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Terrorism’s New Paradigm in West Africa

Times are rough in the Sahel, the African region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. It includes nations such as Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Eritrea, and Nigeria—the latter of which has been rocked by terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist terrorist group with a professed aim of removing western cultural influences from the region.

“The whole Sahel region has become an attractive foothold for insurgents. That is the truth of it,” said Dr. Ona Ekhomu, CPP, who presented a session on terrorism in the Sahel at the ASIS International 59th Annual Seminar and Exhibits in September.

Ekhomu, the president of the Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operations of Nigeria, chairman of Trans-World Security, and the first chair of the ASIS Nigeria Chapter, told listeners, “The reality is that we live in dangerous times. Bombs are going off faster than we can count and terrorism is a truly global enterprise” with complex asymmetrical threats, small arms and light-weapons proliferation, expert bomb-making knowledge, and sophisticated communication and information technology. “Terrorists used to have to wait to see the effect of their actions. Now they make videos of it—they no longer want to wait. They make videos and put them on YouTube.”

Other things have changed as well, Ekhomu said. “You used to know where the front lines were. Now they can be anywhere: a school, church, an industrial facility. The threats pop up everywhere. You have so many conflicts in the area already, and the result of these conflicts is leftover arms that the terrorists can now use to kill people. And because the borders of the nations are so porous, the weapons are easy to smuggle.”

According to Ekhomu, the most frightening aspect of the Sahel’s burgeoning terrorist threat is that the extremist Islamists appear to have expanded their goals in the region. “My fear, from what I have seen, is that they have gone beyond killing people and scaring people and governments,” he explains. Boko Haram, Islamist militants in Mali, and other West African violent extremists now want to take a page from the Afghan Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabaab. “They want to rule; they want to have their own territory to rule over,” Ekhomu states. “It is a paradigm shift. That is my contention.”

It is predictable that the Boko Haram Islamists would want to become the overlords of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and other Sahel nations. The words that make up the extremist organization’s name mean “western education is sinful.” The group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in 2009, wanted to found an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law that curtailed all Western influences. What may have kept Yusuf’s goal unattainable is Boko Haram’s lack of a strict leadership structure and a propensity to fragment.

All of Boko Haram’s splinter groups have, however, still managed to cause grief in Nigeria. Their campaign of violence, which began in 2009, has included destroying a United Nations building in Abuja; attacks on churches, schools, police, and the military; and the assassination of Nigerian Civil War hero Major General Muhammad Shuwa, said Ekhomu.

He warned that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must be proactive in heading off the radicalization of young Muslim men. “In Nigeria, we have a 50-50 split in the population between Muslims and Christians…. But when you have [radicals] pouring venom into the ears of these young men, they become like different animals,” stated Ekhomu. “Part of the problem is our government hasn’t quite realized that there is a lot of radicalization going on in prisons. Worse yet, you have CDs being made in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, being sent into Nigeria and other West African nations,” as well as extremist Web sites and videos that spread the Islamist viewpoint. “We have a very bad problem, and the way for ECOWAS to deal with this is not to wait,” he said.

Another troubling aspect of Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and other ultra-Islamist groups is the view that not only are all non-Muslims considered fair targets, but some Muslims are too, according to Ekhomu.

Ekhomu explained to his audience that Boko Haram achieves some of its financing from kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. “They got a billion Naira ($3 million) for a French family seized in Cameroon…. And they also rob banks and get some good cash from them,” he said.

Ekhomu also discussed terrorism in the nation of Mali, which is landlocked between seven other West African nations. In 2012, Islamic extremists overran and imposed Sharia rule on Mali’s north, which includes prohibiting many aspects of traditional Malian society, as well as the burning of a library of historic manuscripts and the destruction of the 1547 mausoleum of revered Muslim scholar and Sufi saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar and other tombs deemed “un-Islamic.” The tombs are part of the Timbuktu UNESCO World Heritage site.

On December 20, 2012, the United Nations Security Council unanimously authorized the deployment of an African-led military force to help defeat the Islamist militants in northern Mali. Mali’s former colonial master, France, launched air strikes and sent in troops, which quickly changed the tactical situation, Ekhomu said. “The French forces have since been withdrawn from Mali, and African forces are conducting peacekeeping. Mali recently swore in a democratically elected president. None of this democracy would have been possible without French intervention to dislodge the militants, terrorists, and insurgents,” he stated.

“These Islamists want to overthrow governments and set up Islamic states with Sharia laws and do away with metropolitan laws,” Ekhomu reiterated. “And it is easy for them to do this in West Africa because the rulers of some of these nations are consumed with self-aggrandizement and they don’t pay attention to the welfare of their citizens. There are issues of poverty, natural disasters, and more that play into it. There is food insecurity and corruption. It makes it easy for terrorists, who feel they have a purer and better form of government, to aspire to take over. They tap into national causes and give them a religious spin to create national ideologies. This helps with recruitment to get foot soldiers who will carry bombs and blow themselves up. Because of poor governors and weak institutions, it is easy to keep replicating themselves,” Ekhomu explained.

For businesses, nongovernmental agencies, financial institutions, and infrastructure, such as telecommunication, in the Sahel, both facilities and employees need ramped-up protection procedures. “The corporations are getting hit with a lot of kidnappings of their staffers, and maybe even family members,” Ekhomu told Security Management.

Ekhomu urged businesses in the Sahel to improve their threat awareness and vigilance, continually analyze the risk spectrum, target-harden their facilities, and share information with law enforcement and the military.

In Ekhomu’s home nation of Nigeria, President Jonathan Goodluck declared a state of emergency rule in three northeast Nigerian states in May. During this time, there has been some overreaching by the military that may drive more Muslim youths into Boko Haram’s arms. But it is also the case that thanks to government action, “Boko Haram terrorism has been contained and frequent audacious attacks have been stopped,” said Ekhomu. “Several Boko Haram commanders have been captured or killed [and] the leader is presumed dead.”

This is all good, but Nigeria has a long way to go. Among the fixes Ekhomu called for were more surveillance technology, physical protection systems for critical national assets and infrastructure, the computerization of security information to enable fast analysis, the infiltration of radical groups for human-intelligence gathering, regional cooperation and information sharing, and state security agencies partnering with corporate security and the public to fight the war on terror.