News / Africa

France, African Countries Move to Counter al-Qaida-Linked Groups in Africa

Soldiers from Niger are among many in West and East Africa who have received foreign anti-terrorism training
Soldiers from Niger are among many in West and East Africa who have received foreign anti-terrorism training
Nico Colombant

French and African leaders are pledging to counter al-Qaida-backed violence in East and West Africa with more military force in the aftermath of suicide bombings in Uganda and the killing of a French aid worker in Mali.  The United States has also pledged more military help in the continent's widening fight against terrorism.  But, some analysts are concerned whether this is the most effective approach.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon went on French radio Tuesday to say his country was at war with al-Qaida.

He said the French military has been cooperating for several months with Mauritania's army to combat al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb regional terrorist group.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been touring West African countries where the group has kidnapped foreigners, sometimes killing them, as was the case for French aid worker Michel Germaneau.  His execution was announced by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb on Sunday, after a French-Mauritanian raid on one of the terror group's desert positions in Mali.

Kouchner met with Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure on Tuesday to discuss several security topics, including establishing an anti-terror rapid reaction force with Mali.

Algerian officials at this week's African Union summit in Kampala, Uganda reportedly have described Mali as the weak link in the fight against terrorism in the vast, mostly lawless, northwest African region.  They say Algerian villagers in desert areas are being instructed to form their own defense militias.

Africa security analyst J. Peter Pham says he is not surprised by the French reaction.  But he says he fears that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb will be more in the news in the months ahead . . .

"[g]iven the increased resources that it has obtained in the last 12-18 months because its southern command has acquired resources through an alliance with drug smugglers and other criminal elements," said J. Peter Pham. "So you are seeing greater activity and, unfortunately, you are likely to see increased activity from them."

This week's AU summit in Kampala focused largely on the terror threat and boosting the African Union force in Somalia, where the al-Qaida linked group al-Shabab is fighting a U.N-backed transitional government.

African leaders approved a request to send 2,000 more African Union peacekeeping troops and allow the peacekeepers to fire their weapons, if they face imminent attack.

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the recent bombings in Uganda that killed dozens of people, saying the attacks were in retaliation for Uganda's troop presence in Somalia.  The peacekeepers have come under criticism inside Somalia for their frequent shelling of civilian areas.  The group warned of more attacks in Uganda and in Burundi, which also has troops in Somalia.

Analyst J. Peter Pham says he does not believe there is a military solution to the problem and that more peacekeepers could make the situation worse.

"The African Union does not have the resources," he said. "Even if it were to get its act together, which it has not been able to [do], even if it were to get its act together, it does not have the capability to go in there and effectively defeat the insurgency.  But it has enough capability to cause more problems."

Pham says al-Shabab is united mainly because of foreign intervention and that working diplomatically with its less radical elements might be more effective.

"You remove the foreign intervention, let the cards fall where they will for the transitional government, and you will see al-Shabab beginning to break apart into various factions," said Pham. "They are already factionalized, but they will be further factionalized.  Then it becomes easier to pick off the truly threatening ones and the other ones can be brought into some sort of a framework for rebuilding governance."

Following the bombings in Uganda, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States would redouble support for Africa in the fight against terrorism.  The U.S. government has already given the transitional government in Somalia millions of dollars for buying weapons and paying the salaries of its soldiers.  The 2011 U.S. budget request for security assistance programs in Africa is reported to include over $80 million for arms sales to African states, military training and anti-terrorism programs.

But critics like the Washington-based activist group Africa Action say military cooperation boosts authoritarianism by African leaders, creates more violence and contributes to resentment by civilians.   

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