apostates” who had defied the “Shari’a police” before cheering crowds. The video also showed other punishments inflicted by the group, including a stoning, a beheading, flogging and forced amputations (AFP, July 11, 2017).

Warnings that some elements of Boko Haram were relocating to the northern Nigerian city of Kano (the largest city of the former caliphate) appeared to be confirmed on July 23 when a well-equipped cell of five militants were arrested after a firefight there with Nigerian security forces. According to the Kano State police chief, the fighters had relocated to Kano from the Sambisi forest (AFP, July 24, 2017).

Nigerian Army Patrol, Operation Lafiya Dole

Boko Haram attacks intensified after the ill-advised release of a number of Boko Haram leaders from Nigerian prisons in May in exchange for the release of 82 of the “Chibok girls” kidnapped in 2014. The most common tactic used by Shekau’s group at present is road ambushes. Female suicide bombers are also still being deployed, though it is uncertain whether these originate with Shekau’s group or the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman al-Nur.

Conclusion

According to a Nigerian military memo, Boko Haram has begun re-occupying “Camp Zero,” their former main base in the Sambisi Forest. When the Nigerian Army took the base in December 2016, it was heralded as the beginning of the end for Boko Haram, and its capture continues to be frequently referred to in government and military statements as proof of the success of the campaign against the militants. However, the military appears to have withdrawn from the base in March, leaving it wide open to reoccupation by the Islamist gunmen (AFP, July 24, 2017).

There is one consistent aspect to the struggle in north-eastern Nigeria – the reality promulgated by Nigerian military spokesmen remains in conflict with the reality experienced by Nigerians in Borno State. Nigerian intelligence has had few successes in Borno, and with the military apparently unsure of whether Shekau is in Sambisi, Maiduguri or even Kano, it seems unrealistic to believe he will be apprehended “dead or alive” by the end of August. If the military did indeed have information regarding Shekau’s whereabouts, a more clandestine approach would seem to be called for. Instead, the Army has jeopardized the career of one of its leading officers by imposing a short and arbitrary date for the end of the hunt for Nigeria’s most elusive individual. That the order came with a public plea for information regarding Shekau’s whereabouts inspires little confidence.

Worst of all, there may actually be little encouragement behind the scenes to bring Shekau in alive or even at all. Continued destabilization of the north has been treated as a political advantage by many Nigerian politicians. [4] Even if Shekau (who needs only to remain hidden for a month to score a major propaganda coup) is somehow disposed of, the equally, if not stronger, al-Barnawi-Mamman al-Nur faction of Boko Haram will remain at large. Ultimately, the forty-day deadline appears to be little more than an ill-considered political publicity stunt carried out at the expense of a professional soldier.

Notes

  1. Nigerian Army Press Release, “Chief of Army Staff Gives Theatre Command Operation Lafiya Dole Deadline to Capture Abubakar Shekau,” July 22, 2017, http://www.army.mil.ng/chief-of-army-staff-gives-theatre-command-operation-lafiya-dole-deadline-to-capture-abubakar-shekau/
  2. For Operation Crocodile Smile, see: “Nigeria Expands Its ‘War on Terrorism’ to the Niger Delta,” Terrorism Monitor, September 16, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3719.
  3. Nigerian Army Press Release: “Boko Haram… 43 Surrendered Insurgents Air Lifted for De-Radicalization,” July 24, 2017, http://www.army.mil.ng/press-release-boko-haram-43-surrendered-insurgents-air-lifted-for-de-radicalization/
  4. For the political uses of Islamist violence in northern Nigeria, see: “Political Violence and Islamist Militancy become Entwined in Maiduguri Bombing,” January 25, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=793.

Does Canada Want to Combat Terrorism in Africa? Forget UN Peacekeeping – Support the Sahel G5

Andrew McGregor

AIS Commentary, July 24, 2017

Canada’s Trudeau government announced last summer that it was prepared to deploy up to 600 troops on a UN peacekeeping mission, likely in Africa. In the meantime, no movement has been made on the pledge, much to the disappointment of the UN and Canada’s allies, who were holding the leadership of the Mali peacekeeping mission open for a Canadian officer. Now, however, a non-UN alternative has emerged, one that is desperately needed and has both a military and development component – the Sahel Group of Five (SG5).

It is perhaps not surprising that no decision has been made regarding a Canadian peacekeeping force in Africa. While Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks of a need for Canada to set a “clear and sovereign course” independent of the United States, both Prime Minister Trudeau and his defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan have emphasized the importance of consulting Washington before making any decision. Given the Trump administration’s disengagement from Africa and the urgency of a military contribution in Africa, such deference seems unnecessary and counterproductive.

The Purpose of the SG5

In the Sahel, a broad band of arid nations just below the Sahara, political and religious extremism feed off climate change, lack of development, absence of infrastructure, competition for resources and ethnic rivalries, leaving the region in dire need of external assistance and internal reform. Meanwhile, efforts to address these issues are restricted by al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorism paid for by trafficking in narcotics, migrants and other “commodities.” The region’s barely existent borders make a mockery of unilateral efforts by weak states to address the crime and violence.

With the encouragement of France, the Sahelian nations of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania created the Sahel Group of Five (SG5) as a multilateral response to these issues in 2014, though the concept remained dormant until its revival last February. While the force’s mandate calls for a campaign against terrorism and trafficking, it also calls for the return of displaced persons, delivery of aid, facilitation of humanitarian operations and a role in implementing development strategies.

Each nation will initially provide a battalion of 750 men aided by French training, communications and logistical support. The military component will operate in all five countries, with the right of “hot pursuit” across international borders. The first military leader of the force will be Malian chief-of-staff General Didier Dacko, an experienced and capable veteran of counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations.

