Saturday, March 20, 2004

Nigerien Government Report Clashes With Islamic Militants

This news item ought to shake a few people out of the complacent assumption that Islamic militancy in West Africa can safely be ignored as a merely regional issue. Borders in Africa are extremely porous, and many of the peoples of the regions bordering the Sahara have been linked by Islam for centuries, well before there was any substantial European footprint on the continent.

Government troops and members of an armed Islamic group have clashed in recent weeks in the north of Niger, Defence Minister Hassane Bonto told parliament on Tuesday.

Bonto said there were three clashes between the armed forces and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC - le groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat) between 22 February and 5 March.

The first two occurred in Midal, over 600 km north of the capital, Niamey, and in the Air Mountains in the extreme north.

The latest clash came after the armed forces received a tip-off that GSPC members were about 100 km from a military outpost in the northeast. "After troop reinforcements were sent," Bonto said, "our forces pursued the GSPC elements to the Chadian border, around Tchigai region" in the extreme northeast.

He said 43 GSPC militants were killed and five were taken prisoner, including one Niger national. Three Chadian soldiers died and 18 were wounded, while the Niger armed forces did not register any casualties, according to the minister.

Caught between the Chadian and Niger armies, the militants fled, leaving five vehicles - four of them equipped with 14.5-mm anti-aircraft guns - six mortars, six Thuraya satellite phones, two night-vision binoculars, mortars, AK-47s and a sizeable quantity of other arms and ammunition.

Bonto said the GSPC arrived recently in northern Niger after being dismantled in southern Algeria and Mali as part of efforts to fight terrorism. The group, he said, was working hand-in-hand with armed bandits from Niger and was using hideouts and caches left over from a rebellion in the 1990s by Tuareg nomads.

And here's another story on the clashes, illustrating the diverse origins of the militants being fought in the region.

N'DJAMENA, March 11 (Reuters) - Chad's army has killed 43 Islamic "terrorists" during two days of heavy fighting near the border with Niger, the government said on Thursday.

The government said in a statement that those killed belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a hardline Algerian Islamic militant group which recently pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda.

"The government forces have neutralised the threat from the terrorists," the statement said.

U.S. military experts recently began training soldiers in Mali and Algeria to fight the potential threat from Islamic militants believed to be roaming freely along ancient trade routes across the Sahara desert.

Washington has also vowed to assist Mauritania, Niger and Chad to combat security threats.

Chad said among the dead Islamic militants were nine Algerians and nationals from Niger, Nigeria and Mali -- all countries where the United States fears al Qaeda is recruiting militants and setting up cells. (emphasis added)

As can be seen from the passage in bold, Nigerians are already involved in fighting for Islamist groups outside of their nation's borders. This shouldn't really be all that surprising: as long ago as 1995, Nigerian volunteers were already to be found fighting in Kashmir, of all places. Anyone who thinks the Bush administration is overplaying the Islamist threat in West Africa is seriously in head-in-sand mode.

UPDATE: Here's a May 2001* PDF article by Peter Bergen that also mentions Nigerian membership in al Qaeda; in particular, one K.K. Mohamed is mentioned by name. No doubt there are more than a few others. It is simply wishful thinking to imagine that al Qaeda, and those who wish to emulate it, respect any of the artificial boundaries of race and nation that we imagine all people are somehow bound to acknowledge. Theirs is an explicitly global Ummah, and we ought to take them at their word when they say so.

*Which is to say, written before any hysteria associated with September 11 could have gotten off the ground.