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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

IS Takes Over Sahara

Thursday 16 August 2018, by Harish Chandola

After being almost ousted from Syria and Iraq, the terrorist organisation, Islamic State (IS), has firmly established itself over a large part of Africa, in two broad belts on either side of the Sahara. The northern one stretches from the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The southern one starts in Somalia, stretches to Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal.Vast stretches separate its different battlefields.

The conflict is barely reported, though last year it claimed more than10,000 lives, all of them of civilians.

The war has drawn in troops from the US, France, Britain and Germany. The commander of US Special Forces in Africa, General Mark Hicks, has said that the IS was attracting its remnants from other places as well.

The commander of the French counter-terrorism effort in the region, General Bruno Guibert, who has about 4500 troops there, in Operation Barkhane, thinks his campaign is making some progress.

But the number of violent incidents involving Jihadist groups in Africa has increased by more than 300 per cent, between 2007 and 2017. The number of African countries involved in militant activity against the IS has more than doubled over this period, according to the African Centre for Strategic Studies, a part of the US Defense Department. Many Western officers are despondent. A senior French officer said without more troops, the West would lose.

Among the Jihadist groups some pledge their loyalties to Al-Qaeda or the IS. They include the Al-Shahab in Somalia and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin in Mali.

In each country, the conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. In many countries it has been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, and by weapons taken out of Libya’s armories and also money obtained from drug networks across the Sahara.

The most violent have been actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria, a country as big as France and Germany put together, with a population of about 180 million. The Nigerian Government control ends at the village of Kiribiri, about 20 kilometres from Maiduguri in the north, the birthplace of Boko Haram, the world’s deadliest terrorist group.

Some 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. Indiscriminate killings by the Nigerian Army and forcing people into camps in garrison towns are fueling the insurgency. There are no jobs in the camps and hundreds have died of starvation and lack of medical care. At places camps of 250,000 are being managed by just two officials. Bribery is rampant.

A regional counterterrorism force of five, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, is trying to tackle the chaos in the region. The Nigerian Government has abdicated all humanitarian and development work to international organisations like the World Food Programme, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). A MSF clinic is Maiduguri in northern Nigeria is filled with thousands of thin, sick children whose hair is turning orange and brittle due to starvation.

 Western air activity against the Jihadists is unlikely to be able to defeat the Islamist groups fighting in Africa.

The author is a veteran journalist with wide knowledge of developments in West Asia and the Arab world.

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