It’s business, st*p*d!

James Carville’s house slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) for Bill Clinton’s election campaign never gets old and can be applied in a lot of situations. For instance here, where I will be trying to explain, in ways less flippant than Carville’s great one-liner suggests, why the West’s obsession with ‘jihadism’ in the Sahel is mostly misguided.

There are still buses doing the long trip from the Malian capital Bamako to the major town of Gao in the country’s remote northeast. On that 1,200 kilometres long trip, they will go from a good tarred road into Ségou, to a fairly OK but still tarred road into Sévaré (where there have been several attacks against army bases) and then on to a road hardly worthy of the name past Douentza, Hombori and Gossi and finally into Gao. This report was made three years ago; there is nothing to suggest that the situation has improved.

But buses continue to run the full gauntlet into Gao. How is this possible, on long stretches of virtually non-existent road through areas that are infested with self-defence militias, self-styled jihadist groups and their splinters, khalifate-creating fanatics and bandits with their guns and their roadside bombs? (The category “bandits”, by the way, almost always overlaps all the others.)

Simple: the companies pay. Any business working in areas these gangs control does the same. What we are seeing here is the Sahelian variant of the protection racket. And it has been spreading, along with the armed turbulence that began when Algeria threw its armed ‘jihad’ gangster problem across the fence into Mali in the late 1990s and was then made ten times worse when France, the UK, the USA and NATO plunged Libya into the chaos from which it has never recovered. And even in Algeria it was not entirely over. What was the original business these original ‘jihadis’ were in? Banditry: smuggling contraband and kidnapping Westerners; this last they did safe in the knowledge that the governments of rich white countries pay to have their citizens released. Even the late Hissène Habré, the butcher of Chad, knew this.

Habré gained notoriety in the 1970s as a rebel leader and hostage taker. His hostages were West German and French, whose governments paid good money for the release of their citizens. That did not stop the United States and France from sponsoring Habré all the way to the Chadian presidency, a post he took by force of arms, flown in from the USA by way of Monrovia’s international airport, as former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker explained to me during an interview in Washington. In the eight years (1982 to 1990) that he manhandled his country, Habré arranged for the murder of 40,000 people and the torture of many more, crimes for which he was belatedly convicted in a Dakar court, in 2016. He died in a Dakar hospital, aged 79.

So, hostage taking is an old business, probably as old as running protection rackets. The former were at the origin of the self-styled ‘jihadist’ groups. The latter are – in tandem with theft, extortion, and artisanal gold extraction – at the core of these groups’ business today. Smuggling, meanwhile, has been an absolute constant throughout, from cigarettes to drugs.  One of the earlier leaders of these armed ‘jihad’ gangs, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was nicknamed Mr Marlboro and you get no extra points for guessing why that was. People smuggling, I understand, is an entirely different branch and has no inherent connection with the violent armed gangs who are busy shutting down the Sahel. Which stands to reason: people smugglers get paid to get people to a destination. They do not set out to kill people; even though they very often fail in their trips across the unforgiving Sahara desert the objective is to get people to their destination alive.

Today, nothing much has changed. Islamic State mines gold in Burkina Faso and Mali, it and other armed gangs set up roadblocks and extort money from the travelling public, raid buses if the companies running them have not paid enough or on time; they steal cattle – a deliberate and deeply destructive act – and still smuggle drugs and contraband.

Their methods for recruiting foot soldiers come straight out of the gangster rulebooks that were used in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the last century: find young, marginalised men with little or no prospects, manipulate them with lies, false promises, ply them with drugs and then tell them what to do: rape, kill, burn, steal, pillage, loot, pilfer, extort. How did West Africa’s jungle soldiers, some as young as 7, refer to these activities? I will tell you because I asked them this question. And their answer was: they considered doing these things their job. The self-styled ‘jihadist’ gangs we see in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Chad, Cameroon and now also in Togo, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire operate in exactly the same way. These are at their very core criminal organisations, working towards the creation of what one general from Mauritania once memorably called “a Boulevard of Crime, from Tripoli to Abidjan…”

Vandalism in Timbuktu, 2013

But what about the religion then? Because none of what you have read so far sounds terribly religious. Correct: it does not sound religious because it isn’t. But there are most definitely religious zealots in the ranks of these violent criminal gangs and some, like the notorious Amadou Koufa in Central Mali may even be a bona fide religious warlord. This is logical: using Islam as a recruitment tool resonates with folks who are, in the majority, deeply religious. Often the only ‘education’ young kids can afford is going to the Koran school, where they learn to recite the entire Holy Book back to front and nothing else. They are often sent onto the streets of all the main cities to beg for money, to be delivered to their Koran teacher. Some education…

You see? This is the mechanism Taylor used, with a new twist. Allah does not give you food; you must work for it. And so, when I see this flag, I do not think “Jihadists” or “Islamist extremists”. I think: “Pirates.”

Source for this image: Lawfare.

Cast your mind back to those forest wars between 1989 and 2003. Two of the most notorious warlords, the late Foday Sankoh and the imprisoned war criminal Charles Taylor both went to training camps in the late Muamar Ghadaffi’s Libya to learn the strategies of revolutionary terror. But did they bring The Revolution to their countries, as the name of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone suggested and one of Taylor’s former female generals told me in person? No of course they did not. It was a pretext. Some may have believed in it, for sure. But for most it was…just a job. We’re only in it for the money. How did the boys call their looting sprees, anyone? Yes, you at the back? Correct! They called their looting sprees ‘Operation Pay Yourself.’

And so it is with the religious element we are dealing with here. Those kids that were smashing the shrines and the statues in Timbuktu would not be able to cite the Koran passages justifying their vandalism if their lives depended on it. Both sets of violent gangs share the same methods.

Barbarism. Islamic State executes Housseini Hamma Cissé, aka “DJ passant” because of his mobile musical services for the community that adored him. Murdered in cold blood, near Ménaka, November 28.

And these methods are? Gratuitous violence. Or have we forgotten that summarily executing people in the most gruesome ways did happen frequently in the forests and towns of West Africa, from the mass murders in a church in Monrovia, Liberia to the repeated carnage in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the vicious fights in Guéckédou, Guinea and the massacres in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire? The religious (in this case Islamic) element does not add another layer of horror to these acts. The horror is already there and it has the same purpose: terrorizing people into doing what the terrorisers want.

But remember also that the perpetrators operate mostly in armed gangs. These are not kingdoms or republics with large repressive systems at their disposal, capable of genocide or industrial scale mass murder, such as the Belgians committed in Congo, the Germans in Namibia, the British in South Africa and Kenya, the French in Niger, Cameroon and Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia. Taylor and his goons ruled Liberia for six years; Sankoh never got the presidency of Sierra Leone. One criminal gang of terrorists with an overlay of religious fanaticism is holding sway in a shrinking part of northeastern Nigeria. Another is establishing an (undoubtedly short-lived) ‘khalifate’ in the remote northeast of Mali and they are only able to do this because the colonels mismanaging Mali from their suites in Bamako are not serious about defending the country; they prefer to take soldiers from a neighbouring country hostage or boring the United Nations to death with frivolous charges about France helping Al Qaeda. The Russian mercenaries of the Wagner PMC they have hired for an eye-watering amount of money to do the job they are supposed to be doing are singularly uninterested in taking on the armed gangs, who as a result do pretty much as they please. They fight Wagner – for the control of the artisanal gold mines. It’s business, st*p*d!

And where do they intend to take their business? What is the final destination of the Boulevard of Crime? To reiterate: the coast. Why? This I covered recently. Suffice to say that reaching the coast would obviously mean a colossal expansion of their business. The amount of loot to be had in, say, Abidjan dwarfs what can be stolen in Ansongo, Djibo and Tilaberi combined. And of course many West African coastal cities have direct air links with that well-known murky international hotbed of dodgy business, Dubaï.

An appropriately murky picture – by me – of a distinctly murky place.

Clearly, nobody outside these armed gangs wants this and there may finally be some concerted action under way to ensure this never happens: the Accra Initiative, a low-level network set up by five governments most directly concerned (Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) geared towards intelligence sharing and joint military action and grassroots campaigns to take away the lure of the gangs. This kind of joined-up thinking, in tandem with the creation of real economic prospects for the young folks most likely to be lured by the Siren Call of armed violence may yield results in the near future. I certainly hope so. After a decade of destruction, this region desperately needs success against the ever-expanding destabilising influence of these criminal groups, after the ambiguity of Opération Barkhane, the stillborn efforts of the G5 Force Sahel and Operation Takuba and the utter disaster of Russia’s Wagner killers. Here’s hoping that they get it right this time. And here’s hoping that eventual foreign (dare I say…Western) backers understand three things: that it is chiefly about money, crime and turf and not about religion, that the initiative must be with those affected and their governments, and that throwing military kit and troops at the problem solves nothing. The alternative is grim: the shutdown of a space the size of Western Europe.

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