World Politics

How Has Senegal Shielded Itself From West Africa’s Islamist Extremists?

Islamist extremist groups that were once confined to slivers of territory in the most marginalized areas of West Africa are increasingly expanding their operational footprint in the region. Whether it is Boko Haram, which has rebranded itself as the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s West African affiliate, or the myriad al-Qaida offshoots that occupied northern Mali following a coup in 2012, insurgent operations are no longer confined by these groups’ countries of origin.

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province, as Boko Haram now calls itself, has spread beyond its base in northeastern Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which all have borders near the dwindling waters of Lake Chad. Al-Qaida’s various branches in Mali, meanwhile, first expanded their presence from the country’s desert north into its more populous center, before encroaching last year on neighboring Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, which had been relatively free of attacks from Islamist extremists.

Senegalese soldiers take part in the opening ceremony of Flintlock, an annual military exercise that focuses on counterterrorism training by American and European security forces, Thies, Senegal, Feb. 8, 2016 (AP photo by Jane Hahn).

Beyond these groups’ stated goal to replace secular governments with their own absolute Islamic rule, there is a more practical reason for their expansion across borders in West Africa: retribution for these countries’ direct or tacit involvement in Western-backed counterterrorism operations. Attacks in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in January 2016 and a March 2016 assault on Cote d’Ivoire’s tourist-popular Grand Bassam beachfront were both claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, as retribution for French-led efforts to defeat them.

Yet one West African country has so far been spared this Islamist blowback, despite being a key Western security partner and actively involved in regional counterterrorism initiatives. Senegal appears to be the quintessential target for the likes of Boko Haram and al-Qaida. Last year, it upgraded its defense ties with the United States, increasing the presence of American military personnel and boosting joint military exercises. Senegal also contributes forces to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, a dangerous peacekeeping mission that has been increasingly targeted by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates. Senegal’s proximity to al-Qaida’s primary operational base over the border in Mali makes it susceptible to infiltration.

The government has responded to growing evidence of the presence of Islamist extremists with a spate of arrests of suspected militants tied to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Last month, police in Dakar detained three suspected foreign jihadis, two Moroccans and a Nigerian national. That followed the February arrests of two Malian nationals for their alleged involvement in the Grand-Bassam attack.

The arrests were the most concrete evidence of al-Qaida’s encroachment into Senegalese territory from its stronghold in Mali since the 2013 apprehension of Imam Babacar Dianko. The radical Senegalese preacher was an alleged associate of Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, the leader of the al-Qaida-aligned Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Today, as many as 30 Senegalese nationals are reportedly fighting for the Islamic State in Libya, Iraq and Syria; another 23 may be among the ranks of Boko Haram.

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