The UN Security Council unanimously “welcomed” a resolution calling for the formation of the force on June 21, though US pressure prevented approval for its deployment under a UN mandate, which would have involved UN financing. The Trump administration is seeking to reduce its contribution to UN peacekeeping costs but the US can still be expected to continue providing intelligence and logistical support for counter-terrorist efforts in the Sahel.

Putting the SG5 into action is expected to come with a budget of over €400 million. The EU has pledged €50 million, France €8 million (on top of a substantial military contribution) and each of the SG5 nations will contribute €10 million. France has additionally pledged €200 million in development assistance. Angela Merkel has also promised the support of Germany, which already has 650 troops in Mali and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in funding the initiative. The force will seek additional funding from “bilateral and multilateral partners” at a future donors’ conference.

Other than France and Belgium, Canada is the only Western partner with a large military and civil French language capacity, making it ideal for deployment in the francophone Sahel. Canadian contributions in terms of combat troops, logistics, intelligence, training, humanitarian assistance and development planning would greatly reduce the unfunded portion of the SG5’s annual budget while simultaneously improving the capability of all these elements.

Of the contributing Sahel nations, Chad is the most militarily effective, but existing commitments to the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional coalition formed to tackle Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, have forced Chad’s President Idris Déby to warn that substantial assistance will be required for Chad to play its expected role in the SG5. Without Chad’s participation, the alliance stands little chance of battlefield success.

Mali’s government has criticized MINUSMA for its “defensive posture, which has given freedom of movement to terrorist and extremist groups.” The UN’s peacekeepers in Mali have made only glacial progress implementing the terms of the 2015 peace agreement. The force suffers inordinate casualties while doing little to combat terrorism in the region, a task largely left to French troops operating outside of UN auspices.  MINUSMA is hampered by the restriction of its operations to territory within Mali’s borders, while its terrorist opponents face no such limits. The SG5 addresses this problem.

As the lone Western sponsor of the SG5 and the former colonial power in each of the participating nations, there is some anxiety that France will exploit the group for its own political and economic benefit. The presence of another less-interested sponsor could provide some balance and reassurance to those African nations already experiencing the strong influence of Paris in their affairs. It might also encourage a more favorable attitude to the force from Algeria, where the bitter legacy of the war for independence has led to great suspicion of all French security efforts in the Sahel.

Not Without Difficulties

Of course participation would not be without problems. A Canadian commitment would have to be long term – creating a capable SG5 could take three years and creating a uniform military standard will be difficult. However, it need not be open-ended; the ultimate goal must always be for the Sahel nations to assume full responsibility.

If funding is limited, security operations will almost certainly be treated as a priority over other aspects of the G5S mandate, based on the harsh reality that violent extremism undermines the effectiveness of all other programs as well as the sovereignty of regional states. At present, aid workers are regarded by the region’s militant groups as nothing more than easy prey and a source of funding through ransom.

Integration of alienated groups into security and development operations will be essential if the SG5 is to be prevented from becoming a transnational occupation force. This cannot be achieved without offering economic alternatives to rebellion and cross-border crime, emphasizing the importance of the development component.

Despite fears that France may be looking to draw down their African commitment, President Emmanuel Macron has pledged continued French support and has already visited the region twice to confirm this commitment.  There is no doubt, however, that Paris is seeking to reduce its military expenditure in Africa – Operation Barkhane, its 4,000 man mission to provide security in the Sahara/Sahel region, costs €800 million per year.

Conclusion

A religious adherence to UN peacekeeping as the only legitimate or desirable means of contributing to international security turns a blind eye to less rigid and more adaptive structures free of UN bureaucracy and inefficiency.

For a Canadian government increasingly seen as soft on terrorism, unwilling to rescue or ransom its Canadian victims but eager to reward Canadian-born practitioners, the need for some sort of dedication to international counter-terrorism efforts might seem obvious. The SG5 provides an opportunity for Canada to stand beside its European allies, set an independent course from Washington and play a meaningful role in destroying Africa’s deadliest extremist groups while engaging in important development assistance where it is needed most.

If Ottawa’s aim in African security operations is to encounter minimal difficulties and avoid casualties, the SG5 will not be for them. If, however, Canada is ready to give its highly capable military and development sector a real challenge with the potential of providing a secure future to some of the world’s most impoverished peoples, then it should take a serious look at the SG5 alternative.

According to Foreign Minister Freeland, “it is precisely the countries that stand for values and human rights that also need to be ready to say we are prepared to use hard power where necessary.” If the world “needs more Canada,” the Sahel is in special need of a Canadian presence.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues in the African and Islamic worlds.

Passing the Torch: Fulani Warlords in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 23, 2017

The Borku region of Chad is a barren desert wilderness, inhabited today by only the hardiest of nomads. In the midst of this region is an old French colonial-era fort at a place known as Koro Toro, a reminder of the days of the early 20th century when French Legionnaires and Senegalese Tirailleurs fought bitter battles with the Tuareg and Arab warriors of Libya’s Sanusi order for control of Borku.

Koro Toro Prison (Makaila)

Today that fort now serves as one of the world’s most feared prisons, a place of searing heat and daily torture where inmates receive little in the way of food or water and have no expectations of health care. Many of its inhabitants are political prisoners who dared challenge the rule of Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno and his family. Those who take up arms against the regime are classed as “mercenaries” and very few of those, if any, have been through any kind of judicial process before being sent to Koro Toro for a slow death.  As President Déby once remarked, We do not send mercenaries to Koro-Toro to feed or care for them” (Tchadhanana, November 13, 2009).

