(Al Jazeera) Somalia executes al-Shabab journalist

| Politics, Africa

Hanafi said he confessed to the killing of journalists following torture by authorities in Mogadishu [AP]

Hanafi said he confessed to the killing of journalists following torture by authorities in Mogadishu [AP]

Somalia has executed a journalist accused of helping members of al-Shabab kill at least five journalists in the capital.

Hassan Hanafi, who was captured in neighbouring Kenya in 2014, was executed on Monday morning by a firing squad in Mogadishu after his appeal at a military court failed.

Hanafi was accused of helping fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked group identify possible targets in the journalism community between 2007 and 2011.

From 2009 to 2011 he worked for Radio Andalus, al-Shabab’s official mouthpiece.

In an interview aired on Somalia state TV in February, Hanafi admitted ordering the murder of several journalists.

But in an audio recording of a phone call leaked last month Hanafi appeared to claim he made the confessions after being tortured.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists more than 25 journalists have been killed in the Horn of Africa country since 2007.

Al-Shabab, which is seeking to overthrow the country’s Western-backed government, was pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011 by government troops backed by an African Union force.

It continues to carry out suicide attacks and targeted assassinations in south and central parts of the country, and it has also conducted major attacks in Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda, which all contribute troops to the African Union effort.

The article was published in Al Jazeera.

(TIME) Corruption in Military Defense Spending Could Be Behind Rise in Africa Terror Attacks

Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore (L) and Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi (R) visit the Splendid hotel and the Capuccino cafe on January 18, 2016 in Ouagadougou, following a jihadist attack by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) late on January 15. West African nations will "fight back" after a Burkina Faso hotel attack that left 29 dead and showed jihadist fighters expanding their reach in the region, Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi said on January 18, 2016. Friday's attack on a four-star hotel, which left at least 29 dead, half of them foreigners, came weeks after an attack on a luxury Mali hotel in Bamako claimed by Islamists that left 20 people dead. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGOISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabore (L) and Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi (R) visit the Splendid hotel and the Capuccino cafe on January 18, 2016 in Ouagadougou, following a jihadist attack by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) late on January 15 / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGOISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Aryn Baker @arynebaker Jan. 18, 2016

A series of recent terror attacks across Africa have raised fears of a new wave of extremist violence

From Somalia in the east to the Western Sahel, Africa’s hotspots started getting hotter over the past week with a series of terror attacks that have raised fears of a new wave of extremist violence. Terrorism analysts have posited that al-Qaeda is vying for attention and territory with upstart ISIS in a region rife with instability. But as much as terrorist groups thrive on government weakness, military corruption also plays an important role, according to a new report on corruption in military defense spending in Africa.

Transparency International, a U.K.-based research organization that tracks corruption and perceptions of corruption worldwide, gave every single African country surveyed (47 out of 54) a failing or near-failing grade when it comes to preventing graft in their defense sectors. Defense spending is on the rise across the continent, notes the report, but without better tracking on how that money is spent, there is little to ensure that it will go to the areas that need it most in a new era of terror attacks, namely counter-terror and security programs. “With such limited oversight on military spending, there are many opportunities for corruption and graft that can in turn contribute to rising insecurity in the region,” says Leah Wawro, Transparency International’s program manager for conflict and insecurity. Corruption, adds co-author Eléonore Vidal de la Blache, the Africa project manager, can lead to black-market arms sales to terror groups, or, in some cases, bolster funding for those groups.

The report’s release on Monday capped a week of back-to-back attacks across Africa. Even as scenes of a devastating suicide bomb and grenade attack on a pair of luxury hotels and a café popular with foreigners unfurled in Burkina Faso, killing at least 29 people from nine different countries, reports started coming in of the kidnapping of an Australian couple in the country’s north, then an ambush on an aid convoy in neighboring Mali that killed two soldiers. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, and the group, or its affiliates, is thought to have been behind the kidnapping and the assault in Mali. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab militants affiliated with al-Qaeda claimed to have killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers in a Friday attack on a remote base in Somalia’s southwest, where the African Union is trying to bring peace. And on Jan. 13, two female suicide bombers attacked a mosque in a town near Cameroon’s border with Nigeria during morning prayers, killing 10 in the latest of a series of suicide bombings attributed to the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram terror group, which is based in Nigeria.

In the wake of the attack in Ouagadougou, which followed the same pattern as a similar attack in the Malian capital of Bamako in November, the prime ministers of Mali and Burkina Faso agreed to share intelligence and conduct joint security patrols in their efforts to tackle the rising terror threats in the region. But that is not likely to be enough, say the authors of the Transparency International report.

