The attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013, the recent kidnapping of a large number of girls in Nigeria by the terror group Boko Haram, the mysterious assault on the In Amenas oil field in the Algerian Sahara, the destruction of the ancient culture of Timbuktu, or the disastrous bomb explosion just a few days ago in Mogadischu: terror business in Africa is booming. And to speak of business in this context seems to be completely justified, after you have read the new book of the journalist Marc Engelhardt “Heiliger Krieg – Heiliger Profit” (Holy War, Holy Profit).
Engelhardt is embarking on a journey that leads the reader from Somalia to Sudan, Tchad, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and the Central African Republic. In all these countries armed groups are active that spread terror and destruction over this huge and strategically important region. The Sahara desert is not only having vast oil and gas resources, but also huge deposits of gold, diamonds, and uranium. These resources are particularly interesting for the big strategic players in the region: the US, France, and since a couple of years also China.
It is remarkable that the groups described by Engelhardt are so small and mobile. That al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, Mujao, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) by Joseph Kony, or the Somali al-Shabaab militia are able to control huge territories with such a small number of fighters (the biggest of these groups have still not more than estimated 5000 “soldiers”) seems to be surprising at first sight. But the almost complete absence of a functioning state in their operating zone, together with the notorious extreme brutality of these groups – together with their ability to find and exploit very efficiently sources of funding such as piracy, kidnapping, contract killing, cigarette, charcoal or sugar smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking, or extortion make their success much less surprising.
All groups mentioned by Engelhardt use a very strong religious rhetoric and propaganda, some “Islamic”, some “Christian”. They say that they aim at a true caliphate, for the reign of “true” Islam – or of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, like the ultra-brutal LKA.
But let us not be deceived here, says Engelhardt. This is almost exclusively rhetoric, and it is to a certain degree useful for these groups (the “Islamistic” groups receive at least partly logistic support and training by al-Qaeda). But their almost exclusive aim is to collect money and more money. And they do it exclusively with means that are strongly opposed to the principles of those religions they pretend to promote.
Beside a detailed description of the historic and political background of the terror organizations, a big part of Engelhardt’s book is dealing with the business activities of these groups. In Somalia for example, it is beside the recently decreasing piracy industry, the smuggling of charcoal for the export markets and of sugar for the local market, that provides a nice profit to the gangster-terrorists. But even these enormous profits or the big money that is made from cigarette smuggling through the Sahara desert, are dwarfed against the exorbitant profits from cocaine smuggling. The drug for the European market (the demand is growing strongly) is arriving in Central Africa on board of old airplanes run by a dubious airline, which is locally known as “Air Cocaine”. The value of the cargo of one such flight might easily be at 7-800 million Euros – the last published state budget of Somalia was at about 150 million Euro. It is obvious that these profits (the smugglers receive usually about 10% of the value of the cargo) are extremely attractive to the criminal gangs that operate in the vast Sahara desert.
It is worth noting that beside the external powers already mentioned above, also Algeria is one of the key players in the dealing with this new terrorist challenge. Before 9/11, the Algerian regime was an outcast for most countries of the world, including the US administration. This changed dramatically in 2002, when the Bush administration was looking for new allies in the global fight against terror. Suddenly, the former outcast became a close friend, especially since also the Algerian junta showed a big interest in better relations with the US. The terror of an allegedly Islamistic group in Algeria was getting worse and worse. For the Algerian government this terror came just at the right moment – and strangely enough almost all terror attacks happened in the stronghold areas of the Algerian Islamists, a fact that was remarked by several analysts from the very beginning. Why should the Islamists bomb their own supporters? Engelhardt, like most experts in the region, assumes and provides a lot of evidence for it, that these so-called Islamistic groups were indeed part of the Algerian State Security Service. Also some other strange coincidences during several kidnappings of tourists, or the recent oilfield attack are only explicable by – at least – a kind of collusion between those groups who commit these terror acts and the Algerian State Security. A strong reason for that may be to keep the potential threat from revolting Tuareg tribes at bay.
Also the role of France in these conflicts is highlighted. France considers this region of former colonies still as a kind of natural influence zone, and the big hunger for uranium seems to be an additional strong motivation for the present President to break his previous promise to stop interfering militarily in the region. Additionally, many French companies (like Total) have huge business interests in the region, and as a result of this melange, France is very much willing to support even doubtful regimes with a devastating human rights record, as long as they guarantee that French business interests will not be touched.
What can be done against the rather depressing rise of gangster-terrorism in the region? Many experts, especially in the US, seem to think that this is a primarily military challenge. More efficient use of military technology, more drone killings in order to eliminate the truly “bad guys”, seems to be the main concept even of the administration of Nobel Peace Prize Winner President Obama.
But it is obvious that the military option is not sufficient to eradicate the terror in Africa. As long as the conditions are like they are now in this part of the world, even a massive unleashing of deadly weapons on terrorists (and very frequently innocent bystanders) will not decrease the problem. There will be always a fresh supply of fighters that have nothing to lose (or that are forced to be part of these groups, like the countless children soldiers), as long as there are not fundamental changes happening in these countries.
Engelhardt (and with him the reviewer) believes that a successful fight against terrorism in Africa needs mainly two things: economic development and institution building in these countries, in order to create stronger states, and also a drying-up of the economic sources of income of the terrorists (such as an efficient disruption of their money transfer systems).
News on this topic are regularly published on Engelhardt’s website: http://marcengelhardt.wordpress.com/
A translation of this very instructive book into English is highly recommended.
Marc Engelhardt: Heiliger Krieg – Heiliger Profit, Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin 2014
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