One of the most famous of Koro Toro’s condemned is “General” Abdel Kader Baba Laddé, a Fulani warlord whose name means “Father of the Bush” in the Fulani language. [1] Baba Laddé faces a litany of charges related to his activities in the Chad-Central African Republic (CAR) borderlands, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, rape, mutilation, arson, arms-trafficking and the kidnapping of children for use as soldiers.

On July 21, 2017, Baba Laddé’s lawyers held a press conference in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena to protest their client’s continued detention at Koro Toro without trial since January 2015. The advocates claimed there is never any progress made on his file, adding that Baba Laddé is now very ill (APA News, July 21, 2017).

Warlord in the Borderlands

Baba Laddé began his career modestly as an NCO in Chad’s gendarmerie. After leaving the gendarmerie, he assembled a group of bandits in 1998 under the guise of a political movement opposing President Déby’s Chadian regime, called the Front Populaire pour le Redressement (FPR). The former NCO declared himself a “general” and further adopted the pretension of being the leader of a unified Fulani nation stretching from the west coast of Africa to the Red Sea (Jeune Afrique, December 26, 2011). Nonetheless, he was driven from Chad in 2008 and entered the lightly governed region of the northern CAR, a traditional zone of operations for Chadian freebooters, fugitives, marauders and slavers.

General Abdel Kader Baba Laddé (RFI)

Baba Laddé’s constant clashes with Chadian forces along the border were unwanted by the CAR government, which allowed Chadian operatives working under the Chadian military attaché in Bangui to abduct and deport the warlord to Chad in October 2009. He reappeared in Cameroon in August 2010, claiming to have escaped ten months of torture in Chad. He vanished in November 2010, only to emerge once more in the CAR in January 2011. Baba Laddé then shifted between South Sudan and the CAR, proclaiming his new mission of taking down the governments of both Chad and the CAR.

In July 2012, Chadian president Idriss Déby described Baba Laddé as “a Chadian ex-gendarme who became a route-cutter [highwayman] and ivory trafficker. This is not a rebel, as certain media pretend, but a highway bandit. This type of person does not constitute a menace for Chad. For the CAR [however], it’s possible” (Jeune Afrique, July 23, 2012).

Despite this, Chadian and CAR authorities negotiated a deal for the legal return of the warlord to Chad in September 2012. In January 2013, he was appointed a special advisor to Chad’s prime minister, but conflict between the two led to Baba Laddé fleeing N’Djamena and making the rounds of neighboring countries.

In January 2014, Baba Laddé issued a statement claiming Chadian authorities had tried to organize his arrest and extradition from his refuge in Niamey (capital of Niger), but succeeded only in the arrest of his aide-de-camp (Alwhida Info [N’Djamena], January 27, 2014).

Yet another deal saw Baba Laddé’s return to N’Djamena and his appointment in July 2014 as prefect of Grande Sido, a department of Moyen-Chari province along the CAR border. After being named prefect, Baba Laddé promised to “tackle the task of developing this territory, supporting its people and helping the refugees of the CAR” (Alwhida Info [N’Djamena], July 25, 2014). However, he was dismissed in November 2014 over the opposition of locals who felt he was doing a good job and returned to the bush in the northern region of the CAR just narrowly ahead of soldiers who had been sent to arrest him. His wife and bodyguard, who had been left behind, were brutally assaulted by soldiers angry at being given the slip. A few weeks later, he was detained by the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA and turned over to Chadian officials by the CAR on January 2, 2015. [2] Days later Baba Laddé was sent to Koro Toro prison and has not emerged since.

Baba Laddé’s Successor

After September 2012, Baba Laddé’s role in the CAR was much diminished and leadership of the FPR passed into the hands of his second-in-command, Fulani “General” Ali Darassa Mahamat. The FPR continued to be widely viewed in the CAR as a “foreign” group from Chad, as are the Fulani people in general.

General Ali Darassa Mahamat

In 2013, Darassa led the majority of the FPR into the Séléka coalition, a largely Muslim assembly of various rebel groups whose combined strength allowed them to overthrow the CAR government in March 2013. The coalition’s factions made little pretense of trying to govern the country, instead running wild without restraint, directing much of their violence against Christian communities. The result was the creation of vigilante Christian “anti-Balaka” militias and the outbreak of a disorganized but vicious civil conflict that UN peacekeepers struggled to contain.  Séléka was officially dissolved in September 2013, which failed to stop the violence, but did lead to a realignment of Séléka’s constituent parts as a result of ethnic rivalries and disputes over control of revenues derived from resources.

Ali Darassa regrouped Baba Laddé’s FPR as the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) in September 2014. Officially, the UPC seeks autonomy rather than independence for the Muslim north. The UPC has a fierce rivalry with two other Muslim-majority movements in the CAR:

The Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) – One of the main groups to emerge from the Séléka split, the FPRC is commanded by Noureddine Adam, who seeks independence for the CAR’s Muslim north, believing it is impossible for Muslims and Christians to live together. The group is largely composed of members of the Gula and Runga ethnic groups. The FPRC now cooperates with Christian anti-Balaka fighters against the UPC.

Area of the Republic of Logone/Dar al-Kuti

An FPRC spokesman declared the establishment of the independent Muslim state of Logone in the northeast CAR with Bambari as its capital in December 2015. The name was soon changed to “Dar al-Kuti,” after a 19th century Muslim slave-raiding state under the influence of the Chadian Sultanate of Wadai. In its later days under Sultan Muhammad al-Sanusi, Dar al-Kuti became heavily reliant on slave-labor for agricultural and other purposes. The Sultanate quickly dissolved when the French consolidated their control of the region after al-Sanusi’s death in 1911 and once profitable plantations collapsed as their slave labor fled to the bush.

The FPRC’s General Ibrahim Alawa claims the movement’s problem is not with Fulani civilians, but with Ali Darassa: “He has decided to be King of the Fulani and wants to make them into an army” (IRIN News, May 18, 2017).

The Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC) – Led by General Mahamat al-Khatim, the MPC split from the FPRC in July 2015, but still cooperates with the FPRC when it is to its benefit. Both the MPC and the FPRC are known for murderous attacks against civilians, including vulnerable IDPs. The groups fund themselves in part through “taxes” on Fulani herders using migration routes through territories under their control. [3]

Muslim Militias Battle for Dominance

In 2013, the UPC took control of much of the south-central Ouaka Province, a region of forest savannah. From its base around the town of Bakala, Darassa’s militia has committed repeated massacres and atrocities against local civilians since November 2016. The US chargé d’affaires in the CAR demanded Darassa’s arrest in August 2015 following assaults on civilians at Bambari (the CAR’s second-largest town), though MINUSCA declined to take action.

Gunmen from all the ex-Séléka factions feud over control of diamond and gold-mining areas, though they don’t engage in mining themselves, preferring to let others do the hard work before “taxing” them. Over 400,000 people are now displaced in the CAR, with many Muslims actually taking the risk of fleeing into Christian-controlled regions to avoid the UPC.

Clashes between the FPRC and UPC in April 2017 over control of Ouaka once more led to civilian losses as Fulani herders or suspected Gula and Runga supporters of the FPRC were attacked by gunmen. After an ultimatum from MINUSCA, Darassa led his men out of Bambari on February 21, 2017.

Conclusion

The CAR is an unfortunate victim of the warlord-ism that plagues neighboring South Sudan and other African regions. Exploitive by nature and an opponent of all efforts to establish central authority at their expense, the warlords carry on with impunity. Efforts to promote development, education or health initiatives are unwanted and threatening innovations in the regions they rule.

Even when one warlord, such as Baba Laddé, can finally be removed, there are others ready to immediately fill his place. The limited mandates provided to UN peacekeeping missions and broader international disinterest ensure the warlords’ survival, even as their activities provoke communal violence against the communities they pretend to defend. The consequence, ultimately, will be a growing degradation of once self-sustaining communities and a greater outward flow of desperate, poorly educated and largely unemployable migrants to Western nations that will find it increasingly difficult to accommodate such levels of migration without dramatic changes to their social and economic structure.

Notes:  

  1. The Fulani are also known as Peul or Fula. For a profile of Baba Laddé’s career up until April 2012, see: “Central Africa’s Tribal Marauder: A Profile of Fulani Insurgency Leader General Abdel Kader Baba Laddé,” Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=455; For a broader view of the violent clashes between Fulani herders and other ethnic groups across the Sahel and its political implications, see: “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point CTC Sentinel (Volume 10, Issue 2), February 22, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3881
  2. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), with a strength of 13,000 men.
  3. Human Rights Watch, “Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” February 16, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/central-african-republic-executions-rebel-group

Operation Bayard and the Death of Ansar al-Islam Leader Malam Ibrahim Dicko

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 18, 2017

The death of Malam Ibrahim Dicko, the radical Islamist leader of Burkina Faso’s Ansar al-Islam movement, marks a major success for combined French-Burkinabé security operations in the volatile region alongside the northern border with Mali. Dicko’s movement, composed largely of Muslim Fulani and Rimaïbe tribesmen, had created havoc in the area with several fierce assaults on military and police bases in the region in December 2016 and February 2017. [1]

French Mirage 2000 Jets during Operation Bayard  (© Emmanuel Huberdeau)

Dicko’s death appears to be a direct consequence of Frances’s “Operation Bayard.” This operation used intelligence gathered in late March 2017’s “Operation Panga,” a joint French- Burkinabé effort to clear the region of the border with Mali in Soum Province of Islamist militants. Operation Bayard began on April 29 with strikes by French Mirage 2000 jet fighters on suspected Ansar al-Islam bases along the border in the Foulsaré Forest.

Tigre HAD (Hélicoptère Appui Destruction – Helicopter Support Destruction) attack helicopters armed with Hellfire AGM-114 missiles secured the perimeter to inhibit the militants’ escape before French commandos were inserted by NH90 Caïman helicopters. Over April 29-30 the initial team was joined by French para-commandos and combat engineers to defuse the mines the militants were in the habit of deploying to prevent infiltration of their bases (a French military engineer was killed by a mine during Operation Panga). The commandos killed 20 militants and wounded many more before seizing twenty motorcycles (an important element in Ansar al-Islam’s surprise attacks), two vehicles, and a large quantity of arms, ammunition, computer gear and bomb components.

Malam Ibrahim Dicko and his bodyguard were reported to have come under attack from one of the Tigre helicopters before the surviving militants scattered to escape the French commandos (Jeune Afrique, July 12, 2017). Unable to settle in one place for long due to constant pressure from pursuing security forces, Dicko is believed to have died sometime in June from complications due to diabetes.

French Tigre HAD Attack Helicopter

A vague posting on Ansar al-Islam’s little-used Facebook page (no longer available) suggested that Dicko’s “grave circumstances” had led to his replacement as Ansar al-Islam leader by his brother, Jafar Dicko, the “new commander of the believers and guide of Ansar al-Islam” (Fasozine.com, June 28, 2017).

The expiry of the charismatic Ibrahim Dicko and the death of 20 of his fighters (with many more incapacitated out of roughly 150 members) in Operation Bayard may deal a death blow to Ansar al-Islam, which is less than a year old. The group has already lost two of Dicko’s most valued lieutenants. One, Amadou Boly, was assassinated on Dicko’s orders when he objected to the growing extremism of the movement; the other, Harouna Dicko (Dicko is a very common name in the area), was killed in late March by the Burkinabé Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), a joint army/gendarmerie anti-terrorist formation. Jafar Dicko, an unknown quantity, will be hard-pressed to revive the movement as an independent military threat. Surviving members are more likely to join one of the other militant groups operating in the region with similar aims, such as Amadou Koufa Diallo’s largely Fulani Force de libération du Macina, now part of the larger Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM – Group for the Defense of Islam and Muslims) led by Iyad ag Ghali.