One of the biggest problems, according to the report, is how such corruption can decrease morale among soldiers, especially when commanding officers pocket salaries meant for those in the lower ranks. Such siphoning of funds is rampant in Nigeria, where soldiers have regularly deserted their posts because they say they lack sufficient supplies and weapons to fight against Boko Haram. On Friday, the recently elected President Muhammadu Buhari ordered an investigation into corruption allegations going back nine years, saying that graft among senior ranks of the military hindered the fight against an Islamist insurgency in the north of the country. Sambo Dasuki, the former national security advisor under Buhari’s predecessor and rival, Goodluck Jonathan, was arrested in December, in the wake of a government commission finding that he, along with other senior officials, allegedly pilfered some $5.5 billion meant for equipping, supplying and paying soldiers taking on Boko Haram. Dasuki has denied the charges, calling the findings “presumptive, baseless” and lacking in “diligence.”

Members of the Jonathan administration say the allegations that graft hampered the military’s counter-terror abilities are unsubstantiated. Wawro, of Transparency International, calls the claims justified. “Absolutely, corruption is undermining the fight against Boko Haram [in Nigeria]. When soldiers’ salaries are pocketed, when they see their commanders driving fancy cars while they struggle to eat, they are more likely to sell weapons and other supplies. They are more likely to take bribes, and they are more likely to allow arms or drugs to be smuggled across borders.” They are also more likely to desert, she adds, further undermining confidence in the military, and the government.

It’s not just Nigeria. Kenya’s armed forces also stand accused of being involved in bribe taking, arms sales, and worse. A recent report by Journalists for Justice, a Nairobi-based, non-partisan organization that seeks to broaden citizen understanding of international criminal justice and combat government impunity, details how Kenyan soldiers in Somalia are working in cahoots with the al-Shabaab terror group to levy “taxes” on the illegal smuggling of sugar and charcoal through the Somali port of Kismayo. “This is problematic when the KDF [Kenya Defense Force] is supposed to be fighting al-Shabaab, and when elsewhere in the country al-Shabaab forces claim to have killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers,” says Vidal de la Blache. “What you are seeing is a direct link between the ability of al-Shabaab to arm and sustain itself and the corruption within the Kenya defense establishment all the way to the top.” Rather than promise an investigation, the Kenyan government has dismissed and denied the allegations.

It is impossible to know whether there is any direct link between the weekend attacks in Burkina Faso and corruption within that country’s military establishment, says Wawro. But the country is one of the worst ranked in the Transparency report. “What you can say about any country that scores an “F” [as Burkina Faso does] is that there is no one to hold the military to account about what is being done to prevent these attacks, and how the increase in funding we are likely to see after an attack like this will be put to use.” That, she says, creates a level of distrust between the people and their government, one easily exploited by terror groups.

While the report points fingers at African governments for failing to track military spending, the report’s authors aren’t letting the U.S. and France, the principal financial backers of many of Africa’s counter terror efforts, off the hook. “We are not seeing [these countries] taking the kind of actions needed to address the problem,” says Wawro. Kenya’s military, she notes, is a major recipient of U.S. military aid. “So, if you look through a winding lens, U.S. money is indirectly filtering in to support terrorism.” That, she says, is reason enough for the foreign backers of African counter terror programs to insist on greater transparency in spending, lest their assistance end up funding another terror attack.

The article was published in TIME Magazine. 

(HuffPost) Burkina Faso, French Troops End Deadly Hotel Siege Claimed By Al Qaeda Group

01/16/2016 08:17 am ET | Updated 27 minutes ago

AHMED OUOBA/AFPGETTY IMAGES
Forces killed four attackers, ending the hotel siege in Burkina Faso, on Saturday.

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — The Al-Qaida fighters who stormed a popular hangout in Burkina Faso’s capital at dinnertime came with a mission to kill as many people as possible, firing at people as they moved to a nearby hotel and setting the cafe ablaze, survivors and officials said Saturday. When the gunfire stopped after a more than 12-hour siege, at least 28 people had been slain in an unprecedented attack on this West African country long spared the jihadist violence experienced by its neighbors.

Like the extremist attacks from Paris to Jakarta, the assailants in the Friday evening attack targeted an area where people from different nationalities gathered to enjoy life. Here in Ouagadougou, the victims had been grabbing a cold drink outside or staying at one of the capital’s few upscale hotels. In this city with a large aid worker presence, the attackers sought to shoot as many non-Muslims as possible, screaming Allahu akhbar (Arabic for God is great) as they entered.

