Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Jakarta to Ouagadougou

The recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Indonesia and Burkina Faso present a major challenge to Muslim-majority secular nations, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

To grasp the real meaning of the terrorist attacks that militant Islamists have recently carried out, put out of mind the notion that a cash-strapped developing country has the capacity to rein in sophisticated and social-media savvy terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.

The terrorists drew upon the widely disgruntled West African Muslim communities in underdeveloped countries such as Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. All these nations are predominantly Muslim and have been so for centuries. The attacks in Ouagadougou, in particular, were a wake-up call. Al-Qaeda is moving south from the Sahara to the Sahel and the savannah of West Africa.

On 15 January, gunmen armed with heavy weapons attacked the Cappuccino restaurant and Splendid Hotel in the heart of Ouagadougou, the capital of the landlocked and predominantly Muslim West African nation of Burkina Faso. At least two of the four perpetrators of the recent attacks were women, according to a statement by the Burkina Faso government.

Why was Ouagadougou targeted? And why was security so lax? Central to the answers to these questions are the characteristics of the political establishments of the region. The Splendid Hotel and the Cappuccino restaurant were easy pickings.

The Francophone West African nations are struggling to create a new political culture based on secularism and citizenship rights as opposed to religion. The militant Islamists are opposed to this agenda and are not in the least interested in understanding the roots of secularism and in particular the focus on women’s rights.

These nations are typical neo-colonial states. France, the former colonial power in the region, controls the economies of its former colonies in West Africa. It dictates the domestic and foreign policies of these underdeveloped nations in all but name. It is also busy developing civil society and supporting human rights groups. It is within this milieu that the militant Islamists thrive. Their aim is to lock this neo-colonial culture in place.

The Splendid Hotel and nearby Yibi Hotel, where another attacker was killed, are the centre of elite and expatriate life in sleepy Ouagadougou. The Splendid Hotel was sometimes used by French troops and is popular with expatriates. The locals are not sympathetic to the militant Islamists’ cause, but they fear and understand their motives. And they know how brutish the militant Islamists can be.

Traditionally, West African Muslims adhere to motley Sufi orders such as the Qadiriya, the Senusiya and the Tijaniya. Virtually all West Africans espouse the Maliki School of Sunni Islam, the most moderate of the four Schools. The Wahabi School of Sunni Islam, based on the teachings of the mediaeval cleric Ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali School and harsher and more strident in its interpretation of the Qur’an, is alien to West Africa.

Wahhabi ideology began infiltrating West Africa with the return of African students and workers from Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. It became especially popular among the disgruntled, educated and jobless youth. They compensated for the discrimination they believed they faced by becoming aggressively Islamist.

Nevertheless, the majority Muslim population remained loyal to the Maliki School and to the Sufi orders. Al-Qaeda and IS both espouse the Hanbali interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed.

The Splendid Hotel siege ended on Saturday morning, but Ouagadougou will never be the same. Security has been tightened and Friday sermons at mosques are being closely monitored. IS teaches its followers how to avoid intelligence surveillance. But Al-Qaeda’s knot may yet unravel with the fallout from the terrorist attack in Ouagadougou.

A total of 126 hostages were released after a government counter-attack the next morning, as the siege ended. Three of the perpetrators were killed, but it is suspected that some terrorists survived and are still at large.

Neighbouring nations and the international community have expressed sympathy and support for the beleaguered Burkina Faso government. The president of the National Assembly of Ivory Coast, Guillaume Soro, expressed his “compassion and solidarity” to the “government and people” of Burkina Faso earlier this week.

Al-Qaeda will now try to turn its setback in Mali into an advantage. Africa’s porous borders, and particularly the sprawling Sahara Desert, make it an ideal playground for terrorists. The Americans and the French are scanning the Sahara for terrorists — not an easy task.

One man who is still at large, earning him the accolade of “the man who evades capture,” is Mokhtar Belmokhtar. A bounty of $100,000 has been placed on Belmokhtar’s head, and it is believed that he was the mastermind behind the Ouagadougou attack.

In January 2013, Belmokhtar hit the headlines with the capture of oil workers at the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. He wears many hats, including that of Libya’s Islamist terrorist militia Ansar Al-Sharia. On closer examination, the connection between Al-Qaeda and IS is not clear-cut, but Belmokhtar provides plenty of clues.

On 20 November 2015, France named Belmokhtar as having likely been responsible for the earlier bombing of the Bamako Hotel in Mali. As with the attacks in Ouagadougou, this hotel was frequented by expatriates, French troops and military and security personnel.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also taken full advantage of Francophone West Africa’s political chaos and uncertainty. Belmokhtar returned in 1993 to his native Algeria from Afghanistan. In 2004, an Algerian court sentenced him in absentia to lifetime imprisonment for forming “terrorist” groups such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Belmokhtar was a founding father of the militant Algeria-based Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which later metamorphosed into AQIM.

