This special issue of the ZAM Chronicle is dedicated to the transnational ‘War on Terror’ investigation conducted by our partners in the African Investigative Publishing Collective (see a presentation of the team members here.)
Called ‘Hearts and Minds,’ the preview of this deep-digging team investigation into terrorism and the fight against it in East and West Africa can be found here. The full investigation will be presented at the end of January 2016. It will contain revelations about the realities behind Western terrorism-fighting partnerships and an inside picture of the ‘pro-dictatorship’ minds of Islamist fundamentalist ideologues. For now, however, here is ‘the making of’: the story behind the story.
Did it start with Ibro Ibrahim, who kept asking “what war on terror is this, that keeps creating more and more terrorists?” Who genuinely did (and does) not understand why nobody has ever even attempted to talk to his people, Somalis, who were not religious fanatics, but rather simply angry at invasions, corruption and injustice? Or did it start with Ahmad Salkida, whose story ‘Tears of Maiduguri’ referred to his own tears at seeing a once peaceful commune transforming into the blood-thirsty monster that is now Boko Haram?
“What war on terror is this, that keeps creating more and more terrorists?”
Or with Dutch Bram Posthumus, who kept shaking his head at ‘development aid’ that -ostensibly meant to make the poor richer- only made them angrier because, invariably, the money bags were captured by the ‘favoured mouths’ of the governing elite and the fat cat local donor community? Or maybe with Muno Gedi, to whom the word ‘corruption’ was among the first English words she learned to pronounce faultlessly? It was Muno who concluded, sadly, that there can perhaps only be peace in her country when corruption ends.
Brothers and cousins
We went for ‘Hearts and Minds’ as a working title. Because the one thing that kept glaring at us from wherever we approached the subject of ‘terror’: whether it was the Westgate murderers of Al Shabaab, the village marauders of Boko Haram or the hit squads of Al Mourabitoun, no one ever asked where they came from. What created them? Where were their families and communities and what were their attitudes? Had they left brothers, cousins and nephews behind and –the most chilling question of all- were these getting ready to join them?
As reports from the team came in, we felt we were on the right path. Hearts and minds were the issue. Not that the proof of widespread strategic neglect of constructive outreach and dialogue made us happy. Ibro Ibrahim’s calls were the most difficult to take in this respect. They invariably dealt with more executions, more raids, another shallow grave with a number of bodies in it. As a response to terror, of course. Every time Al Shabaab terrorists would carry out a bloodbath among Kenyans, Kenyan Somalis felt the brunt of suspicion, searches, harassment, arrest, and worse. Now, there is a wall being built along the Kenyan border to keep ‘Somali terrorists’ out. But hundreds of thousands of Somalis are Kenyan nationals who have lived in Kenya for generations. Ibro is one of them. He would only like to talk, he says. Just talk to his fellow countrymen – and women. Come up with a plan to end the violence. But there is no talking and every day he feels the hatred grow.
Muno Gedi reported from Somalia itself, that some communities actually didn’t mind Al Shabaab that much. Forced to choose between two evils, strong rule and certainty was better for your village, many felt, than the marauding, plundering, corrupt government soldiers. In Somalia, too, there is no dialogue about a way forward. Government ministers offer amnesty but because of corruption –and lack of caring, Muno feels- there is no follow up. As a result, reluctant recruits of terrorists will now think twice before they surrender their arms, lest they end up, like Abdi Mohammed from Lower Shabelle, in a refugee camp.
He would like to talk, but there is no talking
David Dembele, meanwhile, visited Gao and Timbuctu: cities –particularly Timbuctu- that were once the scene of great culture, libraries, temples of magnificent architecture, and music. Dembele’s stories were sad, too: a people ‘liberated’ from jihadi militants in 2013 by the French army; a people that had cheered when French president Hollande had entered the region and presented him, in gratitude, with a camel; these people find themselves once again abandoned, living in misery and despair among military camps.
The bus is too expensive to leave the region
Dembele finds that, once again –as is customary in Mali- reconstruction and development have been empty promises, as they have been from before the day that former Mali presidential advisor and strongman Iyad al Ghali abandoned a failed development programme and went on to lead the jihadi militant army Ansar Dine. Dembele also describes how the Western ‘war on terror’ against Ansar Dine, AQIM, Al Mourabitoun and all the other, smaller half-religious, half-gangster bands operating in the region, has broken even things the jihadis had left standing. And that one can’t even leave the region anymore, since nobody nowadays can afford the bus to the capital Bamako in the more prosperous south. As a result, the ‘siren call’ of AQIM and Al Mourabitoun is growing stronger by the day.
Hope in Nigeria
Hamza Idris’ reports inspired considerably more hope, especially since a new wind started to blow in Nigeria with the advent of new President Buhari in April this year. It did make a difference, he reported. The fact that this President himself comes from the neglected, impoverished region that bred Boko Haram; the fact that he is a Muslim, like the majority of people there; and that he has a reputation for efficiency and strong management, had an impact. Villages started to cooperate with the newly inspired government army, and large scale terrorist massacres decreased.
Nigeria is not yet there, not by a long shot. Boko Haram has responded by increasing suicide attacks by individuals –after all, you don’t need large numbers of people to carry out such attacks. But at least there is some proof that a ‘Hearts and Minds’ approach can and does make a difference. That traditional, religious people can relate to a modern secular government; that many, in fact, prefer it: as long as it is perceived to be working, and fair. The biggest challenge for the Buhari government in Nigeria then, is to keep it up. Here is hoping that it will.
Why do mature men want boys and girls to blow themselves up?
Meanwhile, Magdy Samaan in Egypt is looking at the mind-set of the fundamentalist Islamist ideologues of which there are so many in his country and beyond. Samaan ponders the question what ‘siren call’ this is: how these educated, materially comfortable, religious leaders and academics can seriously put out such an anti-women, anti-gay, anti-democracy and anti-human rights ideology –one that even calls for violence to defend it? It is perhaps easier to understand why an angry, embittered, anti-western youth without any prospects buys into a message of paradise-through-violence; but why do mature men with salaries and families want boys and girls to blow up themselves and others in pursuit of some medieval empire? Samaan is portraying and interviewing the ideologues: await his chapter at the end of January 2016, when we launch the full dossier on the War on Terror.
Bram Posthumus, lastly, is digging through strategic documents and plans of the military peacekeepers in the West African region. He dissects what is happening in the ‘counterterrorism barrier’ that runs from Chad in the East to Mauritania in the South and asks what the UN forces of Minusma in Mali, the French of Operations Barkhane and Serval, and the American-led Trans Sahel Counter Terrorism Initiative, have been doing in the fight against terror.
We await the next reports from Samaan, Posthumus and team with baited breath. But for now, do check the preview from the trenches: No Hearts, No Minds. The War on Terror in Africa Part I.