An audio tape later released by the al-Qaida group claiming responsibility for the carnage was entitled: “A Message Signed with Blood and Body Parts.”

Among the victims from 18 different countries were the wife and 5-year-old daughter of the Italian man who owns the Cappuccino Cafe, where at least 10 people died in a hail of gunfire and smoke after the attackers set the building ablaze before moving on to the Splendid Hotel nearby. Some survivors cowered for hours on the roof or hid in the restaurant’s bathroom to stay alive. Two French and two Swiss citizens were confirmed among the dead late Saturday by the two countries’ foreign ministries.

Authorities said the four known attackers – all killed by security forces – had come in a vehicle with plates from neighboring Niger. At least two of them were women and one was of African descent. Witnesses said they wore the turbans often worn in the sand-swept countryside of the Sahel, and some spoke in French with an Arabic accent, suggesting some may have come from further north in Africa.

“I heard the gunfire and I saw a light by my window and I thought it was fireworks at first,” said Rachid Faouzi Ouedraogo, a 22-year-old accounting student who lives near the scene of the carnage. “I raced downstairs and once outside I saw people running through the street and four people firing on the people at Cappuccino.”

AHMED OUOBA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack.

Burkinabe forces backed by French soldiers based in neighboring Mali managed to help free at least 126 hostages though officials have said the true number of those held hostage may be higher. Dozens were wounded in the overnight siege, including many suffering gunshot wounds.

“We appeal to the people to be vigilant and brave because we must fight on,” President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said on national radio Saturday.

The North Africa branch of al-Qaida, founded in Algeria, claimed responsibility for the bloodbath even as it was unfolding in a series of statements published and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. The al-Qaida affiliate known as AQIM – now working in tandem with feared extremist Moktar Belmoktar – later released an audio clip it said was a conversation with one of the fighters later slain in Ouagadougou.

The message said the attack was directed at “the occupiers of our lands, the looters of our wealth, and the abusers of our security,” according to SITE and sought to punish them “for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims, and to avenge our prophet.”

Burkina Faso is a largely Muslim country though it is home to a number of French nationals as a former colony of France. Islamic extremists in the region have long targeted French interests, incensed by France’s military footprint on the continent more than a half century after independence. France led the military effort in 2013 to oust extremists from their seats of power in northern Mali, and continue to carry out counterterrorism activities across the Sahel region.

French special forces were also front and center early Saturday, as police and military forces fought to take back the Splendid Hotel. After freeing the hostages there, forces then scoured other buildings including the Hotel Yibi where they killed the fourth attacker, the president later said.

NABILA EL HADAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The horror closely mirrored the siege of an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that left 20 people dead and shattered the sense of security in the capital of a nation whose countryside has long been scarred by extremism.

Burkina Faso was better known for the role its president and officials played in mediating hostage releases when jihadists would seize foreigners for ransom in places like Niger or Mali. Now though, it appears Burkina, too, has been turned into a place where Westerners are at high risk.

On Saturday, Minister of Security and Internal Affairs Simon Compaore said that an Australian doctor and his wife had been kidnapped in Burkina Faso’s north. He corrected an earlier government statement that the two were from Austria. The two were abducted from the town of Djibo near the border with Mali where they had been doing volunteer work in the area for years.

Jihadists also hold a third foreigner: a Romanian national who was kidnapped in an attack last April that was the first of its kind at the time.

Some analysts point to the security vacuum that has emerged in Burkina Faso since late 2014, when the longtime strongman leader fled power in a popular uprising. Members of the military jockeyed for power, and the country suffered through a short-lived coup earlier this year before democratic elections were allowed to go forward in November.

Most in Burkina Faso recoil at the idea of extremism now taking hold here, adding to the woes of one of the poorest countries in the world.

“We know that the gunmen won’t get out of the hotel alive,” said one witness of the overnight siege, who gave only his first name, Gilbert. “Our country is not for jihadists or terrorists. They got it wrong.”

The article was published in the Huffington Post.

(Africa News) Mauritania: Islamist prisoners launch hunger strike

Credit: Africa News

Credit: Africa News

Some 30 Islamists have launched a hunger strike at Mauritania’s main jail saying they are being punished after a New Year’s Eve escape by a high-profile prisoner facing death over an Al-Qaeda assassination plot.

The prisoners said in a statement that they had started the protest Monday at the main prison in Nouakchott, the capital, and would continue until all their demands had been met.