Note

  1. For Dicko’s biography, see Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko,” Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3908

Qatar’s Role in the Libyan Conflict: Who’s on the Lists of Terrorists and Why

Andrew McGregor

July 14, 2017

The Middle East diplomatic crisis that has set a coalition of Arab states against Qatar has inevitably spilled over into Libya. A number of those states party to the dispute have been involved in a proxy war, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt backing the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) and Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist Libyan National Army (LNA), while Qatar and (to a lesser extent) Turkey support the Tripoli-based and UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (GNA).

Al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Ghariani

The main issues in the Gulf dispute are Qatar’s sponsorship of al-Jazeera and the channel’s willingness to criticize regional leaders (save Qatar’s al-Thani royal family), Qatar’s provision of a refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, its support for Islamist movements and its cooperative relations with Iran, with which it shares one of the world’s largest natural gas fields.

Amid the dispute Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE produced a “terrorist list” of 59 Qatari or Qatari-allied individuals from nine Arab countries, including five individuals from Libya (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 9). [1] The list-makers seek to coerce Qatar to assist in Iran’s isolation and to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This Arab states’ list was followed by a second list of 76 Libyan “terrorists” issued by the HoR’s Defense and National Security Committee on June 12, seven days after the HoR and its interim government severed relations with Qatar (Libya Herald, June 12).

What follows examines the most notable Libyans named on those lists, their contacts with Qatar and the reasons behind their inclusion.

Qatar’s Involvement in Libya

During Libya’s 2011 revolution, Qatar deployed its air force against then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists and installations. It also provided substantial arms and supplies to revolutionary forces in Libya, earning it a significant degree of good will within the country.

Since then, however, Qatar has focused its support on Islamist forces operating in Libya, a policy that has aggrieved nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all of which seek to stifle the growth of Islamist movements that could challenge the legitimacy of their regimes. Qatar’s continued insistence on playing a role in Libya’s domestic politics since then has also brought on resentment and even anger in many quarters of Libyan society.  Both Egypt and the UAE, meanwhile, mount regular air operations against Islamist targets inside Libya. [2]

On June 8, LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmad al-Mismari presented audio, video and documentary evidence of massive political and military interference by Qatar in Libya since the 2011 revolution, comprising a wave of assassinations (including an attempt on Haftar’s life), recruitment and transport of Libyan jihadists to Syria, funding of extremist groups and training in bombing techniques via Hamas operatives from the Khan Yunis Brigade. Much of this activity was allegedly orchestrated by Muhammad Hamad al-Hajri, chargé d’affaires at the Qatari embassy in Libya, and intelligence official General Salim Ali al-Jarboui, the military attaché (al-Arabiya, June 9; The National [Abu Dhabi], June 8).

Mismari also claimed on June 22 to have records of “secret meetings” held by the Sudan Armed Forces and attended by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir that confirmed a conspiracy to support terrorism in Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and alleged that Qatar and Iran were operating arms factories in Sudan to supply Libyan terrorists (Libya Herald, June 22).

On June 29, al-Mismari declared that the LNA was fighting “not with Libyan terrorists, but with transnational terrorism” supported by “the triad of terrorism in Libya,” Qatar, Sudan and Turkey. The colonel also claimed that the LNA’s intelligence department had obtained recordings of an al-Jazeera correspondent coordinating covert flights by Qatari aircraft to Libya to “support terrorist groups” (al-Arabiya, June 29).

Egypt also views Libya as a battleground for its efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. On June 28, Egypt’s foreign ministry claimed Qatar was supporting terrorist groups in Libya operating under the leadership of the Brotherhood, resulting in terrorist attacks in Egypt (Asharq al-Awsat, June 29; al-Arabiya, June 28)

Qatar provides a home and refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it does so on the condition that they do not involve themselves in Qatari politics. The local chapter of the Brotherhood shut itself down in 1999 after expressing approval of the emirate’s political and social direction (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 18, 2012).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political misadventures in Egypt led to distrust of the Brothers’ agenda in Libya, especially as the movement still struggles to establish grass-roots support after decades of existence in the Gaddafi era as a movement for Libyan professionals living in European exile.

List One: The Arab States’ List

The “terrorist” list issued by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE included the following Libyan individuals:

Ali Muhammad al-Salabi – Al-Salabi, a second-generation Muslim Brother, was sentenced to eight years in prison at 18-years-of-age for his alleged connection to a plot to kill Gaddafi.

The intellectual and spiritual leader of the Libyan Brotherhood, al-Salabi consistently presents himself as a proponent of democracy and cooperation with international efforts to combat terrorism (Libya Herald, March 1, 2016). Al-Salabi developed ties with Qatar in 2009, when Qatar funded an al-Salabi headed de-radicalization initiative for imprisoned members of the al-Qaeda associated Jamaa al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG). When the 2011 revolution erupted, al-Salabi returned to Libya to act as a local conduit for Qatari arms, intelligence and military training. He now holds Qatari citizenship and has a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s 91-year-old Qatar-based spiritual leader (also named on the list) (Libya Herald, October 5, 2015). Al-Salabi has close ties with Abd al-Hakim Belhaj (see below), with whom he founded the Islamist Hizb al-Watan (Homeland Party) in 2011.