He has also assumed his place in Islamist mythology. Belmokhtar took four wives who are the daughters of Amazigh and Tuareg tribal chieftains in northern Mali and southern Algeria, and hence has won favour with the tribal confederations of the Sahara Desert.

Belmokhtar earlier claimed responsibility for suicide truck-bomb attacks at French-owned uranium mines in Arlit in Niger. In Algeria, gunmen in Toyota land cruisers stormed the main accommodation block at the Amenas gas plant, 1,300 km southeast of the capital Algiers. Belmokhtar and his associates took more than 800 hostages before most were freed by the Algerian authorities.

One Algerian hostage and 39 foreigners from nine different countries are believed to have died in the Amenas incident. While the Ouagadougou attack is nothing in comparison with the scale of the Amenas episode, the attacks in Ouagadougou, like in Bamako, were carried out in the heart of a capital city. Amenas is in a remote part of the Algerian desert.

The Algerian authorities maintained that 32 terrorists were involved in the attack and that three were Algerian nationals, while the rest were made up of eight different nationalities, including 11 Tunisians, two Canadians, plus Egyptians, Malians, Nigerians, and Mauritanians. Belmokhtar survived and founded the “Masked Brigade” and “Those Who Sign with Blood” militia.

If the newly inaugurated Burkina Faso president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, is to fulfill his promises, then the impoverished and resource-poor country must strengthen its hard-won democratic stability and not lapse into the dictatorships of the past in order to buttress itself against the forces of Islamist terrorism.

The people of Burkina Faso do not have the luxury of waiting for better times to combat terrorism. AQIM is a regional network headed by Belmokhtar, and French military operations against Islamists in northern Mali prove that AQIM pays scant notice to borders.

For the time being, the impoverished Francophone West African nations are obliged to rely on their former colonial master, France. With the help of informers, French and Chadian forces killed Abou Zeid, an Algerian national and Islamist terrorist and a notorious arms and narcotics smuggler and human-trafficker, in northern Mali in February 2013.

In AQIM, North Africans, and in particular Algerians, are the top commanders, and Africans from south of the Sahara are the foot soldiers. The Islamist terrorists are widely regarded as foreigners and their Tuareg helpers as local lackeys.

The Ouagadougou death toll amounted to 30 people from the first two attacks and at least 33 other people sustained injuries of various degrees of seriousness. The attacks will probably spark racial conflict in countries such as Burkina Faso and exacerbate racial tensions in Chad, Mali and Niger.


TERROR IN JAKARTA: Meanwhile, halfway across the globe in Indonesia another horrific Islamist terrorist attack was carried out by IS.

 Indonesia is the world’s most-populous Muslim nation, with more than 255 million people. This is not the first time that Islamist terrorism has reared its ugly head in the capital of Jakarta, a sprawling metropolis of 10 million people.

In July 2009, the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels were targeted by Islamist terrorists, and nine people were killed and 53 injured in the attacks. The Indonesian capital is also home to many of the country’s minority Christians.

“This act is clearly aimed at disturbing public order and spreading terror among the people,” Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said in statement on television.

Even though Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is also a secular nation with large Christian and Hindu minorities. The nightmare unfolded on Thursday at a Starbucks cafe on Thamrin Street, a busy thoroughfare where entertainment and shopping malls abound. The attackers tossed two grenades at Indonesian police officers, and five policeman suffered gun or shrapnel wounds.

A Dutch national underwent surgery after being “severely injured,” according to various reports. Indonesia was a Dutch colony for more than four centuries. IS said that its “Crusader Alliance” had carried out out the attack.

With sporadic gunfire continuing unabated, a curfew was temporarily imposed. Police surveillance of the area was stepped up. A manhunt is underway for other suspects, and the spotlight is on Indonesians who fought in Syria and Iraq with combat experience in IS.

Local Islamists have also come under scrutiny. The followers of Islamist leader Abu Bakar Bashir, jailed on the Island of Sumatra, are under investigation. Bashir recently appealed to an Indonesian court to have his conviction for funding a “terrorist training camp” overturned. The 77-year-old leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah network filed a judicial review of his 2011 conviction, after being sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up the camp in Aceh.

Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island, is a stronghold of militant Islamist groups. The Acehnese people are renowned for their conservatism and their proselytising zeal among the non-Muslim communities of Indonesia. Aceh earlier eschewed the secularism of Jakarta and went to war against the central Indonesian government, demanding independence from the secular country. The Free Aceh Movement spearheaded the struggle for secession.

The stakes are now high. The Jakarta and Ouagadougou terrorist attacks highlight the challenge that now faces predominantly Muslim secular nations such as Indonesia and those in Francophone West Africa.

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