These included “visits by family members and for a doctor to be present on the premises round the clock for faster access to prescribed medicines,” the statement said.

The prisoners alleged they were facing “punitive measures after the escape of an Islamist prisoner we had no connection with.”

Cheikh Ould Saleck, 31, on death row since 2011 over an Al-Qaeda plot to assassinate the president, was last seen by fellow inmates at Nouakchott’s central prison at midday on December 31.

His absence from evening prayers alerted his fellow inmates who went to fetch him and found his cell locked.

A guard smashed open the door and found a flag of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s north African franchise, according to a prison source.

Ould Saleck and a fellow AQIM jihadi were arrested on the outskirts of the Mauritanian capital in 2011 when the army foiled their plot to kill President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz using two car bombs.

A Mauritanian gendarme was killed and eight wounded in a firefight following the failed attack, while four suspected AQIM members died.

Ould Saleck’s wife and sister, who used to visit him in jail, were arrested on January 4.

(NYT) Jihadists Deepen Collaboration in North Africa

 

France has deployed hundreds of troops in northern Niger to create a buffer against jihadist advances from Libya. Credit: Carlotta Gall/The New York Times

France has deployed hundreds of troops in northern Niger to create a buffer against jihadist advances from Libya.
Credit: Carlotta Gall/The New York Times

By CARLOTTA GALL     JAN. 1, 2016

SAHARA DESERT, Niger — A group of light armored vehicles skated over the moonscape of the Sahara, part of one of the largest detachments the French military has deployed here since colonial times. Its mission is growing ever more urgent: to cut smuggling routes used by jihadists who have turned this inhospitable terrain into a sprawling security challenge for African and international forces alike.

Many of the extremist groups are affiliates of Al Qaeda, which has had roots in North Africa since the 1990s. With the recent introduction of Islamic State franchises, the jihadist push has been marked by increasing, sometimes heated, competition.

But, analysts and military officials say, there is also deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money.

Their threat has grown as Libya — with its ungoverned spaces, oil, ports, and proximity to Europe and the Middle East — becomes a budding hub of operations for both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to reach deeper into Africa.

And as Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that they are extending their reach and stitching together their ambitions, turning once-local actors into pan-national threats.

The Nov. 20 assault on the Radisson Blu hotel that killed at least 19 people in Bamako, Mali’s capital, was just one of the more spectacular recent examples of the ability of these groups to sow deadly mayhem. Across the region, hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past year.

Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who heads the United States Africa Command, warned in a congressional statement in March of an “increasingly cohesive network of Al Qaeda affiliates and adherents” that “continues to exploit Africa’s undergoverned regions and porous borders to train and conduct attacks.”

“Terrorists with allegiances to multiple groups are expanding their collaboration in recruitment, financing, training and operations, both within Africa and transregionally,” General Rodriguez warned months before the Mali attack.

Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and their respective affiliates, along with other jihadist groups, were active across large parts of North Africa in 2015. The map shows incidents of political violence, which include battles for territory, attacks on civilians and riots or protests.

The transfer of expertise can be witnessed in the spread of suicide bombings in Libya, Tunisia and Chad and in the growing use of improvised explosive devices in Mali, analysts and officials pointed out.

Such exchanges have been enhanced as groups shift shape, sometimes merge, and come under the wing of more powerful and distant patrons.

In one instance, two of the longest-standing North African groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Mourabitoun, after a long publicized split, announced that they had reunited and that the Bamako hotel attack was their first joint venture.

The leaders of the two groups — Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, both Algerians — have loyalties that reach far beyond Africa, however.

As does Seifallah Ben Hassine, leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia, the organization believed to be behind three deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, including a massacre of 38 people at a beach resort in June and an attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March that left 22 dead.

All three men are veterans of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and now profess loyalty to Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, based in Pakistan.

Mr. Droukdel, routed by French forces in Mali in 2013, is reportedly holed up in the mountains in southern Algeria. Mr. Belmokhtar and Mr. Ben Hassine have made rear bases in Libya, where they have been targeted by American airstrikes.

Today, despite French and American efforts to disrupt their networks, they still stretch across the continent.

To keep the pressure on the jihadists and help resist the threat, France has installed 3,500 troops across 10 bases and outposts in five vulnerable countries — Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. The recent French patrol, tiny dots in the Sahara’s expanse of dunes and blackened rock, included 30-ton supply trucks carrying food and fuel, armored vehicles mounted with 80-millimeter cannons and a medical truck.