Abd al-Hakim Belhaj– An allegedly reformed militant, Belhaj is chairman of Hizb al-Watan, believed to be financed by Qatar. Belhaj was amir of the LIFG and the leader of the post-revolutionary Tripoli Military Council. He is believed to have received substantial support from Qatar during the 2011 revolution and routinely defends Qatari activities in Libya against their critics.

Mahdi al-Harati – A Libyan-born Irish citizen with military experience in Kosovo and Iraq, al-Harati returned from Ireland during the 2011 revolution and took command of the Tripoli Brigade. Briefly mayor of Tripoli before being ousted in 2015, al-Harati later led Libyan and Syrian fighters in Syria as part of the anti-government Liwa al-Ummah, a unit alleged to have included London Bridge attacker Rachid Redouane, a resident of Ireland (al-Arabiya, June 9; Libya Herald, June 9; Telegraph, June 6). The LNA alleges al-Harati is supported by Qatari intelligence (al-Arabiya, June 9).

Ismail Muhammad al-Salabi – Brother of Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, Ismail was imprisoned by Gaddafi in 1997 and released in 2004. He became a principal recipient of Qatari arms shipments during the revolution as commander of the Raffalah Sahati militia, part of a coalition of Islamist militias known as the February 17 Brigade (al-Hayat, May 19, 2014). Clashes with Hatar’s LNA began in 2014 and continue to this day, with Ismail serving a prominent member of the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) coalition. He is reputed to have a close relationship with Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim bin Khalifa al-Kubaisi (al-Arabiya, June 9).

Al-Sadiq Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Gharaini – The 75-year-old al-Ghariani was, until recently, the controversial Grand Mufti of Libya and the head of the Dar al-Ifta, the office responsible for issuing fatwa-s (religious rulings). The Mufti considers Haftar and those under him to be “infidels” and has called for the destruction of the HoR, which voted to sack him in November 2014. The Dar al-Ifta office in Tripoli was shut down by the GNA on June 1, 2017, and all its contents were confiscated (al-Arabiya, June 1). A strong supporter of Qatar’s involvement in Libya who commands the allegiance of several Islamist militias, the Mufti is perceived by some Libyans as a supporter of religious extremism. Nonetheless, the League of Libyan Ulama (religious scholars) issued a strong condemnation of the Mufti’s inclusion in the terrorist list, warning against “accusing the righteous” (Libya Herald, May 10).

Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) – The BDB was one of 12 organizations to appear on the “terrorist” list. A coalition of soldiers, Islamists and revolutionaries, the BDB has pledged allegiance to Mufti al-Ghariani. The BDB offered to demobilize and disband on June 23 following an intense backlash after their brutal attack on the Brak al-Shatti airbase on May 18 and their subsequent failure to hold Jufra against an LNA offensive. [3] The coalition claimed it had been disparaged as a terrorist group only after it exposed a plot by France, Turkey and the UAE to invade Libya (Libya Herald, June 23; Libya Observer, June 23). On June 6, Misratan officials ordered the BDB (which it called “the Mufti’s forces”) to disband and surrender their weapons, threatening force if their demand was not complied with (Libya Herald, June 6). Instead, the group relocated to Sabratha, where it remained under arms. By July 10, the still-undissolved BDB was reported to be leading an offensive by pro-Khalifa Ghwell forces against pro-GNA militias in Garabulli, east of Tripoli (Libya Herald, July 10; Libya Express, July 9). [4]

The BDB, noting the UAE’s active military role in the Libyan conflict and its support for the “war criminal” Haftar, described the list as a fabrication designed with the intent of imposing “political restrictions on anyone who poses a threat to the UAE’s attempt at supremacy over the entire region” (Libya Observer, June 10).

List Two: The HoR’s List

The majority of those on the HoR list are based in Tripolitania. Most of those listed share an opposition to Haftar, the LNA and/or the HoR, though the role of many is inflated. Many are described as members of the “Muqatila,” a shorthand reference to the now defunct LIFG. The inference is that they are former members or remain sympathetic to the goals of the group, which was once closely associated with al-Qaeda.

While there is no apparent order to the HoR list, it makes more sense when those on it are gathered into focused groups, along with more detailed (and occasionally corrected) descriptions. There is, however, often some overlap in these unofficial categories.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB)

Twenty-nine members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood made the list. The MB described the inclusion of its members on a “terrorist list” as “defamation” (Libya Herald, June 11). Many are resident in Doha, the Qatari capital, and receive Qatari funding. The most prominent of those included are:

JCP Chairman Muhammad Sawan

Muhammad Sawan – Chairman of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Hizb al-Adala wal-Tamiyya (Justice & Construction Party, or JCP), since its founding in 2012. He is a Misratan who was imprisoned during the Gaddafi era.

Ahmad al-Suqi – The head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, elected in October 2015.

Nizar Kawan – An Amazigh (Berber) member of the Libyan State Council and an official in the JCP. [5] Kawan was the victim of a failed assassination attempt and RPG attack on his home in June 2014. The attack was allegedly instigated by the pro-Haftar Libyan ambassador to the UAE, Aref al-Nayed, who was recorded urging a similar attempt on the life of Khalid al-Sharif (see below) (Libya Observer, September 3, 2015).

Fawzi Bukatif (RFI)

Fawzi Bukatif – A Misratan, Bukatif is the current Libyan ambassador to Uganda. A reputed financial coordinator for the MB with Qatar, he was the commander of the February 17 Brigade during the revolution and has close ties to Ismail al-Salabi. Bukatif accused the HoR of inciting violence with the list and threatened legal action: “I’m not against Hafter or the HoR, but I don’t agree with what they are doing. It seems they want to fight and kill anyone who disagrees with them” (Libya Herald, June 12).

