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Salafists, China and West Africa's Growing Anarchy

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by Douglas Farah
Published on December 7th, 2004

West Africa, long a backwater for U.S. intelligence services that see little strategic value or national interest in the region, poses a growing and significant challenge for Bush administration. Among the primary reasons are:

  • The rapid spread of radical, anti-Western Islamic groups (Salafist and wahhabi), primarily growing out of the mosques and madrasas funded by Saudi Arabia and Gulf state charities.

  • The growing dependence on oil and natural gas from the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria, Cameroon--with the pipeline from Chad--Equatorial Guinea, Angola), a region where non-state armed groups are proliferating and instability is growing.

  • The growing role of the Chinese in selling weapons, contracting infrastructure projects and donating aid resources, which now eclipse U.S. efforts in the region. This macro shift away from traditional European and U.S. patrons is little noted by the foreign policy establishment or intelligence community.

The most visible armed Islamic threat emerged in the form the small Salfist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), Led by Amar Saifi, known as Al Para because he was a French-trained paratrooper in the Algerian military, the GSPC declared his loyalty to al Qaeda. The group gained a small degree of international notoriety last year after kidnapping a group of 32 "extreme tourists" in the Sahara. Most of the tourists were German, and the German government paid a reported $8 million ransom to free its citizens.

In one of the few cases where the United States has had the foresight to act aggressively, Gen. Charles Wald of the US European Command moved quickly to get the defense ministers of Chad, Mali, Niger and others together for the first time ever, to coordinate a strategy of
going after the GSPC before it became a serious security military and political threat. The U.S. also provided satellite intelligence to the governments to help them track the GSPC as they moved across the desert. Using that information, African government troops took action. In combat in Niger and Chad, Al Para lost some 40 men, and ended up, along with a few dozen of his followers, as prisoners of an obscure rebel movement in Chad, the Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJC).

While a prisoner, al Para was chained to a rock, after he tried to escape at least three times. In a recent interview with French television, al Para talked a bit about his background, and said he used the ransom money to buy food, weapons and ammunition. His captors said the GSPC, who drew fighters from Nigeria, Mali and Mauritania, was in contact with Zawahiri and other leading al Qaeda figures. To establish his credentials, al Para married the daughter of a local police chief and financed his activities through extortion, kidnappings and the sale of weapons. Last month, al Para was turned over to Libya, who then turned him back over to the Algerians.

But salafism is spreading far beyond an isolated band of radicals in the desert. Al Para had some type of pipeline, albeit a small one, to recruit fighters from as far south a Nigeria. The progressive takeover of mosques by salafists can be measured in Mali, Chad and Niger by the rapidly-changes in the once-tolerant West African Islam. A growing number of mosques now pray with "crossed arms," the hallmark of the salafists.  Another visible sign of the spreading influence of mosques that change hands or Saud i money pays for the building of new ones, is that women are almost immediately required to be fully covered and lose what few rights theymay have. Saudi charities under suspicion around the world for their ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, are expanding their presence in the pan-Sahel. One reason, according to sources tracking the movement, is that the salafists have studied Christian missionary movements and are in increasingly using long-standing Christian practices of incorporating health care, education and aid programs into their religious recruiting methods.

The most likely flashpoint for Islamic violence remains northern Nigeria, where 16 states now operate under sharia law and the central government is virtually absent and the imams' rhetoric against the rest of Nigeria, along with the West in general, is growing increasingly militant. One particularly worrisome indicator of potential trouble is that al Qaeda leaders have publicly named Nigeria as a target for action in the same style they used to presage other attacks. Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, recently arrested in Pakistan, reportedly told interrogators that al Qaeda uses websites and e-mail addresses in Nigeria, as well as Turkey and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Intelligence sources say that, despite repeated warnings from some inside the Community, intelligence gathering in the region relies almost entirely on the almost-entirely unreliable liaison relationship with the Nigeria military and intelligence services.

This is not to say that all mosques are preaching hatred for the West, or even that the salafists have taken over most of the religious leadership of Islam in West Africa. And not all salfists will join bin Laden's war on unbelievers. But it is an indication of movements afoot in areas where the United States has very little understanding or presence.

EUCOM leaders managed to stop the GSPC from spreading, but they acknowledge that successes in the region are few and far between. Responsible for 91 countries, EUCOM's senior leaders say they are only a half-inch deep in intelligence. There is almost no forward-thinking, planning and analysis being done. Commanders acknowledge that, until a particular problem turns into a crisis, the do not have the resources or personnel to focus on it.