Similarly, American Special Operations Forces are working in Niger, and last year President Obama ordered 300 United States troops to Cameroon to help defend against the Nigerian Islamist movement Boko Haram, which has spread across borders.

French troops have led repeated operations to break communication and supply lines from Libya that have fortified such groups. The November operation was part of coordinated maneuvers in eastern Mali and northern Niger to try to disrupt jihadist links between the two nations.

The smuggling route patrolled by the French is one of the main arteries for jihadists, arms and drugs. French troops call it the “autoroute” to southern Libya, which they describe as a “big supermarket” for weapons.

The route crosses one of the most remote places on earth. Devoid of human habitation or water for hundreds of miles, it is a treacherous terrain of unbearable heat in the summer and nearly impossible navigation. Yet small convoys of smugglers attempt the crossing several times a week.

For the French, it is like looking for a tiny craft in an ocean, said Lt. Col. Étienne du Peyroux, the commanding officer leading the Niger operation.

“It is like a naval battle,” he said, sketching out the hunt on maps on the hood of his desert jeep. “The zone of operations is 40,000 square kilometers, an area the size of Holland, for 300 men.”

“We try to find them, to block, to constrain, to work out how they will be channeled by a particular piece of terrain,” he said.

The French rarely catch anyone — the last capture was of a drug haul in June. But, they say, their operations are at least disrupting the jihadists’ movements, evidenced by a drop in traffic and tracks in the sand showing smugglers’ vehicles having turned back.

“We want them to abandon the fight, until they cannot do it anymore or until the effort is too great,” the colonel said.

That, however, seems unlikely. “Weak government and chaos are always conducive to terrorism,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, coordinator of a United Nations Security Council committee that monitors the Qaeda sanctions list. “These groups do take advantage of that.”

The development of jihadist training camps in Libya over the past four years represents a regional and international threat, with particular significance for Africa, he warned in a recent report.

Especially worrying, he said, was “the growing numbers of foreign terrorist fighters and the presence of a globalized group of terrorists from different Al Qaeda backgrounds.”

North Africa and the Sahel — a vast area the breadth of the United States — with its difficult geography, impoverished populations and weak states, is acutely vulnerable, military and civilian analysts said.

Poverty, corruption, poor government and unfair elections are all making populations susceptible to Islamist propaganda, said Adam Thiam, a columnist for the Malian daily newspaper Le Républicain.

“Elections are corrupt; services are corrupt,” he said, and young people have lost confidence in government, “so they will go and listen to the religious leaders rather than the political leaders.”

Others blame foreign interventions in Libya and Mali, and repressive counterrevolutions like Egypt’s, for fueling support for the jihadists.

Certainly, despite the interventions and improved security efforts, new groups and recruits continue to appear. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates remain active in Mali, and they have sponsored a new group, the Massina Liberation Front, which has emerged in the past few months.

“They do not need much; they just need to be determined,” said Col. Louis Pena, a commander of French troops in N’Djamena, Chad.

The deepening reach of Al Qaeda and the arrival of the Islamic State are raising fresh alarm.

While the two groups are rivals, that competition can pose a significant challenge from a broader security standpoint — as extremists seek to prove their potency and relevance, inspire and attract recruits, and play on a bigger stage.

The effect can be witnessed prominently in Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency in Nigeria, which has killed 17,000 people and displaced more than a million.

Boko Haram has been around for two decades. But money and training from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gave its leader, Abubakar Shekau, a substantial boost when he assumed control in 2010.

Last year, Boko Haram switched allegiance to the Islamic State, which claimed its West Africa division had killed more than 1,000 people since November, according to the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.

Despite setbacks in Nigeria, Boko Haram has become a regional scourge by exploiting contacts in the wider jihadist network, and it has now spilled into Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

At Madama, an oasis about 50 miles south of Libya, a mud-brick fort built by the French in 1931 guards Niger’s northern desert approaches.

In the past two years, the French have built a sprawling base dwarfing the old fort still manned by Nigerian troops, and posted 300 French troops to create a buffer against jihadist advances from Libya.

Nigerian soldiers accompany the French on their missions, hurtling in battered pickups across the desert terrain, much like their jihadist opponents do. Many of the local soldiers have been through six-month training programs run by American forces. Farther east, Chadian troops guard their part of the border.

In this lonely spot, French soldiers watch from their guard post out across the empty sand toward Libya. French commanders agree that the root of the problem is there, and that until it is addressed the entire region is threatened.

“They are still fragile countries,” Colonel Pena said. “They are countries that need stability to grow and develop. That is the real danger.”

The article was published in the New York Times.