Dar al-Ifta and Associates of Sadiq al-Ghariani

The most prominent of these are:

Abd al-Basit Ghwaila (Daily Mail)

Abd al-Basit Ghwaila – Director of the Tripoli office of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), Ghwaila is a Libyan-born Canadian citizen. He became the focus of attention when it was revealed that he was a close friend of the father of Manchester bomber Salman Abedi as well as the founder of an Islamic youth group to which Salman belonged. In 2016, his own son Awais was killed fighting alongside extremists in Benghazi. Ghwaila is an important official in al-Ghariani’s Tanasuh Foundation and a regular preacher on the Mufti’s Tanasuh TV station (Libya Herald, June 6).

Salem Jaber – A leader in the now dissolved Dar al-Ifta, Shaykh Salem advocates jihad and is a Salafist proponent of Saudi-style Islamic education. He demands beards for men and has called for drinkers and fornicators to be whipped. The list suggests he is a spiritual leader in the BDB.

Hamza Abu Faris – A leading Libyan religious scholar and former Islamic affairs minister, he is described on the list as an associate of the BDB and “instigator of jihad.”

The Manchester/Birmingham Connection

Tahir Nasuf – A Manchester-based LIFG fundraiser and former director of the group’s main fundraising organization, the now banned UK-based al-Sanabel Relief Agency. Funds flowed from Sanabel to Abu Anas al-Libi in Afghanistan, wanted for alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salaam (The Guardian, May 28). Nasuf was on the UN sanctions list from 2006 to 2011.

Khalid Tawfik Nasrat – A former LIFG leader and the father of Zuhair Nasrat, one of the detainees in the investigations of the Manchester attack. Zuhair was arrested at the south Manchester Nasrat family home where Manchester bomber Salman Abedi frequently stayed. Nasrat and his two eldest sons returned to Libya to fight in the 2011 revolution (Daily Mail, May 29).

Abd al-Basit Azzouz (BBC)

Abd al-Basit Azzouz – After fighting in Afghanistan, LIFG member Azzouz arrived in Manchester in 1994, where he settled alongside other LIFG members. In 2006, he was arrested by British police for alleged ties to al-Qaeda and detained for over nine months before being released on bail. Azzouz left for Pakistan and was appointed head of Libyan al-Qaeda operations by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri in May 2011. An expert bomb-maker, Azzouz had some 200 recruits under his command in Libya. Suspected of involvement in the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, he was named in 2014 by the U.S. State Department as one of ten “specially designated global terrorists” (Telegraph, September 27, 2014; Express [London], May 24). He was arrested in Turkey in 2014 in a joint Turkish/CIA operation and sent to Jordan before his expected deportation to the United States to face charges. His public trail goes cold after that (Hurriyet [Istanbul], December 4, 2014). In February 2016, the UN added him to its al-Qaeda sanctions list, implying he was again at large. [6]

Bashir Muhammad al-Faqih – He is described in the list as “the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda and the LIFG in Libya.” As a resident of Birmingham and former member of the LIFG, al-Faqih was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 after admitting to charges under the UK’s Terrorism Act. In 2014, his appeal to the European Court of Justice resulted in an EU order to overturn his conviction and return his passport (BBC, July 17, 2007; Manchester Evening News, October 8, 2010). He was involved in al-Qaeda financing via the Sanabel Relief Agency, which put him on the UN sanctions list from 2006 to 2011.

Politicians

The most prominent of these are:

Abd al-Rahman al-Shaibani al-Suwehli

Abd al-Rahman al-Shaibani al-Suwehli – As chairman of the Libyan State Council since April 6, 2016, Suwehli has challenged the legitimacy of the HoR. A bulletin from the State Council said that the HoR was using the term “terrorism” to vilify and denigrate their opponents through the list and threatened legal action (Libya Herald, June 12). Suwehli and Presidency Council chief Fayez Serraj were targeted for assassination when their motorcade came under heavy fire on February 20. Suwehli later accused GNS head Khalifa Ghwell of being behind the attack (Libya Herald, February 20).

Omar al-Hassi – After the formation of the elected HoR in 2014, the Islamist al-Hassi became “prime minister” of an alternative parliament formed from GNC members who had failed to be re-elected. He was dismissed in 2015 after unspecified accusations by an auditor. The list provides the unlikely description “field commander and political official in BDB.”

Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB)

The most prominent commanders on the list are:

Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sharkasi – A professional soldier and former air force colonel in the Gaddafi-era, al-Sharkasi has emerged as the dominant commander in the BDB. Turning against the regime, he acted as a militia commander in Misrata during the revolution. Once part of Haftar’s LNA, he is now bitterly opposed to him (Libya Herald, November 13, 2016).

Al-Saadi al-Nawfali – The leader of the Operations Room for the Liberation of the Cities of Ajdabiya and Support for the Revolutionaries of Benghazi. This group cooperates closely with the BDB, in which he also holds a leadership position. Al-Nawfali has been variously described as an al-Qaeda operative, a former Ansar al-Sharia commander in Ajdabiya and a supporter of Islamic State (IS) forces.

Anwar Sawan – A Misratan supporter of the BDB and the Benghazi Shura Council, Sawan is a major arms dealer to Misratan Islamist militias. He supported the fight against IS in Sirte and opposes both Haftar and Serraj.

Ziyad Belam (al-Jazeera)

Ziyad Belam – A commander in the BDB and former leader of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an alliance of Benghazi-based Islamist militias that once included local IS fighters. He was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in October 2014. 

The BDB responded to the HoR’s “terrorist” list by providing their own “top 11” terrorist list focused on eastern-based civilian supporters of Haftar and the HoR. The most prominent individuals on the list were HoR President Ageela al-Salah and HoR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. (Libya Herald, June 16).