Resources for training and working with militaries is negligible. None of the small training programs EUCOM is now running in the region have any budgetary commitment to make them sustainable in the long-term because each is funded on a year-to-year basis. Even the Pan-Sahel Initiative, credited with building a series of new alliances with the militaries in the region and costing less than $7 million a year, has so far failed to become institutionalized. This, even though it provides only the most basic type of training and equipment to armies the United States is asking to take a leading role in combating the spread of armed groups in lightly-populated, sprawling regions.

EUCOM intelligence analysts tick off a host of other issues that are festering and receiving virtually no attention from the intelligence community. While EUCOM has only a small footprint in the region, mostly through its Defense Attaches, it is larger than almost anyone else. Still, even the Pentagon has few resources to spare for the region.

Intelligence analysts describe West Africa as largely a series of failed states or failed states waiting to happen. Then there is the growing unrest in Mauritania, where an Islamist coup was recently attempted. Niger, Mali and Chad are all weak states where the rule of
law is almost unknown and where the central governments control little outside the capitals. The list continues to the teetering, corrupt regimes in Guinea and Sierra Leone, to the hold deposed Liberian strongman Charles Taylor still holds over Liberia. Ivory Coast, once a bastion of stability and relative prosperity, is in a downward spiral of festering civil war, ethnic strife and religious discord. One intelligence officer described the Guinea-Sierra Leone-Liberia triangle as a "fluid mass of anarchy,"where guns, diamonds and criminal organizations flow across borders with ease.

The same could be said for most of the countries in the Gulf of Guinea, a region that currently provides 16 percent of U.S. oil imports, and within six years will be providing 25 percent of the U.S. petroleum needs, along with 40 percent of U.S. natural gas needs. Over the next decade the region is expected to receive up to $100 billion in U.S. investment.

But not only in northern Nigeria festering, so is the Niger Delta. Tired of the rampant corruption and destruction of the environment, the disparate groups of armed and angry youth are mobilizing against the central government, and can be easily swayed by any ideology or preaching that offers hope. Equatorial Guinea remains one of the most isolated, corrupt and despotic family dictatorships in the world. A recent coup attempt, plotted in South Africa and using South African mercenaries, failed, but only barely. Angola is struggling to recover from decades of war, while Chad and Cameroon are homes to some of the longest serving dictators in Africa. None of these factors point to long-term stability.

"We would be far better off dealing with these issues now, but the region is not hemorrhaging yet, so we won't," said a senior officer. "There is a serious probability that if we don't move in and offer some alternatives, al Qaeda and al Qaeda like groups will be there, through groups like the GSPC or you name it. Those who want to go extreme, who hate the West, will find a place to operate. You have a disenfranchised population that sees no alternatives, and these people will want to be part of something.

There is another complicating factor that is little studied and little understood around the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and that is the growing presence of China, both economically and militarily. Almost every infrastructure project in West and Central Africa is under contract to carried out by the Chinese. The projects encompass everything from stadiums in Mali, to roads in Nigeria, to hotels in Sierra Leone.  But infrastructure projects and economic aid are not the only thing the Chinese bring.  The sales of weapons to governments from Ivory Coast to Zimbabwe are increasing rapidly, along with maintenance contracts for the systems purchased. The work is often done more cheaply than it could be by others, is usually delivered on time, and trade agreements rather than cash payments are often written into the contracts.

According to the China's Ministry of Commerce, trade between Africa and China topped $20 billon last year for the first time. This was an increase of 53 percent over the previous year. By comparison, US two-way trade with sub-Saharan Africa has experienced a sharp downward trend, declining 15% to $24 billion in 2002.  Part of the reason for the growth is that China attaches no human rights or government transparency requirements to the aid. It only asks that the nations not recognize Taiwan, a condition most have already met.

The purpose of the Chinese offensive appears to be two-fold: project a presence into an area that can help meet critical fuel needs, and to create a market for Chinese-made goods. The Chinese presence so far has been extremely difficult to quantify, in part because the policy community has not tasked the intelligence community to seriously look at the issue. The best effort to date has been Stephanie Giry's Nov. 9 piece in The New Republic.

According to Giry, China will be importing 60 percent of its oil by 2020, and says that Chinese oil firms have already struck deals with Gabon and Nigera, and are in talks with the governments of Chad, Niger, Central Africa Republic, DRC and Angola. When the EU and international lenders refused to bail out the CAR's government last year, Giry reports, Beijing stepped in and bankrolled the entire civil service for a time.

So far the policy establishment had little interest in this shift. They should, however. Even more interesting, but far less visible, is the continuing presence of North Korea in the region. One of largest North Korean embassies in West Africa is in Equatorial Guinea (oil). Another is in Guinea (bauxite), and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (uranium). Provocative, to say the least, that a country that is virtually bankrupt has embassies in these locations.

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