Islamic State (IS)

Ali al-Safrani and Abd al-Hadi Zarqun (a.k.a. Abd al-Hadi al-Warfali) – Both were accused of being financiers for IS in Libya. Sanctions were imposed on the two by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.

Mahmoud al-Barasi – A former Ansar al-Sharia commander in Benghazi, now purported by the list to be an IS amir in that city. He once said Ansar’s fight was against “democracy, secularism and the French,” and labeled government members “apostates” who could be killed (Libya Herald, November 25, 2013).

Al-Qaeda Operatives

The most notable of these are:

Muhammad al-Darsi (al-Jazeera)

Muhammad al-Darsi – A leading al-Qaeda figure in Libya, Darsi was given a life sentence in Jordan in 2007 for planning to blow up that nation’s main airport. He was released in 2014 in exchange for the kidnapped Jordanian ambassador to Libya, who was seized by gunmen in Tripoli (al-Jazeera, May 14, 2014).

Abd al-Moneim al-Hasnawi – Allegedly a high-ranking member of Katibat al-Muhajirin in Syria, Abd al-Moneim was recently spotted back in Sabah (Fezzan), where he was allegedly working with the Misratan Third Brigade, the BDB and the remnants of Ibrahim Jadhran’s Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) (Menastream.com, November 15, 2016). The list describes him as a representative for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in southern Libya.

Militia Commanders

Salah Badi – A Misratan, Badi was an officer in Gaddafi’s army but was later imprisoned. A former GNC parliamentarian, he resigned in 2014. Badi formed the Jabhat al-Samud (Steadfastness Front) in Tripoli in June 2015. Badi supports Khalifa Ghwell’s GNS and opposes both the GNA and Haftar. He was recently seen leading the Samud Front in a pro-GNS offensive against Tripoli in early July (Libya Herald, July 7).

Tariq Durman – Leads the Ihsan Brigade in Tripoli, which is made up of supporters of Mufti al-Ghariani. He supports the GNS.

Khalid al-Sharif

Khalid al-Sharif – A deputy amir in the LIFG, Khalid was captured in 2003 and held prisoner in a secret CIA detention center in Afghanistan for two years. He was then returned to Libya and imprisonment under Gaddafi (Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 2015). Khalid controlled Tripoli’s Hadba prison until May 26, when it was seized by Haitham Tajouri’s Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, which then destroyed al-Sharif’s home (Libya Herald, May 27). A search revealed the prison to have contained a bomb-making factory (Libya Herald, June 4). In June, the Libyan National Committee for Human Rights tied Manchester bomber Salman Abedi to Khalid al-Sharif and other former LIFG members and demanded the International Criminal Court and the UN investigate “Qatar’s role as a financier of this group” (Arab News, June 3).

Sami al-Sa’adi (ITV)

Sami al-Sa’adi – Al-Saadi left Libya for Afghanistan in 1988, where he became a deputy amir of the LIFG. He was arrested in a joint UK/US operation in 2004 and returned to Libya, where he was tortured and spent six years in prison. The UK paid £2.2 million in compensation in 2012 but did not accept responsibility for the rendition. After the revolution, he became close to Mufti al-Ghariani, founded the Umma al-Wasat Party and was a commander in the Islamist Libya Dawn coalition. In late May, Saadi’s Tripoli home was destroyed by the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade (Libya Herald, May 27).

Ahmad Abd al-Jalil al-Hasnawi – A Libyan Shield southern district commander, the LNA claimed al-Hasnawi planned and led the BDB’s Brak al-Shatti attack (Libya Herald, May 19; Channel TV [Amman], May 22, via BBC Monitoring). A GNA loyalist, al-Hasnawi commands wide support within his Fezzani Hasawna tribe.

Outlook

The Libyan component of these two “terrorist” lists have a common purpose — to lessen foreign resistance to the takeover of Libya by the HoR-backed LNA while simultaneously discrediting the counter-efforts of Qatar.

Egypt’s military regime in particular is determined to eliminate Muslim Brotherhood influence in the region. Another common theme of the lists is the insistence that the arms embargo on Libya be lifted in order to supply Haftar with the weapons needed to defeat “terrorism” and control the flow of “foreign fighters” (despite their being used by both Haftar’s LNA and pro-GNA forces).

Clearly designed for an international audience, the HoR’s list is light on IS militants (already despised by the West) and heavy on political, military and religious opponents to Haftar and his Egyptian and UAE backers. The BDB, as one of the strongest military challengers to Haftar’s LNA, is particularly singled out.

While some of the individuals mentioned above have long histories of supporting terrorist activity, many of the lists’ lesser individuals not included here can only be regarded as having the most tenuous of links, if any, to terrorism.

In this sense, the list may be viewed as political preparation for an expected Haftar assault on Tripoli later this year, branding all possible opposition in advance as “terrorists” for international consumption.

Notes

  1. A Qatari official insisted that at least six of the individuals on the list were already dead (Foreign Policy, June 15).
  2. The UAE uses al-Khadim airbase in Marj province for operations by AT-802 light attack aircraft and surveillance drones (Jane’s 360, October 28, 2016). The UAE also controls an estimated 70% of Libyan media, according to an Emirati investigative website (Libya Observer, June 13).
  3. See “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Terrorism Monitor 15(11), June 2, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/libyas-military-wild-card-benghazi-defense-brigades-massacre-brak-al-shatti/
  4. Khalifa Ghwell is leader of a third rival government, the Government of National Salvation, which has some support from Mufti al-Ghariani. The offensive is the latest in a series of attempts by Ghwell to overthrow the GNA administration in Tripoli.
  5. The State Council was formed by the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement as an advisory body to the GNA/Presidency Council and HoR as a third element of the unified government.
  6. https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/abd-al-baset-azzouz

This article first appeared in the July 14, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor